Friday, October 19, 2007

"Failure":A bittersweet comedy from Philip Schultz

The last Tuesday poem in Slate caught my eye, made me laugh, made me sigh (just a little). "Failure" by Philip Schultz is that kind of poem, a potentially maudlin and morose subject matter that draws you in with some unexpected punchlines and left turns. This is as fine a lament for the Walter Mitty type as Tragic Figure as I've ever read.I thought this was a piece of comic writing, a funny monologue that gathers each tense muscle and clustered ganglia in a man's set-upon shoulders and releases the collected negativity as a Woody Allen digression where one defends the unsupportable with unexpected distinctions. It opens up with an opening line worthy of an early Philip Roth novel:

To pay for my father's funeral
I borrowed money from people
he already owed money to.
One called him a nobody.
No, I said, he was a failure.
You can't remember
a nobody's name, that's why
they're called nobodies.
Failures are unforgettable.

Poet Philip Schultz has a perfect set up with which to riff with variations of the punchline, and that he does, admitting the farcical nature of a father who's plans for success seemed from the outset unworkable to everyone but him

An uncle, counting on his fingers
my father's business failures—
a parking lot that raised geese,
a motel that raffled honeymoons,
a bowling alley with roving mariachis—
failed to love and honor his brother,
who showed him how to whistle
under covers, steal apples
with his right or left hand.

What makes the poem moving is the particular reserve Schultz shows here ; there is, to be sure, plenty of material in family recollecting where each stain , wrinkle and idiosyncratic whiff of dysfunction upon the family name can be a suitable launching pad for confessions, first person melodramas, compulsively unfunny comedies of baroque proportions, but Schultz keeps his ground. He admits his father's faults, enumerates documented failures, gives details of things that were bothersome, nettlesome, annoying--watches that pinch the wrist, snoring during movies--and yet embraces him all the more. Admitting his father's flaws he admits his own--the fuck ups of the father are visited upon the son?-- and in doing so finds a clue to what comes to the bare fact of existence, a constant seeking to create a context in which can exist on their own terms , not what's dictated by religion and financial institutions:

He didn't believe in:
savings insurance newspapers
vegetables good or evil human
frailty history or God.
Our family avoided us,
fearing boils. I left town
but failed to get away.

His father wasn't a nobody, Schultz, he was a man of distinction: he was one who tried and failed repeatedly to create meaning his life, and that is something to be understood, not belittled. Unsaid and yet implied, Schultz finds himself channeling his father's unrest and sees for himself a variation on his father's life in his own attempts to accommodate a life that seems like a suit that's 5 sizes too big. He left town but he failed to get away. Good work here.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

"On God" by Norman Mailer and J.Michael Lennon

On God: An Uncommon Conversation
Norman Mailer, J.Michael Lennon
(Random House)

Norman Mailer has spent a good deal of his fifty plus year career as a writer wrestling with the issue of God and the nature of His being, speculations that have helped make his books rich texts for advancing limitless sets of dualisms about the condition of America 
and the growing complexity in the issue of good vs. evil. He has now brought us his new book,"On God:An Uncommon Conversation", a series of discussions with his literary archivist, professor J.Michael Lennon. It is a fascinating discussion, intriguing quite despite Mailer's confessed lack of theological training. The lack of training works to Mailer's advantage; his God is less an all seeing General Manager of the universe than he is an artist trying to fill a page with beautiful words , or a canvas with arresting figures in sublime colors and shades.

Mailer is that rare creature, an actual American religious existentialist, a philosophy that insists that we cannot have a meaningful faith unless we face the circumstances of our life straight on, without reservation, and take a creative action to deal with them, sans the comforting catechisms priests, rabbis or monks might offer us. The point is that we advance toward a solution, create a meaningful context for ourselves in an existence where greater assurances are impossible, and that we take full responsibility for the consequences of the acts we do; we commit acts of faith that God is with us, without guarantees, and that we make mistakes along the way.

Mailer is taken with the notion that we're created in his image, and speculates that he also gave us his temperament and fallibilities as well as his best graces, all without the supernatural abilities. God is more like us, let us say, than we are like him, and it is in this area where religious existentialism finds another nuance. Far from being the silent Kierkegaardian God who is static,cold and despairing, apropos for Northern European weather conditions, Mailer is considering a God of Action, something of a Hemingway in deistic form who must prove himself with creative acts, a deity in the trenches, making mistakes, failing, succeeding, learning from his mistakes, constantly evolving.

The God that interests Mailer is one guided by intuition no less than we, His creations whom we are said to resemble.One might say that it's a pity that Mailer hadn't followed through on his spiritual notions and developed a fully argued theology, but he is a novelist and storyteller, after all, and his long held ideas about God's motive, condition and instincts have served him splendidly as a source of metaphor in his fiction, journalism and essays. Mailer and Lennon go through Mailer's ruminations at length, and there is something of great interest in how his conception of The Lord as literary figure, an artist have informed and enlarged his fiction and nonfiction writings; it is in the books, from "Presidential Papers" through his latest novel "The Castle in the Forest "where one finds the greatest and most provocative application of his religious thinking.

"On God" , always intriguing, quietly quirky, lacks the energy and , one may say, the conviction of older writings.Lacking a novel or a major essay to reinvigorate his metaphors and thus surprise himself and the reader with the limitless ambiguities involved in reconciling Higher Powers with the flux of actual experience, he sounds weary,as if he's explaining himself yet again one time too many . Mailer's spiritual thinking is best witnessed elsewhere, in his novels " An American Dream","Ancient Evenings and "Castle in the Forest", and his journalism, especially in "Armies of the Night".

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

the headache

Lessons from the Seventies

for catnapping

It’s love that breaks
against the rocks

and not foam nor water of any kind,
it’s a baptism of irrigated contempt

that makes the horizon
burn in black static p1umes.

Stained cotton from
every beach front window.

We smoked joints
in the guts of the canyons,

the mired trails
to the sea kissed shale.

All the blues from
Chicago knife fights
and gunshot histories
are folklore all the kids destroy
with their breathing.

Even at dinner time,
forks are next to plates whose owners
wonder what’s eating their neighbors
with all the strange phone calls
about what’s going on the beach.

The armies of the night
couldn’t scare up a quarter
of something to decent for all
the beaches America has landed on
in search of someone to talk down to..

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Shaving "Against the Grain"

The problem with private laments made public is that too often the concealed sadness and the mixed feelings remain private, the difference being that there is now an audience that needs to puzzle out the encrypted melancholy and inside jokes."Against the Grain", this week's poem in Slate, is one those pieces where the language isn't enough to empathize with. This is the experience of walking into a room you thought was empty only to find someone already inside, talking to themselves, eyes staring to a distant spot.

This irreconcilably subdivided poem spends a lot of time muddying the distinctions between things being dragged and those creatures that do the dragging, and author Genwanter adds to this patchy mess pale Latin quotes and the creased, leathery visages of Freud and Jung to confuse things all the more. Given the dedication of the poem to Joy Young, Genwanter's wife from what I understand, "Against the Grain" is an agonizingly ambivalent love letter, conveniently wrapped up with the mock-question toward the end as to whether he may address her as "Freud Jung"; there are cross currents here Genwanter isn't able to navigate; this poem quickly locates the nearest sink hole and allow the sheer weight of it's un-mortared allusions take it down into the ground, pass the gas pipes and the water mains.

This is an act T.S.Eliot has already mastered and performed to perfection, succeeding due, most of all, because Eliot was a phrase maker, a polisher of potent lines. For all the fragmented allusions and elusive centers his poems contain, the poet was quotable, memorable, which makes the task of pouring over and debating his poems a joy; there is in Eliot the instinct that informed him that while he was purposefully not making sense in his work, IE, getting to a fine honed point, he was still required to write well enough to create a sense of the psychic states and subtle desolation he felt. One walks away from Eliot's work not knowing what he meant, perhaps, but one certainly grasped the less obvious nuances of how he felt. Genwanter isn't quotable here, he isn't even clever, and he's unable to get the balance between the self-mocking and the dead earnestness that could have made this a workable pastiche; it reads as if he tossed his papers on the lawn and pieced them back together willy nilly after running over the pages several times with a lawn mower. This barely deserves the word pastiche, which implies a skilled blend of disparate elements; this is more like newspaper clippings, snapshots and shreds of pages torn from classics and diaries, bulging, frayed and clipped together with a twisted paper clip .

