Sunday, September 27, 2009

Recollections of the Sixties in Berkeley - Part I

Does our political life tend toward sophistication? It's a question that's rarely addressed objectively. One of the cliches of sociological study in the last 75 years has been the preoccupation with how modern techno-culture tends to break down the links and connections between people, creating various forms of apathy, disengagement, isolation, and the psychological conditions which follow: Alienation, suspicion, boredom, intolerance. But the degree to which people involve themselves in our political life, and the degree to which they make themselves aware of what is happening, as responsible citizens of a representative democracy, are questions which have been usually considered apart from the context within which it counts. In the Sixties, after a decade and a half of post-war "anomie", the first wave of the "baby-boom" generation (the children of the Depression, and WWII generation), reacted against the stifling conformity and presumption of the 1950's--expressed as America's global military adventures, the "organization" men of industry and the corporate culture--by challenging modes of dress, behavior, and openly questioning the available life-style roles. 
Rejecting the prosperity offered to them by a new economic affluence--the suburban "revolution" of sanitized, dehumanized "community" and a righteous world-view about America's predominant "place" and role in world affairs--American youth, coming of age in the Sixties, sought new radical paradigms to redefine its social conscience, and explore new ways of living and thinking, against the inertia of political stagnation. 
In the immediate post-war period (1945-1970), investment in public education was on a steep rise. Rapid expansions of the public state college and university systems across the nation, encouraged people to believe in the ideal of educational advancement as a right, not a privilege, of growing up in a democratic society. The prosperity which drove this phenomenon, however, was based on an industrial model which would not endure the global capital expansion which began in the 1980's, and has progressed with unprecedented speed around the world. In just a single generation, America went from being the de-facto industrial engine of the earth, to being a nation of credit consumerism.      

Those of us who grew up in the 1950's and 1960's didn't see this coming at all, and even if we had, it's unlikely we would have seen the consequences of the proliferation of the factory model into the Third World. The computer revolution, and the over-heated market and real estate speculations of the 1990's and early 2000's, masked the coming rapid decline in America's economic prosperity. 

Would the social consciousness and political liberalism of the 1960's have been as emphatic as it was, had we understood then how fragile and temporary our hold on prosperity (including our ability to study, expand liberty, and experience more of life) was? Were the Sixties, in effect, a social phenomenon fueled by a false sense of security and bounty, which was unsustainable, and therefore indulgent and naive?   

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Giants Play-off Run Over - Season Summary

As the 2009 season comes to a close, the Giants Wild Card chances have evaporated over a two week period during which they lost a key series against the Dodgers, and their lead starters each had poor performances. It seems time, now, to summarize their season, and measure it against the expectations going in this year.

The management strategy seems to have been a team based on great pitching, good fielding, and timely "scratch" hitting. Runs would be hard to get, but every game would be a low-scoring contest.

Great baseball teams almost always consist of balance: Some very good pitching (at least two good starters, and at least one very good closer), some power (at least two power hitters, with a couple of others having career years), some speed (at least two fast runners, one of whom steals a lot of bases), and timely (clutch) hitting generally. Teams which are unbalanced (great pitching without hitting, or vice versa) generally have difficulties.

Teams with great pitching need a reliable offense to put up at least 4 runs regularly. Teams with great hitting need pitchers whose median ERA doesn't rise up above 5.0. Both Lincecum and Cain probably would, under ordinary circumstances, have had something like 20 and 19 wins respectively, this year, but for a consistent lack of run support against even mediocre journeyman hurlers.  

Both Sandoval and Velez have been pleasant surprises, each hitting with style and power throughout the season. Sandoval may indeed be a career hitter in the Tony Gwynn mold, who can collect 185-200 hits per year over a 15 year period; his weight may be a problem, but Gwynn was always stout and it didn't seem to affect him. Pablo is only 22; barring a serious injury, he's a future franchise player.

After these two, the field of possible future players is much less certain. Aurilia is finished. Molina, Renteria, Winn are all likely to be either traded or released at season's end. Ditto for Johnson, who at 45 is simply washed up. 

Among the starters, the rotation is fixed with Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez and Zito, all still young with good years ahead of them. Brian Wilson--though a little bit of a head case--is probably solid for the next decade as a reliable closer. For middle relief (or set-up) Jeremy Affeldt has been a pleasant surprise; but 2nd level journeymen come and go--this is probably something the team will have to reconsider again next year; certainly Howry and Valdez and Miller and Medders can't be counted on to be stars--middle relief typically is a thankless job, anyway.

