Friday, July 31, 2009

Philadelphia Phillies vs. San Francisco Giants

Things are heating up in the National League, as division leaders and wild card hopefuls attempt to improve their chances by acquiring players before the trading deadline. 
Here in the Bay Area, our odds were much improved this week with the acquisition of Ryan Garko (from the Cleveland Indians), and Freddy Sanchez (from the Pittsburgh Pirates). The Giants management, not known for its aggressiveness in playing the free agency market or late season trading derby, signaled its desire to place bets on this year, in favor of "building" and "waiting until next year." They gave up two potentially good minor league pitching prospects to get these hard-hitting infielders. These may not be quite blockbuster acquisitions, but they're certainly major.  

The Giants have built a first-rate pitching staff around three young arms:  Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Jonathan Sanchez. Of the three, Sanchez is the furthest behind in his development, with flashes of greatness tempered by periods of indecisiveness and wildness. Just two weeks ago he threw an impressive no-hitter against the Padres, which may be a sign of things to come, or just a fluke. Added to these phenoms are Barry Zito--coming off two terrible years, he's shown definite signs in some recent weeks of breaking out of his slump--and Randy Johnson--whose career may be finally over with an arm injury at age 45. Brian Wilson has been solid again as our closer, though he's been a little flakey at times.              

Meanwhile, the Phillies, Series champs last year, come into town on a wave of optimism. Jimmy Rollins, the team catalyst and all-around great player (speed, power and clutch), has finally started hitting after a slow start; and the team's  usual power contingent (Howard, Utley, Ibanez and Werth) is booming again this year. One might have been forgiven for thinking that their performance last year was a long-shot, given their mediocre pitching staff, "anchored" by 46 year old Jamie Moyer (presently with a 5.32 ERA). So it was no surprise that the Phillies just acquired the services of Cliff Lee, last year's Cy Young winner (22-3 with a .500 team, and a 5 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio!) to bolster their staff down the home stretch. Lee has come back down to earth this season, currently with a 7-9 record. Baseball history is rich in star players reaching new heights after being traded to contenders. Philadelphia's acquisition of Lee may guarantee a Pennant, but not necessarily another championship.

Suffice it to say that had the Giants had anything like the power line-up the Phillies now have, they'd have run away with the National League West. The Dodgers, cobbled (as usual) out of high-priced free agents and some scrappy journeymen (after you get past Broxton and Billingsley, their pitching staff looks none too impressive), have played way over their heads all season, and are certain to hit a bad patch soon. When that happens, the Giants--with their important new acquisitions at 2nd and 1st, will likely be vying for the lead spot. The Phillies are leading the league in runs, but as everyone knows, pitching dominates the post-season. Two great pitchers can quickly negate a powerhouse/weak pitching team. 

I doubt whether the Giants could hold their own in the post-season this year, but these new additions definitely add spice to the mix. If the Giants are able to take three, or even two games from these bums from the City of Brotherly Love, it'll get interesting. We'll be routin'! 


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Minimalism Part IV: George Oppen's Discrete Series

I can't remember, now, how I first heard about George Oppen. I may have discovered The Materials [New Directions, 1962] accidentally in a Berkeley bookstore. In any case, I discovered that the rare book room at the UC Main Branch University Library had a copy of his first book, Discrete Series [1934], and I went there one afternoon in 1968 to check it out. You weren't allowed to remove items from the rare book room, so I had to read the whole book sitting right there at a huge thick oaken desk, under the watchful eye of the proctor. (I later wrote a note to Oppen telling him that if I'd had a matchbook with me I might have been able to copy the whole book out--it amused him.) The book was a thin little thing, hardly more than a pamphlet bound in fragile green paper covered thin boards. I was there about an hour, but the experience was a turning point in my life. 

Oppen [1908-1984] had been a key figure in the Objectivist Movement of the 1930's. There'd been this one modest little book, I knew, then a long silence of decades during which nothing had appeared. Reading these poems for the first time, I was immediately struck by their concision, enjambments, elisions, and pronounced brevity: A compressive immanence invested in objects and intense feelings/observations. I at once perceived the power and suggestion of such poetry, which was totally unlike anything I'd encountered in my haphazard reading of traditional poetry in the big dusty anthologies I'd rummaged around in during my youth.     

I recall quite clearly the experience of first reading this poem--


White. From the
Under arm of T

The red globe.

Down. Round
Shiny fixed

From the quiet

Stone floor . . .


