Monday, September 14, 2015

Turn off the lights

(I came across a trove of newspapers, the UCSD Guardian, saved in pdf. format online and discovered this, one of my first attempts to be a film critic.I thought I'd put here for all to view, if only to remind myself that I  sounded quite a bit more precious than I  do know. There are creaks and groans and other odd sounds of aging that give my proclamations a soundtrack of authority.The films were special media screenings for the 1980 San Diego International Film Festival which held forth for a few fondly remembered years at Sherwood Hall of the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art. Yes, I sound a little more pompous than I do know. My voice hadn't cracked yet.-tb)

As one of the few "critics" in town to see the preview screening for the San Diego International Film Festival, scheduled from now until Nov. 3 at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, I'm inspired to think that the movies reflect Frank Zappa's description of his music: no commercial potential. This isn't to say that the films are so irredeemably bad that no one, intellectual and lowbrow alike, would sit through them -far from it - but the festival board has gone out of its way to have an international collection of film· makers whose works fall well outside the norm for the movie going public, films that one isn't likely to see at the Guild or Fine Arts, let alone UTC. In any case, this year's movie crop isn't bound to please everyone. For my part, basing my judgment on evidence of the six screenings I attended, [have to give an appreciative grin.

First off I may as well deal with the film that did the least for me, Radio On, a British and German coproduction directed by Christopher Petit. Petit is the former film critic for the British weekly Time Out and  a film theoretician in good stead who, following the precedent t set by New Wave  icon Godard, Rivette and Traffaut, has decided to put theory into practice and become a film· maker himself. The problem is shameless emulation and a lack of insight into the subject matter. Radio On concern itself with a young London disc jockey on the way to Bristol to uncover the mysterious circumstances behind his brother's death. His subsequent encounters leave him with a feeling of alienated finality, ennui and despair. Filmed rather well in black and white over a terrain of freeways, bleak country road and grey cityscapes, the film fairly reeks of the movies by German director Wim Wenders. It features Wenders· like long takes, ponderously slow exposition shot and muted emotions of characters, who are unable to communicate much at all. Petit, though, seems to have misread Wenders, who in films like Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road and The American Friend. is usually able to investigate such things as cultural dislocation, the ramifications of the cargo-cult on postwar Europe, how pop culture mythologizes reality and how those verities come to play in the psyches of his characters. Petit's people merely strike a stance of thin·skinned alienation and sulk as the camera soaks in the impressively miserable environs, like a working·class bar, a rural gas station, and all night bakery. 
What does Petit intend to tell us? I suspect his intentions are nothing more than to show us that civilization is unable to give us the things we need. American director Bob Rafelson intended much the same with his Hue Easy Pieces, but succeeded. Rafelson on at least gave us the benefit of character development, an archaic notion to many vanguardists but a ploy that still gave Pieces unity. In essence, Radio 0n is empty and  exists more as a fashion pose than an edition to an art form

Woman Between Dog and Wolf, directed by French director Andre Delvaul is a well wrought film about with the dodgy subject of stoicism at the conceptual center of what it unfolds in narrative. As Belgium is pushed into World War II, a man joins the pro·Nazi nationalist movement and leave to join the conqueror of the Eastern Front. In the interim, his wife (Marie Christine Barrault) is treated with hatred by her neighbors, retreat into the actuary of her house, and tries her best to maintain a home of order and normalcy. A resistance fighter takes refuge in her cellar, culminating in their having an affair, and the resistance fighter's vouching for her against revenge· minded neighbors : Through the resistance fighter's interaction, her husband I pared the death penalty and returns home , and from there he develops an obsession for his former cause, unable to adjust to present-day realities. He continually y tries to justify his past by writing his memoirs. Dclvaux handles this story with a neat, precise hand, especially in his editing. Instead of going the fashionably "arty" route of long takes, the scenes are brief and succinct, establishing their plot particulars and schematic cues rapidly, then fading away gracefully as the screen darkens and then awakes on another local and incident.

The Last of the Blue Devils, directed by American Bruce, Ricker, is a documentary about the Kansas City jazz scene. It's also a case of taking the good along with the bad. The bad in this case is the editing, which is aimless and leaps from one thing to another with little cohesion, most specifically in the way Ricker intercuts vintage footage of Count Basie and Ivory Joe Hunter with more recent film. The good are the performance, inducing superb concert footage of Basie and his band, a jam session between saxophonists Paul Quinchette, Charles McPhearson, a trombone and the blues vocals of Hunter, whose capacity to belt a lyric hadn't diminished a bit as he aged. Generally, a messy but fun movie.