The younger position players are a toss-up. Ishikawa, Schierholtz and Fred Lewis have had flashes of brilliance, but none of them is likely to be star material the way Sandoval will be. Each of them will be year to year, and may end up with careers like Winn and Rowand, always just a little shy of expectations. 

Among the veterans, Uribe, Sanchez and Garko have uncertain futures with the team. Uribe is having a great year, but he's not in the team's plans for the future. Garko, obtained (like Sanchez) at mid-season to provide some quick punch, also probably isn't in the future picture. Among these three, Sanchez is the big question-mark. He's been a solid .300+ hitter for six years with Pittsburgh, but there are serious questions about his physical capabilities; the victim of significant birth defects, which he's overcome so far, it may be that these are catching up with him now, and that Pittsburgh could see that coming, which is why they dumped him. He's not a big power-run producer at 2nd, the way Kent was, but his potential value as a #2 or 3 hitter is tantalizing. IF he can stay healthy.

On balance, the team is still weak on power and run production, and desperately needs more of each to compete next season against the Dodgers and Rockies (two powerhouses). Garko, Rowand, Shierholtz, Ishikawa, and Uribe--none of these can be counted on to provide it. 

There's a lot of sentiment, following the poor run production this season, to re-think the strong-pitching, weak-hitting approach. Ideally, one would like to be done with Molina, Renteria, Rowand, Winn, Aurilia, Garko, Frandsen, and replace all these with a couple of stronger-hitting outfielders, and possibly a slugger at 1st base. I wasn't impressed with Ishikawa or Bowker--they might make good trade bait. But, bottom-line, some money is going to have to be spent to get some home-runs and RBI's. Sandoval can't be a clean-up hitter--it's not his style. Who knows what Rohlinger or Posey may do?  

At season's end, there certainly will be a pool of free-agents available. It will be interesting what GM Sabean does. At the very least, we need a new batting coach--Carney Lansford's been a complete failure, the whole team's batted like little leaguers all year. Winn, Renteria and Molina need to go. We need a genuine generic clean-up hitter, a player who can be counted on to hit between 25-30 homers, or at the least can knock in 100 RBI's, a year. The team needs another player (Rowand was supposed to be that) to hit 20 homers and score 85 runs, and come through in the clutch. 

Whatever happens, it will be interesting. Few teams have the luxury of building around a great starting staff, as the Giants do. They shouldn't have to give any of them up, either, to get what they need. Sandoval was the great surprise this year, as Lincecum was last year. With even one young player rising to prominence next year, and a new slugger to add to the mix, a pennant would not be out of the question at all.  The Dodgers lack consistent pitching, as do the Rockies, and some of their stars are on the downward trend of their careers (Ramirez, Helton).

2009 was tantalizing. 2010 could be a break-out year for a dynasty.                                  

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Huston's Under the Volcano - Incompatibility on a Grand Scale

John Huston [1906-1987] belongs among the top 10 American movie directors of all time. Aside from his cinematic instincts--which often seemed infallible--he had a deep interest in literary narrative, and sought to adapt a number of what he regarded as classic texts to the screen, especially towards the end of his career, when he had the authority and cred to pull them off.  

One of his late successes was the adaptation of Malcolm Lowry's masterpiece, Under the Volcano [1947]. Set in Mexico, it's a profoundly autobiographical account of a severe alcoholic Englishman. Lowry makes him a minor British diplomat, but that's simply a convenience: His real interest is the graphic contrast he gets by placing Geoffrey Firmin (played by Albert Finney) in a "primitive" culture in which suffering and death are celebrated and embraced, rather than avoided and ignored. In a verbal narrative, Firmin's mental torments can be described from the inside out, in the usual way. In cinema, these psychological aspects have either to be fantasized or obliquely dramatized. Firmin's alcoholic delusions and acting-out serve as an ironic vehicle for Lowry's metaphysical ruminations, which then sets up melodramatic and comic asides. 

The central issue is whether Firmin's wife Yvonne (played by Jacqueline Bisset), with whom he has a steadily deteriorating relationship, can seduce him back to a rational, and sober, life. Complicating this is the presence of Firmin's half-brother, Hugh (played by Anthony Andrews), who has had a brief affair with Yvonne at some point in the past. Hugh is recently returned from serving as a journalist (and Royalist supporter) covering the Spanish Civil War.   