Hides the

Parts--the prudery
Of Frigidaire, of


Above the

Plane of lunch, of wives
Removes itself
(As soda-jerking from
the private act

Cracking eggs):


The deliberate fracturing of syntax--both visually and grammatically--suggested both a creative use of letters as symbolic objects (literal signs on a building), as well as discrete events within a composed sequence of observation/perception. I had probably seen a concrete poem or two somewhere by this point, but this was an integrated example of incorporating the sign without the limiting self-consciousness of mere paper cut-outs. Oppen had been on to something, decades ago, and whatever it was had been ignored or unacknowledged, and the author himself had abandoned the enterprise.      

The mast
Inaudibly soars, bole-like, tapering:
Sail flattens from it beneath the wind.
The limp water holds the boat's round
                                 sides. Sun
Slants dry light on the deck.
                                 Beneath us glide
Rocks, sands, and unrimmed holes.

The clarity, the quick breaks with their lively perceptual surprises, the vividness ("unrimmed holes") of the observation, the strange metaphysical contrasts (a "mast...Inaudibly soars"), the proprioceptive motion ("Beneath us glide" instead of we glide over)--in addition to a refusal to turn any of this immediacy of feeling into any ethical leverage, was totally inspiring! 

Oppen was quoted as saying, appropos of the book, "a discrete series is a series of terms each of which is empirically derived, each one of which is empirically true. And this is the reason for the fragmentary character of those poems." Which hardly seems like an explanation of method, unless you understand that a series of "terms" (the key word), or words used in a specific context, which derive their applied meanings from the specific occasion of their use (i.e., "empirically derived") preserves the purity and discreteness of each poem, without resort to an over-riding precondition or intention. This fidelity to perceptual data, to the sense and matter of real things as honestly and ingeniously reported, is the first key to Oppen's genius. 

Hard, dense materiality, however, is only one dimension of Oppen's concerns. 

Near your eyes--
Love at the pelvis
Reaches the generic, gratuitous
                         (Your eyes like snail-tracks)

Parallel emotions,
We slide in separate hard grooves
Bowstrings to bent loins,
                         Self moving
Moon, mid-air.  

The intensity of perception is enhanced by a distillation--the act of love is regarded almost clinically, "mere" identity subsumed inside the physicality of act, passion implied and ramified by the E-motion, the motive force of action. The taut spring of engagement ("separate hard grooves/Bowstrings to bent loins") lifts consciousness to a suspended intensity ("Self moving/Moon, mid-air").

Objectivism's primary tenets--as defined by Zukofsky--to treat the poem as an object, and to emphasise sincerity, intelligence, and the poet's ability to look clearly at the world--are nowhere more clearly expressed. 

On the water, solid---
The singleness of a toy---

A tug with two barges.

O what O what will
Bring us back to
         the shore

Coiling a rope on the steel deck   

The investment in the obdurate fact of the material world--the function and sinuous circularity of entwined utility--the infernal seduction of manufactured object (Blake), is both an astonished agon (Ulysses longing for home) and an agape of naked experience accurately seen and registered.                  

The irony of Oppen's silence (1934-c.1958) and the development of Modernism is reflected as well in the transformation of his original Objectivist's position, and the emergence of a new visionary transcendence in his work. The insistence by the Thirties Left upon the facts delineated by way of Marxist ideologies included a dogmatic preference for perceived material realities: Along with fidelity to observed class and social hierarchies and demarcations, went a willingness to accept the obvious: All the phenomena of actual lived life, the stuff of the material world, with every bit of its burden of weight, texture, associations both pleasant and unpleasant. 

But by the mid-Fifties, Oppen had undergone a change in consciousness, or at least a change in his approach to subject-matter. In an oft-quoted poem from his later period--

The Forms of Love

Parked in the fields
All night
So many years ago,
We saw
A lake beside us
When the moon rose.
I remember

Leaving that ancient car
Together. I remember
Standing in the white grass
Beside it. We groped
Our way together
Downhill in the bright
Incredible light

Beginning to wonder
Whether it could be lake
Or fog
We saw, our heads
Ringing under the stars we walked
To where it would have wet our feet
Had it been water 

--that first line of the third stanza ("Beginning to wonder") could stand as a subtitle for all of Oppen's resumptive agenda following the changed political climate after the McCarthy Era of the early Fifties. Speaking from a presumption of worldly wisdom, the corpus of Oppen's home stretch is a consolidation, if not a repudiation, of the political-material-aesthetic bases of his youth. The earlier man would doubtless have been content with the experience (and the meaning) of walking along a lake under moonlight; the older man's uncertainty at the solidity and dependability of matter and sensual fact ("Had it been water") is offered as explicitly as the earlier version(s). 

The resolution?

