Thursday, April 30, 2009

Minimalism Part II - Creeley's THIRTY THINGS [1974]

Robert Creeley presents an interesting instance of a post-Modernist writer whose career was to a considerable extent the "story" of the development of Miminalism in America--its possibilities and limitations--as the direction his work took through the 1960's and 1970's provides a kind of cautionary narrative of the vicissitudes of a commitment to a reductio. 

Creeley's work had always tended towards the narrow, the abbreviated. Poems collected in For Love 1950-1960 [Scribner's, 1962]--the book which established his reputation as a major post-War American writer, and even today is regarded by many as his best work--was filled with short, narrow, vivid, rhetorically succinct examples of a style that he'd derived from William Carlos Williams, Wyatt, Campion and others. It was "courtly" in a mocking, hip way. His following collection, Words [Scribner's, 1965-67] was somewhat looser in its first two-thirds, then, in its last 20 or so pages, reflected a new, more reductive tendency than before. His next book, Pieces [Scribner's, 1969], seemed at the time a culmination of the work of 20 years of thought and experiment, a distillation and limning of meaning and means into the fewest words possible for any given impulse. Some asked, at the time, whither might Creeley go, having written himself into a corner, so to speak? 

The answer, of course, was that he could go anywhere, do anything, use any form that suited his intentions. Having taken Minimalism about as far as one could, he was free to abandon it, exploit it further, or go silent. For the last almost 40 years of his life, that's exactly what he did do, writing almost every kind of poem you could imagine, in addition to abstract prose tracts, journals, autobiography, classical poems in quatrains, etc. And he continued, frequently, to keep his hand in with Minimal poems. 

One of the great books of the post-Modern, post-War period is his book Thirty Things [Los Angeles, Black Sparrow Press, 1974]. Published five years after Pieces [1969], it's like a continuation of the earlier collection, but with a slightly altered spirit. It's not just a collection of "things" however, but a clearly defined bracket of work, conceived as a unit, and deliberately executed as a book whose size, feel and qualities perfectly embody its content. The work is a collaboration between Creeley and his wife at the time, Bobbie, who contributes a series of black and white monoprints (collage-like found images distorted by moving them during exposure in a copy machine); the impression is of dream-blurred memories. 

The poems record a period during which Creeley lived in Bolinas, a small California coastal community perched on the southern edge of the Point Reyes National Seashore, a big triangle of land along the western margin of Marin County. Five poems scattered among the thirty, describe the windy edge of the mesa where the town sits, and are among the most accurate, and moving purely descriptive landscape (or pastoral) poems I know.  

The Temper

The temper is fragile
as apparently it wants to be,
wind on the ocean, trees
moving in wind and rain.


As You Come

As you come down
the road, it swings
slowly left and the sea
opens below you,
west.  It sounds out.


As We Sit

There is a long
stretch of sky
before us.  The road

goes out to the channel
of the water.  Birds
fly in the faintly

white sky.  A sound
shuffles over
and over, shifting

sand and
water.  A wind
blows steadily

as we sit.



Faded mind,
fading colors,
old, dear clothes.

the ocean under
the road's edge,
down the side
of the hill.


Up on the top the
space goes further than
the eye can see.  We're
up here, calling
over the hill.

Bolinas isn't a vacationland destination. In fact, the residents of the town have historically resisted the incursion of outsiders, notoriously (and repeatedly) removing the road sign announcing the turn-off along Hiway 1, so drivers wouldn't know it was there. As if to say "we're happy in our isolation, go away, build your condos and shopping centers and motels elsewhere, we're keeping this place just the way it is." In the 1960's it became a hide-out or "artist colony" for refugees from the urban centers--poets and artists from San Francisco, New York, and elsewhere set up shop to brave the rustic rigors of primitive plumbing, septic systems, and the volunteer fire brigade. It was close enough to the Bay Area to touch base with civilization whenever one wanted, but secluded enough to pass for genuine outback. 

This sequence of poems captures the vacant, methodical character of the Pacific aspect, its continual breeze and hollow roar of endless surf, lulling, hypnotic, its grey-blue monotony flattening out daily care and nodes of vivid color and anxiety. The human temper is fragile, sensitive to the unrelenting assault of the elements, which become equivalents for its own sturm und drang. The simplest description of a thing may be its ultimate formula. Only someone with a mind like Samuel Beckett, would be likely to construct a narrative out of such meager materials. But Creeley's style seems ultimately suited to it.  

