Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Why does mean, not what does it mean

Poetry without strict meter or rhyme is hardly formless if they do well.  The aesthetic of the early modernists, from Whitman through Eliot, Pound WC Williams and up through the present day was to model cadences on the inflections of real speech. Idealized speech but speech all the same as the inspiration for jettisoning the mathematical formulations that dominated serious poetry. This means that the avant gard writers won the battle against the standardized drudgery of adhering to formulas, which means, ironically, that the open-form experiments from the late 19th and early 20 th century were now the norm. Rhyming as an issue, formalism as a preferred concept of poetry, became the nagging  trend at the cultural margins.

 There is something in the best of lines of non-rhyming, unmetered poems that gets at a number of verbal nuances that might otherwise not be available to a poet concerned with adhering to a conventional approach. As with metered verse, we have to concern ourselves over which poets have an ear, a musical sensibility that can select the right words for a difficult perception to get across, and who knows when to pause, to construct a high, frantic rhetoric, when to calm down, when to stop talking. Robert Creeley, John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Thomas Lux, masters of free verse, geniuses even, are every bit important to the history and extension of poetry and poetic gesture as were the usual suspects lurking in the ranks of the older dead white males.

We have blather, have a pompous and amorphous spewing of pretentious, slender lined tripe that's dreadful, but this is the case for poetry regardless of era, style, aesthetic, politics; most poets are awful and what they write deserves a can of gasoline and a match. The point of it all, among other points to consider and define, is discussing what makes for a good unrhymed poem. I would present Creeley and Thomas Lux as examples, and I would go as far to maintain that John Ashbery, Ron Silliman, and Ishmael Reed are no less perfect examples, though of a more expansive, abstract leaning. It's a big subject within a bigger tent.

You can't discount entertainment and fun elements altogether; we seek to have our senses engaged in some worthwhile way. Art, among many others near intangible things it gives human beings, brings us pleasure and is often times sensual in- itself, plain and simple. I do have a love of clear, vivid poems with sharp, precise imagery, but there is quite a lot of pleasure I get from reading poets who are less conspicuous in what they're doing. I like Eliot, Stevens, Dickinson, Silliman, Perelman, Armantrout, Oppen, Bishop. Not everything that is difficult is diffuse, though much of what attempts a more abstract language is merely diffuse and deadening pretentiousness. Like everything, there are those excel in particular styles, and there are the majorities who are merely rattling their keyboards against their belated desires of anthologized glory.

There is no reason why entertainment cannot be the height of art, truthfully. Some of this depends on what entertains you; criticism, in a sense, is the attempt to determine the art within entertaining items and to define or defame those terms as best as we can. It is very subjective and can lead us into blind alleys where vague absolutes irresolutely bark at one another from their respective tethers. Critics and philosophers have debated the utility of art since The Republic and before, and aside from some inspired manifestos about how the surest art will revolutionize and utterly transform the human experience with the material and spiritual realms, the consensus, so far as my academic and independent readings, is that art's basic function is to create joy, i.e., pleasure, entertainment by any other term. In those terms, art is hedonistic by default, created and sought out because it pleases the creator and the observer. What moral/philosophical/sociological/political insight or "lessons" the art conveys or that one discerns is merely incidental. Aesthetics is not a philosophy, but merely a kind of inquiry--it is a practice you can apply to virtually any moral or philosophical undertaking. Hedonism, though, is not a philosophy at all, and I don't recall reading any serious defense or affirmative presentation of the "do your own thing' approach in over four decades.

I like ugly, imperfect, ambiguous art, especially poems, but I also love form, elegance, an ordered pairing of opposing things that once, brought together, gives us a sublime thing indeed. The problem with insisting that a poem should be "beautiful" according to a standard imposes limits on what the poet can do with a work and, in effect, implicitly dictates that a work adhere to requirements that are ill-suited for an emotion, an idea, an event, an experience that would motivate a writer to compose some lines. What gets to me is a poetry that gets across what the poet attempts with a mastery of techniques that are true to themselves, not an ideology. The elements that seem to break away from the phrase making one expects and combine with a writer's honed instincts for developing a rhetoric that allows a poem to stop you for a moment, ponder the phrase, parse the image, appreciate the shifts in tone and sound as layers are added, and appreciate the unexpected places where the stanzas stop, where they jump to, where they land. Beauty, for me, is a vague and useless term when applied on such a broad scale--as I mentioned before it's more compelling to discuss how successful don't think the artist delivers a set of redecorated clichés about affirming life that experience proves to be patently false. Yes, the artist ought to challenge expectation, and the audience would need to argue how well the craftsperson succeeded in the attempt.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Don’t Hate Me Because I Don’t Have a Cellphone - The Daily Beast

Columnist Elizabeth Ladenson wrote a "survivor's tale" for the Daily Beast about  being someone who lacks a cellphone in world that loathes citizens who are not attached to a device each waking and sleeping moment. She pleads with us to not hate him because he has, through events not entirely under his control (but clearly without his protest) have put him in that allegedly rare sphere of being a citizen without a cellphone.'This would be a lifestyle choice, minor as it is, that would be worth writing about should the scribe have a way with a phrase, a honed sense    of  irony (which means , bluntly, when to quit being ironic), and have fine tuned sense of self deprecation.One shouldn't take themselves neither too seriously nor too lightly.

This article by Andrew Marantz in Mother Jones about his experience in a New Delhi call center does just that, providing atmosphere, background, context, telling details, and, most appreciatively, fine turns of phrase in a winning, quickly paced prose style.Marantz does not brag, berate, or lecture ; his article informs as it entertains, and provides a picture of the world without a self rightous filter rendering the recollection a turgid rant. This fellow rants, he berates, he practices a sort of sociological tone that is less effective in making a point than the most inane observational comedian.There is, of course, the undercurrent that technology has ruined our ability to speak to one another or to function in natural ways; the implication is inverse snobbery that commands you to respect those who have not merely because they have not. 