Firmin's alcoholic dependence is typically driven by self-pity and depression, his increasing awareness of his mortality, and his existence consists of a series of quixotic confrontations, eventually leading to his death--and Yvonne's--by a handful of hoodlums in a semi-rural whorehouse-tavern. The symbolic framework of the film--the "volcano" smoldering in the background, the death masks and rattles during the Mexican Day of the Dead, the white horse which rears, killing Yvonne--function on another metaphorical level, somewhat obscured, of necessity, in the movie. Firmin's struggles with the demon drink are ultimately tragic, but the means by which that unfolds is a belittling and pointless descent into primitivistic forces, at odds with his dignified and intellectual bearing. His fatalistic determination to wrestle with alcohol is simultaneously "heroic" and absurd: Toying with death in a degraded, corrupt world is no less risky than engaging in real conflict.

The central "incompatibility" which exists between Firmin's papier mache world of chimeras and masks, and the actual Dante-esque Hell of Mexico, is replicated in the incompatibility between the prose narrative and the cinematic representation of it as staged by Huston. Can dream-narratives, like The Naked Lunch, or Ulysses, be represented graphically, without mangling their central purpose and potential as literary-psychological tracts? Huston may have been just a little too optimistic about his own literary loves. On the one hand, we admire any moviemaker (or scriptwriter's) tendency to want to make movies more "literary" than they may seem to "want" to be. On the other hand, it is useful to remember than movies--two-dimensional visual sequences based on the mimicry of moving deliberately through perceived space and time, have severe limitations when it comes to describing complex psychological data, which words can probably evoke more effectively. The most successful "adaptations" are from straight drama, to the screen; but such "theatricality" doesn't necessarily make good cinema. Imagine trying to make literature out of Charlie Chaplin, or John Wayne. The qualities which animate our attention in a movie house rarely are translatable "backwards" to a text. 

Larry McMurtry, notably, has said that attempts to "literize" screenplays are doomed--or should be forbidden--because they can't qualify as separate documents. He argues--convincingly, since he is experienced in both straight writing as well as screenwriting--that a screenplay isn't a fixed document, but merely a scaffolding, an outline which any director can alter in any one of a number of ways. Hence, no "shooting" script is really a fixed literary draft, only an intermediary means to an end (the shot and edited movie). One wants to argue, however, that there are great movies, out of which a faithful rendering can be made, and which can stand, by themselves, the same way any successful dramatic writing can (visual and aural fireworks aside). And there were directors--Hitchcock comes immediately to mind--who insisted on rigidly precise shooting scripts, complete with mock-ups of visual relationships followed to the letter

What is "dramatic literature"? Is a poem read aloud a dramatic event? Of course. Or at least it can be, in the right hands. Can a great novel, a great psychological study, in which the outward events of the "action" are the mere pretexts for the philosophical or metaphysical explorations of the main character or characters, be faithfully rendered on screen? That is probably the main question this movie attempts to answer. I wish Huston were still around to answer it.               


Friday, September 18, 2009

Moore's "England" - The Difference that Matters


with its baby rivers and little towns, each with its abbey or its cathedral;   
with voices - one voice perhaps, echoing through the transept - the  
criterion of suitability and convenience; and Italy  
with its equal shores - contriving an epicureanism  
from which the grossness has been extracted,  

and Greece with its goat and its gourds,  
the nest of modified illusions: and France, 
the "chrysalis of the nocturnal butterfly," 
in whose products, mystery of construction diverts one from what was originally one's object - 
substance at the core: and the East with its snails, its emotional  

shorthand and jade cockroaches, its rock crystal and its imperturbability,  
all of museum quality: and America where there  
is the little old ramshackle victoria in the south,  
where cigars are smoked on the street in the north;  
where there are no proofreaders, no silk-worms, no digressions;  
the wild man's land; grass-less, linksless, languageless country in which letters are written  
not in Spanish, not in Greek, not in Latin, not in shorthand,  
but in plain American which cats and dogs can read! 
The letter a in psalm and calm when 
pronounced with the sound of a in candle, is very noticeable, but  

why should continents of misapprehension 
have to be accounted for by the fact? 
Does it follow that because there are poisonous toadstools 
which resemble mushrooms, both are dangerous? 
Of mettlesomeness which may be mistaken for appetite, 
of heat which may appear to be haste, 
no conclusions may be drawn.  