The Pacific has come to symbolize the "end" of the Westward movement, the point beyond which we cannot go. A sort of ultimate land's end of psychological regard. In a sense, these poems acknowledge that emptiness, the edge of our longing for further reaches of possibility and adventure, of "territory beyond" the settled. 

During the 1960's, Creeley had moved closer and closer to "the edge" in himself, as to the edge of the continent. "The edge of that edge." With Pieces, he may have approached a limit in his own life, beyond which he could not go. It may be, that in Thirty Things, he'd finally come to sit on the bench at land's end and found the "nothingness" of which the Existentialists speak. It seems to have had a calming influence on his nature. Much has been made of Creeley's "thaw" just as Lowell's relaxation of tensions had been remarked during the 1950's with his Life Studies [1959]. Did Creeley retreat, in early middle age, from the extremity of his own artistic enterprise? Or was the last half of his life a fulfillment of the potentials of his acute earlier vision? 

Monday, April 27, 2009

Larry Eigner's Masterpiece - A Post-Modernist Monument

For those readers who don't know it, the work of Larry Eigner offers a unique example of a poetry whose charm and lightness of touch completely belies its underlying strength and reach. 

How did he do it?  Well, it wasn't easy.  Larry was born disabled, and spent the rest of his life mostly confined to a wheelchair. They thought he couldn't talk at first, they thought he might even be mentally handicapped. Little did they know. 

Larry grew up in a tight-knit Jewish family in Swampscott, Massachusetts, within earshot of the Atlantic Ocean. Schooling was tough, but Larry was precocious. By the age of 13 he'd become adept at composing traditional rhymed poems. At his Bar-Mitzvah, he was given a typewriter--and he set about teaching himself to type with one finger. This was the way he would make all his written communications for the rest of his life! 

Unable to move about freely, Larry wrote his poems in an enclosed porch, punching them out one slow letter (key) at a time. It was hard work, but he kept at it. Little by little, he started getting magazine acceptances. By 1951, he'd started to define a personal style; it was pretty much unlike anything that had come before. The words were scattered across the page, seemingly at random, but as you came to understand them, with an inner logic and carefully considered sequent animation that took your eye from syllable to syllable, word to word, phrase to phrase, in an inspired dance of rhythmic variation and cunning observation. Here was a poet who could think on the run, whose changes were often so abstract and improbable, you wondered if he were actually an alien from another planet.

By 1960, he'd published three books--the first by Creeley's Divers Press in Majorca, From the Sustaining Air, and he'd been included in the watershed anthology, Donald Allen's New American Poetry 1945-1960. 

The following poem isn't Larry's longest, but it bids fair to be considered his most successful long(er) poem. It's been a favorite of mine since I first read it in his Selected Poems book, (Oyez, 1972), edited by Samuel Charters. Observant readers will note that the poem is presented in Courier typeface, an equivalently spaced typewriter font that was designed to accommodate the uniform incremental spacing of the traditional typewriter's functionality, a limitation of that now-obsolete device of which younger generations of artisan-writers are probably unaware, since personal computer software routinely measures out distributed text automatically, mimicking traditional typesetting. One thing I was not able to reproduce was the proper leading, or the vertical spacing between lines, which seems impossible with the blogger service program I use. So we'll have to make do with slightly altered vertical spacing, though the horizontal space--with its precise vertical alignments--is accurate to Larry's original holographic typescript.     

the music,   the rooms

silence silence silence silence sound

          on the walls

   the beach ravelling

   times advance

    or back up

         around earth

       electric poles

      the sun a reflected color


         how distance is to some birds

                   in the wind



              the circling air


                the power

               with desperate ease

           food for me hits the water

           without break, the cries

             the meaning of change

         information shifted,  player-piano

           on the screen,   the swimming moon

             enters eclipse

           out the window, and other station

           none of us is watching

         the cabinet

                      instrument forgotten

            the clock shakes out

           head bent from the wing

                    in a live broadcast

               a case for various things

                   dry grassy fields

                  the blank sky

               wampum gulls broke shells

                such eyes


                             a malnutrition


                             straightens hair it turns blond

                              scurvy is wiped out

                          the dogs come, the group

                                      on bikes

                             the street comes

                              the North Sea

                                studio on a ship

                                   pivot   spun

                                      dark life


                                        leaving the island

                                       the dim expanding miles

                                    a steady white light

                                       they might drive headlong into

                                          the mist like a magnet

                                      blows   lost bearings

                                        nest in fisherman's pocket

                                                  the wash


" ... distant thunder ... Nearer and nearer came the strange commingling sound of sleigh bells, mixed with the rumbling of an approaching storm ... I gazed in wonder and astonishment ... They passed like a cloud through the branches of the high trees, through the underbrush and over the ground ... They fluttered all about me; gently I caught two in my hands and carefully concealed them under my blanket.