A lack of different kinds of devices is not , in itself a virtue, and it is the least attractive bragging point one would stake a reputation on.,I don't hate you, but I do think that writing something this supremely inconsequentially makes you a low-grade narcissist who's desire to discuss the banality of their existence is symptomatic of a grosser personality disorder. I am 63, from Detroit, live in Southern California, AND I HAVE NEVER OWNED A CAR NOR HAD A DRIVER'S LICENSE! What I have don't have trumps what you don't have.Again, that in itself could be an interesting premise to write from t, the complications and irony of being from a place called the Motor City , the center of global car culture,  and then moving into a region of the country that is so decentralized that the conventional has for  generations been that no one can flourish, let alone merely survive in such an amorphous space without an automobile, and yet here I am, writing this sentence right now, no car, no license, and no intention of acquiring one now/ Why quit when I'm ahead of the the game? Think of a long witty essay, think of all those self victimizing witticisms that will disarm a skeptical reader, imagine the poetic flights of fancy as I ponder a life without wheels, depending on the kindness of  family friends for rides to where I needed to be. Well, maybe someday, when I dream up enough clever things to rattle off in my theoretical memoirs of being an unmotorized Motowner in the land of sun bleached beaches and glare. Maybe I won't write it because I never considered not having a car to be a virtue, nor a philosophical choice. It is not a mark of superiority, only the way this life turned out and a fact that I've gotten used to.  

Best of Enemies

Image result for gore vidal william buckleyOne of the great, yes great things about watching television in the Sixties was the chance to view the spectacle of our finest writers verbally slugging it out on talk shows, smart and savvy men in matters of politics, literature and art who, confronting another who is just as smart and with equal measures of self regard, act like petulant children who are an hour beyond their scheduled bedtime. It was an area where our perceptions of what was occurring in the world beyond our livings rooms and kitchens were framed by a host of local newspapers, the New York Times being the only one we might consider a "national" publication, and three major television networks, NBC, CBS and ABC. There were other outlets for contrary opinions, literary journals, alternative political magazines and a wide spread of local newspapers, but in a pre-internet age, there were few platforms in which ambitious intellectuals had to command the spotlight and keep it on them; the personalities themselves had to be large.  

 It was a different kind of fireworks,, with the considerable brain power in the TV studio surging for the sake of spite, payback, revenge against slights and dismissals, real or imagined. The new documentary "Best of Enemies" is a close look at one of the centrally extended spats of the period,a fascinating backward glimpse at a heated, passionate feud between William F. Buckley, conservative gadfly writer and editor of the National Review, and novelist-essayist Gore Vidal, a formidable wit and left-leaning contrarian. Both writers, representing the political right and left, were hired by a ratings-starved ABC News for a series of ten debates during the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions and the film, augmenting little scene footage from the testy debates with remarks from Dick Cavett, Christopher Hitchens, historian Todd Gitlin, is a character study of two men who, although representing and, to an extent, conflicting embodying worldviews, shared more than either was ever likely to admit. Buckley and Vidal detested one another, as the film gives a swift but vivid account of their past encounters and impressions of one another; Buckley considered Vidal a harbinger of an amoral, godless, chaotic world that threatened the foundations of civilization, with Vidal in turn regarding Buckley as a pampered apologist for and defender of rich elites who used any means they required to increase their wealth and power. That both men had manners, speech patterns and patrician affectations that would suggest the two of them should have shared more common ground is the larger irony. 

But at heart was the concern as to who should lead America. Gitlin says at one point that Buckley that didn't believe in democracy but should be ruled by the Elite ruling class. However aristocratic he might have seemed, Vidal spoke in favor of direct democratic processes, empowering the disenfranchised with a more political will, and for riding the political system of the undue influence of corporations. It was a mess if nothing else, but it was, so the cliche has it, "good television". This was not a debate, it was blood sport. At stake, both would perversely agree on, was the fate of the United States, Buckley viewing as descending into chaos should the left achieve their agenda of equal rights and non interventionist foreign policies, and Vidal with the idea that the American Empire, much like the Roman Empire and other empires before it, would collapse from overextension . The debates were lively, energetic, two men bent not on discussing party policies on social issues but rather determined to expose the other as a fraud, charlatan, a great social menace. Anyone familiar with the debates, meaning anyone around my age of 60 something, knows what this builds up to, Vidal in the 9th debate goading Buckley by calling him a "crypto-Nazi" and Buckley, his calm destroyed and looking at Vidal with unmistakable contempt, says the fateful rejoinder, calling him "queer" and that he would sock him "in the god damned face" if Vidal made the Nazi comparison again. It was judged by media writers at the time that Vidal had won the debates by the simple measure of keeping his cool. 

In the aftermath, both writers wrote their feelings about the exchanges in successive issues of Esquire, first Buckley and then Vidal, the result of which was a libel suit against Vidal when he implied, with the forceful insinuation that Buckley was a closeted gay man. In all , the film ends on a melancholy note, suggesting that neither write quite recovered from the confrontations. In later footage of both of them, they are shown as tired, wizened, melancholic, looking at the world that would follow their respective measures of advice closely or faithfully enough. It is fitting, perhaps, as we see here two of the smartest American writers at the time giving it their all in an effort to change the country and make it better according to their radical prescriptions, on to see the long view at last that what made them anxious in their youth still exists and that they haven't the energy to enter the fray .

Sunday, August 30, 2015


In a recent exchange on the relative merits of  posthumous Jimi Hendrix albums, I took a position that maintained that the late guitarist wasn't a jazz musician and certainly not a John Coltrane in terms of technical genius. Coltrane, also a musician who died young, was a saxophonist who had gone beyond the pale in his training, practicing and experimentation. At a young age he had covered a lot of different styles, opened up jazz saxophone to worlds that are, in my view, still not fully understood or sufficiently translated. 

His posthumous records, live dates, are all essential things for our culture to return to . Hendrix was a genius-in-the-making, a natural musician who could conceptualize a larger, fuller, more textured sound, but he lacked discipline, finally, and was in such a state that the wealth of his after life releases are live dates which are out of tune and glutted with the dissonance of flubs, not experimentation. It is music that Hendrix would not have wanted released, in my view. My discursive other had the opposite view, to be sure, and I will allow him the honor of summarizing his ideas on his own dime.It's not unlike what happens when great writers have their weakest scribblings finding the light of the printed page after they've drifted into the dirt nap. 