Sunday, October 7, 2007


I live in San Diego and I love it here, but I was back in Detroit last summer after a 28 year absence, and the truth of the matter is that I fell in love with the city all over again. I stayed with family in Royal Oak and Birmingham ( I lived at Livernois and 8 Mile Road), and the mixed feelings I had were over-whelming. The old neighborhood made the transistion from middle class white families to middle class black families, with the brick homes still in beautiful shape--not a blade of grass, limb of tree, seemed to be mussed--but the business district on Livernois was distressing, with barbed wire and check cashing markets where the clerks were behind bullet proof glass, and the whole shot. Went to a downtown jazz festival at hart plaza, and had great fun walking around the buildings--I have a love of old, tall skyscrapers,but I remember one image.

I was driving back over the Ambassador Bridge from a visit to Windsor on my way to meet family at the RenCen, when I looked to my right on the Detroit side and saw a grand old high-rise, built, I would guess, in the 1910's. it was overcast that day, the sky cloudy and blue grey, like pencil lead, and I noticed that I could see the sky right through the windows of the high-rise.EVERY WINDOW WAS OPEN AND EVERY ROOM WAS EMPTY.The building, grand, old, beautiful, was abandoned, given over to the facts of old factory towns like Detroit.



Sane by the times the wars were done,
my wings are clipped and preserved
with tar on brick walls
where scenes of a family
hang like posters from grainy home movies
that shimmer on TV screens in Interstate motel rooms,
jet planes bring me here.
I come home riding jet planes
over industrial skyline and
houses huddled at the end of blocks angled like bums
raising shoulders to the bad weather
they have become.
Wings cut through the chill
over still lakes with a
sight that whistles through the empty steel frames
of auto plants
that tires rolled from that rolled a nation through history that
came undone like a map
folded too many times,

There is only a big, empty factory that sits here
with a sign that notes what used to be current
and what was never replaced once the price tags were torn from the mattresses,
the soul of a city
chasing the sun,
leaving empty buildings,
the sun coming through the windows
that are eyes you cannot stare back into

After all feathers are trimmed
and useless
or stale air that blows through
the canyons of downtown Detroit,
there is no
going home
to a street that hasn't left you.
with the tall buildings
we can see through.

I'm in love with skyscrapers empty and towering,
seeing through windows
on the highest floors
left open for years over burning rivers, centurion smoke stacks,
across the water, cars full of tourists feeling homesick
candy bars on the Ambassador Bridge.


After work, busboys
who had bought old cars
with their tip money
discovered that
their tires had been spiked,
now flat
as a dollar
under an empty cup.
Over American cities
fly jets full of unwritten biographies,
history will not settle in,
it's a wind that turns cold
when the sleeves of
a junkies' shirt get longer,
the glass kingdom on the Detroit River
thumbs its nose,
it's rounded, gleaming turrets at Canada.
I think about flying away
looking for bricks,
the river rolls on,
roads lead to new airports
where they sell the same national magazines,
the same kinds of tires
get slashed.

Flying over the Cabrillo Bridge
or watching
the shadow
of the plane shimmer and slide over the folds
of a crowd doesn't change
the table of contents I read,
the tires
have been
spiked and are flat in any state
in any wheat field
and downtown corner
or trading room floor,
we're coming to the age where ghosts
arrive and stare over your shoulder
as you do your taxes
and fill in your crosswords,
a bony hand cannot hold you to things you've said,
it can only point
and point
and point until lights come on the towns
that is the furthest from the center,
we cry at our own funerals,
I weep at the
drone of a plane crossing a lake,

Detroit looks awesome
from across the river,
from Windsor,
all the buildings are tall
and made with stone,
but on the bridge,
eating candy,
getting closer, every window on every floor is open,
the buildings are riddled with daylight, only wind is being traded,
only ghosts shop at Hudson's,
Cars burn near Cadillac Square
and busboys swear in every language.


No one speaks for the dead
except a priest
who's so drunk
that all he talks about is how many saints

it takes to screw the poor
all the capital letters
they might have written their names with
and invested
themselves in a city where the future was more than the silver of the words it takes to blind everyone the mist of promises that evaporate before they hit the sidewalk.

But he tells the truth, slob that he is,
that language is controlled beyond requisite breathing
and everything is on loan from God.
Even my name means
"gift from God"
and someday
I'll retire to the dust fields
while another
fool prates on
on how I was only passing through this neck of the woods
and now I've
gone to the better place,
returned like a library book, or a dented two speed bike whose bell
rings in a muted, choking rattle.

Everything is taken away,
but red brick buildings
look great
after the fires and bombs
blasted them empty
of residents
and meaning, anything worth staying for,
brick and glass towers
climb over the four-wheeled remains of a rumored prosperity
where nothing but
grind and groaning has gone on for years.

Drivers along the road going through the mythic downtown
now spell

their names with no letters at all
and the hit parade from
Mexico is replaced with static,
rap and country music mix together,

Jazz from the waterfront pavilion
where the sweetness of the human voice
rises in the ruins of industry that
almost erased it.
The music rides over the water on diesel fumes,
the only sound Canada wants
to hear from us, ever,
music that drifts on
pristine mountain winds
over her lakes
and forests and rivers of teeming trout,
all is industry
where storefronts still glitter with name brands
and the orchestra plays the music of dead men,
the audience places its
collective tongue

To pencil tip and answers the essay contest question
about the future being about
ghosts in cars playing soul music in Motown
where cruising for burgers and chicks
in the grind of motorized manhood
while millions move from
suburbs where oil drives the engine of burned out futures,
You're a life story on TV, and then canceled, on Woodward, driving past big tires and gas ovens and spark plugs,
realizing every road marker is a plot against what wasn't thought up,
the future that families like mine bought into until money and hope ran dry
as the ink of the contract I signed, both of which turned invisible when any one called anyone from a pay phone at the edge of the county, I try to light the steps along the street in Fall when the sun sets earlier and maple trees threw long shadows across the streets that used to belong to all of us.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

What I Bought at the Used Book Store

The Gates Of Eden by Ethan Coen , of the Coen Brothers film making team, offers this collection of odd-lug short stories, collected from various magazines from where they've been published previously. Uneven, as with any collection, though there are some nice slices of dialogue, and some potent descriptive writing, but as a film maker, Coen's descriptions of things seem like film treatments at best, hurried and breathless, like the film pitches we witnessed in b The Player, and our laughs are too dependent on our knowledge, even reference, of tired genre forms. But "Hector Berlioz, Private Investigator" is a Philip Marlow/ Sam Spade send up that results in some honest hoots, and 'Destiny" is a particularly vicious laugh at the boxing trade, with a Coenesque hero eating fists over and over as a direct result of his own miserably rationalized choices.

Bear V. Shark
by Chris Bachelder is another very funny novel, a real self-reflective, post-modern hoot. Don't let the tag "post modern" put you off, because Bachelder gets it exactly right as he skews his target, television and the culture of Total Media Saturation. Bear V.Shark is a great, wild read for anyone who enjoyed Pastoralia or the work of Mark Leyner. There is a vaguely described though loudly trumpeted Big Event forthcoming that's precisely what the title suggests, in a future time when TVs have no off switches and whose soft ware can sense a viewers boredom and flip the channels for them: TVs are everywhere in this world, in the kitchen, the furniture, bus stops, train stations, and in such a society, the idiom of everyday language is subverted by commercial patois and jingles. America, here, is subtly insane and in a constant state of distraction.

This is the America that Baudrillard absent mindedly ruminated about, only much funnier, edgier, and smarter in the evisceration. Bachelder writes like a master, and there's much to look forward to in his next novel.

Currently finishing A Multitude of Sins, a collection of short stories by Richard Ford. He has the strained relations between men and women falling in and out of love with one another nailed, better than anyone since John Cheever, with a prose that is flawlessly crafted and deeply felt in its economy . Richard Ford is an extraordinarily gifted prose writer whose control of his style is rare in this time of flashy virtuosos , ala Jonathan Franzen and DF Wallace or Rick Moody, whose good excesses run neck-and-neck with their considerable assets. Ford, in his The Sports Writer, Independence Day, and certainly in this collection of Multitude of Sins, understands his strengths in language and advances , seemingly, only those virtues in his work. He obviously understands the lessons of Hemingway , and wisely chooses not imitate: rather, the words are well chosen. For the more poetic language of simile and metaphor, The Cheever influence is clear; the imagery to describe the detail make those details resonate profoundly, as in the last story "Abyss", without killing the tale with a language that's too rich for the good of the writing. His writing is quite good, although the shadow of Hemingway dims the light of his own personality. Ford seems as if he’s made peace with the gloomy and morose code of honor and betrayed idealism that is said to the heterosexual male’s stock and trade. But maybe not just peace; it’s as if he’s cut a deal with the emotional sagging age brings upon his brow, and he cherishes each sour taste and resonating resentment to give his brooding prose the feeling of being more than cleverly disguised metaphors simulating the moral dissolution of a grown man’s sense of situated-nests.