To have misapprehended the matter is to have confessed that one has not loooked far enough. 
The sublimated wisdom of China, Egyptian discernment, 
the cataclysmic torrent of emotion 
compressed in the verbs of the Hebrew language, 
the books of the man who is able to say, 
"I envy nobody but him, and him only, 
who catches more fish than 
I do" - the flower and fruit of all that noted superiority 
if not stumbled upon in America, 
must one imagine that it is not there? 
It has never been confined to one locality.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It is rare when prose is so good that it rivals poetry. Perhaps that was what Pound meant
when he stated that "poetry should be at least as well-written as prose" at a time when the 
dominant prose-writers were Henry James, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather.
Moore was the master of a prose style which did indeed rival the felicities of organized
prosody. Her extremely eccentric syllabic matrices suggest that for her--at least as far as
straight prose (which has its own rhythmic and rhetorical rules just as rhyme and syllabic
counting does) went, a rigid form was, a priori, a basic precondition of managing a "denatured"
(poetically dry) sentence style, of "setting it" artificially outside of its essential prosaic context, 
into a formal shape that was both visually, and aurally, "poetic." If you can make rhyme 
seem natural enough, within the syntax and flow of ordinary speech, there is less and less
resistance to the implied monotony of its recurrence. In this way, at least, poetry can be
made to seem as accessible as elevated conversation, which would seem to be very much
what Moore is striving for, generally, in her poems. 
I choose this poem, "England," precisely because it doesn't seem to me to have an over-riding, 
complex argument, requiring a finicky deconstruction of terms and ironic twists, but is rather
an evidently simple entertainment, addressed to a question that has interested serious American
novelists (such as James and Wharton) and poets for at least six generations (since the mid-19th 
Century): That of the difference between European and American culture (and language), 
the forbear and the "descendant", the Mother-tongue and the bastard child.
The enumerations of cliche with which the poem begins are intended to capture (or burlesque)
the familiar characterizations of cultural-intellectual stereo-types which form the foundation
of our habitual senses of these national (Old versus New) differences. 
America--"the wild man's land"--is where "American" is spoken "which cats and dogs can read!"
The implied satiric self-deprecation of this pose is not defensive, but prideful. If American
English is regionally various, then it must follow that mere pronunciation cannot be a basis for
determining any inherent superiority between "English" (or British) and American pronuncia-
tions. If the difference between British and American culture is one of type, and not of degree,
then the important observation is that any regional (local), provincial, riparian, in situ civili-
zation has as much integrity as any other. Human beings seem incapable of conducting business
anywhere, over time, without developing complex terms of interaction and traditional codifica-
tion at least as remarkably unique and compelling as any other. "It has never been confined to
one locality" means just that, that the minor differences we may remark between shared 
linguistic traditions cannot be the basis for "continents of misapprehension." 
The implication of this insistence upon America's cultural integrity ignores the subtle distinctions
employed by writers like James and Wharton, who appear to believe that only Americans'
innocence, purity or boldness can match the nuance and inscrutability of European fastidiousness.
What Moore does manage to do is brilliantly mimic the proposed edifices of thousands-year-old
cultural artifacts, which then are methodically leveled in order to render their essence--
"substance at the core." If decorativeness is what we really think about the supposed superiority
of European culture--and it almost always is, in the end--then that decorativeness is no less
"regional" or "local" than any other. Oceans may separate us, but modern communication and
the familiarity of intercourse make that irrelevant. Continents of misapprehension. Oceans of

Paul Caponigro -- What Is and What Is Not 'There'

Paul Caponigro [1932- ] has been for several decades one of America's premier landscape photographers. Originally a disciple of Minor White, Caponigro has continued to refine the spiritual or mystical side of black and white imaging, well within the tradition of clear focus, which has dominated serious art photography since the 1930's. Caponigro's work hasn't been limited strictly to landscape as subject, as he has carried on a parallel investigation into arranged still-life, though, again, well within the naturalistic tradition of flowers, rocks, leaves, screens, etc., unlike the artificial applications of some post-Modern practitioners, like John Pfahl, for instance.

                                                                                 Caponigro circa 1974

But Caponigro's "mysticism" isn't specific to a discipline, as his mentor White was--frequently making direct references to Zen or Gurdjieff. Caponigro has been quoted as saying that White felt a necessity for a philosophical justification or underpinning for his photographic statements, whereas he (Caponigro) doesn't. Nevertheless, Caponigro has frequently expressed his approach to image-making in this way: "One needs to be still enough, observant enough, and aware enough to recognize the life of the materials, to be able to 'hear through the eyes'." The musical metaphor is relevant, as Caponigro has been a pianist all his life. 