What gets with the publication of The First Man, the posthumous novel by the brilliant Albert Camus. Critical consensus is it's the equal of his best novels, and I agree. Honesty in these publications would ease by disease with the matter, perhaps, if the emphasis discussed were more historical than aesthetic. The fact remains that there are thousands who want to get a thrill equal to the jag they felt when they read Miller, Thompson, Hemingway, et al, the first time, and it remains a good bet that readers will disguise their disappointment with posthumous efforts with a further elaboration of the mythology--all the cant, clichés and truisms that clog up a cult writer's reputation--which will make this phenomenon a permanent vex.

It would be a challenge, but I suspect I would have done as Max Brod did and published Kafka's work. Brod claims to have told his dying friend that he would not carryout the last request of publishing the manuscripts. True or not, it is known that Brod had encouraged Kafka to publish during his lifetime, to little avail .Being an editor , publisher, author in his own right, he likely couldn't stand the thought of having what he thought as a major body of writing going up in smoke, unread. It was a matter of establishing a deserved reputation for greatness for a writer who wasn't able to judge his own validity; Nabokov had a major reputation and publications at the time of his death, and was, I think, using sound judgment when he requested the last manuscript to be burned. It was a practice run, a series of notes, not a book. I think Nabokov was the best critic of his own work.
me about what's been done with the unpublished work of dead writers is the way in which they're presented; one is nearly always promised that what we have in our hands is a "lost masterpiece" . In any case, the marketing promises writing on a level of these writers’s best work, but this seldom the case. There are exceptions, though, as

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The clown shoes are off!

There was a joke told by Rodney Dangerfield about trying to catch your own profile as you walk by a store window, thinking that you could you see yourself, if only for a nanosecond, in a state of not being aware that you're being observed. All in vain, of course, as all you catch is a snapshot of you pouting somewhat, puckered like a lovesick fish, grimacing with downcast eyes, annoyance tempering the disappointment of not catching your reflection unaware. In the meantime, you bump into people you didn't see coming the other way. You mumble apologies, get of earshot of profanities, careful not walk into traffic when you come to the corner. There's an attempt to recover from this sudden embarrassment by rifling through a mental card file for poems, tv shows or the last good sex you had as a means of distracting from being exposed, you believe, to the world as being human and not completely altogether when you walked out the door. Vanity is the real meaning of the name your parents gave you and you wonder with all the atrocities and incidental evils perplexing the globe how could succumb to such a minor-league narcissism .

 On the other side of the window are the people who have already arrived to where they were going, seated at tables over glasses of water and wine, looking at menus; you imagine yourself already at the location you need to get to, safe in a seat with a wife, watching television, anonymous in the shadows of your own making. On the coffee table are the glasses you thought would aid you in seeing the pure profile of you perfect jawline, the certitude of the chin rising to like the prow of a ship cutting a path through aggravated waters, next to the iPod and the ear pieces you wore to make the world sound less like a city at war with it's mechanical parts and more like sound track for an under-lit porno. All in this world of caffine and chatter appears to be going along as expected, nothing planned, nothing sinister on the surface of things, just coffee and over-sugared pastries making the chatter, hand gestures and facial expressions more dramatic than they would under what one imagines would be normal circumstances. Everything, even the doilies under the saucers cradling the expensive coffee drinks, seemed agitated and angular. A man and woman at a corner table  have abandoned the books and crossroads they came to kill time and were discussing poetry and poets,their voices raising in volume until the nerves in the back of your neck take up the vibe and your brain is jolted again with the power of someone else's anxiety and their over emphasis on phrases that demanded the emphasis to start with. Discussing Rilke might as well been a debate on abortion rights, exchanging views on Rimbaud could have been death   threats and daggers across a muddy battle ground. The universe has no volume control. Everyone is deaf and they all want to be heard.

The clown shoes are off, the tie is undone, the television nags at you with come ons for shampoo and retirement accounts, prescription drug plans and limited edition gold coins and commemorative plates, your wife is already asleep , you cannot stop thinking of what it is you need to do, your fingers twitch, move in motions like warm up exercises , you want to write something that will put the light back into the day that get darker the longer you stay alive, you want clarity, you don't want to vanish as though turned off with a remote control, reduced to something less than the white do that used to dominate the television screen when the last credit scrolled by and bed time was immediate, irrevocable. You might miss something, you might miss lending your voice to the running stream of remarks that make up the news of the moment, you wanted to write history as it happened, the evidence of your senses keen enough to define the tone and temper of the good and bad things that make this existence such an exciting thing to stay awake for

Friday, August 28, 2015

Christopher Nolan makes mostly boring movies

Following, the first film by Christopher Nolan, is has the out-of-sequence narrative style of his American film breakout hit "Momento", detailing, in a notably shattered way, the intensely strange relationship between a would-be writer, desperate for things to write about, and a professional burgler. While the viewer has a task assembling a linear storyline from the piecemeal details offered, the movie is compulsively watchable, and there is a sense of a the "normal" everyman being seduced by a bad influence and used as means to achieve dishonorable ends. Well done.

Interstellar was good in terms of being a technical marvel and an example of what well-composed camera shots can get you, but the film wasn't so stellar as a thought provoking masterpiece that director and co-writer Christopher Nolan likes to attempt making. It has what one could term the "Apocalypse Now" syndrome, where an ambitious director of acknowledged skill and accomplishment attempts to grasp and discuss , in visual narrative form, a series of intellectually daunting notions that, for all the spectacular visuals and endless minutes of characters pondering metaphysics, resist an convincing transition to film.

As much as I have enjoyed "A.N." (I have watched a dozen times easily since its original theater release) , Francis Coppola didn't evoke "the horror" nearly as cogently as Joseph Conrad did in the movie's source material, the short story "Heart of Darkness"; as brilliant as many sections of the movie was , the Viet Nam saga relied on spectacle over interior rumination. Prose fiction has definite advantages over film with respect to seducing the reader into the private cosmology of heroes and villains. But beyond the keen distinctions between what prose and film are able of conveying, it's clear that Nolan is a terrible plotter; he cannot write a third act that provides a satisfying ah-ha!To coin a phrase, the harder he tries for significance beyond the thrills and visceral confirmation of what passes as truth, justice and irony in our popular culture, the more trying his films become to endure.

