Friday, April 30, 2010

Four Weddings and a Funeral - Consolation as Consolation

Four Weddings and a Funeral [United Kingdom, PolyGram, 1994] is that most unusual and rare type of film, a serious romantic comedy for grown-ups, that almost completely works, both on the level of casual humor, and on the level of effective drama. 
Made in England ostensibly for an American audience, it nevertheless manages to be just English enough, perhaps, not to embarrass British audiences. The romantic relationship between British and American characters is an old trope, going all the way back to Henry James and Edith Wharton, so there is the very real risk of remaking predictable jokes, and turning the respective nationals into caricatures of their historic-literary models. 
I'm not sure why Andie MacDowell was chosen to play the American ingenue, unless it was because she looked so horsey (with that signature gummy smile) audiences might associate her with the Wild West. In any case, she was chosen as a prospective foil to play against all that British reserve and tight-lipped propriety. Indeed, the narrative itself is constructed around the reluctance of the male lead Charles [Hugh Grant], to commit to the idea of marriage, which is the central underlying question in the movie: Is the institution of marriage still possible in our age of infidelity and uncertainty, of expedient liaisons and half-hearted sex? 

Oddly, perhaps, the writers decided to organize the story around a group of English characters (something that was tried, with much less success, with Grant again, in Notting Hill [1999]), with the typical ragtag bomber-crew of misfits. Charles rooms platonically with a kooky scamp named Scarlett ("like Scarlett in Gone With the Wind, but much less trouble!"), and is friends with Tom and his sister Fiona [Kristin Scott Thomas] (of a family rich beyond description), Gareth [Simon Callow] and his lover Matthew, and Charles's younger brother David (played by deaf actor and dancer David Bower).        
Aside from being unable to get out of bed on time in the morning, Charles's biggest problem is that he's become a "serial monogamist" (which is how "Duck-face" one of his previous longer-term girlfriends Henrietta [Anna Chancellor] describes him at one point in the movie). Everyone else in the movie seems to romanticize marriage, and can't understand Charles's reluctance (expressed succinctly in his speech during the reception of Wedding #1--"I know I couldn't do it"). 

But we know that the whole point of the movie is that he will do it at some point. Someone, somehow, will be break through that resistance and seduce him into unconditional commitment, and conjugal bliss. 
When that someone shows up on the scene, during this very same wedding party, Charles pursues her with the same mixture of guarded interest and slightly embarrassed lustfulness that has worked so well in his past affairs. But Carrie [Andie MacDowell] is every bit as fast and loose as he is, in addition to being a good deal more uninhibited (even amusedly boastful about her past conquests), than Charles is.
But before Charles's infatuation can yet grow into full-fledged love, Carrie decides (on a whim) to marry a jaded older Scots back-bencher Hamish Banks. To further complicate matters, Fiona confesses to Charles that, unbeknownst to him, she has been in love with him for years. This is handled with the utmost taste and control, Scott Thomas's ravishing severity and forbearance the absolute height of intelligent agony. It's almost as if the writer and director want us to believe that Charles's great chance has eluded him, that his misguided and foolish investment in the American Carrie has been the biggest mistake of his life.       

But love (naturally) is blind, and irrational, which is what makes it such a creative (and destructive) force in human relations. Charles's foppish charm and awkward good intentions may get him into trouble, but it's his hesitation, his uncertainty about the "correct choices" in life that may yet save him from turning into a coat-hanger.
Like many movies that explore the possibility of love, Four Weddings and a Funeral is about the possibility of an energetic inspiration, through difference and strangeness and the unexpected. The improbability, the surprise and delight of finding another who, against considerable odds, can give us faith in ourselves, and in the potential of our own realization and fulfillment. That possibility may include comfort, harmony, and shared purpose, but at its best it may nurture in us an appreciation for unlikeness, the exotic, of what is, ultimately, not us but some wholly alien quality that finds its counterpart in some dormant part of our nature.