Beasts, yet another new one from Joyce Carole Oates, is short novella about an impressionable young poetess surrendering to a catastrophic seduction by her amoral, decadence-spouting writing professor. Oates doing what she does best, inhabiting a mind on the verge of a breakdown, giving us a personality that translates experience who’s every instance portends disaster. She is not my favorite writer, but this one is convincingly creepy.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Kevin Young: my Dad would have told me not to mumble

The poem Elegy, Father's Day by Kevin Young,is nothing less than a low-rise building under construction, bare girders and preliminary piping through which a stiff wind blows. That's the point, I suppose, a creaky construction of unmoored signifiers requiring brick, mortar, lumber, wiring , the placement of windows so it can finally resemble something useful. Kevin Young's terms on on that stiff wind, bringing to mind the Hollywood cliche , the stock scene when some one's career is in the tank: a newspaper with their name on it shown being blown down the street, crumbled up, into the gutter. Kevin Young's scaled fragments seem part of a set of memories that are no longer whole:
From above, baseball diamonds look
even more beautiful, the pitcher's mound

a bright cataract.
The river wavers

its own way—see
where once it snaked.

Shine me like a light.

Ladies & Gentlemen, we are flying
just above turbulence.

The roads like centipedes,
their flailing feet.

How many, thousands,
to fall.

Below, parcels & acres blur
like family plots.

100 knots.

Cities bright
in the blinding dawn.

In Superman Returns, the Big Blue Guy tells Lois Lane at one point that he can hear everything that's being said, and from there the movie turns into a computer generated montage of swirled and confusing images and bits of conversation, the inane mixed with the desperate.One is meant to believe, apparently, that part of what makes Superman super is his ability to make sense to find what is meaningful and worth paying attention to out of the roiling , bubbling babble and so save humanity. Although I lack Superman's heightened finesse in detecting the important matters in the sediment of streaming babble, there's nothing here to catch my ear, no voice, or voices that are uttering anything of interest. The fault isn't with these things and the associations they might have for Young, it is Young's fault for not making them interesting.

This makes me think that nothing more was being done other than staring out the window for a long time waiting for something poetic to traipse by, to blow by, to drive by, that a sequence of minor events might become a narrative unity. It all does, no doubt, in Young's explanations for the poem and the guided tour he can offer us stanza by stymied stanza, but this poem, as it tries to breath and not fall apart in a the noisy terrain Young placed it in , is a species of Found Art. But where an hose fire hose nozzle , a bottle cap or a tarnished Gulf sign have visual design properties that in themselves are interesting enough and can draw associations from an audience's respective recollections of their own history, Young's phrases are not special enough, are not uniquely mysterious to make one curious to what thinking lies behind the slight writing.

All told, this piece is more gesture wherein he shows us who he's been reading but misses the point of their stylistics.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Parsing Greil Marcus Parsing Eminem (and other tangents)

I remember seeing Greil Marcus and Anthony DeCurtis, being interviewed on MSNBC on the issue of Eminem's sick-fuck psychodramas and the failure of nerve on the part of rock and pop critics to call him on the sham, and neither was forthcoming with anything particularly intriguing about the matter. Marcus sort of murmured some mysterious, vague things from his Hegelian shroud, while DeCurtis managed to sound like a nervous, nominally liberal parent who's desperate to stay relevant in his kid's lives. Both sounded like they were skirting the issue. Not the same thing as Lester Bangs taking on the "White Noise Supremacists", attacking the incipient racism that he encountered at the edges of a nervy rock culture. Bang's response was articulate, felt, personal, absent with the detached irony that's become the most popular dodge for rock critics and other commentators to take when there's a chance that they might have to actually say something they care about.

I've read Marcus since 1967, I believe, and I feel I do know him, in a way. Well enough to argue about music with, at least. The best book by Marcus, I think, is Lipstick Traces, when of the rare times where the diffuse nature of his wanderings catches up a subject that is a slippery as his point, the secret history of the 20th century. Linking The Sex Pistols with Guy Debord, Dada, and other instances of spontaneous reaction to the kind of psychic repression good old Frommians harp on is a series of masterstrokes from our author: the deferring of a resolution, the withholding of a thesis, served the book well, in theme and spirit; there is a sense of a dialectic occurring: it doesn't hurt that the writing is inspired.

Less useful are In the Fascist Bathroom, clogged, cryptic, terse bits of incomprehensibility that seems to be an attempt to be more gnomic than Christgau at his most involuted, and Dustbin of History, essays that wander around their subjects of rock, books, the arts, with a commentary that talks around the issues rather than to them. The diffuse style, effective in previous work where there was a strong sense of a cluster of ideas being brought together, here just lets the whole thing dangle like laundry tossed over a bedpost.

The issue of Eminem is about the complete absence of an independent rock and pop commentary in the mainstream media that might have allowed some voices to challenge not just the content of the lyrics, but the entire rationale behind them: Marcus and such, from on high, prefer an indirect course in which to discuss the flow of history, or the reappearance of styles and trends within various cultural matrixes when asked about the sometimes Slim Shady: one rarely comes away with any sense that he thinks someone is any good. Saying yay or nay requires someone to make their case with examples, and it also requires the writer to take a principled stand, one way or the other. Principled stands give us real discussions, from which real understanding arises. The point is about the lack of real criticism of the man's work, and whether the supposed disguise works to any degree one can call artistic. The ass-kissing Eminem has gotten from big media reviewers implicitly states that the Life that's depicted is acceptable because it creates the source of dramatic inspiration. Besides handing Em his head for handing his fans flimsy, dime -store grittiness, critics ought to have the courage to say that the life is just plain wrong, bad, murderous, and to challenge the artist to imagine ways to change the world, not wallow in its ugliness. Critics used to discuss justice as something worth striving for, now it's buck-grabbing assholism that's defended under the stagey business of "detached irony". It's bullshit, and someone as smart as Marcus ought to say so.

Thousands of teens do take this at face value, and they deserve a more diverse, less-lock stepping troupe of critics to read. A critic shouldn't challenge to do better work? This lets musicians with the Million Dollar Bullhorn, whether Eminem, Sting, or Bono, to run their mouths without response. The best critics, regardless of their trade they critique, always take the call the artist to the carpet when less-than-best is offered, and certainly, it's well in their scope to yell bullshit when bullshit stinks up a room. better lyric is part of that equation, inextricable. the issue here isn't Eminem's perceived sins, but rather the over-all pass he's been given by big-media reviewers who offer overheated praise in place of real commentary. Rock criticism used to be critical, as in discussing larger contexts the music exists within. Good critics do this. Good critics would have done more digging in their appraisal of Em's offerings in the marketplace, rather than rely on worn-out auteur theories left over from the heyday of film reviewing. You might insist otherwise, but words inform the music and music drives the text, and both can be discussed, critiqued, analyzed--i.e., subjected to the sort of dissection that real criticism attempts -- with no disservice to the form.

The cynical among us would debunk the assertions of writers like Marcus (or Dave Marsh) who remain hung up on rock and roll symbolism and maintain that a loud guitar is a loud guitar, not a tool of patriarchal oppression. A loud guitar is a political tool of the left or the right. Woody Guthrie's guitar had the motto "This machine kills fascists" scribbled on it, Elvis's guitar was a symbolic revolt against a previous generation's sexuality, Townsend's power chords made dying young before growing old seem like an option one might consider: all these things are political in the broadest sense in as much as the move of rock and roll is to move people into some kind of state that's transforming: you want an audience to understand their world differently than they did before the music started playing. How well artists succeed at this, whatever their expressed intent, makes for valid, intriguing criticism Besides, what constitutes a music's "validity as music" has lot of things within that hazy phrase to discuss, and certainly bringing a light on the success of rendered political stances within the "role-playing" , and considering whether these things actually do anything that works musically is not beyond a critic's job description

Friday, September 28, 2007

A self-righteous snit.

Slate writer Jonah Weiner was all in a dither this week writing about film maker Wes Anderson's emphasis on white people as principle protagonists, and for what he considers the director's patronizing attitude toward nonwhite. He does a crackerjack job of working himself into an rude lather, and comes perilously near to calling Anderson racist in his movies. As evidence he cites Danny Glover's character in The Royal Tennebaums,a black man who was bookish, civil, bumbling, soft spoken and a drab, rumpled dresser, as well as the black shipmate in The Life Aquatic who plays David Bowie tunes on an acoustic guitar and sings them in Portuguese. Weiner strips his threads as he rummages through his old literature books on post-colonial theory and produces a strange, hypervenilating rant. What I sense is a bad case of someone not getting it, or at least not grasping the crisp irony of Anderson's not always successful brand of satire.