Coppola, to his great credit, had a genius for creating outstandingly comic and absurd scenes even if the all-together philosophy that was to give Apocalypse Now gravitas wasn't achieved, not nearly. It is a watchable, memorable film. Nolan is serious like surgery, humorless, dour, vaguely depressed, mumbling in half-heard abstractions. Not fun."Interstellar" , in turn, concerning a mission to the far reaches of known space to ostensibly find a habitable planet for the population of a dying earth to migrate to, sub themes like love, honor, loyalty and the like are handily mixed in with hazier , not easily rendered subjects, physics and metaphysics alike, which means , of course, that there far too many instances where the otherwise attractive likes of Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway are sitting in their technological huts literally talking about the meaning of life. It is a ponderous exposition that makes the pace of Interstellar sluggish . Nolan, is at an instance where he has no other method to make his movies move forward. Nolan has a problem writing coherent third acts, most notably in his third Batman film and inInception". Nolan's fondness for large vistas and other sorts of visual exposition, both in "Inception" and "Interstellar". The tendency is chronic in the new film, with grand and sweeping shots of corn fields at the film's beginning and later, on one of the planets being investigated for possible human habitation , large, high contrast panoramas of frozen ice and mountain ranges.

The problem , as usual with Nolan, isn't execution, but duration. The cameras dwell too long on the shots, lingering sleepily. There is in 'Interstellar", as well, an overbearing music score, soundtrack, composed by Hans Zimmer; often times Matthew M's trademarked gritty whisper turns into hushed garble. Entire swaths of dialogue are lost in the conflicted soundtrack. It swells up at moments when there is an explanatory bit of conversation going on. Even the least interested person in the matter of how effective music background can be in creating dramatic tension has the innate awareness of when it works and when it does not; how anyone can leave this production and not feel manipulated , coaxed and otherwise coerced by the noise level to a level of nervous anticipation is, I believe, impossible. Direction, motivation and coherence diminish even more and one is puzzled why the music is bearing down on you when nothing interesting is happening. It is a mess, a hurried, hasty, careless mess. Nolan does not engage the senses, he bullies them.

The final sequence of the film is quite fantastic , a fanciful illustration of another kind of existence, and this is a sequence I would watch the movie again for, but there is the nagging feeling that the plot twist at the movie's mid point was less a what-the-hell?!-moment than it was a set up for the sort of deliberate virtuosity that was lurking around the corner. There is always a sense in Nolan's recent work that he was bored with the process of perfecting his script and rushed into production without really a clear vision of what he was trying to convey. It should be noted as well that Nolan mistakes length and vaguely outlined ideas as narrative poetry, as a sign of greater depth. I think it is actually a sign of weight, not gravitas, and that weight sinks the enterprise altogether.

Inception was a colossal strain on my attention span , as was director Chris Nolan's previous film The Dark Knight. Both the films were well mounted and the available budgets were well used--as they say, you could "see the money on the screen"--but Nolan mistakes plot confusion and ambiguity for some variant of poetic ellipsis; some issues are unresolved, or forgotten about, it seems, as the crowded confines of I and DK pile on the dialogue, the mid-chase explanations, the chaotic , jagged cuts between parallel scenes. The plot concerns of Inception are the stuff that made Phillip K.Dick such a brilliant, if harried science fiction writer; Leonardo DiCaprio as a high tech industrial spy who has the skill and technology to enter a subject's mind during sleep and extract professional secrets for business rivals. The problematic point , though, is that he's haunted by the death of his wife, who's image keeps appearing in the dreamscape he and his team construct to fool the sleeping subject. She is the ghost that follows the team leader in whatever scenario he concocts-- her appearences no good.

Nor do they bode well for cohesive story telling; after a splendid first thirty minutes in which the viewer is landed in the middle of the action--a tasty variation of the James Bond tuxedo-ed assassin ploy--the film chokes on back stories, flashbacks, and stretches of dialogue that seek to contextualize the hurried scenes.

Had the film been a leaner, less cluttered tale, attempting, as it does, the sort of convoluted layering a competent commercial novel might have, Inception might have been an intelligent adventure film: issues of love, morality, political economy, redemption could have been discussed in conjunction with concurrent action. The abstract (a conventional set of ethical challenges , really) would have been realized cogently in the narrative flow. The movie, though, stops again and again and yet again with a flashback, an extended pause in the momentum, so DiCaprio can discuss his feelings, make a another emotional breakthrough.

Confusion and ambiguity were the working idea behind Momento, and to the degree that Nolan conceived his idea and worked through the variations of a memory-impaired man attempting to advance a plan of vengence in a present he couldn't keep in mind, it worked splendidly, wonderfully. The film had an ironic twist--a real one, not one of those cookie cutter conclusions that wallow in the irresolution of a conflict--which made the fractured plot coherent, finally,and illustrated consequences beyond what the hero or the villians could imagine.The various scenarios at play in Inception, though were, of themselves , simple enough, but Nolan's problem was pacing and, sorry to say, the inability to make the characters connect with a believable emotion. The film was rather frantically edited , and the cutting between the three dreamscapes in the last third of the film were long in duration. The effect on this viewer was a loss of interest in a mission who's impetus was more hysterical than urgent. 

All this makes Christopher Nolan a lead-footed action director who is intent on turning the pleasures of pulp genres into think pieces and talky existential dioramas. Economy is the key, of course, and decisiveness is the quality needed the most; conviction about the genre your using to get your narrative ideas across. A fresh idea would have helped , though, or at least a fresh approach on using old ones; Inception has deep echos of The Matrix, Heat and Solaris during it's length, the result being an interesting, if tedious distortion of what seems to have started out as an interesting idea.


The Dark Knight Rises has inspired a dedicated coterie of nay sayers who complain that the film is a lugubrious  bore, muddled in plot and spectacularly pedestrian in superhuman feats; considering that the director is Christopher Nolan , an artist who chases bad ideas with the same meticulous ambition he pursues good ones, the charge might have credibility if one hadn't seen the film. Chris Nolan's last film "Inception" was a superb example of what this director does with an idea when he decides to worry the notion and overwork it to the extent that it becomes a slow, waddling crawl of a film bloated with intellectual pretensions that cease to be parts of an intricate premise and more a case of a screenwriters who have fallen in love with the sound of their own voice In other words, this auteur of bleak proves himself capable of being hung with the many strands of his own ideas--so many loose strings left untied. "Dark Knight Rises", though, benefits greatly for having comic books as its source material, a form that demands a leaner, straight forward narrative.