"I believe my apprenticeship
In that it was long was honorable
Tho I had hoped to arrive
At an actuality
. . .
And record now
That I did not."
(from Pro Nobis, from This in Which)

Or this--

#27 - Of Being Numerous

It is difficult now to speak of poetry--

about those who have recognized the range of choice or those who have lived within the life they were born to--. It is not precisely a question of profundity but a different order of experience. One would have to tell what happens in a life, what choices present themselves, what the world is for us, what happens in time, what thought is in the course of a life and therefore what art is, and the isolation of the actual

I would want to talk of rooms and of what they look out on and of basements, the rough walls bearing the marks of the forms, the old marks of wood in the concrete, such solitude as we know--

and the swept floors. someone, a workman bearing about him, feeling about him that peculiar word like a dishonored fatherhood has swept this solitary floor, this profoundly hidden floor--such solitude as we know.

One must not come to feel that he has a thousand threads in his hands,
He must somehow see the one thing;
This is the level of art
There are other levels
But there is no other level of art

As a summation of an artist's life, the statement is characteristically ambiguous. What are we to make of his "feeling about him that peculiar word like a dishonored fatherhood"? Is the word--that which we inherit from the generations gone before--in its moral vacancy--what we ultimately are doomed to relive? Could poetry (art) serve a purpose beyond objective reality?   

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Homage to Joe Brainard

Certainly there were people who didn't know about Joe Brainard in the 1970's, but where were they hiding? He seemed to be everywhere. He was writing, painting, making collages, covers, and digging the scene in New York City. 
He'd grown up in Oklahoma, went to high school with Ron Padgett, in fact. He was part of a tightly knit group of second generation New York School writers and artists, but he also lived in the Gay world. Joe was moody, but he took his work very seriously. That might seem a contradiction, given the spirit and approach of his subject-matter, which was often spoof-y and satirical. It was superficially two-dimensional, and drew upon cartoons and pop illustration in much the same way Andy Warhol did. But Joe's work--his graphic work--belonged to a different tradition, one that probably included Fairfield Porter, Jane Freilicher, Alex Katz and Lichtenstein. Joe's art was fun, but it was casual and easy-going too, in a way that didn't make you uncomfortably aware of the artist's difficulties. It wore well like an old pair of 501's. 

During the 1960's and 1970's, Joe worked on a long list called "I Remember," published in a series of pamphlets by Angel Hair Books, and later collected by Full Court Press. I Remember chronicled a 40's childhood in America, and moved into its adolescence and adulthood like a shrewd undercover agent from another world, observing and cataloguing the stuff and habits of daily life in diary form. 

In emulation of Joe's style, I've composed my own list of I Remembers, presented here unabashedly by an ardent admirer. 


I remember push-ups, Eskimo pies, fudge bars, and ice cream sandwiches. 


I remember not wanting to get invited to swimming parties, because everyone would see how skinny and pale I was (these were the “Coppertone” years). 


I remember “let’s get that real estate from under those fingernails.”


I remember going to the theatre, and the floor between the seats being so sticky with old candy and crud that your shoes stuck to it. 


I remember putting unshelled peanuts into the nose holes of the circus elephants (weird). 


I remember Blue Chip Stamps, Green Stamps, funny coupons, and Filling Station maps with little circle-faced mascot figures at the gateways to vacation land. 


I remember telephone party-lines, and once in a while, the neighbor walking right into our house to put the receiver back in the carriage (we’d forgotten to replace it, and he could hear us talking).  


I remember “I Like Ike” buttons. 


I remember sonic booms, and how—for just a second—everyone would worry that maybe it was an atomic bomb. 


I remember “killer knobs”, leather dashboards, wooden station-wagons, and white foam dice hanging from rear-view mirrors.


I remember being “curious” about what girls had hidden up there between their legs.


I remember Pendleton plaid wool shirts, pegged pants, and black Chuck Taylor Converse tennis-shoes (had to be black).


I remember the Edsel.


I remember liver and onions, fish sticks, cube steak, creamed tuna on toast, and Campbell’s tomato soup. 


I remember being forced to dance with the ugliest girl in class, feeling disgusted that I would get her “cooties” on me (cruel!).


I remember once reading that everyone on earth has unwittingly swallowed insects, usually in their sleep, and thinking if I was never aware of it, this was probably okay.


I remember rubber thongs, slinkys, and silly putty.


I remember full-service gas stations, with attendants (“may I fill’er up, sir”), and watching him spray and squeegee the windshield from inside the car.


I remember coon-skin caps, Burp Guns, Mouseketeer Ears, and hoola-hoops.