Frank Lentricchia, a renowned professor of literature and critic, wrote an article for the late publication Lingua Franca in which he bemoaned the situation of political cant trumping an analysis of what a given novel is actually about. To paraphrase, Lentricchia wrote that while he was lecturing on Don DeLillo's novel White Noise, a student complained that the book was racist. He asked what was racist about DeLillo's book. The student replied that the book was racist because there were no people of color in the narrative. Lentricchia responded by saying that the novel was about white people and the white world in which they lived, but observed that the student was unsatisfied. The inference is that the student was, for the time being, incapable of getting to the heart of DeLillo's satire, and that it would be years, perhaps, before experience chipped away at the certainity that buffers both the heart and the funny bone.

I sympathize with Lentricchia's exasperation over his nay saying student's knee jerk response to the book, and I'd advance Jonah Weiner's Wes Anderson hand -wringing article as another example of someone advancing a mouldy heap of retreaded Saidisms as thoughtful objection. Anderson is obnoxious in many ways, but what he does get right in his films is the peculiar naivete many white people display in their interactions with blacks, Asians and Hispanics, bringing with them a culturally loaded package of assumptions that aren't easily changed.

It's a low key, shoulder slumping satire that he's advancing here, reducing his Caucasian protagonists to a stylized set of minimalist ticks that expose their lack of true worldliness. That he doesn't create non white characters of heroic virtue , slowly and silently suffering the moronic jabs of their white counterparts, is pretty much the point here, and it's to Anderson's credit that he maintains the deadpan style through out his films. There is , as well, something flatly paternal in Weiner's argument, which is marmish and prim in it's lecturing mode, implying that it's immoral for a white man to create nonwhite characters who are just as offbeat, quirky and defying of stereotypes as their white counterparts. It's paternal in the sense that he is demanding that nonwhites maintain their dignity overall, that they never be cast in any sense that can be construed as ridicule. This is slave owner thinking, and that issue is not his to fight. I suspect that Glover appreciated the chance to play a character.

The point is to show up the failings of his white characters as they pursue their various delusions, whether a new claim to fortune or mythical sharks; his films are slide shows, not lectures on race relations. While I think Anderson's work is uneven, certainly, I am relieved that he has no desire to become a latter day Norman Lear.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

James Carter's crisp, serpentine saxophone work

JC on the Set
-- James Carter
w/ Craig Taborn / Jairbu Shahid / Tani Tabbal
Carter has a fat, honking sound on all the saxophones he uses, and this a good thing. He phrases wonderfully, and there is sass and a fast-quipping edge here, particularly in the galvanizing solo he takes on Ellington's "Caravan"; honks, blorts, grunts and street-crossing jabber make you think of a flurry of voices all singing into the same microphone. Ellington had made a name for arrangements that suggested "jungle sounds" ( so called by critics who at the time still couched their praise in racist vernacular) , Carter keeps his notes crisp, sharp as pressed pleat or a knife's edge, nuance and edges of melodic creation and destruction timed with the lights of the Big City, a blues full of the funk of the city. Funk Carter has, as in the fatback workout of the title track. Did I mention that he lays out and reconfigures ballads with a rare artistry?

This he does with the distanced eye of painter views a blank canvas and a palette of fresh paint. It's less important that he captures , after much labor and sweat and the simula-cara of agony, some questionable approximation of inner essences residing in the sweet notes that make up the melody than what he does to create new forms. There's a joyful aspect to Carter's playing that's perfectly contagious when he takes on the slower, more reflective tunes, and here one might guess that his soul is transformation, transcendence, recovering, a full swing of moods that he journeys through in order to regain the light of day. The playing on his exploration is marvelous, bubbling, never tentative.

Carter excels here because he isn't afraid to mess with the material; these slow pieces are less sacred objects than they are sources of inspiration. One thinks that Carter's hand will come out of the bell of his sax and pull your face into it. That's a coarse image image, perhaps, but it's another way of saying that the tone and phrasing are in your face (in the most pleasant way , of course), and is the sprite and fulsome virtuosity that won't let you ignore the grace and occasional genius emerging from the horn. The brunt of this man's playing is full bodied blues and bluster. Nice stuff.

Some Notes On T.S.Eliot On His Birthday.

T.S.Eliot wrote in a time when the Universe seemed to be rent, with heaven and hell bleeding into one another, a career on the heels of two world wars that shattered optimism one may have had for the promise of technology to replace a silent god, is hardly different that the dread that lurks under the covers of the post modern debate over language's ability to address anything material, or have it convey ideas with any certainty. There is simply the fear that the names we give to things we think are important and worth preserving are, after ball, based on nothing. Grim prospects, that, but Eliot, I think, seeks to provoke a reader's investigation into the source of the malaise, the bankruptcy of useful meaning, with a hope that the language is reinvigorated with a power to transform and change the world.
Eliot's response was real art though, and if it did turn into resignation and nostalgia for more-meaningful past times, his articulation at least provokes a response in the reader, and operates as a challenge for them to make sense of his language, and understand the complexity of their own response. This adheres to Pound's modernist ideal that art ought to not just be about the times in which it's made, but that it needs to provoke a response that changes the times: transformation remains the submerged notion.
There is beauty because there is power in the imagery and the emotion behind it and it's powerful because it rings true; a reader recognizes the state of affairs Eliot discusses with his shimmering allusions, and responds to it. The material does not lie, and he certainly isn't being false by saying "this is my response to our time and our deeds". Rather, it's more that one disagrees with Eliot's conclusion, that all is naught, useless, gone to ashes. Better that one inspects the power of the truth that is in the work and develops their own response to their moment. It's less useful to try and argue with someone's real despair. A depressed expression does not constitute lying.
Eliot was not lying in any sense of the word--lying is a willful act, done so with the intent of trying to make someone believe something that is demonstrably untrue. As the point of The Quartets and his plays have to do with an artful outlaying of Eliot's seasoned ambivalence to his time, the suggestion that "beauty lies" is specious. One has license to argue with the conclusions, or to critique the skill of the writer, but the vision here is not faked dystopia Eliot contrived to a good amount of trendy despair--that comes later, with artless confessional poets who lost any sense of beauty to their own addiction to their ultimately trivial self-esteem issues. Eliot, however one views him, sought transcendence of what he regarded as an inanely short-sighted world, and sought to address the human condition in a lyric language that has, indeed, found an audience that continues to argue with his work: the work contains a truth the readership recognizes. Eliot was following suit on the only prerogative an artist, really, has open to them: to be an honest witness to the evidence of their senses, and to marshal every resource in their grasps to articulate the fleeting sensations, the ideas within the experience.
This is the highest standard you can hold an artist to; any other criteria, any other discursive filter one wants to run the work through is secondary, truth be told, because the truth within the work is the source of that work's power. One need to recognize what it is in the lines, in the assemblage and drift of the lyric, in the contrasted tones and delicate construction of vernaculars, what is that one recognizes and responds to in the work, and then mount their response.
There is more to the Four Quartets or the plays than what assume is an admission of defeat in the hard glare of uncompromising , godless materialism--there is hope that his work inspires future imagining greater than even his own-- but I cannot regard the poems as failures in any sense, even with the admission that there is great beauty in them. Eliot renders his consciousness, his contradictory and ambivalent response to the world he's grown old in with perfect pitch, and it's my sense that his intention to provoke the imagination is a sublime accomplishment. As craft and agenda, the later pieces work.
What does Eliot's despair have to do with postmodern writers and writing? It's less about what one can call his "despair" than what his operating premise has in common with the post modern aesthetic: Eliot, the Modernist poet extraordinaire, perceives the world the universe has having any sort of definable center, any unifying moral force formally knowable by faith and good works. There is despair in the works, behind the lines--one responds to them emotionally and intellectually--and the power behind the images, the shimmering surfaces the diminished, de-concretized narrator feels estranged from, comes from a felt presence, a real personality. Eliot, though, turns the despair into a series of ideas, and makes the poetry an argument with the presence day. There is pervasive sense of everything being utterly strange in the streets, bridges over rivers, strangeness at the beach, and we, it sounds, a heightened sense of voices, media, bombs, headlines competing for the attention of someone who realizes that they're no longer a citizen in a culture where connection to a core set of meanings, codes and authority offers them a security, but are instead consumers, buyers, economic in a corrupt system that only exploits and denudes nature, culture, god.