Not that TDKR is a simple tale--it's a murky terrain of moral ambivalence, self doubt and ambivalent morality--but Nolan provides a masterful tone to all of this, a noirish brooding contained in this film's dark corners, and moves along the plot points at a relatively brisk pace, considering the length of the film. It is a murky film, but it is an epic murk, a series of catastrophes wherein in it appears that not just the characters fight for what it is good and decent in this world, but also the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, struggling to free itself of many foul diseases that have invaded its body politic. The Dark Knight Rises has a Gotham City that is a noble force battling every bit of foulness a malevolent universe can toss at it. It is an epic tale and to witness this is enthralling. Nolan, who can indeed be pretentious and vague in his work, did well, very well this time out.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Those who can, think. Those who can't , think

I used to insist that poems that didn't have "dirt under the fingernails" were without value, insisting that live as it's lived by working men and women in America were more interesting , more complex and more important than the dense, academic poems one was made to read in contemporary poetry anthologies. In full disclosure, I was an undergraduate at the time, in the mid to late seventies, an earnest poet trying to be relevant who, incidentally, was having problems in literature courses requiring same said anthologies. There might have been a worthwhile insight somewhere in my whining for a polemic I could write if I cared to take the time, but it suffices to say that I was lazy, too lazy to read the poems, too stoned to go to class, far, far too stoned to read the secondary sources to be prepared for class discussions or for the papers I had to write. I did what anyone genuine undergraduate poet/radical/alkie would do; I blamed the system. So there.

It took a bit of doing--sobering up, bad grades, failed relationships--for me to get wise(r) and actually read the work I thought unworthy, and the remarks of critics who've done their own work considering the aesthetics at length, and I've since backed away from trying to shoe horn all poetry into a tight fitting tuxedo. What was learned was relatively small, a revelation for the truly dense; poetry works in many ways, and the task of the critical reader cannot be merely to attack and opine but to make an effort to weigh a poem's elements on their own merits , studying how effects are accomplished, and then, finally, lastly, to offer a judgement whether the poem works . Not that I adhere to this prolix method--I shoot from the hip and often miss the whole darn target--but I try. Now the issue is whether a poem can work if it lacks the glorious thing called "heart".

Anyone seriously maintaining that a work of art, be it poem, novel or painting is doomed to failure because it lacks this vague quality called "heart" has rocks in their head. Artists are creative people, on that most of us can agree, and by definition artists of narrative arts make stuff up from the resources at hand. Whether the source is actual experience, anecdotal bits from friends or family, novels, biographies, sciences, all these are mere furniture that go into the creation of the poem. The poet's purpose in writing is to produce a text according to some loosely arranged guide lines that distinguish the form from the more discursive prose form and create a poem that arouses any number of responses, IE feelings, from the reader. "Heart", I suppose , would be one of them, but it's ill defined and too vaguely accounted for to be useful in discussing aesthetics. Confessional poetry and the use of poetry books and poetry readings as dump sites for a writer's unresolved issues with their life doesn't impress me generally, as in the ones who do the confessing never seem to acquire the healing they seek and instead stay sick and miserable and keep on confessing the same sins and complains over and over. Journaling would be one practice I would banish from a poetry workshop I might teach. We are writing poems, not an autobiography .

I would say, actually, that one should suspect that poet who claims that every word of their verse is true, based on facts of their lives. I cannot trust the poet who hasn't the willingness to fictionalize or otherwise objectify their subject matter in the service of making their poems more provocative, worth the extra digging and interpreting. Poems and poets come in all shapes and sounds, with varied rationales as to why each of them write the way they do, and it's absurd and not to say dishonest that "heart", by which I mean unfiltered emotionalism, is the determining element as to whether a poem works or not. My goal in reading poems isn't to just feel the full brunt of some one's soggy bag of grief or splendid basket of joy, but to also to think about things differently.

The best relationship between practice and theory , as regards the arts (and poetry in particular) is when one blends with the other in a seamless fashion. It's a process that begins with the work itself, a reading and rereading of the poem, let us say, and then , after some routine reflection, referencing any number of critical schemes I think might work in bringing what's contained in the stanzas out from under the subterfuge. Seamless is the word I'd like to use, and it applies here although the handy term has diminished impact with overuse;all the same, theories of criticism , for me,are a way of extending the poem into general discourse. Poetry works in many ways, but so does criticism, and a pragmatics of interpretation is the most useful way for me to make a poet's work something other than another useless art object whose maker adhered to someone else's rules. My gripe is a constant one, that each succeeding school of thought on what poets should be doing are too often reductionist and dismissive of what has been done prior. This isn't criticism, it's polemics, contrary to my notion that what really matters in close readings is the attempt to determine whether and why poems work succesfully as a way of quantifying experience and perception in a resonating style.

Monday, August 17, 2015

U.N.C.L.E. says uncle

I should be writing a review of a recently read book, I know, but although there a few of them on my night stand, dog eared and completed as summer reads, my appetite is also for pop culture's less reputable districts, movies, comic books, television. I confess, as high brow as I pretend to be , as middle brow as I more often come across as , my taste go lowbrow, pure and simple. The fast, forgettable pleasures of action movies sucker me in. It's a love that cannot die at least on my part, but it is not a love that is always returned.