      I now began to realize they were mating ... "

                -- Chief Pokagan, describing an onset of the now extinct passenger pigeon, in Michigan, May 1850

This may seem superficially to unroll sort of like a Nickelodeon, a turning roll of punched paper with old-time-y ragtime piano music played automatically by a tinny upright. In fact, that impression is part of the poem: "information shifted,     player-piano"--which queues us, ironically, like an aside on the meaning of the process. The poem is kind of like an abstract mental movie--"a graph of the mind moving"--as the poet Philip Whalen once said. The way the lines are set, horizontally shifting back and forth, underscores this effect. We're at a seaside aspect, meditating about the ecological relationship of man to resource, there are birds, kids on bicycles, detritus lying around on the beach-sand, maybe a ship on the horizon, the radio is playing in the background, night follows day, the earth turns, the soap-opera of quotidian event folds and unfolds.

So what does the quotation, which follows the poem, rather than leading it off, mean? What is its relation to the meaning of the poem? Is it somehow an explanation, or a source of the poem's subject-matter? Birds mating under a blanket on an Indian's lap! Whoa! Sex! 

From a traditional point of view, this doesn't read like a "poem" at all. The lines occur in a way which seems gratuitous; there's no "rhyme" or regular rhythmic design which would indicate a musical context. It almost seems as if the phrases and descriptive notations are laid out to follow each other in a sequence of meditative calm, rather in the manner of an automatic dream journal, during a state of mind brought on by an artifically-induced state of semi-suspended consciousness. Rational and super-rational connections follow one another freely. Black hair turns blond, a navigational instrument suggests "mist like a magnet," gulls dive into the surf while "food for me hits the water". 

This is a poetry carefully constructed out of a constellation of perception(s). Event and imaginative play are interwoven seamlessly into an integrated meditation. Eschewing a tightly constructed poetic pattern of stanzas or syntactically linked assertions, the poet presents us with a naked progression of items--"a case for various things"--spun in "the wash" of chaotic experience as it is received from the five senses and the mind's ceaseless forming and reforming of data. Dream and waking occur simultaneously in the context of the poem's relaxed susceptibility to suggestion, to metaphoric leaps, shifting interest(s), its wandering, unsettled, restless focus.

Perhaps the poet is suggesting that his meditative state is akin to an orgasmic vacancy--"mating under a blanket"--induced by the intensity of his own vision, rather than by a drug or physiological emergency. It's nothing short of amazing. 

The poem is Post-Modern in offering a meditative sequence that is neither "musical" nor syntactically predictable (connected). Things happen without apparent external logic, but with an imaginative priority which is true to the way thinking actually occurs. Our thoughts are not logical, they're not organized the way traditional poetry is. Poetry like this brings us closer to the phenomenological realities of actual sensibility, provides a glimpse into the magic of perception, of what it's really like to be alive.  

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sunset Boulevard - Cinema as Seduction

Sunset Boulevard (1950) is perhaps Hollywood's most successful attempt ever to make serious art out of its own materials. Though chronologically it falls right smack in the middle of the "Noir" period, faithful to its genre in every respect, it's a far better piece of cinema than that categorical distinction would describe. 

It functions on at least three levels:  As a straight '40's murder mystery; as a symbolic miracle play about the philosophical implications of glamour, fame and wealth in Hollywood; and as a classical Greek drama with Oedipal undertones. It has in addition elements of fantasy, horror, camp, romance, surrealism, nostalgia, and sex. And to top it off, the female lead, Gloria Swanson, is playing a version of herself as the aging Silent Era femme fatale. Who could ask for anything more?  
The screenwriters employ the unusual, but by no means novel, narrative technique of having the story told by a deadman. In fact, in the beginning of the movie we see Joe Gillis (played by William Holden), a hack screenwriter, floating face down in a luxury swimming pool, fully clothed, talking to us in voice-over. Since Gillis is himself a screenwriter, his flash-back narration is intertextual, functioning both as imaginary "author" of his own story, as well as the main character. It's almost as if we're seeing the plot through three frames, the outermost being the real actor William Holden (as the real screenwriters' stand-in). Kind of like a guy writing a movie about a guy who writes movies getting drawn into a fantasy caper taking place in the mind of an imaginary character playing a version of her real life self. It's weird.