I remember when parking meters would accept pennies.


I remember polio shots, castor oil, and merthiolate (hurt like hell). 


I remember Lionel Train sets on Christmas mornings, and not managing to keep all the wheels on the track at the same time. 


I remember going to the circus, watching the high-wire trapeze artists doing routines to the music of “Blue Tango” and always having a funny “sexual” feeling whenever I heard that music again.   


I remember dirt-clod fights, and coming home so dirty your mom wouldn’t let you in the house.


I remember “don’t ever get in a car with a stranger, no matter how nice they seem.” 


I remember never locking our doors unless we were going on vacation.


I remember running cross-country on icy mornings, it was so cold your face would be numb, and you'd get so exhausted your tongue tasted like copper pennies.


I remember "eenie meenie minee moe" and "allee allee oxen free!"


I remember sparklers, pin-wheels, and glow-worms, and not wanting to wait until it was really dark to start shooting off my fireworks.


I remember, in the second grade, trying to get the attention of a girl to whom I was attracted, repeatedly tripping her as she walked by my desk, but just making her really angry. 




Monday, July 27, 2009

On a Poem by Seamus Heaney - 'The Rain Stick'

Seamus Heaney writes a traditionally structured and valenced sort of poem--he's never deviated very far from his habitual forms--2 or 3 or 4 line stanzas, or outright sonnets--but his inventiveness and light wit have intrigued me since the 1960's, when I first read his poems in The New Yorker

One of my favorite Heaney poems is 'The Rain Stick.' For those who may not be familiar, the Saguaro cactus, which is native to the American Southwest, strikes an impressive profile-figure on the desert landscape, shooting up 30 or 40 feet into the air, their raised blunt curved arms, striated with rows of giant spikes (thorns). 

When these giant cacti die, the waxy green pulp dries and fades, revealing the bony vertical rods of cellulose which form the "skeleton" of the plant. The hollow "tubes" are hacked down by native Americans, filled with seeds or small pebbles and their ends sealed off, producing a kind of huge rattle. The sound that is produced by tipping these tubes upsidedown and back again, sounds exactly like raindrops hitting dusty earth, a gentle "shhhh" or whirring noise familar to anyone whose been in a desert rainstorm. The sound thus produced evokes all the associations--the coolness, the sudden ionization of ozone in the atmosphere, the contrast of the large discrete drops--one experiences in a desert rain. A very vivid evocation.

Heaney's poem is an innocently offered description of the experience of handling one of these rainsticks, the originality of a child's delight in an ingenious toy. Nothing like it in Ireland--Heaney's native land--so it's an entirely novel encounter, likely to be treated as such. A mental souvenir vouchsafed from the exotic drylands of Arizona or New Mexico.  

The Rain Stick   

Up-end the stick and what happens next
Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for. In a cactus stalk

Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash
Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
Being played by water, you shake it again lightly

And diminuendo runs through all its scales
Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes
A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,

Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;
The glitter-drizzle, almost-breaths of air.
Up-end the stick again. What happens next

Is undiminished for having happened once,
Twice, ten, and thousand times before.
Who cares if all the music that transpires

Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again.  

This is a straightforward poem in almost every sense. The use of classic onomatapoeia to imitate the sense, if not the actual physical sound-sensation, of the rain-stick's patter--"the glitter drizzle"; "the subtle little wets off grass"--"like a pipe being played by water."

The pleasure which is perceived at the primitive level--"is undiminished" through repetition, and you are "like a rich man entering heaven / Through the ear of a raindrop" (a delightful play upon the old phrase "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God"). A raindrop thus acquires the symbolic quality of an instrument of divine transmission. 

What I admire about the poem is its transparent guilelessness. It isn't trying to convince you of something which the poet feels you need to know for your own good. It's a gift outright, a piece of the wondrous fabric of direct experience, ethically neutral, without any baggage.

Do we "exploit" the Indian culture by writing about it? Do we "possess" it for aesthetic exploitation? Or does it exist right at the level of juvenile apprehension, where wonder and intrigue light up our sensibilities with curiosity and delight? The Rain Stick--a totem object, a sacred tool to summon life-giving water.  

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Shawshank Redemption - A Prison Fable

This movie has everything except romance. Well, you can't have everything. That's the weakness of prison flicks, no women allowed! 

Like a lot of people, I missed this one when it was first released in 1994. But it has legs. The momentum is so large now, that IMDB, the movie reference site online, claims its users vote it the all time best movie ever!  