                                                                          Nahant, Massachusetts 1958

Speaking generally, Caponigro's work has always had a certain restrained quietness about it. He's not out to capture the most dramatic scene, the big all-encompassing vision of grandness and operatic fulmination. His work has, from the beginning, been about the intimate regard for a suggestive quality in the material world, frequently discovered by accident, or through the examination of objects discretely posed. His images usually set up a dialectic between opposites:  Light & dark, near & far, attraction & repulsions, familiar & bizarre, large & small--but almost always, one is tempted to linger. The images invite, but they seldom overwhelm your attention. The point seems to be to instigate a relaxed, leisurely meditation from a neutral vantage, to open a clear line of communication between thing and mind, allowing nature and form to "speak".     

                                                                      Revere Beach, Massachusetts 1958

Formally, Caponigro's images have a "roundedness" or "wholeness" and balance--typical of Weston and his followers--which keeps them on an even keel. They don't challenge your sense of the dimensionality of vantage, or of the viewer's "permission" with respect to what's being presented or proposed. His abstractions don't make subject-matter irrelevant, but preserve objective identity:  Things are what they are. Beyond this, they may simply suggest further metaphorical alternatives: The picture of an apple--its white-dotted shiny skin--may suggest a galaxy, the apple of a god's eye, the universe in piece of fruit.      

                                                                           Apple, New York City 1964

Caponigro has made photographic pilgrimages to remote places:  To England to photograph the "megaliths" left by pre-historic peoples.  To Japan.  And he lived for several years in New Mexico, whose dramatic, dry landscapes were so unlike his native New England. 

                                                Inner Stone Circle, Castlerigg, Cumberland, England 1977

Caponigro's skill--to evoke a quiet sense of presence within the frame that both demands our attention and curiosity, while not insisting upon any partisan interpretation--clearly derives from his reaction to the pretense (noted earlier re: Minor White) of specific pointers. His titles are dry, but without connotation or suggestion. Landscapes may be "beautiful"--as the above image taken in England is--but they have something to tell us. But what? The message seems to be that, unlike the peremptory chance of the "captured" moment, the visual experience requires patience, and relaxation, and openness. We must be willing to allow the silence of a purely visual apprehension to enable us to absorb the relationships of things as they present themselves, on their own terms--their weights and situation, their placement(s), the forces which influence them, how time and decay and use have molded and shaped them. 

What is: The residual evidence of the inertia of time. What time throws up on the shore of the crumbling present, the hiss and fission of foam, dragged back under by the inexorable inertia of the forgotten, the abandoned. Time leaves us: From the moment of our birth(s), we are leaving all this, in a slow, gradual elegy of image, sound, sensation. Photographs are the ghosts of that memorial, the gallery of fleeting moments.     

                                                                           Eucalyptus and Fern 2004

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Minimalism Part V: Zukofsky's Later All

Louis Zukofsky's collected short poems were first gathered in the consolidated paperback original All: The Collected Short Poems: Series One (1923-1948); and Series Two (1956-1964). The earlier volume began with "Poem beginning 'The'" (a work which seems to me to be a take-off on Eliot's The Waste Land, published just a couple of years earlier), and concluded with Song #29 ("Mantis"). The chonology of the poems written in the 1940's and '50's is a little vague, there's some overlap and shifting of arrangement in LZ's collection in those decades, but it's pretty clear that the second volume demonstrates a growing interest in short poems, with less reliance on a rhetorical prosody, and more emphasis on alphabetical and even visual qualities.

Or at least that's the way Robert Grenier saw it, when he introduced a selection of LZ's minimalist works to his students at the first poetry writing course he taught at Berkeley in 1967, which I attended as an undergraduate. At that point, Creeley had moved definitively into his Pieces period, and it seemed as if everyone was either going to follow him (as LZ before him) down that road, or would choose an opposite example, like Ashbery, whose long poems were just beginning then to appear ("The Skaters," and later "Fragment," "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," and so on). I thought of Grenier in those days as descending in a line from LZ to Creeley to himself, though in those days Bob (G) was so heavily under the shadow of Creeley that he may have had difficulty defining himself in relation to adopted mentor. He was struggling to find an individual voice, and you could just hear it, in works such as "tyke/Darrell" or some of the early poems that would eventually find their way into his collection A Day At The Beach (which went through a number of successive incarnations before finally being published in 1984).