Joe gets caught up in a classic gigolo relationship with an aging has-been screen-star who's living in her own glamorous past (re-living it over and over again). It's a spooky world of opulent furnishings (her mansion) peopled only by a mysterious major domo (played by Erich von Stroheim, himself a notable actual early movie director--talk about ironies!), and a pet monkey! Joe lets himself be "seduced" by this lonely, slightly mad, archly pretentious but emotionally fragile woman, because he needs the dough (she hires him to co-write her new comeback vehicle). He soon becomes an impatient captive of her clinging affections. Eventually she kills him rather than allow him to leave her. 

Swanson (as Norma Desmond) is perfect as the softly alluring late-middle-aged star (she was only 50 when this movie was made--though she might seem ancient by current-day leading lady standards). Crucially, Swanson was herself a Silent Era bombshell, so even though she's playing in character, she's also playing through it, as the real life version of her role. She vamps and teases and pirouettes through this part, it's all rollicking good fun, except that she has a fiery temper and an ego the size of an elephant. In real life, Swanson was just as big as the character she plays here: She was married seven times, made and lost millions during her run of box-office successes during the Twenties, was nominated three times for an Oscar as Best Actress. She had a famous fling with Joseph Kennedy (scion of the Kennedy clan) who bankrolled her a film (Queen Kelly 1929), directed by (who else?) Erich von Stroheim! (It was von Stroheim's copy of this film that Swanson [Norma Desmond] watches in this film, when she leaps into the projection beam shouting "Have they forgotten what a star looks like? I'll be up there again, so help me!" Another instance of framing: A movie about a star who makes a movie about herself which features a screening of a real movie the real actress had made 22 years before, directed by the man who plays her butler in the "real" movie we're watching! 

Holden is never better as the casual, drop-dead hunk, cynical and slick. Swanson is gorgeous, with her nature-cosmetic, carrot-juice diet-enhanced, miraculously preserved skin and face. Hollywood has always been shy of June-September romances, and that ambiguity is right at the heart of this film. In the end, it isn't Swanson's beauty or grace that turns sour, but her refusal to live in the present, trying to stop time in a failed Gothic doom worthy of Dorian Gray. Too, it's a surrealist's playground of submerged archetypes, symbols of decadence and decay. 

Looking at the film today--it's as relevant and fresh as it was the year it was released almost 60 years ago. But it could never be remade, because the fantasy world that made Hollywood Hollywood disappeared so long ago that no one's left. Yet the theme of the film is timeless. That sense of gloomy evocation is played to the hilt in the closing scene, where Norma interrupts a present-day de Mille set in progress, commanding the Klieg light and descending a portable stairway, gliding dramatically down, sinuously seducing the camera in an eerie sequence, like a Medusa in a Mucha poster, the writhing tentacles and vines of mortality invading the mirror of art!         

Return of the Grammar Nazi

Among recent offending examples, are the following--

"That said...."  So many people are using this pat transition or bridge phrase, or, rather, overusing it, that it's become irritating. It's most often used by speakers wishing to appear earnest or filled with conviction. But it becomes a habit. The speaker will make a not particularly important statement, then drop in "that said..." and keep going, as if to qualify (or set off) the preceding phrase, or to indicate a succeeding comparison. Ultimately, it's a stupid phrase which ought to be jettisoned out of speech. 

"Duh!"  This non-word exclamation is being used by everyone these days. It's intended to signify frustration with an assertion or action of another, usually to show that the assertion is either naive, or too obvious. But, like all non-specific exclamations, it's used indiscriminately, and hence doesn't really mean much. Uneducated or lazy speakers--Valley Girls, anyone?--will use it so frequently that it becomes almost a refrain or lament. "And then I'm, like, duhhh! Like what's that to me? Totally tubular, dude!" Fur sure! Heathers and Debbies of the world, unite!


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Heaven Can Wait (The Divine Cocktail Ingredients)

**Spoiler alert**  **Spoiler alert**

This post is not for alcoholics, prohibitionists, or others opposed to the consumption of spirits.

My favorite cocktail--though it's one I would not drink on a regular basis even if I were so inclined, since it's a special occasion concoction--is what I call my Heaven Can Wait. It's a drink anyone can appreciate, especially the ladies, since it's divinely cool and elegant, without any whisper of harshness or potency. 

Here's the recipe:

2 shots of gin
1 shot of Galliano (a proprietary yellow Italian mixer which comes in a very tall bottle)
1 shot creme de cacao
1 1/2 shots of heavy cream

Shaken vigorously with crushed ice and served "up" in a deep chilled traditional cocktail glass.