That's high praise for a movie that almost went unnoticed when it first appeared. Usually, movies with low initial critical acclaim can't be resuscitated retrospectively--even, or especially, by critics noted for their effete tastes. Either the public likes them right away, or they never recover from their initial neglect.

The central irony of the movie--that criminals preternaturally can't admit guilt--is repeated over and over again in the script, like a refrain. We know that Andy Dufresne didn't murder his wife and her lover, but that almost doesn't matter: The drama and tension are all about life on the inside, and how this lily-livered bank officer will deal with the vicissitudes of multi-racial conflict and institutional cruelty. 

The script is based on a story by (surprise!) Stephen King. Credit due! 

The ultimate "redemption" of the story involves the victory over evil (a corrupt prison warden and his brutal subordinates) by Dufresne, and his eventual reuniting on the outside with 'Red' Redding after half a lifetime in the joint.  

The movie feels very "Thirties"-ish--it's set in a Maine prison during the 1950's and '60's--and the secondary characters are the usual motley "types" who more or less act in a predictably hackneyed manner. The scenes of violence and corruption are unambiguous and simplistic, meant to drive home the basic oppositions and direct the audience's sympathies and indignation: Good men (even criminals) are basically good, and Bad men are bad through-and-through. There's no redemption for men like Warden Norton and Captain Hadley--they're going to Hell, and they deserve it. The story assumes that the prison system is inherently dehumanizing, deliberately destructive of human potential--the only "redemption" is through friendship and--as Red says in the film "the most dangerous thing"--hope.

But hope is all that men like Red have. If the institutions of punishment and cruelty can take your hope away, you have nothing left, you're just a bug in a bottle. Dufresne refuses to accept that there is no hope--it's his training. He lives by his wits, and eventually discovers a way--through patient effort and ingenuity--of overcoming the steep odds against him, and manages to save his best friend into the bargain--certainly an inspiring fable of courage and fidelity.                

There are several sub-plots to the movie, which give it multiple dimensions. There's the episode of the cocky young three-timer who tries to give evidence to the Warden about a man who had confessed having done the crime for which Dufresne has been wrongly convicted--who the Warden has shot in the yard. There's the story of the long-timer Brooks Hatlen (played brilliantly by the late James Whitmore) who has a crow for a pet, and eventually hangs himself from a rafter when he's been released back into the community after 50 years, because he's been so "institutionalized" he can't function on the outside. There's the story of the "bull queer" Bogs Diamond who likes to beat his Nellies into submission before he rapes them, and is himself eventually beaten nearly to death by Hadley. There's the tale of Warden Norton (again, brilliantly played by Bob Gunton, a highly underrated actor for sure) whose appetite for sleazy, vile corruption eventually destroys him. And of course Red (played by Morgan Freeman, in a career-defining performance), who is inspired and "redeemed" by Dufresne.


Despite all the cliches and improbable scenes--like the Mozart broadcast over the PA system--or the beer party on the tar roof--or Dufresne's daring escape (at least as improbable, if not more, as the Count of Monte Cristo's from the Chateau d'If!)--the movie comes off as a classic morality play, in a style we would have thought dead in moviemaking since the early 1950's.

The story posits the usual homily that though fate may play the ultimate trick on you, a belief in the possibility of redemption is never completely out of the question. There's nothing religious about this, though the movie uses the literal Bible to make a point about how religious dogma may be misinterpreted and misused by evil men (like Warden Norton). The ultimate point about Dufresne's escape is much more in the vein of "God helps those who helps themselves" rather than that prayer and humble good works will earn you points in the next life.

If Shawshank has a message, it's that friendship and hope are more effective--and worthwhile--than humble submission. The movie's final sense of triumph, when Freeman and Robbins meet on the white beach in Mexico, is about the value of improbable loyalty and comradeship, not unlike that which soldiers experience in conflict. But these two ex-cons aren't soldiers, they're ordinary men upon whom fate has played the cruelest of jokes. But they get the last laugh, and it's an exhilarating one.     

Friday, July 24, 2009

Follow the Money - The New Aggressive Enforcement

The budgetary problems at the State level in California have had, and will have, far-reaching effects on all aspects of public service, from dog-catchers all the way up to the Governor's office. The shrinking American economy is being expressed through the decline in tax revenue at federal, state and local levels, throughout the country. This isn't the fault, in California, of Proposition 13, or irresponsible legislators spending more than they should, though these problems are exacerbating an already precarious financial footing in government. The services which our prosperity funded throughout the so-called "post-War period" can no longer be supported to the degree we've come to expect. Government revenue, expressed as a percentage of our national GDP, will decline in the years ahead, and there is little will at any level of government to address the root causes of this decline.   