Eliot conveys the sense of disconnection rather brilliantly, reflecting the influence of an early cinematic editing styles: Eliot is a modernist by his association with the period, though at heart he was very much a Christian romantic seeking to find again some of the scripture’s surety to ease his passage through the world of man and his material things. There has always been this yearning for a redemption of purpose in the vaporous sphere, and much of his work, especially in criticism, argued that the metaphysical aspect could be re-established, recreated, re-imagined (the operative word) through the discipline of artistic craft. Modernists, ultimately, shared many of the same views of postmodernism with regards of the world being a clashing, noisy mess of competing, unlinked signifiers, but post modernism has given up the fight of trying to place meaning in the world, and also the idea that the world can be changed for the better. Modernists, as I take them in their shared practice and aesthetic proclamations, are all romantics, though their angle and color of their stripes may vary. Romanticism, in fact, is an early kind of modernism: the short of it is that there is a final faith in the individual to design of the world, and in turn change its shape by use of his imagination
Eliot's turn to religious quietism isn't so surprising, given the lack of self-effacing wit in his writing that might have lessened the burden of his self-created dread of the modern world: a tenet of modernism, shared by any writer worthy of being called so, is that their work was to help the readers, the viewers, the audience, perceive the world afresh, from new perspectives, in new arrangements, to somehow help get to the "real" order of things behind their appearances, and, understanding, change the world again. Temperaments among poets varied as to how they personally responded to their need to live aesthetically--and in all cases, living aesthetically was a viable substitute for a religious rigor--Stevens chose his Supreme Fiction while being an insurance executive, Pond toyed with fascism and economics, Joyce opted for a life in the eroticized parlors of France and Britain, Williams found connection through his medical practice and biology, related, absolutely with his poetry. Over all, what keenly separates the modernist engagement with meaning creation was that it was the things of this world, this plain, this material reality, that were the things that would help us transform individual perception; the thing itself is its own adequate symbol. A nod to Husserl and phenomenology, the meaning of things in the world, as things, was mysterious indeed, but their form didn't come from the mind of a God who, at best, was an absent landlord. Eliot, though, sought religion, and I don't see that as a failure at all: the work is too powerful to be regarded as either a personal failure, if that's a claim one might, nor as a poet. Eliot, as you say, is a poet of ideas, among other things, but ideas are useless in a poem unless they're seamlessly linked with an emotion, an impulse, and it's possible, I think, to see where the work was going: the kind of world Eliot described, with the kind of intelligence and personality that described it, was a bleak and unlivable sphere, requiring a decision, to commit to something that supplies meaning, fits the personality that needs direction. I don't regard Eliot as artifact at all: I've commented previously on how the work still inspires readers to engage the world in new ways: he is a permanent influence on my work as a poet.

The early modernists rejected the romantic label--for a variety of reasons.  I'm sure they had good reasons, but Modernism, in many respects, is an old project with a new label. Can  we really place Joyce and the Futurists and Eliot and Pound and Yeats and Gertrude Stein, Hemingway and Fitzgerald in the same box?  Yes, but it is less of a box and more of a tent; there is a lot more room t

Monday, September 24, 2007

Trio Fascination

The cd Trio Fascination by Joe Lovano is playing, and it's almost enough to make you think that the morning will yield a good day after all. Foolishness, because it's the only 8:30AM, and nothing says denial like someone typing rapidly as if they're trying to keep the psychic tax collector a least three paces behind him. Mornings are the best time for writing because the mind is sufficiently empty of presumptions, leaving one free to pursue strange ideas and expressions without having to parry with the dual vanities that one might be right or wrong in the attempt to say something new. But back to Lovano, whose command of tone and vocal simulacra on his saxophone makes you think that there are conversations about good and graceful matters among the birds in the trees. He never wanders far from the blues, does not get strident for the sake of some spurious avant gard credentials; it's the playing that matters, it's the playing and the steady, perfect stream of ideas that remain with you when the session is over. Dave Holland and Elvin Jones firm up this pianoless trio, with Jones, in particular, laying out an unreal orchestration of rhythms, beats, and quirky articulated pulses; he sustains a dialogue of percussion across his dread heads and cymbals, and offers a swift and swirling set of waves for the superlative Holland to ride with his bass work, carrying Lovano to the further reaches of melody. Lovano jabs, darts, smears and mashes his lines in peculiar and angular phrases over the swing of the up-tempo numbers, and comes off as subtle, supple colorist on the ballads. This is one intricate weave of improvisation, scratchy and abrasive that lightly touches on the edge of dissonance; something about Lovano's indirect approach to a melodic inversion reminds me of the full scale stretches of spontaneous composition by Wayne Shorter in the years he succeeded John Coltrane in the Miles Davis Quartet, in that he wasn't one to fill a solo with the exhaustion of every scale and key one was capable of. Shorter used space and silences, building his solos with a majesty that made them seem composed beforehand. Lovano, a shade less verbose than Shorter, shapes, and molds his flights as well, entering a solo stretch from every vantage except straight on. This is the sound of surprise.

Friday, September 21, 2007

A beaut of poem by Paul Guest

Paul Guest has a new poetry collection that’s been recently released, Notes for My Body Double<, from which someone on an online poetry forum posted this poem. It’s a beaut:

by Paul Guest
Between Buck Owens and Vivaldi what’s left
to listen to but the stars, so I do, dialing
the radio down to indeterminate static,
what I always thought was absence, an aria
of sizzling nothingness. Instead
it’s the Milky Way radiating arrhythmia
all the way back. It’s gossip
of the vacuum. That nothing has never been
truly nothing is why I believe,
even still, in love. Beside two rivers
I have lived nearly all my life
and these beneath one sky
muttering its endless alphabet of sine waves.
Jupiter with its flock of moons
and the stone from which we hope
to squeeze one drop of water,
red Mars pulsing in the blank field of night—
I’ve wanted to leave Earth
behind, gravity’s orphan at last,
but not Earth with its two good seasons and two bad
and not its angel-winged clams
luminous in the mud bed of a river
so distant from me
I can’t remember where
that water is, except that I’ve dreamed it,
except that in it I sank
all the way down.

A wonderful choice here. Our old friend Paul Guest writes in a way wherein he manages to be a poet without obviously luxuriating in the vanity of being a poet. "Nothing" is like an inspired discourse from a friend who is moved to share what's been maturing in their thoughts for awhile; the phrases, the rhythm of the strophes, the analogies, the direct and indirect digressions are seamless. In these instances one is wise to be quiet and witness an uncommon verbal dexterity. This is a bright and wonderful weave of wonderment.

He does so by letting on an incident a young boy might do, recently informed of and intrigued by that radio signals carry out into space. Searching for life beyond our understanding on the radio dial is a marvelous idea, and Guest does well with careful word choice, sharp , precise phrasing; how he manages to avoid klutzy , pretentious language and still have this poem resound on several levels of implication is evidence of a man who understands that free-verse needs to be crafted no less than metered verse. That he does this without straining for effect, as in the now-formula ironies of Billy Collins just makes me smile.

You know all about Coleridge's notion of the "suspension of disbelief", of course, and his idea that the poet seeks a "dramatic truth", a poetic insight, quite apart from material fact. The issue isn't whether Paul Guest ignores the limits of an undetermined plausibility factor but rather he exceeds a reader's expectations as he does so.

I think he does so splendidly, and a key element of his success has been his avoidance of High Literary Rhetoric. The particular issues he leaves to the the specialists to wonder about; the Saganites and the Bergsonians can worry among themselves as to the limits of space or the capacity of the imagination to make connections beyond what's materially verifiable. This poem is evidence of what poet's don't do well often enough, musing. There isn't a phony word or emotion anywhere that I can detect. Paul Guest has managed to disarm most of us of our objections with his skill and boarded us onto this imaginative stream of associations.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

On the Road: A trip through America Unscathed by Thought

On the Road is a book one ought to read , I think, in order to know something of a part of a generation responded to the post- WWll experience, and with any luck one does not stop there, thinking they've read the definitive book of the time. Other Beat writings are more crucial, especially Howl by Allen Ginsberg, one of the great American poems of the 20th century; in line, rhythm, imagery, and the contrasting and clashing elements of rage, despair and eureka! quality laughs, Ginsberg's poem supersedes the best of Kerouac's prose and and is a fully convincing evocation of the deadened conformity of 50s culture that agitated and motivated he and his fellow writers Kerouac had some intuitive notion of spontaneous community when it came to he and his friends bumming around the roads in a variety of heisted cars, trying to live on the kind of wits that fire up only in the face of near disaster. It's the community of the foxhole, a world with a bond that's intimate, understood instantly, without words, a bond that's held onto due to the members' sense that their lives depend on it. Lives do depend on the bond, in literal foxholes, but this mindset was something Paradise and his boys carried around with them, wherever they went, a thinking that innoculated the travelers from whatever elements, textures, values the local scene might have on them.