What Carrie and Charles have to discover through their engagement with each other challenges everything they believe about themselves--their view of the world, their habitual perception of reality, all the presumptions of accumulated experience, their whole background and uniqueness as human beings. MacDowell's and Grant's parody of this process nevertheless does capture something of the awkwardness of opposites discovering an antiphonic harmony, the dance of intrigue that is the prelude to true love.           

Though we may wish that Charles could but guess how lovely it might be to love Fiona, with her money, her charm, the comfort of their common Englishness to guide their every move, we know that this isn't what the movie-makers have in mind (just as we know the Charles's failed attempt to marry Henrietta ["Duckface"] is eternally doomed). We know that the message of Four Weddings is that the attraction of extreme opposites--despite the pitfalls and hazards involved--carries a greater magic, even if the hokey dramatic representation of it falls short, doesn't overcome our suspension of disbelief.
The other unities--or marriages--between Scarlett and Chester, Gareth and Matthew, Bernard and Lydia, Tom and Deirdre, David and Serena--are all constructed as improbabilities (attraction of opposites) as well, along the same lines. Love is represented as an irrational force causing deviations and confusion in the lives of those it touches, uniting true opposites, surprising and delighting its hosts. Following its dictates, the characters may experience pain, dislocation, and agonies, but these must be endured in order that the demands of their respective emotional needs are met. 
The Funeral, following Gareth's untimely death of heart attack at Carrie's wedding to Hamish, sets up a counterbalancing undertone of grief amidst all this conjugal bliss, of pairing and bountiful increase. Gareth, a florid "magnificent bugger" who is the intellectual soul of this little group of friends, had declared that their number must cease being mere witnesses and celebrants, must "go forth and conjugate" themselves. This command placed the institution of marriage on a higher plane than mere friendship; the members of the group are, in a sense, a kind of extended cult, sustaining each other with faithful dedication and support. But this cannot go on forever--deeper levels of betrothal are required to enable each to ripen into emotional fruition.  
The riddle of that equation is expressed in MacDowell's line at the end of the movie, when, in the pouring rain, following Charles's wrenching failed attempt at a "sensible" marriage (to Henrietta), Carrie asks him if he would consider "not marrying" [her]. This contradiction incorporates the modern paradigm of "open marriage"--the rejection of the traditional institution--not based on this problematic brand of love--in favor of an emancipated, transactional contract that allows each party to enter into it without preconditions or any pre-nuptial reservation(s). We're expected to regard the ending of the movie as a kind of triumph of love over stodgy, complacent respectability. 
The film was a major success at the box office, and jump-started the careers of Grant and Scott Thomas--though audiences could have done with fewer reprises, of Grant's string of third-rate leading-man comedies which were made in the succeeding decades; rather than expanding his range, he tended to peter it out, and now has probably exhausted his welcome on the silver screen. Scott Thomas on the other hand, blossomed into a genuine major talent, notably in The English Patient [1996], for which she was nominated for Best Actress, losing out to Frances McDormand [in Fargo].              

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Illusion of the Moment - Cartier-Bresson's Conceit

Henri Cartier-Bresson [1908-2004] is the progenitor, and perhaps the ultimate personification of the photo-journalist in the 20th Century. Starting relatively late in life--following a period during which he flirted with painting, and later was seduced by the ideas of the French Surrealists--he roomed for a time with Robert Capa, and quickly became obsessed with the idea of capturing the frames of history-in-the-making, and he restlessly roamed the world with his neat little Leica 35 millimeter camera, concentrating on busy scenes of action, intersections, little human dramas, moments--as he would later (famously) be remembered for saying--in which the photographer might steal images from eternity. Another French photographer, Jacques Henri Lartigue [1894-1986], had shown, very early in the history of the medium, how action shots and candid (unposed) compositions and subjects could be as interesting as fixed, painterly arrangements. This "accidental" quality could be used to depict energetic gestures, odd, inexplicable juxtapositions, ironic contrasts, exotic details. 