  I had always thought that being a secret agent meant that you did your best to remain more or less anonymous while doing the dirty work a mission demanded. It should go without saying that being inconspicuous, the kind of person in public or in the work place others wouldn't take a second glance at, is essential to effective spy craft. Henry Cavill , portraying super spy Napoleon Solo in The Man from UNCLE, director Guy Ritchie's relaunch of the cult 60s TV spy drama, is , for an nominal espionage agent, a large conspicuous presence wherever he appears in this film. Leaving the plot aside , which is a weaker version of any number of heist films we've witnessed in the last decade, Solo is supposed to be a suave, well tailored American antiquities expert.
Cavill, though, has a super-hero physique that looks, let's say, like it would be asset if we were wearing blue tights and a red cape. Here, though, the broad shoulders, wide chest and thick arms make all the expensive suits, shirts and vests look tight , constraining on him. Cavill, an Adonis by any other criteria, looks absurd here as the the unassuming, if alluringly naughty jet setter insinuating into the confidence of an enemy he is trying to wrest secrets from.
At any moment in the film you expect to rip his shirt, split his pants and excuse himself, effectively useless, to the men's room . The credibility is helped no further when your partner , a surly psychopath in Illya Kuryakin, likewise doesn't blend in with the surroundings. Rather, Kuryakin, stands above it, a tall, figure constantly looking downward at whoever he's talking to. Where Cavill resembles a Herculean lounge lizard, Armie Hammer as Kuryakin looms like a tall, dead tree over an overdressed scenery. His acting is just as lifeless.
The visages of both do not bode well for the kind of espionage that needs to be performed, even by the disbelief-suspending conventions of spy movies. Solo looks like a body guard being molested by a suit a half size too small for his broad frame, and Kuryakin hovers like a gangly , nervous father chaperoning his daughter's first date. Both are figures you notice and keep your eye on as long you're in the same room with them. If you were a rich bad person and noted these two lurking around your open bar and feasting off the buffett, you would ask your waiters to count and then lock up the good silver ware, after which you would instruct your henchmen to get ready to knock these guys over the head.

That does not literally happen in this dreadful remake of a charming 60s TV fantasy, but surprises that don't surprise, twists that don't turn your head around, setbacks that seem more nuisance than threats to to the existence of mankind about through this movie's duration. Ritchie quite often tries to jazz things up a bit with some slick editing,arial pans of lovely Italian country sides and coastal villages, and generous portions of gun fire and explosions. None of that rises The Man from UNCLE its tractionless tedium.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

TRUE DETECTIVE Season 2 , was very fine noir,

Jessica Reed writes a cogent defense of the second season of True Detective  in The Guardian, countering assertions of bad casting and performance, bad writing, misogyny and incoherence with clear arguments, clean examples. One understands that she "gets" the show and what creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto was aiming for with this gem of  a sentence from her article's fourth paragraph: "The message sent to us by the first episode’s final scene: we are entering a cursed place. Enter the world of Vinci, California, and you might never be able to escape its tentacles."

 Reed grasps that this eight episode arc was a descent into the worst kind of hell, one created by a gross indulgence in the baser instincts, a sphere built and constantly reinforced by lies, rationalizations and deceptions . This is not the world you enter if your are in the mood for neat tales with conflicts that are more annoyances than threats  and have resolutions that well made and pat. She  muses on how  HBO audiences seem , somehow, to gather together and reach what seems an unassailable consensus about the quality of certain shows they put on. Everyone must love The Wire, no exceptions, everyone must hate True Detective Season 2, no exception. It is a wonder how so many multiple thousands of Tweets and Facebook posts despised the program with precisely the same arguments, were routinely global in their condemnation. Just saying.

It would be interesting for someone to write a piece about the herd-think that has gone wild on the internet, arriving en masse to the lone talking point that TD2 is an "utter disaster". I was disappointed at first that the second season didn't seem more like the elegantly written and more typically "artful" style of the first, but I remained with the show and appreciated the differences. This was California noir, in the tradition of Hammett, Chandler, Jim Thompson, 'China Town", "Kiss Me Deadly", "Asphalt Jungle", a dark exposition and exploration into crime, treachery, divided loyalties, hidden agendas, political scandals, kidnapping, drugs, sex, lust, avarice, the whole gamut of twisted and tortuously rationalized actions. It's a tradition of complex storylines, where nearly everyone advances balled faced lies and put forth competing fictions to hide real motives and cruel truths. Often times the plots are as near to incoherent as one can go'; and such affairs rarely go quickly, at a pace more suitable for the stock action film. It's a slow build, a slow uncovering, where every lie that gets exposed reveals more treachery, hidden agendas, crimes committed in dark places.

The casting was spot on for what the characters were supposed to be. Vaughn, I think, nailed the terse, near expressionless crime boss who tried to be Hemingway stoic while the buried rage cracked his facade. He was not everyone's choice, but after the peculiarities in the attention grabbing gestures of Matt M. and Wood H. from last season, I was perfectly happy with the less articulate, subdued qualities of these characters.

 And the dialogue, another aspect that's been bitched about to no end, was clearly a stylistic choice by writer Nick Pizzicato; the ostensible detectives uncovering the crimes through this mess are themselves broken and corrupted and here are attempting to do something resembling police work in order to bring  rough justice to those who deserve it. The truth, though, does not set you free, as the whole shebang becomes a ball of tar that has every vice stuck to it. I thought the bits of mumbled and muddled philosophy and wooden poeticism was effective in conveying the idea that the characters attempting to convey a sense of irony over recent events have little or no idea about what they're doing, what their goals are, or even where they stand as creatures with deeds to do, duties to perform. It was, I think, grossly under rated. It was mess, sure, but these kinds of stories are mood, not symmetry as it’s typically understood. It's a mess and it was beautiful, moody, nerve wracking and powerful

I liked the fact the show diverged from the creepy eloquence of the first season and instead placed us in a world of compounded noir particulars whose characters, good guys and bad guys, were not as well spoken as they thought they were. It was a moody eight episodes that had criminal conspiracies sprawling all over the landscape like Los Angeles county itself, and the fact that the investigators were a trio of cops with heavy baggage trying to decipher the thick over the layered sediment  of deception and corruption just made this fascinating for me. 