Those familiar with the way Alfred Jarry presented dictators in his King Ubu plays will have fun with Adolph and Marlene, a  film directed by German director Ulli Lommel. The festival program notes say the movie is a bit of "historical speculation" about an alleged liason between Hitler and Marlene Dietrich. The film’s intention is less than the far-fetched speculation one would suspect. It is an exercise in turning the Hitler persona into an excuse for buffoonery, casting him as an ideological Imbecile whose various diatribes, much of it taken from Mein Kempf, collapse under the weight of their illogic. The Hitler character, performed unctuously by Karl Raab, is a man of penultimate pettiness, unable to distinguish between the drive for power and affection, between sentiment and mawkishness, clear thinking and lunatic espousals. The effect is comic, but also underlines the tragedy of power becoming a thing in and of itself, without purpose or goal. In all, Aldoph and Marlene is comic enough to elicit some  self-satisfied snickers, though I could have done without the ending. As Hitler's and Eva Braun's bodies burn during the fall of Berlin, Marlene and her manager Luminski drive by and stop while, unfathomably, a group of Black American GI's stand in the foreground on some steps. Marlene hands Luminiski a small globe small as an egg shell, and he perches it daintily on his fingertips. "Don't you have a bigger globe?" he asks her, eyes heavy. Marlene smiles icily and drives off. . Weird, no? Symbolic, no? The conclusion seemed a trifle arty to me, an intrusion that muddled what until then had been a well·played absurdist comedy, Lommel would have served his purposes better had he eschewed all these metaphors and had played it straight. # Of the six films I viewed, the most problematic was

Elisa, Vida Mia (Elisa My Love) by Spain's Carlos Saura. It is an arid , fragmented. maddeningly slow meditation on love and hate, life and death, reality versus illusion, and maybe a couple of other themetic  duplications I missed along the way. A woman (Geraldine Chaplin) goes to visit a retired man (Fernando Rey) who lives in an isolated house in the far reaches of Spain. From there she encounters various hallucinations about the lives, deaths. and loves of herself and other people, and a general confusion of what is real or imagined. No doubt, as the program notes say, that Saura's intention is not to provide any clean answer to the dilemma. but to “... evince the linking of imagination and memory ," but for me the film is a labored affair, top-heavy with its own importance. Though only 110 minutes long it became an endurance contest.   

On the other hand, L 'lmportant C'est D'aimer (The Important Thing is to Love) a French, Italian and German release directed by Andrzej Zulawski, is great, a love story that goes beyond the tawdry wrappings of the genre and deals with love in connection with guilt. indebtedness. and commitment. Romy Schneider, an actress lately reduced to making porno films, meets up with Fabio Tassi. a cynical photographer. who at first is interested only in exploiting her. But he falls for her and tries to help her by financing a revival of Richard Ill. To do so Tassi goes into debt to a lecherous uncle, thuggish pornographer for whom Tassi unwillingly works. The potential affair between Tassi and Schneider doesn't occur because she is married to an impotent husband (J acques Dutronc). w ho pulled her. from dru g addiction and prostitution, and to whom she eels an incalculable, unpayable  debt. What is set up is a complex arrangement of relationships in which characters are bound to one another through debts and commitments to intangible virtues. Tassi is indebted to his gangster uncle who feels he's owed the loyalty of a son to a father. Schneider is attached to her husband, who feels guilty about not being able to perform sexually. More than that, the film is about set of values, a search to have love and sex mean something in a culture that uses it as a commodity, as barter at the lowest level of human exchange. The film is taut as a guide wire as the emotional tension, with the violence being the explosions of frustrated, emotionally· constrained characters who can't seem to break out of their respective cells.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Can there be a "greatest poet"?

Quora is an  internet hub where the didactic among us can answer a variety of questions about a wide swath of issues and top. The queries are meant to be responded to by self-declared experts in the field , the best of which are occasionally extracted and published in Slate, an online journal of some reputation.The questions are not always ground breaking or pertinent to hot button topics that might be driving the news cycle at the moment. Someone recently asked if we are in a position now to know who the "best poet of the 21st Century" is yet. Yes, eye rolling ensued after I read it, and yes, my thought was likely like your own, something to the effect this century isn't even two decades in age. How could we know yet who the best among the thousands, millions we haven't encountered, on line or in print. But it advances another question, which would be how are to determine the best from a field that has as many poets in as many places with as many different approaches as there seem to be stars in the night sky?  We can make the case for a "best poet" of the 20th century, in a way, because that period is concluded and we have the advantage of perspective.

 We  are able to read and consider the broadest range of poets and styles and innovations from the writers of that period , we're able to establish a general sense of what the philosophical, spiritual and aesthetic properties of the time were, and we're able to make judgements based on the reasonable and, most importantly, not inflexible criteria we  establish from which to judge what is, truthfully, an overwhelming swath of writers who are relevant to 20th literature. And then we get into further complications, as the question of who is the best poet, best writer, best playwright contains the tacit assumption that the poets we are to pick from share a mostly similar background, with elements of ethnicity, cultural upbringing, education, gender (yes, gender), race , sexual orientation and , most importantly, style and technique being more or less the same (with variations) to make decisions regarding who composed the best work achievable. Poetry, though, is the oldest of writing forms , it is said, it is a way of writing that comes not merely from the European models that Americans inherited as a colonized outpost of England, but in matters world wide. Hundreds, thousands of different styles, traditions, cultural origins, politics, cosmologies, theological conceits, techniques, different languages that have expressive properties that are unique and inseparable from the written and uttered expression.