The candid, elusive moment of action or sudden gesture--passing quickly into oblivion--never to be retrieved--tantalized serious photojournalists, who hunted subject-matter, poised like gunslingers ready to pull the trigger at just the precise moment of meaningful action. Few worked as hard or as determinedly as Cartier-Bresson to seize such opportunities. Rather than the contemplative, staged canvases of large format photographers, the avatars of the new, portable cameras celebrated their facility to make innumerable frames by piling up hundreds, thousands of rolls of exposed film, hardly realizing, usually, what they might have caught in their pictures, until they developed the film, later, in the darkroom.   

This procedure, in which thousands of images were built up to make a kind of cross-section file of a given session, enabled photographers to choose from among multiple views of a single situation. Rather than carefully framing a composition on the ground glass, photographers could review a host of images, choosing the best, and carefully cropping the individual images to heighten the effect--to, in effect, "compose" the picture after the fact.
One of the drawbacks of using small cameras, and high speed film, is the sacrifice of clarity and mid-range tones. Typically, 35 millimeter frames made from Tri-X high speed emulsion, pushed to absurd limits (setting as high as 2400 speed!) were all chalk and soot, with no subtlety or range. Pioneers of the medium usually figured out ways to overcome this limitation, but frequently their best images are a little rough, lacking depth of field, or sharpness (acuity). 

The spirit of the new candid approach to image-making brought qualities not seen before: Humor, vicarious intrusion (and embarrassment), surprise, accident and jeopardy--in short, all the things which occur in life, but happen so unexpectedly or precipitously that there's hardly time to notice them, much less photograph them. This was the gambit of photojournalism, and the excitement and awe it inspired fascinated readers, viewers and gallery-goers for over half a century, and fueled the picture-magazine genre (Life, Look etc.) for decades. 

The portability and lightness of the small cameras also made possible a liberating freedom of viewpoint, vantage, allowing photographers to enter intimately into scenes and situations where they could never have ventured before. 

Viewers understood that all this candid drama was unscripted, which lent a certain vigor and vitality to the gambit. As the consciousness of the relationship between artist and subject developed, people began to play to the lens, opening a third dimension to the "secret" witnessing of the photo-journalist's presence. But from a purely aesthetic standpoint, the casual, unplanned spontaneity continued to be a valued aspect of the medium.

The theft of the dramatic instance/instant from time/history is like a scalp taken in the heat of battle. Gotcha! exclaims the shutter as it clicks, quicker than an eye can blink. Cartier-Bresson's masterpiece, the collection entitled The Decisive Moment [Simon & Schuster, 1952], with its luscious cover designed by Matisse, gathers 126 of his most successful images. Late in his long life, the photographer said this: "There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative." This is the decisive moment.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Some Remarks on Silliman's The Alphabet