As our public services face declining support, some will cut services, others will simply be eliminated, while others will look for ways to make up the shortfall.  

As anyone who drives in our State has noticed, over the last six months, there has been a dramatic change in the way the State Highway Patrol, and local police departments have been enforcing traffic control. I don't know if there are any statistics available, yet, to measure how big this difference is, but there is no question that the word is out on our roads and highways: They've taken the gloves off and are ticketing at a furious rate. On any given day, driving down a typical suburban or urban thoroughfare, you're likely to see two squad cars tooling along on the same block, or to see someone pulled over with the Christmas lights flashing. Arrests are on a steep incline. 

This is no doubt the result of a mandate across departments throughout the state that revenue is down, and whatever potential untapped sources of income there are, need to be milked to the maximum. 

All this flurry of patrolling and ticketing raises the obvious question:  Where were all these officers before? Hanging out at the donut shop? 

It's simply another reminder that police "protection" is all about money. 

Ever tried reporting a robbery in progress, or some other "emergency" via the 911 line? What you typically get, nowadays, is "well, we can't respond right now, maybe an officer can be there in 25 minutes...there really isn't anything we can do...if you wish to file a police report, you can come down to the station." Police are just too busy to fight crime. Why? Because there's no money in it.

I've often thought that if there were no fines to accompany citations for driving infractions or parking spaces, police would never bother. And it's true: Police follow the money

Tracking down drug dealers, responding to crimes in progress, conducting thorough investigations--these kinds of enforcement don't produce income, hence they aren't priorities to police departments. 

It's no fun fighting crime. It's dangerous, hard work, and it makes officers cranky and frustrated. How much more productive and self-serving for them to pull suburban housewives over and hit them with $300 fines for driving 28 mph along a neighborhood street! 

I never had illusions about the police. They're unpleasant people doing an unpleasant job, and their priorities were always about money, not safety or property. 

That's never been any more obvious than now, as they hustle to make up the budget shortfalls on the backs of hapless drivers. 

It's all about following the money.  

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Michael A. Smith - The Earth is Flat

The earth is flat. But it's not. It rolls over the horizon, its spherical curvature habitually unperceived in our daily round. Historically, photography has focused on a rectangular image whose dimensions were usually no greater than 1/2, which is to say horizontal or vertical organizations of subject-matter were organized around the human field of vision as we typically experience it. Our peripheral vision is mostly for peripheral awareness, whilst our mental concentration (or focal perception) is roughly confined within the 30-50 degree field ahead of us. Normally sighted individuals may perceive visual data up to 170 degrees across the field of vision, but most of this data is "ignored" by the brain.  

On those occasions when we are made aware of the potential extent of our impressive peripheral vision--for instance, when we're raised above the ground or when we look up into the sky--we are reminded at the same time of the breadth of our apprehension of the environment, of the vast array of data which is thus made available for our discernment.

There is a long history of wide-angle photography. Variations in the shape and dimension of the picture plane were explored over one hundred years ago. Throughout its history, some photographers have made images out of "wide" or "banquet" formats. We've all seen the classic "group" portraits of gatherings of people at long tables, on grandstands, "team" photos, "class" photographs, and the like. Pioneer photographers like Art Sinsabaugh (1924-1983) explored "flat" horizontal landscape photography using large wide-angle format (12x20). Sinsabaugh's quotidian Midwestern landscapes ironically emphasized the "flatness" of subject-matter while at the same time celebrating it through the power of his materials.  

Flatness, or horizontal design principles were explored by Frank Lloyd Wright during his "Prairie Style" design periods. It's no surprise that Wright, a Midwesterner by birth and inspiration (Wisconsin, Chicago), was moved to create architectural designs that exploited the undulations and straight lines implied by the flat, subtly inflected Middle Western landscape.

Over the last 30 years, Michael A. Smith, of Pennsylvania, has assiduously devoted himself to expressing visual composition through his 8x20 inch view camera. I first met Michael about 20 years ago, about the time he'd first met up with Paula Chamlee, soon to be his wife and perpetual camera companion (and accomplished photographer in her own right). Michael had already by that time published a landmark collection of images in a two volume monograph of his work (Landscapes 1975-1979). In the years since then, he and Paula have traveled around the world, photographing breathtaking landscapes, and have embarked upon an ambitious publishing venture under the Lodima Press imprimatur, including the collected Portfolios of Brett Weston (in progress)

In 1999-2000, Smith and Chamlee traveled to Italy, shipping their "camera car" all the way to Europe. The result: A 2-volume set, TUSCANY, Wandering the Back Roads [Lodima Press, 2004]. 