The taste is indescribable. I've seen variations of this, but mine was an accidental discovery, made when I lacked an ingredient in another recipe. Which is often how good drink combinations are discovered. 

Great cocktails are basically constructed out of a "goods" (a standard alcoholic distillate, such as gin, rum, bourbon, whisky, etc.) to which is added various secondary "mixers" such as liqueurs, fruit juices or pieces, seasonings, etc. The art of the cocktail attained its first flowering during the Roaring Twenties (in the middle of Prohibition, so go figure). It's lately been undergoing a mini-Renaissance. For a few decades, fine wines were on the ascendancy; hard liquor was regarded as passe, and good bartending was becoming a lost art. But wine flavors are hard to replicate. Each barrel of wine tends towards specificity: I've tasted thousands of wines, almost none quite alike; for those who like certain grapes, sticking with Chardonnay, or Bordeaux, may seem superficially like a preference, but for anyone who takes very much of the stuff, it's always a crapshoot. It literally makes no sense to say "I like Pinots," because the range of difference among the various vintages and makers is so broad. It can be frustrating, trying to replicate a great wine experience--it's a once in a lifetime thing, unless you have the money to buy by the case, and buying good wine by lot can run you big-time.     

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Discreet Charm of Federico Mompou

Federico Mompou, 1893-1987, was a classical Spanish composer who concentrated primarily on the keyboard, producing a series of miniatures over a half-century's span, from the beginning of the Modernist Period right up through the post-Modernist period and beyond. From the first, his stylistic tendency was towards abbreviation, simplicity, and nativist Catalan thematic material presented with great flair and delicacy.
Because his works were almost always simple in design and execution, they've been keyboard favorites for decades, notably for talented amateurs. But their accessibility was never about accommodation. Rather, they capture the distilled essence of feeling, in shorthand: There is never any ostentation for its own sake, but a paring away of all extraneous decoration and elaboration. Perhaps it's not at all surprising, then, that he composed very little for multiple instruments, preferring to concentrate instead on perfecting his own generic gift. 

Those who know the work of Satie and Debussy will doubtless see influences in Mompou's work. On the one hand, though, Satie was often a trickster and clown, whereas Mompou is almost always seriously joyful, or gravely forlorn. On the other hand, Debussy's shimmering, layered, impressionistic effects are utilized, in Mompou, not to create an exotic, vague wash of sensation, but to score specific imitations of repeated figures, such as bells tolling. These tendencies, however, are expressed directly.  

After spending two decades in Paris entre les deux guerres, Mompou returned to his native Barcelona, preferring to live there, away from the limelight, to concentrate on his regional inspiration, where he lived to a great age. Despite the often cheerful and inebriated quality of many of his most popular pieces, there is throughout his oeuvre a somber, pious mood darkened by a mournful longing, the "deep song" of Andalusian lyricism. An air of resignation overcomes an effusive, light-spirited wit.

The simplest way to describe music is simply to listen to it. For those online, samples of his keyboard recordings are just a few short clicks away. sellers all furnish excerpted samples via iTunes or similar software. There's hardly an opus in his list that I don't find wonderful, but the Musica Callada ("Silent Music") is noticeably different from most of the rest of his pieces, being a foray, somewhat uncharacteristically, into polytonality--even atonality--  nevertheless, they are commonly regarded as the most important music of his later career.

Anyone wishing to find anger, or revolutionary declamation, need not apply to this music for that. Its predominant modes are joy, nostalgia, meditative irony, and mourning--you may find all these within the space of a work lasting no more than 3-6 minutes. That range within concision is probably what makes his work most Modernistic, though its deeper qualities are really timeless, going back to Medieval peasant song, church chant, etc.   

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

One-Eyed Jacks - The Classic Cult Movie?

One-Eyed Jacks [1961], which starred Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, and Katy Jurado, was Brando's only directorial effort, a job he took over when he and Stanley Kubrick couldn't agree on how the story should unfold. 

Wikipedia defines cult as "a cohesive social group and their devotional beliefs or practices, which the surrounding population considers to be outside of mainstream cultures. The surrounding population may be as small as a neighborhood, or as large as the community of nations. They gratify curiosity about, take actions against, or ignore a group, depending on its reputed similarity to cults previously reported by mass media." It goes on to say "In common popular usage, cult has a positive connotation for fan groups of art, music, writing, fiction, and fashion devotees." Cults also have religious connotations as well, but cult in these senses is outside my frame of reference.  