They were always passing through, resisting change, impulsively impervious to nuance, being themselves wherever on the map they stopped for a period; these were the same personalities in Denver that started in New York, and fairly much the same assortment of tics and tells by novel's end. On the Road might be considered the first post modern novel, in that America is seen as merely stops along the way, with the final destination being the edge of the earth the characters seemed to be looking for, that blankness beyond the road signs and small town bars where the silence and serenity they sought can absorb them and quiet the chattering noise in there heads. It is post modern in the sense that for whatever adventures these guys have, no seems touched by anything except the brief satisfaction of their own drunkeness, rant or sexual release; nothing effects them, nothing changes them, they are , like all unhinged signifiers, unmoved.

It did turn into a worthwhile project for later writers to examine the surface presentation of American culture and reveal it in conflict with the collective desire for a metaphysics of presence, but Kerouac only gives a brief hint to the uglier and more comic possibilities of the terrain he happened upon.His short fall was in making Sal Paradise such a flitty motormouth, a man who notices everything about him and yet cannot describe what he notes in memorable language. This is a book about a man trying to outrun himself.

Since writers are in the habit of making up stories as a matter of habit and profession, each of them, not just the beats, "faked" everything. That shouldn't be surprising from a class of folks we look to for tales, fables, metaphors and such that we might use , in some loose way, in making our own lives fit our skins better. The question is how well ,uhhhh, how artful one is in manipulating language towards the creation of fiction or a poetry where the world as its spoken resounds with suggestion and portents of secret knowledge. Some Beat writers I like, and consider brilliant, like William S. Burroughs. He was the one stone-cold genius in the bunch, was the most interesting and successful destroyer and re-creator of literary form, and maintained what Mailer called a "gallows humor" that allowed him to explore the gamier side of human personality without mythologizing the journey. Ginsberg's early poems , as well, were filled with the bulls-eye hitting jeremiads that were such an exact fit for the condition he described that it still comes off as a fresh and blistering criticism of a culture that seems interested in no more than conformity. Fakery is what one expects and demands from creative writers. Beat enthusiasts might blanch at the notion, but comes down to the skill of the writer to get away with the imaginative tall tales he's putting forth. It's about how well controls their technique in the construction of the lie we might want to invest in for a period.

Thank God for NetFlix

It's a grand service, giving us a way to catch up with movies we missed in the theatres over the last four or so years without having to pay the ten dollar ticket price; a good movie is a fantastic bargain, and the experience of seeing as less good one stings less for the price we paid to see it. A report:

A bore, a protracted, gutless, unpaced bore filled with indifferent performances and a rote Ali impersonation by Will Smith that pales next to the rhyme-popping accuracy of Billy Crystal's version. I'm a Michael Mann fan, and have been a defender of his maligned masterpiece Heat, but this project misfires on all cylinders. The swelling rhythm and blues tunes as scenes go into slow motion, the powder-puff confrontation of Ali's marital transgressions, the ceaselessly mobile camera work that attempts to create a cinema verite urgency but results in making you want to close your eyes and go to sleep.
Black Hawk Down is a bad film by a good director, Ridley Scott does his best work when there is something of compelling literary interest here, i.e., characters that are written, not merely depicted as they are in Black Hawk. The Duelist, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, among his best work, achieve a suspended disbelief credibility in as much as image comes to match idea, and directing hand seems to catch some of the musicality of conflict and buried desire that gives off a sense of some larger insanity of desire that is hidden. Black Hawk is a routine war-is-hell yawner that cannot rise above its status as movie-of-the-week fodder. Scott is a fine stylist if he has the literary substance to make his approach more than just gestures and window dressing, as it is here.

The moral drift of this thing is disturbing, and the feeble little declaration toward the end that the Marine's motivation in a rudderless, under-determined mission is being there for the other guys, your buddies, does not raise the level.
I suspect Scott would do stronger, more compelling work if he were adapting a war story that had an implicit argument within it , or at least a consistent point of view that would make the visual displays fire up more than mere weirdness. It's intriguing to think what he would have done with Heart of Darkness had Copolla not beat him to it. There remain Michael Herr's brilliant Dispatches, a vivid gonzo journalism read on the Viet Nam war. Viet Nam, though, is pretty much tapped out as a film subject matter.

The camera lingers too often in Black Hawk Down, lapsing into slow motion while presumably native music blasts over the speakers, the lens frozen as though dumbfounded, an acid head who discovers his face in the mirror. it's a bad film that lacks the guts of these idealized Marines convictions. Had Ridley Scott given us something that suits the military culture BHD (the film) pretends to celebrate, something even on the level of John Wayne, we'd have a film with a narrative reason to exist.

Scott, though, is a director of strange moods and articulate passion, and his diffidence here is betrayed by unmotivated characterizations --stereotypes , really, card board cut outs --and his frequent lapses’ into fluttering slow motion , accompanied by booming music, with piercing vocals. He loves exotica, and sometimes it works, but not here, when a straight up comprehension of military ethos and genre expectations would have worked much better than this distracted, protracted performance. Walter Hill or James Cameron would have served the material better.
Saw Hart's War on a free afternoon, and it seemed that the movie could be shown in film schools as a handy guide to POW film clichés. The storylines are all transparent and grating by their mere presence, and the obviousness of how this movie is being navigated makes you think you’re being played for a fool who'd never seen this kind of thing before.

The black aviator on trial, of course, demonstrates the fullest meaning of honor and duty, the untested junior officer , of course, stands on principle of fairness, the senior US officer, of course, is a hard bitten professional soldier for whom The Mission comes first, the German Commandant is, of course, so ironic, distant, melancholic in the dispatch of his duties.

You choke on these archetypes, you groan at sequences that might have been culled from a decent genre-filler released forty years previous: I'm thinking of the whole bread/football sequence, wherein the Willis character tosses the loaf over to the Russian side of the camp after one of his men had been wounded by a German guard. The intent is to demonstrate the solidarity between an officer and the enlisted men in the face of awful consequences, but it's rather pat, pretentious, and predictable.

The performances are mechanical as well. No one is especially good here, and Willis in particular fashions that trade marked inexplicable smirk so much that you wish some one would punch him and then demand what's so damned funny.
Saw Changing Lanes over the weekend, and thought it was a decent enough Hollywood "message" film, though it had the dopiest premise imaginable. It's not that I object to happy endings -- in this case, each of the characters played by Sam Jackson and Ben Affleck realize the exact nature of their wrongs and wind up doing the right thing by the world and themselves -- it's that I want the fictional solutions to seem fictionally plausible. The concentration of the events into one day snaps credulity, and while you're wondering whether this is an alternative universe where there are 76 hours to a day, the film drags way too much in key areas. Jackson and Affleck are both quite good here, but in the crush of the events that are eating our protagonists up, there is too much reflection, too much self examination, too much fortuitous circumstance for the characters to redeem themselves. Irony is fine, but Affleck's pragmatic do-gooding at the end is too much of stretch, theatrical without being dramatic. Like the film as a whole.
Insomnia is terrific. Chris Nolan, director, has a crucial knack for getting at the character at the margins of his wits, the fractured personality who is just barely able to keep his psychic equilibrium and move forward. He did this brilliantly in Memento, expertly telling the story through jagged shards of memory that constantly reformed a narrative structure and tortured our assumptions, until there was only a complexity that was a true and achieved irony, and he does the same here with Pacino's character Dormer, the insomniac detective who is wrestling with a hideous issue of professional ethics. Suffice to say, Dormer's ability to squelch the recent events of his life, his ability to keep them out of mind, decays as sleeplessness makes his hard-boiled demeanor sufficiently crack. Nolan, wisely, thankfully, does not tell the story in the same indie-video-film school fashion that he masterfully parlayed into the riveting Memento (even he must have sensed that it was a grand sleight of hand of a device that he could sell once to an audience). Rather, he luxuriates in the Alaskan scenery, capturing the sheer rugged and brutal beauty with a big lens, composing his shots as the characters seem like tawdry and desperate creatures scrambling across the terrain with their petty intrigues while the vastness of the North suggests something greater, more lasting.