 And it's gotten even more fractured, particular, as more groups within  our populations approach the mainstream culture from the margins where they were formerly consigned and forgotten about; the discussion as to what constitutes a good poem and what makes for a great poet is language that is has many pages, many chapters, many specific and relevant insights that. Even asking the question as to who the best poet of a given time excludes a majority of poets and poetry schools that are vital, interesting and important to the expression of experience that would other wise remain anonymous.The better approach is to admit your subjective stance and declare who you're favorite poet is and to make the case for him or her or they who most matter to you; an intelligent , personalized insight into a writer's work is a form of what is termed "heroic criticism", where one might admit that they only have a glancing familiarity with the critical conversation concerning poetics and still find an articulate argument, predicated from a personal encounter with the text, and achieve a nuanced reasoning that returns the poet to the reader's life . As much as I've enjoyed the apparatus of serious criticism and have found benefit in the distinctions and particularization of different bards and the energies that have informed their work, there has come, in my aging view of things, a desire to discuss a poem in a manner one engages the topic of good sex, which is personally, thoughtfully, with a discussant sensitive to the subject and who needn't a specialized vocabulary to appreciate the moves , the nods, the feints, the culmination of well rendered stanzas.

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 .

Friday, September 4, 2015


 (A prose investigating what happens when
one thinks too fast for too few ideas).Picture if you will, full lips wrapped around a pipe denying it's smoky plume, Shredded dresses priced as high gear, the possibilities of wide ties and thick lapels and belt buckles the size of home base coming together in an historical turn, a sartorial demand. It frightens me to think of these things, nervousness inhabits the veins the blood attempt to pulse through with something resembling a life.Squinting into blurred fluorescent lights that burn away the dark and make the evening appear as nothing less than a dark tarp highlighted with the reminders of picnic meals during the daylight hours gives you nothing less than a headache that feels like a fist formed behind both eyeballs, clenched and ready to burst forth. Being fully dressed and in a terrain where nothing you love matters, nothing you care about interests the people walking by, faces in profile and downcast, revealing double chins and hairlines that retreat like toy armies, is over rated and the source of swift vertigo that starts at the top of the head and is nothing else than the imagined cord of the elevator snapping loudly, there is a jolt, you lose your balance, there is no time for your life to flash in front of you, it's all basement and fatality, but this was only how you felt, not how you actually crashed , there is nausea along the feeling of decent, a reassurance that illness rather than dark corridors are in your future, you think fevered thoughts about sweating dreams and come no closer to any revelation about what makes this moment in time keep ticking even though it seems as if you've been hear since before concrete came to the community and every drive way was a thick mire you walked around if you could.
 Better to be attending an elevated Mass, a refuge from in some hamlet where there are only phone books and want ads, admonishing the earth of slow down, to stay in place, to give a break on the gravity which costs nothing at all and costs us everything to defy as we ease ourselves between mountain ranges \and large bodies of water. Large bodies of water deep enough to take the sun and moon into its embrace every start and end of day when it was time to adjust the light and blink again to make sure that what we see is indeed in front of us and not the echo of a memory that colors the tears and dread laughter embedded in the seams of what is in the cards right now, right now, right goddamned now. Have a drink, a soda, a shot of tequila, a bottle of sloppy intent that makes the world a stream you swim through and which makes you collide with all things thought and moved around, this is the time to demand the results of  what you've yelled in your mind, get out of my way, this is the moment where all things must be done, done  over,  or done away with, or ignored absolutely while you read last week's mail again and rattle the coffee can where you dropped the nickles and dimes that are sucked up by the vacuum cleaner, that rainy day fund, that fund for a dry mouth.

 The whole thing sinks, against better judgment, my clenched and shaking fist, acres and acres of prime land boast the late bloom of architectural tyranny, coyotes, rodents, families that have crossed the border seeking work flee the drying cement and are crushed halfway across the Interstate as police and Television station helicopters chase one car full of guys who might or might] not have done something someone a hundred years ago didn't like when the music became too much like sex and men and women couldn't help but notice what there was to see beyond the archaeology of clothes. Meanwhile, meanwhile, in all the mean time that never lightens up to what each hour means it's time for, whole populations huddle in corners and vote amongst themselves for better dreams, visions from windows overlooking a coast line where they can live with the comings and goings of every tide and slap of wave against a white pier.

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.