What Grenier saw in the second installment of LZ's All, was poems for his own (and others') use: Zukofsky had the mind of a classical poet, but employed in/upon Modernist free (or invented) forms (Williams's "new additions to nature"). That was a purpose LZ--old radical ("or surd") that he was--would have appreciated--work as vehicle, not decoration for value--use as value. 

The earliest "example" of LZ's minimalist tendency is apparent in his narrow stripped-down lyrics from the 'Thirties, like Song #16:



sleeper's eyes,


whom . . . ?

nowhere . . .

where eyes . . .

are crickets'

  *  *  *

You can just see Zukofsky at the precipice of an apprehension of language that is not iterative: The effects he's after here are more immediate than mere syntax, they hinge on quick echoes of mirrored, or syllabically translucent qualities, the "hearing" of mental cognates and proximal similarities. The terms are reduced to primal meanings with the rapidity of instantaneous associations. Later, these possibilities would be explored further, and sharpened like spear-points against the inertia of expectation and impatience:

           A round

Isn't this a lovely field
in winter?      

  *  *  *

Who in snow
Has lain
Does not complain.

Wee Willie.

  *  *  *

My nose feels better in the air.

  *  *  *


The winds


  *  *  *


  Four tubas

  *  *  *



  *  *  *

These are not "read" but perceived with the complete simultaneity of recognition, the way we respond to street signs. 

The verticality of "the/desire/or/towing" is pulled down from the titled capitals, as if words (or letters) had a weight, as degrees of magnetism. The definite article proposed as a linear pointer, pendulant--pendant--dangling--dependent. A diadem.

The isolation of the word "agitating" as a quality superimposed upon the fluidity of matter ("water") is nearly visual:

a -gi-ta-to  -  a nervous zig-zag  -  to move with an irregular, rapid, or violent action.

Anyone who has ever lain in snow, knows the curiously euphoric quality of that, indeed it may even resemble "the peace that surpasses" the ultimate fear of death itself. So we whistle a ditty--the purest, loneliest sound against the emptiness of a winter's day, whittling down the poem to a handy shape, a lullaby to a drowsy baby. 

A movement for four tubas or two-by-fours: Can you hear the tuba's bwomp-bwomp deep-throated blare in there? What's in the sound of long boards dropped in air? If we set the poem as a quartet of four instruments, then it's a game of musical bridge, each horn playing off the other three. Two times two is four, but who (or what?) is it for? Nothing but itself. 

This process of winnowing, or whittling away (of) what--then--are nonessentials, throws the remaining residual scaffolding of words (language) into stark relief: It becomes its own material, like inscriptions on stones, or signs in (neon) light. Marks in space. 

When we get down to the level at which words are perceived "originally"--that is, with the least iterative baggage or modal contextuality--we get back to their purest first (best) sense

Are the number of such possible reductions limited to the number of permutations available to use? It might seem so, given their elusiveness. But is that an illusion buried under the quotidian of layering? Can we peal back the skin(s) to find the empty center of our meditation? Is language the nut, or the shell?      



Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Vacation hold

Please note we will be away for five days beginning tomorrow, so no new posts will appear during that period.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

2 on the Aisle: The Caine Mutiny [1954] & Patton [1970]

Disclaimer: Readers should be aware that I have no military service in my background. My Stepfather never served (he was born in 1901), and my real Father was a conscientious objector in WWII. Nevertheless, my interest in war movies is not colored by a lack of sympathy for, or a naive rejection of the necessity for, the military life-style in general.     

Military narratives often focus on the problems of command. Like traditional theater, which is frequently devoted to the problems of royalty, these stories follow the brass through its private journeys and official duties, revealing telling detail, contradictions and weaknesses in character, and the challenges and responsibilities of directing the energies and campaigns of bodies of men and materiel. 

The Caine Mutiny [1951] was the central work of Herman Wouk's career, a novel about a mutiny aboard a mine-sweeper in the Pacific Theater during a typhoon in World War II, which was later adapted to the stage (The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial [1953]), and finally to the screen in 1954. The plot is atypical for Hollywood: Rather than the gung-ho version of American soldiers or sailors, this is a psychological study of a captain who fails under the stress of command, endangering his ship and crew, and eventually is embarrassed in a dramatic court-martial trial. Even more unusually, Wouk further complicates matters by taking sides against the mutineers, in open sympathy with the discredited Captain Queeg (played by Humphrey Bogart, in one of his best roles). The action is seen from the perspective of a novice ensign, Willis Keith (late of Princeton), through whose eyes everything is seen as if it were, well, a movie; he's a man to whom things happen. Willie is naive, and something of a bumbler. He's a poor judge of character, and is rather headstrong. 