One-Eyed Jacks has, though, for a long time been referred to as a "cult classic" by critics and movie historians. I've always thought this was because, though the film isn't often cited as an example of good movie-making, it still commands a dedicated audience, who regard it as a wonderful piece of entertainment, perhaps because, or in spite of, its evident cinematic qualities. In other words, a film may be a "cult classic" for reasons that set it apart from the usual criteria that are applied to films. This is rather like saying that a book may become a cult classic, even though it is badly written, or misuses history, or is distorted or misshapen in some other way. 

One of my college English professors once said, in defining the meaning of the literary form novel, that it was a book that "had something wrong with it". That's a cute way of saying that a novel contains a seed or germ of paradox or contradiction that doesn't easily resolve into a fixed or accepted meaning. Books, or movies, which don't readily "fit" into any accepted modes of traditionally accepted forms, may be described as having "novel" characteristics. The word novel obviously comes from the Romance Language root for "new" or "newly made" or "intriguingly new" (invented). Thus, any "novel" or film which strikes us as different (perhaps in a new way) could qualify as a novel work, as, in the sense above, a "movie that has something wrong with it". 

Well, then, what does One-Eyed Jacks have wrong with it, and why might its wrongness be somehow beside the point, or might it even be interesting because of its wrongness? How might its difference by the cause for interest, and even celebration? 

The movie is based on a Western Genre novel by Charles Neider called The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones [1956]. I'm unfamiliar with the book (I don't generally read Westerns), but Neider would be familiar to general readers as the editor of a number of books by and about Mark Twain, in addition to books of fiction and non-fiction. Neider was not a classic academician, but more of a popular freelancer who turned his hand to many subjects.

The script was worked on by Guy Trosper and Calder Willingham, as well as by Brando himself. The story of the development of the original idea, and Kubrick and Brando's efforts to make a film that would serve as a suitable vehicle for his talents, is a complicated one, which I can't detail here.

Brando had little to prove, at this stage in his career, as an actor, having already taken not only the theatrical world by storm, starring in the Broadway production of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire (and in the film version of 1951), but Hollywood as well, acting in a string of notable efforts which included Viva Zapata! [1952], Julius Caesar 1953], The Wild One [1953], On the Waterfront [1954], Guys and Dolls [1955], Sayonara [1957], and The Young Lions [1958]. His fame gave him the license he needed to experiment on a script that interested him, and he made the most of it. Indeed, it may be seen that the making of this film signified a turning-point in his career, which went into free-fall for several years, before bouncing back with The Godfather in 1972.

The most obvious observation to make about the narrative as a whole, is that the movie is an incomplete or slightly awkward adaptation, partly because the novel itself, by Neider, is also an adaptation--of the Billy the Kid myth.         

The opening sequence of One-Eyed Jacks poses an obvious dilemma. Rio, played by Marlon Brando, is seated on a counter "insolently" eating a banana. To his left is a scale. After throwing the half-eaten banana into one tray, he tosses a glove into the other, and watches for a moment, but he looks away. The camera draws back to reveal that this is a bank robbery in progress, and that the scale is in a bank. The scale, a symbol of justice, has been exposed as a device for measuring precious metals--ironically, a banana and a glove. The image of the scale introduces the dilemmas that characterize Rio's later moral struggles between revenge and forgiveness, lust and love, evil and good.   

Rio, a typical ruthless "fast gun" with an atypical sulky, sensitive demeanor, and his partner Dad Longworth (played by Malden), manage to escape from the bank robbery, but are pursued in due course, and pinned down on a desert bluff, filmed at the Zabriskie Point overlook in Death Valley. The pair split up, and Brando is caught, while Malden escapes, betraying his partner and riding away to freedom. After years in a prison in Sonora, Rio escapes, shackled to another prisoner, and vows to track down Longworth--whom he discovers has betrayed him--and secure his revenge. Rio falls in with a gang of soulless criminals. In a Faustian bargain, he agrees to help them rob a bank in Monterey, California, since the sheriff of the town is--Dad Longworth, now passing in the world as a reformed man, living the straight life with a wife (Katy Jurado) and adopted daughter. Rio confronts Longworth, pretending friendship, but there is an obvious suspicion and tension between the two which we know can only end in violence. To complicate matters, Rio is attracted to Longworth's daughter Louisa. Longworth needs no "excuses" to motivate him to get rid of Rio, but after Rio kills a man in a local tavern, and deflowers Louisa, he ties Rio up to a hitching-rail in town and smashes his right hand with the butt of a shotgun, seemingly rendering him unable to wield a pistol. Eventually the two shoot it out in town, with Rio killing Longworth, and riding off into the sunset (headed for Oregon) with Louisa, across the white dunes near Carmel.