Most popular landscape photography emphasizes dramatic juxtapositions, and hair-raising vantages. Truncated spacial relationships, high contrast arrangements, unreal colors, etc. Serious "art" landscape photography, as well, has largely been preoccupied with eye-catching images, or eccentrically conceived subject-matter. Smith, on the other hand, has been interested in high-resolution "straight" image-making. With the large negatives he uses, contact printing is mostly what you work with--after all, what's the point of enlarging a photographic contact print that's already almost two feet wide?! The great advantage of contact printing (directly from the negative sandwiched with the printing paper), is the extraordinary detail afforded by the lenses. The quality of the detail, alone, is often fascinating enough in its own right, to justify the use of such large, unwieldy, negatives. 

What struck me about Smith's images, from the start, was their apparent lack of initial formal excitement. Obviously, he wasn't interested in "oohing" and "ahhing" the viewer with his over-the-top angles or strained intensities. Smith comes down from a tradition that began with Weston and Adams and Strand, deploying a meditative, quiet vision that has absorbed the meaning of photography as an art, that acknowledges the range of expressive qualities possible to light-sensitive image-making, but prefers to revel in the textures and subtle shadings of straight composition, without blurring, in full light, from panoramic vantages. 

Smith's vision is heroic, seeing in the curved, modulating waves of land, a formal grace and power; in the grainy densities of rock, stucco, wood and earth, an almost spiritual absorption; in the varying textures of fields of grass, of the scrubby, bushy, twiggy stuff of trees, shrubs and vines, metaphysical signatures through the albedo of the sun's wide spectrum, its panoply of arrayed reportage.

Smith has been loyal to his vision, unwilling or unable to compromise it in favor of a more "attractive" style. Smith's new book is Ocean Variations [2009]. I'm looking forward to it.                       

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Shane - The Enigma at the Heart of a Classic Western

Shane [1953] holds a special place in my memory of movie history and experience. When I was a toddler, my parents went often to Drive-In Movies, or what we called "motor movies." I was an only child then, and I had place of honor, standing up on the car seat between my parents. Much of the early drama of my imaginative life took place in this position. 
The motor movies had a certain rhythm: You drove in through a gate, paid your $2-3, and then drove among the rows of audio speakers on metal stands, deciding upon a place to park to see the big screen. The projection hut doubled as the snack bar, and between features, or during the "intermission" break, customers would crunch back on the gravel lot to the snack bar to get popcorn and sodas and candy. Often there was a "drawing" based on the ticket numbers given at the gate, and the lucky winner would get a side of bacon or a gift certificate at the local 5 & dime store. When the movie was approaching its end, early departing guests would turn on their lights and put the audio unit back on the post. Often, they'd forget to do this and would drive away, pulling the speaker cord off its post. The car became a kind of private world--you could say whatever you wanted, and do pretty much what you wanted in the car. A Lot of heavy petting went on, and it was best not to pay too much attention to what was taking place in adjacent cars. 

Based on the genre novella by Jack Shaefer, the screenplay was written by A.B. Guthrie, Jr. (a successful novelist--The Big SkyThe Way West). Set in the wild newly settled territory of mid-19th Century Montana, it creates the usual dialectic between the tame, civilized rancher-settlers, and the dictatorial outlaw with his band of gunslingers hired to beat back the advance of newcomers, whose smaller claims and subdivisions threatened to end the era of the open range. Schaefer's book holds a unique position in the annals of Western (or cowboy, or "old West") literature. It was the author's first book, and is one of the most sought-after collectible first edition titles in 20th Century fiction. The book starts this way--

"He rode into our valley in the summer of '89. I was a kid then, barely topping the backboard of father's old chuck-wagon. . . . In that clear Wyoming air I could see him plainly, though he was still several miles away. There seemed nothing remarkable about him, just another stray horseman riding up the road toward the cluster of frame buildings that was our town. Then I saw a pair of cowhands, loping past him, stop and stare after him with a curious intentness." 

There was a kind of sentimental cliche in cinema during the 1950's, of a father and a son, or a father and mother and a child, facing the challenges of life "on the frontier"--withstanding adversity and building a life. Shane was one such movie, the story of a quiet gunslinger (played by Alan Ladd) trying to escape his past, who befriends a pioneer family which has settled out west in the 1880's. He becomes a hired hand to Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) and his wife Marian (Jean Arthur). Shane tries to stay out of the land dispute, but keeps being drawn in and is finally compelled to put his six shooter back on when the ranchers hire Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), a noted gunfighter, to intimidate the farmers.