The setting is similar in its way to another WWII classic, Mister Roberts [1955]. Both stories/films are set on small ships, have typically "wacky" crews, and are far enough away from real battle action to allow the author/director to concentrate on the interaction of characters. In both, the Captain is an uptight disciplinarian, lacking imagination, who tries to blame the crew for his own shortcomings and failures; in both, a courageous, but unimaginative first officer (Fonda as Mister Roberts, Van Johnson as Lieutenant Maryk in Caine) attempts to mend fences and keep things from falling apart. In Mister Roberts, the Captain's cruelty and abuse of command are treated as amusing irritations; in The Caine Mutiny, Queeg's failure becomes the occasion for a serious morality play on the theme of the misuse of power, and the corrupting influence of irresponsible intellectual playboys. 

As Captain Queeg descends into his paranoid delusions, we can see (and begin to enjoy) his fall from grace and eventual embarrassment in the court-martial. "Not so fast!" Wouk seems to be saying. The defense attorney, Barney Greenwald (played by Jose Ferrer), attacks Lieutenant Keefer (Fred MacMurray), for having executed the plot to seize command (by planting the seeds of mutiny in the mind of Maryk), as the "real Author of the Caine Mutiny." The irony of identifying the fictional "author" of the mutiny as the guilty party (who will "write [his] novel, go to Hollywood, and make a million bucks") is not lost on the audience. The moral ambiguity of turning the spotlight away from Queeg's pathetic failures, and pointing it at the cynical, spineless Keefer, strikes us today as a somewhat reactionary stance. Is Wouk telling us that incompetence under fire is preferable to intellectual curiosity? Does Greenwald speak for Wouk, or is Wouk trying to have it both ways, as the "real Author" objectifying the fictional Author as a personification of his own guilt? 

Under conditions of war, behavior may not be measurable in the same way as it is during peacetime. 

In Patton, George C. Scott, after having been formally reprimanded by Eisenhauer for slapping a shell-shocked young private in a first-aid tent, asks "What is [this] compared to war? The sonofabitch should have been tried and executed for cowardice!" The screenwriters--Francis Coppola and Edmund North--attempt to portray Patton from the inside out, as an adolescent fantasist and petulant megalomaniac. His German enemies see him as the quintessential commander--ruthless, uncompromising, and efficient. Meanwhile, the Allied Command, worried about public relations and how things will appear, is wary of and embarrassed by Patton's frankness and aggressive manner. 

The point of Patton seems to be that military valor, as a quality or hybrid predisposition, is limited to the context in which it thrives. Patton, whose daring and audacity ("Toujours l'audace") brought his army victory in the European campaign, was that enigma "the perfect warrior" who could not survive outside the engagement of irrevocable conflict. 

Comparing the two figures, we have on the one hand a small-minded, "by-the-book" incompetent, who attempts to cover his failures by blaming his own staff, and on the other, a self-obsessed, arrogant demi-god whose dreams of glory are born on the backs of his soldiers. Both are caricatures of responsible leadership.                                                               

In each film, the central authority figure becomes the vehicle for an elaborate construction of character--in Scott's version, a blustering, vain, "realist" convinced of his own righteousness, unwilling to be tamed--and in Bogart's version, a slinking apologist, hiding behind rote regulation and whining self-pity. 

These two films get at the heart of America's divided sense of the value and purpose of militarism--as a style of life, and as an interpretation of the meaning of human conflict. In each case, we seek to identify a reliable protagonist, but in neither case, are we allowed a sympathetic, unambiguous example. When you open up the interior psychological reality of individual character, you inevitably discover contradiction. The violence of open conflict, and the stress of authority to direct it, are in a sense irreconcilable. Men are not machines. In a democracy, the humanistic qualities we value as responsible citizens, are in direct opposition to the qualities that make efficient soldiers. We expect of our leaders that they will serve virtuous ends, but may be forced to employ terrible means to accomplish them. These narratives are about how those contradictions twist and maim individual men, distorting their natures in the service of cruel alternatives.  