Film noir is a genre famous for obtuse plots that are thick, hard to follow, at times bordering on incoherent; the point seems to be to expose and witness the peculiar rationalizations that motivated the crime, the larceny, and the paranoid self-seeking that forms the conditions for a bitterly ironic end for most of the involved.It was, in essence, of flawed characters who have made their various bargains with the devil attempting to escape their with the commision , they assume, of one virtuous act, the revelation of truth. No one, though, escapes their fate, and those who don't die find no redemption. It's a classic Tragic form, and TD2, provided an apt version of a thriller 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Mailer and Violence

Let’s Be Clear: Norman Mailer’s Wife-Stabbing Was Not Art | Flavorwire:
This is a compelling think piece that pushes aside the intellectual dishonesty that followed Norman Mailer's stabbing of his second wife Adele Mailer 1960. Mailer was preening about the country as something of a self-constructed Existentialist philosopher who had invested a huge amount of  energy praising particular members of the Beat generation, who lived by a code of Hip (adopted from what was taken from the manner of ethos of Black American culture) that allowed them to seek experiences that were truer, more exciting, more beneficial to mental health, a style of being that included the use of violence to break the chain that binds them to the System. Mailer's quotes  after the near-fatal stabbing didn't help his cause, as this article recalls:
"It changed everything in my life. It is the one act I can look back on and regret for the rest of my life. And it happened out of the way I was living. There’s no question about that. What happened is I was getting into more and more of a violent edge.'' -Norman Mailer
The early quotes he gave after the stabbing sounded like someone who wanted to give the impression that he had realized the horror of what he had done and that he had taken measures to step from the violent edge, but it comes across as a form of bragging, that he was the only one among who had the courage to experiment with life choices that make for unpredictable results. Mailer was, in effect, congratulating himself for being an example of The White Negro he hypothesized about. It's my feeling that the writer , in the decades since up to the time of his death, was acutely aware of gross his remarks came off as; if nothing else, he likely wishes he had a more delicate sense of phrase making at the time. Or perhaps he wishes he had kept his mouth shut all the same. Mailer, though, could not resist the lure of a reporter's microphone ,nor the desire to make his own experience like one of the characters in his novels, someone who is in a narrative that is a philosophical construct to test the limits of his ideas about violence being a sane and effective method to free the psychically burdened individual from a cancer-causing conformism that Society imposes on them. 

But Mailer did, I think, make a life long and very earnest inquiry in his novels, essays, plays, journalism, reviews and films to understand violence, to get solid insights as to what drives people to such states of rage and anger that they become unhinged enough to commit violence, horrible, violence. It's a subject that was, in essence, his lifelong project.  There's no way around this this was an ugly, vile thing that Norman Mailer did to his second wife Adele; even those who greatly admire Mailer both as writer and keen intellect have no easy way of addressing this violent incident. One can cite mitigating circumstances, such as that Mailer was crazed on a combination of booze, pot and Benzedrine (his favorite combination during the Fifties), but there is something to be said for the idea that since Mailer had written so brilliantly about masculinity and the possibilities of violent acts to shatter old , limitations and allow an adventurous man to realize and take advantage of new possibilities (this is outlined in his problematic essay "The White Negro") ,it's plausible that Mailer , crazed with narcissism, drugs and the bohemian spirit of 50s avant garde thinking, decided that he ought to practice what he preached and attempt his own cure. There has been a lot of double talk over the 45 years since I first became interested in Mailer as to whether the writer, in fact, was acting with some sort of perverse integrity by stabbing his wife, and for me that does not cut ice. The best thing to come out of this incident was the fact that no one was killed. Mailer had remained silent , for the most part, on this incident for most of his life, although just a couple of years before he died in 2007 he admitted that he was so horrified by the assault that he could not bring himself to write about it or talk about it. He admitted that it was an vile, mendacious, evil thing he'd done.  

Mailer did try to understand the nature of evil imaginatively in a series of essays, novels, and journalism, most notably in his novels "An American Dream", a fictional piece where a Maileresque hero (the celebrity Mailer) willfully gives himself over to a violent impulse and seeks to rid himself of what he considers is killing him psychically : he murders his wife, steals a Mafia Don's mistress, beats up a character intended to represent to be Miles Davis, and defies the New York City Police Department, the CIA and other sinister , secret forces. It should be mentioned that the novel's hero is constantly drunk through this escapade. It is a brilliantly written book, containing many passages of astonishing poetry and insight into mores and social relations, and I regard it as an obscene male fantasy he needed to write , an act of speculation about what would happen if the Mailer hero were unleashed onto the world. Mailer, a big older and wizened to a degree, was likely not all that pleased with the mess this Mailerian existentialist in the course of the story.

I suspect he felt to write his next novel, "Why Are We in Vietnam", as an attempt to suggest reasons for the propensity of American males to irrational violence--it's a funny story about an Alaskan bear hunt, a reworking of "The Bear" by Faulkner, and through the characters he presents a thick layering of issues that are not resolved and which, being un-diagnosed and not dealt with in any authentic way, mingle and merge and produce a tension that can only be released through violence or art. Mother issues, latent homosexuality, technology removing culture and the people in it from authentic, tactile experience with their world, a political agenda that knows only to expand and conquer with religion and natural law as bogus rationales--this is a lumpy stew of issues that make us , as a whole and individually, functionally insane and capable of nearly anything as the right provocation presents itself. "The products of America go insane" is what William Carlos Williams said, and the title of the novel, asking us why we are in Vietnam, has a simple answer: because we had to be, by our nature. This is not to let anyone off the the hook by blaming Mailer's act on environment and other extraneous details. 

Mailer's violence against Adele Morales was , at the heart of the matter, a conscious act. He was aware of the difference between right and wrong and he chose to do a wrong thing. Mailer, I think, is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and was deserving of the praise he has received , but he also deserves the damnation . He has written several masterpieces and over all I think his literary reputation will grow . But we need to remember all the things he did and understand, as well, that there is something unjust about a man, no matter how you admire his work, who thrives professionally after the fact.


(An exchange with writer Barry Alfonso)

BA:Wouldn't you say that Mailer was a product to his times, responding to a sort of psychic claustrophobia we can only guess at today? How else to account for his PUBLIC declarations, let alone his private trangressions? Time moves on and things change; what was once an acceptable act of madness is now simply bad taste. The phrase "White Negro" is now fraught with all sorts of meanings and consequences that simply didn't exist when Mailer wrote his notorious essay. Advertisements -- for Yourself or anyone else -- discolor with age and grow lurid as the ink decomposes....