Another aspect of this sub-genre was adult sexual tension as seen from the child's point of view. In the novel, the narrative action is seen through the eyes of a boy (played by Brandon de Wilde), as recollected in adulthood. Though the boy idolizes Shane, Shane's attraction to the boy's mother threatens his immaturity and family security, even as his admiration for the drifter's grace and courage grows. 

In attempting to understand my own feelings at the time in relation to my parents, and our own little family, I could only intuitively comprehend how the action on the screen related to me. My Mother's first brief marriage was ending just as I was being conceived. My stepfather--a man 22 years her senior--entered the scene at that point and assumed parentage. A refugee from a failed marriage almost 20 years earlier, he had grown accustomed to the freedom of living single, and would prove, as time wore on, to be not only an unreliable breadwinner, but a skirt-chaser as well. I could sense this waywardness, even at age 6, though nothing overt was taking place in our lives at that moment. Clearly, I shared my stepfather's identification with Shane, just as he shared my identification with the boy's innocent excitement at growing up on the frontier. But my bond with my stepfather (I wasn't told about my real parentage until I was 13) was eventually complicated by his sexual instincts, just as Joey Starrett's (de Wilde) love of Shane is complicated by the attraction of the drifter to his Mother Marian Starrett (Jean Arthur). Joey's Father Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) is a staunch, hardworking, trusting husband and father, but much less romantic a figure than Shane. Joey's identification with Shane--his charming manner, his skill with a pistol, his bravery--aligns him with the profile of a sexually charged potential predator. Joey is charmed by him in the same way his Mother is, in opposition to the responsible, stable family unit, the cooperative, community oriented ethic which Joe Sr. represents. Joe Sr. is a bore who wants to hold things together, to make people get along, but he's impotent against the unscrupulous Rufus Ryker, the open-range laissez-faire cattle-capitalist and his band of hired guns. The opposition of potent-cowboy and impotent "farmer" is a key one. 

I could tell my stepfather identified with Shane, rather than Joe Sr. I knew my Mother identified with Marian (Jean Arthur). Marian is conflicted: She too believes in family, and security, and the continuity of settled community, but she's also drawn to the potent drifter. This waywardness in both the parents always troubled me, from my first viewing of the film at age 6, because I perceived the same tendencies in my parents as I saw in the movie, tendencies in them, which would later lead to awkward, and eventually catastrophic developments in our family life. The cliche-ridden cultural paradigms of the 1950's would have assumed that most fathers of that time would fit the Joe Sr. mold. But in my case, I sensed that, despite the overt commitment of my parents to accepted codes of behavior, both of them privately did not subscribe to those values. The modality of ostensible conventionality was one I saw as fragile and vulnerable--beneath the veneer of propriety was an undercurrent of rebelliousness that could tear apart families and make spiritual (if not psychological) orphans of innocent children. That was my fear, and that was, to a large degree, what made my early appreciation of this movie so memorable. 

As a child, I would play cops and robbers, cowboys and indians, and so on--in juvenile tribute to the "games" of genre fantasy, the imaginary fictionalized versions of the American West or crime noir, but the real issues revolved around competing tendencies of behavior, and of the implied insecurity or dangers which lurked close at hand. The movie version of Shane was as much an exploration of the tensions of family, of American middle-class mores of the 1950's, as it was an exercise in platitudes of the Western genre stereotypes.                                       
The movie was a standard vehicle for the box-office heart-throb and noir veteran actor Alan Ladd, whose diminutive stature (he was only 5'5"!) routinely had to be carefully camouflaged, lest he appear a midget among men. His popularity isn't difficult to understand--his boyish good looks, mellifluous voice and understated easy-going manner made him a natural matinee idol. Nevertheless, he eventually succumbed to inherited depressive neurosis, dying of an overdose of drugs and alcohol at only age 50!   

Brandon de Wilde, the child star who nearly stole the show, also had a tragic life. After starring in another signature Western, Hud [1963], and In Harm's Way [1965] as a young ensign in the Pacific Theatre during WWII, he was killed in an auto accident at only age 30! 

The movie also served to cement the growing reputation of character actor Jack Palance, whose face had been disfigured during WWII. Palance's creepy, malevolent black hand portrayal of the "evil" gunfighter litearlly steals the show. Palance in real life was an interesting man, who attended Stanford University, worked for a while as a journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area, after having been in the service, and for a while as a legitimate heavy-weight boxer in the early 40's. If he hadn't been type-cast as the reliably repulsive villain, he might have had a career as a top-grossing heavy. In my mind, he'll always be the reptilian rascal in Shane, oozing malice and an insane derision for his victims.