Friday, September 4, 2009

Linda Butler - An American Original

Linda Butler's career presents as a seamless record of continuously evolving success, as she has moved from triumph to triumph, her progress marked by a series of themed monographs--four to date--each of which has represented not just an expanding unique vision, but ground-breaking approaches to documentary photography.  

Paul Strand showed how an individual photographer, with a clear, sympathetic attitude towards a specific region--people and animals inside a landscape, of their place and time--might present a unified series of images, each of which, because of the integrated relationship between parts, could be greater than its sum, a metaphysical balance between matter, light, texture, culture, character, mood and meaning. Strand was known to be a stickler about his prints, producing indelible tonal intensities which communicated even through the offset reproductions which were used to produce his series of books. Strand was very ambitious, and it sometimes seemed/seems as if his overriding conviction overwhelmed his subjects, turning them into symbols or personifications, perhaps even caricatures of their actual selves. In any event, Strand set a standard which was a combination of the best aspects of the WPA era's fidelity to a populist, indigenous people, of the most serious abstracts of nature and man-made artifacts, into a synthesis expressed through the highest standards of the photographic art.

Coming down through this tradition, Butler's challenge has been to select subjects whose potential interest and significance could yield new tonalities and perspectives, and allow her to achieve a persuasive personal vision. 

Unlike Strand, Butler's vision is softer--though giving nothing away in terms of focal precision--but frequently conceived from more unusual vantages, sometimes even suggesting surreal disorientation, or pondered absence.  

Butler's four books--on the Shakers, on rural Japan, on Italy, and on the Yangtze River Valley in China--each broader in purpose and implication than the last, have redefined the regional monograph tradition. 

Butler's work may resemble Strand's in its balance between human and non-human, as well as marking the presence/absence of human habitation and effort, but its feeling is subtler and much more delicate, summoning delicate gradations of emotion and memory, regret and affection, than Strand ever demonstrated.              
Her last book was published by Stanford University Press, and is a literal elegy to a part of the world that we are soon to lose completely, as China completes its gigantic dam project which will bury hundreds of miles of territory and culture under a huge engineered lake along the great Yangtze River.

This was a project that demanded wide views, both to record what will soon be lost to history, as well as to provide a sense of scale of the landscape--as impressive and awe-inspiring, in its way, as the Grand Canyon.   
Butler's choice of black and white, as opposed to color imagery, was clear from the beginning--her vision is decisively within the tradition of magic shading--long straight-line scales, without losing the intensities of rich blacks and evanescently luminous shoulders. 

Working mostly with interior spaces, her first book on the Shaker communities--which have been maintained meticulously to preserve the quality of life they represented to their now-long-since-vanished inhabitants--exploited the soft natural light falling upon rustic, man-made objects, a quiet, modest quality of silence, meditative and devout, clearly religious in tone. See the bottom four images, taken directly from the book, and the separate one of cooking utensils hanging against a wall.   

The Rural Japan monograph--too large to be considered a mere portfolio (as one might describe the Shaker book)--was a fulfillment of the potentials of the first book, replicating the interest in common objects and spaces, back- or side-lit, explorations of the man-made environment, bearing the touch of care and the intimacy of common use. The camera caresses and glories in the textures and variations within the material world, allowing each thing--a boat, a simple door, a pool of carp--to stand in the poised dignity of its presence, cherished and whole. 

The Italy monograph breaks new ground, exploiting the potentials of subtle toning of prints. Rather than the "antique-ing" one often gets with these "split-tone" techniques, Butler's use of it extends the tonal dimension by adding another layer or lustre to the highlights, as if they were being illuminated by a different place in the visual spectrum. These images are more mysterious and even perhaps obsessive, than anything she had done (or at least published) previously. This book continues the tightly conceived attention to things--which both disclose as well as contain their meaning--which had characterized the earlier two. 

With the Yangtze River book, her attention moves out into a broader sphere, giving us panoramic views of the world, within which settled traditions and vernacular identity exists. Do we have the right and privilege to wreak awesome change upon a landscape which supported and sustained so many people in relative harmony with nature? 

I'm always a sucker for interesting dune shots, and these two are among my favorites. Alongside her "project" books, Butler also obviously is building her inventory of classic traditional photographic subjects.   

Each big step she has taken has been an event worthy of the high point of an ordinary career. In photographic terms, she is still young enough to be considered in her early prime. I eagerly await each subsequent cycle of her interest. What will her next book address? (Images mounted on her website show views of the devastation wrought by Katrina.) How will her work change to suit it? She hasn't taken a wrong step yet!