Brando's performance as the psychologically damaged hero is classic genre material. He exudes a smoldering, barely restrained rage as the revenge-seeker, while being charming and seductive when the spirit moves him. Malden's Longworth is brilliant as the immoral, duplicitous lawman who'll stop at nothing to keep his betrayal secret and his fake public identity intact.

As with all movie Westerns, One-Eyed Jacks is a cartoon of actual life as it was lived in the frontier towns of Western America. We accept the hackneyed cliches and conventions of a form that have become so routine they almost require no suspension of disbelief to work. It's all a game. But what makes this movie different is the complexity of the characters, who aren't cardboard people at all, but real individuals with contradictory natures--neither all good nor all bad, but mixed-up, like all of us. 

Getting back to our discussion of what "cult", and a movie "that has something wrong with it" means, I guess the thing that is "wrong" with One-Eyed Jacks is Rio's divided nature. He's capable of love and dedication to an optimistic view of life's potential, but he's burdened by a huge resentment which is the source of his violent anger and ruthlessness. The pursuit of Longworth dramatizes this division: He knows that if he kills Longworth, he'll always be on the run, with a price on his head, but he can't resist his deep rancor. Despite the jeopardy in which he willfully places himself, there is the possibility that he may be able to escape into the landscape of the wide-open West, an option that is one of the chief qualities of the Western Genre myth: That one can literally escape one's identity and make a new life. Longworth fails to escape, and is discovered and made to pay the ultimate debt. Rio, who has vanquished his demon, may yet renounce his badness and find happiness. 

On balance, One-Eyed Jacks is in fact a superior Western. Released at the dawn of the 1960's, it may once have stood for the awakening of the rebellious Generation that renounced the platitudes and conventions of the 1950's, fulfilling the "outsider" part of the "cult" designation. Is One-Eyed Jacks an "outsider" movie? In one sense it is, of course, since it glorifies, or at least focuses our attention, on the fate and salvation of a criminal type, an obvious outsider. It was followed by a long string of similarly conceived movies, each of which shared this theme of the misunderstood or neglected passionate misfit, glamorous in defeat, heroic in victory, but always on the outside, looking in.       

Sunday, April 12, 2009

War, Patriotism & God - A Poem by Robinson Jeffers

In 1939, on the eve of the start of World War II, the prevaling sentiment in America was against "foreign involvements". The handwriting was on the wall, Hitler's armies were poised to invade Poland, and few people who cared to regard the realpolitik in Europe could doubt that eventually our interests and those of our allies (Great Britain and France, etc.) would converge, drawing us into another global conflict. 
It is in the context of this general mood, then and now, that we consider a timely "anti-war" poem by Robinson Jeffers, an unconventional and independent-minded American poet living out along the far Western edge of the continent, in a stone house he'd built with his own hands, an "isolationist" whose opposition to our participation in the Second World War would seriously influence his literary reputation.

Shine, Perishing Republic  

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire,
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and signs out, and the mass hardens,
I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother.

You making haste, haste on decay; not blameworthy; life is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendor; meteors are not needed less than mountains: shine, perishing republic.
But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster's feet there are left the mountains.

And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant, insufferable master.
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught--they say--God, when he walked on earth.


Despite its somewhat elegant and slightly archaic rhetorical phraseology, the poem speaks quite powerfully to our present predicaments, albeit from an isolationist's point of view. Addressed ostensibly to his own sons, it is also a cynical shorthand for Jeffers's general stand against national wars:  He stood against the tide of commitment which accompanied America's entry into the War, and was ruthlessly vilified by literary critics in the years following. Yvor Winters and Kenneth Rexroth, in what must be regarded as a shameful display of turncoat Toryism, both sought to savage his reputation.

But I didn't post this poem just to resuscitate Jeffers's reputation (or to praise this relatively minor poem), which I suspect will stand or fall despite whatever I may have to say about it. What interests me are the ambiguities in the poem, which may, on first or second reading, seem simple enough, but which, on further examination, reveal contradictions and subtleties which probably undermine the poem's commonly accepted meaning(s).

You could take the poem's sarcastic irony--beginning with the title--to signify a hackneyed anti-war or anti-republican stance, a commonplace revulsion with the vulgar capitalist energies which characterized mid-20th Century America. Getting and spending, the intellectual bigotry of believing one's nation to be a superior exception, untainted by the evils of history's other failed empires. 