Pacino gives a splendid performance, nuanced, not chewing up the scenery nor raising his voice arbitrarily as can be his habit; he has the saddest eyes of any American screen actor, and the lines of his face are a road map of every hard and compromised choice his character has had to make. Robin Williams is fine as well, a credible foil to Pacino as the smug, smarty pants mystery writer who relishes the chance to hoist Dormer by his own slack ethical petard.

Smart script, with a number of reversals that are credible and smartly played. The pacing is remindful of Clint Eastwood in his best moments as a director. The story is allowed to develop over days, weeks. The build in the tension comes as a relief.
The Sum of All Fears was glacial, painfully slow. The film, like the novel, is a traffic jam of details and simultaneous storylines that really have no demonstrated emphasis: what they build up to, the nuclear blast that takes out a major chunk of Baltimore, comes neither as shocking nor as relief against the previous tedium. It just makes the film noisier, longer, more self-important in its post 9/11 message that the US and Russia need to become policing partners to guard against lurking terrorists. This snail paced techno thriller removes two hours plus from your life for which no refund is possible.Ben Affleck, as usual, is annoying, and for me it came while watching this wretched drama: he looks like Adam Sandler's brother.

Saw Road to Perdition and witnessed what turned out to be a significant disappointment. Director Sam Mendes seems to have spent an inordinate amount of time, energy and resources mounting the film and not enough time directing it. It has a an interesting look, particularly with its' near monochromatic hues and lighting that suggests the eye of a Dutch master, but this wears thin quickly as the plot and characterization fails to develop at either a credible pace or with interesting results. There is nothing especially awful here, just stuff that is predictable, an offense made worse by sheer lethargy. Hanks does little more than grimace, Paul Newman, performing well in the first part of the film, has little to do afterwards except sit and stare into his lap with an old man's regret. Stanley Tucci and Jennifer Jason Leigh may as well be furniture here. Not the best crime drama since "Godfather".

Missing, of course, is the script that made the difference with Mendes’s' previous effort, "American Beauty". The plot here is adequate, I suppose, for the purposes of the graphic novel it's adapted from, but on screen, as is, the storyline is little more than a thin, cracking mortar between the cut stones of a huge mansion, ornate and impressive at first view, but revealing a crumbling structure the closer one gets into it.
The Quiet American is very good, nearly perfect so far as a film that tries to communicate and convey a sense of intellectually subtle points; it achieves an elegant efficiency the Green novel had. What is pleasing is the proportion of the elements-- the "love triangle" (for want of a better phrase), the early stages of the Viet Nam war, the Vietnamese point of view-- all these are a graceful weave. It is sufficiently anti-imperialist in its base message, yet hangs on the ambivalence that nearly crucifies the lead character. Philip Noyes shows a steady, unhurried hand directing this work, a nice recovery from the previously noisy projects he busied himself with, and Michael Caine is believably perplexed by the fact of his crumbling comfort. Brendan Fraser does a surprisingly good job.

Daredevil, as it's been remarked earlier, is simply awful, and reveals in live action why the comic book never clicked for me; it's a weaker, thinner, more desperately edgy version of Batman. Relentlessly cruel, down turned, ugly in all its emotions. The problem is that this slice of costumed fantasy lacks conviction. This is simply a template that's been fleshed out until a better idea comes along.

Lord of War

I saw the film last night and found it to be pretentious and shallow, preachy in very obvious ways, with a "surprise" ending that was telegraphed from several city blocks away. The bits of dialogue between Orloff and his pursuer (portrayed by Ethan Hawke) about the relative merits of each other's chosen roles in life was half-baked and unfelt, lacking any real conviction in or twist upon middle brow clichés. The movie attempts in several ways to be a morality play, oozing with irony, but the pitch here is so determinedly at the bottom end of apprehensible emotional range that it's nearly flat lined. No one seemed to know how to direct the actors with a cheaply sanctimonious script, and the actors themselves appear to lack interest to do any free lance scene chewing.

Paddy Chayefsky, prolix screenwriter behind Network and Hospital, set an as yet unsurpassed standard on making socially-conscious movies that want to force the audience to dwell a little on the invisible undertakings involved in keeping them safe and secure. It comes down to a frank exchange of clichés and alarmist platitudes, but Chayefsky had a genius for infusing them with new phrases, coinages, and could contrive a flaming morass of cynicism that was particularly compelling despite what depth he failed to achieve. The movies were quoted, the issues made the op- ed pages and the chat around the coffee maker.

Lord of War lacks all that, and depends on a slick video-game surface while Nicolas Cage's sad puppy dog eyes gaze upon his gunning character's fatal transactions with a detachment that is supposed to make us think of a man straddling both heaven and hell, pondering which is worse. It doesn't work, though, and it's really another excuse for another movie gallery of Cage's set-mannerisms. At least he wasn't pretending to be Elvis this time out.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Metaphysics of a Language Buzz: notes on neutralized irony

The right isn't afraid to name, nor to advance their cause. There is a living embodiment of political will behind their description the current situation, and it would be Post Modern Tragedy that we've theorized ourselves into submission. The American Left certainly wasn't afraid of offending political sensibilities while there was a Viet Nam war through which the ultimately unprovability of historical determinism could be obscured by a conflict whose obscenity over rode local matters. But with the end of the war, the left here abouts receded to theory, unwilling, I think , to realize something fundamentally decent about Americans and their sense of fairness to the right cause, and it seemed to matter little to the intellectual elite to deal with practical matters of policy , county, state and federal.

The left, in general, became generalized in theory and law, and reduced everything to an eviscerated discourse of euphemistic speech that was not allowed to defile a sense of neutrality: things ceased to have names, only vague descriptions , and in this atmosphere any talk about identifying problems about what sickens the Nation became impossible . Rather than action to change social relations, real practice, a fight for change was reduced to a ideologically perplexed course in etiquette, the practice of which made humans confront each other in ways that were nervous, nervous, ultimately insane.

Gramsci wound up in prison, but he didn't write manuals for non-offensive language in the work place: he never lost his belief that theory needed to stop somewhere, that abstruse descriptions had to halt at the right juncture and some remedy, based on sane analysis, had to be effected. One's knowledge of what produces alienation and states where exploitation is possible needed to be matched with solutions.

"Guts" comes to mind, courage, old fashioned and romantic virtues , but still ways to talk about the world, the city where we might live, and within in, a way to imagine and realize the ways to make it maybe make it more workable than it was then when we entered into it, knowing only hunger and the feeling of cold earth. 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-concious 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, as they were during The Miami Chad Trials, 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.

Myths, as well anyone can describe them, are working elements of our personal and social psychology, and whose elements are "modernized"-- better to say updated -- as a matter of course. Declaring a goal to make them relevant to the slippery degree of modernist convention sounds is an insight best suited for a Sunday book review. Jung and Campbell are ahead on that score, and Eliade certainly stresses the relevance of mythic iconography strongly enough: current gasbag extraordinaire Harold Bloom advances the case for mythic narrative ,-- borrowed in part from Northrop Frye (my guess anyway) -- in the guise of literature, constructs the psychic architecture that composes our interior life, individually and as member of a greater set of links: the stuff helps us think ourselves, personalities with an unsettled and unfastened need for a center aware of its adventures in a what comes to be , finally, an unpredictable universe.

Bloom somberly argues that Shakespeare is the fount from which mythic forms find a contemporary set of metaphors that in turn became the basis for our modern notion of dramatic conflict, and argues that Freud's genius lies not in his scientific discoveries, but for the creation of another complex of metaphors that rival Shakespeare's for dealing with the mind's nuanced and problematized assimilation of experience, the anxiety of influence in action, as process, and not an intellectually determined goal to navigate toward. The point is that modernization of myth is something that is that is already being done, a continuous activity.
Structuralism gave credibility to the notion that meaning can be found in the world through language: there is a sense of finality in the thinking , as their project was to create an anthropology that found the submerged structures of culture and language, and in doing so, discover a skeleton key for what our existence means and does. Post-structuralism, gateway to the loose cluster of tendencies and styles called "post modernism", sees the confering of meaning as arbitrary, and links itself rather direly with the school that advances us as instinct driven creatures, laboring under the comfy mysticism of Free Will.