TB:I think the only good thing to come out of Mailer's attempted murder of his ex wife--and that is exactly what it was, stripped of the Laurentian apologetics that encourage a submission to impulse as a means of liberation--is that he wrote many hundreds of pages of magnificent prose in his attempts to discern the reason for what he typified as a the general insanity the culture that engulfed him. But you're right, Mailer, like many others, was seduced by the bright eyed outrageousness of the times, notions that seemed real alternatives to the ways things were being done in one's world. It was an excuse not to grow up , I guess, and the lessons deferred are the hardest lessons to accept when they finally return in later circumstances that cannot be ignored. At least Mailer realized he was on the slippery slope as he was more cautious with his later writing--his writing veered more toward the journalistic. Mailer was, perhaps, a self-regarding shit head to the end and it was a fluke that such a social galoot had the large gift he did for words. He wrote some masterpieces,w hich are for all time and for which curious readers should be grateful, but his deeds , venal and assholish to many, are hurts that remain in the lives of those who crossed his path.

BA:All true. It strikes me that Mailer has something in common with the Futurists, the Italian artists who worshipped speed, dynamism and violence and veered into the fascist camp. Mailer was no totalitarian, but he fell into the individualist/collectivist trap where the champion of the powerless becomes a power-drunk egomaniac who slashes in print and stabs in real life. This does not invalidate all of Mailer's work because writing bends the edges of conventional morality. It does validate his assertion that real life choices are inherently dangerous --SHOULD be dangerous -- and convicts him by his own standards, a sentence I think he would accept. Mailer would probably be behind bars and marked eternally as a pariah if he did what he did today. I would like to add that it would be interesting to critically compare Mailer with Ayn Rand in terms of their radical individualism. Mailer is a Dionysian figure, while Rand is Nietzschean in her outlook -- still, they both shared an intense desire to resist all-pervasive banal conformity as promoted by organized society. Mailer, I think, learned to accept the necessity of the Banal as he saw the consequences of his earlier positions and his bones took on the house-creak of age. Something to ponder...

 TB:Comparing Rand and Mailer  would be telling, no? Rand suffers in the comparison,not just for writing talent, but as an intellectual, which was to say that her ideas were little else than prolix bumper stickers and her characters being cut outs made of soggy cardboard. She took what she misunderstood from Nietzsche, with the simple position that those of genius, great ability and intellect must not be constrained by slave morality and be free to do what they want and that society in whole must accede to their needs and demands. She was in fact a Social Darwinist, thinking that everyone else who was "a taker" should just perish due to their own mediocrity. It's a position that she really hadn't modified in all her time among the living; there is a redundancy of claims in her writings. Realize, also, that her body of work was small considering that she lived until she was 77 with her wits fully gathered, 11 books published in her lifetime, about half of them collections of previously published essays from the Objectivist newsletter and other sources. She wasn't especially curious about the world she lived in, had no interest in most kinds of art or literature, could care less about trends or social movements beyond her own agenda. She had figured it all out, mapped it out, stated her claims about the ethical structure of the universe and saw anything that deviated from her half-witted assertions to be the thinking of someone who is insane and immoral. She was a cartoon character with no sense of humor. 

She could debate Irwin Cory, I suspect, and not have a clue that she was being set up for punchline. She also justified the use of violence as a means to an end, a slippery slope, notable in The Fountainhead, where Randian hero Howard Roark rapes the heroine, the erstwhile heroine, a conquest he's entitled too because he's a genius (in Rand's world view) and who destroys a government funded housing project for the poor he had secretly designed because bureaucrats messed around with his intellectual property,his creation. Later, at trial, he gives a long speech claiming his right to build anything for anyone for any reason but only on his own terms, without interference, without question, without alteration. It's a stirring speech geared for mid teens who, hopefully, graduate to more nuanced writers. Mailer was a more complicated mass of influences and motivations, a Progressive Marxist, a Jewish Mystic, a religious existentialist, a literary artist, a politician, a masculinist,. We've discussed the virtues and demerits of Mailer's conceptualization of the world in terms of his opinions and his actions, including his stabbing of Adele Mailer, but Mailer ,  unlike Rand, had a fairly extensive body of writings by the time of his death, forty some books, novels, journalism, plays, poems, essay collections, movies. Not all of it was good, of course, but Mailer was a man who,though harboring and nurturing concepts that remained with him for life, mellowed , shall we say, when it came time to grow a little and rethink the emphasis he put on some early postulations and assertions. Mailer continued to write, expanded on old ideas, changed his mind on others, came up with new notions, positions, fresh opinions. His fascination with violence became something that went from the deliberate flirting with the idea that murder was potentiay a means of personal salvation to trying to understand what makes individuals capable of monstrous acts. He matured enough to realize that though he may present a logical case, framed in metaphor and philosophical trappings and lyrical language, of how destroying something or someone can release a beauty that was , until then, only the idea of beauty, the act of violence,the murder,the mayhem,the destruction has no inherent logic , now utilitarian purpose than to simply destroy what is around you. It is not beauty that is released, but only misery, grief and despair as a consequence. Mailer wanted to change the way people view the world, a conceit of all Modernists from the beginning, reactionary and progressive, but rather than tell populations how to behave according to an oppressive plan, he desired that the likes of us all achieve a freedom that was meaningful in terms of personal fulfillment and fostering a greater sense of community among a diverse citizenry.

BA: All pungent and defensible assertions here. What I would suggest as an associative link between individuals as different as Mailer and Rand is the presence of a rampant Ego and a Will to Rage at the tapioca-beige walls of mid-20th Century America. It is certainly true that Rand had the unshakable confidence that is true insanity, as well as a fatal lack of a sense of humor. Mailer recognized absurdity, embraced illogic and ran with the dogs with his tongue hanging out down the dark corridors of carnality. But both he and the iron-assed Ayn refused to submit to community-centered Law and justified their actions by a primal belief in Divine or Unholy Nature (take your pick). To call Mailer a progressive Marxist is to speak of the rational side of the bifurcated personality he never fully displayed until his later years – when the full moon was out and his blood was up, he howled and rutted and pissed on the Bible, the Constitution and Das Capital alike. Howard Roark and Rojack were cousins with weirdly dilated eyes who knew no Master. The difference might be that a sobered Mailer recognized his own madness, while Rand gloried in it without qualm.