But it isn't America's energy, or optimism, or vanity, which Jeffers is damning; it's its "thickening," its "hardening," its rotting decadence, its corruption of feeling and principle. America was founded on dignified, worthy investments:  In individual liberty, the common good, fairness before law. Jeffers offers his encouragement:  "Life is good...a mortal splendor." 

His greatest reservation, offered to his sons, is expressed as a caution:  Avoid the "center" in cities, escape to "the mountains." 

Yet the last stanza offers a new level of ambiguity. Jeffers shifts the terms of the argument from a dialectic between patriotic loyalty and optimistic endeavor, to the master/apprentice relationship. Whereas he had previously posited the family unit (a man and his sons) in opposition to the state, society and the inertia of progress, now the dilemma is between the obeisance of the slave (or progeny) to the Elder, or "Master."  

There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught--they say--God, when he walked on earth.

Is Jeffers suggesting that Jesus--God's "son"--who "walked on earth" became an immoderate "slave" of his "Father," God? Or is it that Man was caught in God's "trap?"  

It's an intriguing ambiguity. Is Jeffers suggesting that he, as the Father, occupies the same position of authority to his sons, that Man has in relation to his God? Or is he suggesting that Jesus's vanity made him a toady to duty and homage to the ultimate "Master"?

It's almost as if Jeffers is taking an Olympian position, over Man, and the universe, observing that Man is merely a "clever servant, insufferable master." That--indeed--it is Man's tendency to worship faithfully--to observe the faith--which makes him most susceptible to the suasions of obedience, of blind faith.

The poem is not really about patriotism during wartime--or not so simply--but about the relationship between Mankind and the justifications it sets up, about the priorities which we idolize and emulate, and standards we carry into strife.                


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress - Frida's Wardrobe

This piece is a belated "review" of a book which appeared in 2007, but which I didn't become aware of until a month ago. Everyone by now knows about Frida Kahlo, the Mexican painter and unconventional woman artist [1907-1954], and the subject of an ambitious recent bio-pic which starred Salma Hayeck and Alfred Molina [2002]. 
Kahlo wasn't "just" a painter. She designed interiors, and was also a brilliant wardrobe designer, which this book documents in some detail. Regardless of what you think of her art--which was in some ways deliberately anti-traditional while at the same time being anti-Modern (or quintessentially Modern -- take your pick)--you can hardly look at the dresses and blouses and wraps and shoes she created for her own use, without acknowledging her genius in this area. Artists are traditionally not noted for being active in fashion, except peripherally. Photographers often get deeply into fashion. Painters often do stage design, or furniture design, or (as Diego Rivera) mural painting.    
But fashion seems somehow a pragmatic application of the purely artistic imagination, in a way that seems to exempt it from "serious" artistic endeavor. Is flamboyance and daring and unbridled expressionism antithetical to fashion design? In recent times, one would have to say not. Eiko's stunning fantasies, for example, seem more suitable for beings from another planet. 
Until now, unless I'm more uninformed that I realize, scant attention has been paid to Frida's clothing designs. Brief mention has been made in biographical work-ups, but it may have been the inspired, colorful elan of the movie, which finally resulted in this impressive study and documentation. 
What sets Frida's work apart from so much other "avant-garde" fashion design is its elaborate, labor-intensive decorative texture. It vibrates with intense, bright colors and glowingly rich highlight(s). This is not a fashion which could--or ever would--be mass-produced for capital exploitation. It's a fashion of meticulous attention to detail, married to intense visual contrasts and simple directness of statement. It's also an impressive adaptation of frankly nativist elements, Mexican or South American in character or origin. In addition, it isn't a fashion style based on mannequin bodies--Frida was small, but she wasn't anorexic, and she gloried in the vivid earthiness of her natural beauty--her dark hair, broad eyebrows, etc.       
Despite her belief in the perfection of society (she was an ardent Communist sympathizer), she was not in the least bit reluctant to employ the richest fabrics and most labor-intensive techniques for achieving her desired effects.

The photographs in this book are almost overwhelming in their richness, delicacy, daring, polish, panache, forthrightness. Frida enjoyed being a woman, gloried in her femininity, and used her artistic genius to create a whole extra dimension of her identity out of her attire. This, in addition to creating a body of pure art that rivals the best productions of any woman artist in history. She was able to weave a vision of her own being into her painting--as self-portraits--which functions on both levels:  As decorative design of a high order, and as a profound explication of her complex emotional life, it's an impressive achievement. 

Hats off.