Richard Rorty, in "Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity" defines an "ironist" as someone who realizes "that anything can be made to look good or bad by being re-described" .Are postmodern writers this kind of "ironist"? No more, it would seem , than any other writer scribing under the modernist tenet of "making it new", or to another extreme, 'defamiliarizing" (from Bahktin) recognizable settings , characters and schemes in a language that's meant to provoke readers to see their world in new ways. This is a modernist habit that the new, cubist, cut-up, stream-of-conscious takes on the world will sweep away past aesthetic interpretative models and lead one to a the correct formation of the world-- there remains a faith that language and other senses can apprehend and describe a tangible , material world and capture its complex composition, a "metaphysics of presence" that art can unearth. Irony, in this sense, is usually contained within the story, a result of several kinds of narrative operations coming to a crucial moment of ironic intensity that then drives the story into directions one , with hope, didn't anticipate. Post modern writers start off with the intent of being post modern from the start, and rather than have their inventions gear us for a challenge to see the world in a truer light (contrasted against previous schools of lovely language but false conclusions), the project is to debunk the idea of narrative style all together. Irony is intended to demonstrate some flaws in character's assumptions about the world, a description of the world that emerges contrarily after we've been introduced to the zeitgeist of the fictionalized terrain. Post modern writers are ironists of a different sort, decidedly more acidic and cynical about whether narrative in any form can hone our instincts.

A break from my policy of not posting my own poems here.

What can say other than I like this one? I run myself at such a volume about the work of others that it's probably time to let others take a shot at my free verse chops. All the same, I hope you find something to like. Tomorrow, more dissonance.-tb

Can't buy me love
We think like you think
but we have the goods

and all you have is cash or credit
that does you no good

if we weren't on every corner
you drive by, leering like sirens

with signs for hardware, malt liquor
and Japanese cars that smirk

while you drift into a stupor
of brand names,

your son says daddy, please, we need a new TV,
your wife exclaims that the furniture seems

old, like your shirts, which are grey
and full of holes you dislike

but know the history of each tear in
the fabric and frayed thread in the collar,

Sweetie, give me a dollar
and pull over here

'cause I need a beer and a paper
to see where these sales will take us

when I get
wind of them,

all your money gets you things
and the middle of the week

resembles less a day to get through
than it is a hole to crawl out of ,

speaking of which,
you look like you need a ladder

to climb up from or up to
where ever it is you'd like to go,

see our ad in the Penny Saver,
clip our add from your mailbox,

cash, credit card, local checks
w/ street address and current phone,

and a photo ID showing you scowling
in cruel institutional light

where everyone looks like
they're going to jail ,

you're family will love you,
returns thirty days after purchase w/store receipt,

we love you too,
but easy there,

it's nothing personal,
it's only business.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Mary Baine Campbell's poem

A poem by Mary Baine Campbell , posted three years ago by Slate's poetry Robert Pinsky ,has elicited some vigorous responses, with my words mingling with the various choruses. Pinsky has a preference for the less obvious poems, offering instead pieces that cause no end of head scratching. Half the time I think the selections are self-indulgent gruel that are a subspecies of fraud, and the other half I defend said selections because they hit me as a unique view of a situation, an interesting vision, let us say, wedded with a style that matches the ambition and quirky desire of the writer to say something different about experience. Campbell's poem is that rarest of things I come across, a poem I am curiously ambivalent about.

This seems to be another soul who cannot get out of Plato's Cave, except that this nameless one must have done especially offensive to warrant being gripped in a vise rather than merely chained to the wall of the cavern. But it seems the same old punishments, the same tortures and teases, all those fleeting signifiers in front of him (or her), forcing all the senses onto to one set of appearances (and appearances only) so that they have to construct an idea of the world outside the cave, free of the vise, a faith, so to speak, that this vise that holds the head is exactly where it should be, doing what it must do to whom it is doing it in the framework of an infinitely larger universe , multiverse, omniverse, what have you, that is unseen.

Or it might be something else entirely, such as description of being dead, with the world burning and eroding and washing away with the monsoon as described. This may well be a poem of a great journey that starts at death and ends when a soul has reached the other side, a particular culture's conception of an afterlife. The wind , from which the head cannot shield itself from, blows over the face and whisks along whatever has turned to dust back into the unmade earth. To be honest, I haven't the foggiest what Campbell is getting at here, other than to describe the quality of being dust in the wind, but this is plainly too obscure and mannered for me to even care. It used to be that I thought it was cool to be mysterious and cool and utterly and completely baffling with my writing, but hey, I was fifteen at the time and reading too much Dylan and Jim Morrison and the cursed share of Kerouac, and it took me years to learn to stop being abstruse by design and instead become interesting by intent. That might have happened when I finally got something to write about, some comprehensible subject matter , which I managed to link up with a credible language, a combination that created whatever mystery I sought. The abstract quality is a result of writing well about something, not writing syntactically challenged pieces in a mistaken notion of what cubist writing might sound and read like.

Campbell's poem is well structured, the language clean, spare, exacting to the the objects and their qualities, but this is just too much to put together beyond saying that it seems to be out funerals, death, and the perspective of the deceased once they've left this life, observant yet powerless to intervene in the affairs of the living .There is that odd mix of regret and acceptance that mingles in the images. There's a feeling of loss that pervades the stanzas, and a feeling of powerlessness that there is nothing one can do with what is slipping from their grasp, whether youth or life itself.

There exists here a tangible feeling that the narrator is in some fixed place of observation, taking it all in, motionless and unable to speak or intercede on behalf of the world; I took this too mean that the speaker had died and was in some astral place , perhaps from a cloud, maybe from a closet as a ghost as yet unseen, because the imagery Campbell have a museum quality, implying gold ornamentation, fruits, things one employs in funeral preparations from an unspecified culture and time.

I'd read Norman Mailer's quizzical and enthralling Egyptian novel Ancient Evenings which deals quite a bit with the cult of the dead, reincarnation, and has a good amount of description of funeral preparation, all of which this poem brought to mind. But I do see the other side, the observations of one getting older who is so much wiser and suffers the eventual regrets of bad decisions, missed opportunities, consequential expressions of arrogance and pride that cannot be undone, and how all this comes to the eventual acceptance that everything in our view is somehow as it must be in the larger pattern we can only faintly imagine.

I don't want to say that this is a bad poem, since I keep re-reading it to puzzle it out a bit more. Unless it's from the pen of the insanely over rated and over cited--Kerouac, Neruda, Bukowski, insert you own pet peeve here-- a bad poem does not stay long in my thinking, and it is the easiest thing to pass on, like beer. Life is too short to deal with wooden, cryptic, stick-in-the mud language. Campbell's work has it's attractions, and I would say her minimalism succeeds to the degree that The Vise gets more than one going over. Death, though, seems to be the operative idea here--as you say, and to paraphrase crudely, life may be good and pleasantly cushioned for our narrator, but there is a defeated tone to the words, a sense that one's comfort is also one's manacle around the neck. Maybe it's the sense of defeat that puts me off about this--I am of the notion that one shouldn't require anything of a poet other than to be interesting and their work to be nothing other than good, ie, worth reading--but the lack of rage here is vaguely troubling:

It is not
That the world is unkind.
Kind hands once touched
My lips and eyes
To say whatever such
Touches say.

And every day
A spoon, laden
With softer gold
Of honey
Forces me

I would want more of a rage against the stasis, the sterility of the apparent perfection of this flesh and blood life; I would read the above lines as being something of a junkie's reverie as he nods into whatever oblivion he seeks through the needle and the spoon. Every care and dread is dissolved as a slowly corrosive bliss over takes the body and the spirit that attends to it. But this may be exactly what Campbell sought to get across in her tightly sealed stanzas, that being alive is filled with it's own kind of death, our material and mental blockades to the world, save for a noise, a chime of a phone, a flash of light in the sky at dusk that reminds us of the churnings outside the body and its republics of dulled sensation:

From all directions
Lightning tells us
What is lost
Or burnt
In the collapsing

The nod produces its own ceremonial Edens from which the glance of old archetypes, readings from the nursery or a junior college text book are conflated in a shifting illusion that replaces the substance of one's history, objectified into notions of the weather taking a personal care
of the layabout's bedding:

Tonight, a monsoon.
The diamond-fall of rain
Bruises my face
Washes honey
From it, and
All else.

This is all that can be seen, that can be comprehended through the suggested splendor or comfort the narrator cryptically speaks from, and so the poem may be ironic in that we have veiled comments emanating from what are already a veiled , not the least blinded sense of reality, and what is maddening for me is the acceptance that the speaker suggests as to what their situation is, hazy as it is. Although there is a chance that Campbell intended our subject to be alive as they recited their spare vistas, it suggests ritualized death all the same, a ceremony of surrender:

But in the vise
I can still stare --
Through brilliant
Obliterations of storm --
At what is
Still there.
Well and good, I suppose, but a bit too fatalistic for me. Fatalistic and vague. A less than perfect combination.