The recent publication of Ron Silliman's monumental long poem in parts, The Alphabet [University of Alabama Press, 2008], prompts me to make some observations, in light of the kind of comment I see appearing about the work in the online journal Jacket's special feature on him, and elsewhere. 
Silliman's methodology is fairly well documented. At a certain point in his career, after publishing a handful of pamphlets of his early lyrical work (in a style derivative of various trends current circa the late 1960's and early 1970's), he determined to create a new style for himself, one which could incorporate his ideas about form, language, political ideology, and perception. He came about this discovery through a process of reductive exclusion.  
The new style would avoid completely any questions or misgivings about traditional poetic structures, by being written, essentially, in prose. Lyric or narrative poetries were passe, circa 1975, and no self-respecting, serious avant garde writer could afford to waste his or her time exploring different aspects of them. "Poems" might still be interesting, but only if they employed severe ellipsis and parataxis--only if, in effect, they made no initial "sense" to the common reader looking to find connected argument or a coherent statement about anything, in language which "ordinary" people could understand. 
Nevertheless, many contemporary critics of The Alphabet point out that rather than being non-sequential and randomly ordered, the progressive built structures of the separate prose sections are actually quite connected, that they conduct an internal dialectic about form and the relationship between event, perception, and meaning, which are made more interesting, and significant, by being broken up into apparently scattered, reorganized, multi-contextual sequences. 
An observation about something seen on the street may be followed by a flippant remark about literary form, and then by an expression of personal habit, followed by a bad pun, followed by...etc. The sense of non-sequitur is expanded to monumental proportions, in other words, so that in due course the reader sees that the poet's attempt to embrace several kinds of matter, simultaneously, is deliberately chaotic--not that the ordering of statements may be hermetic or truly accidental, but rather that whatever order may exist for the author, among the separate sentences, is purely gratuitous with respect to a reader's desire to make sense of what is being written. The reader becomes an active participant in the formation of possible meanings to be derived from the sequence of sentences presented for his amusement.
It is Silliman's belief that the human, mental desire to find simplification of meaning within any linguistic example, naturally causes readers to become frustrated with texts which do not satisfy this deep, phenomenological yearning. I would suggest that this is precisely what The Alphabet is intended to do--to frustrate any attempt by the reader to accumulate data or incremental apprehensions, out of which to build an argument or statement of ultimate meaning. 
What are the implications of wanting to make a prose sequence in which the individual sentences do not relate, sequentially, to each other? What purpose, in other words, would there be in mixing multiple contexts of occasion, multiple levels of address, multiple vantages of voice, in the same prose sequence? Evidently, the world presents us with a plethora of data, indeed the mind is bombarded with conflicting and unrelated masses of sensory and mental activity all the time. We learn to integrate and organize this data at our earliest moments of existence, from the first impression of our mother's heart's-blood's-beat, to the complex multi-tasking of talking to a passenger while driving through a maze of highway interchanges while remembering six other things simultaneously. 
James Joyce showed how a prose vehicle could communicate the multiple viewpoints of narrative consciousness within the mind of single individual. But poetry has never been used to convey the confusing mass of impressions and impulses which besiege our conscious and unconscious intellect. And, indeed, this isn't really what Silliman is attempting in The Alphabet. It isn't simultaneity which he's trying to create, but the building up of successive sentences, each discretely separated from the occasion of its neighbor sentences (or phrases), each insisting on its own integrity within the total mix of jumbled occasions of utterance. 
One might make the case that all the sentences--(each one)--exist at the same starting point, and thus time--lasting only long enough to accommodate the duration of any individual sentence or phrase--is always returned to "1" or zero. If all the sentences in The Alphabet are parallel, or occur at the same instant in time, then they are all, in some sense, equivalent in value--at least at their starting point. Except that in order to make a sequence that is fixed, they must be ordered, and even if that order is random, or based on chance methods or on a method which resists explication, it still places the finished poem in a fixed relation to the time of its reading. Ordering creates a hierarchy of value, one which evolves out of the ordering if its constituent parts (or syntactic units). The consciousness behind The Alphabet does not insist upon the integrity of its separate parts, but only upon the unique occurrence of its structure. The level of detail is an exact measure of the experiential specificity of a single segment of lived time, with interruptions--both deliberate and "accidental"--impeding whatever narrative threads may be offered along the way. If the only meaning behind the sequence of sentences in The Alphabet is that these were the notations which one fairly perceptive, critical mind thought to record in a notebook, over, say, a two- or five-week stretch, then there is very little in the way of craft or lyric "inspiration" by which we might choose to measure its effective achievements. 
Indeed, the whole notion of an achieved unity, or organized structure of statements, seems irrelevant to The Alphabet. There is nothing about the way it works, or its structural segments, which would suggest that any of its separate statements lead to any particular deduction or intended conclusion. All of these sentences simply are; one thing happened, and then something else happened; then I thought about how putting those two events (sentences) in this poem might co-exist within the mind of a single observer, and thus comment, ironically, upon this accident of their occurrence. But there may be nothing accidental whatever about the unconscious ordering of the statements. 
Duchamp showed how even the most seemingly passive, or unintentional impulses to action or choice were in fact doomed to be filed as inevitable instances of our fate. Even if we try to act in a way that is not predictive, or volitional, we can't avoid doing so. This determinism is consistent with a theory of the progression of historical trends which is so dear to post-Modern theorists. Our every act, every thought is descriptive, both in terms of the instrument of our physical, material selves--and in terms of the purpose to which we might think such thoughts might be put. 
But these observations are exterior to the event, the act of, the performance of any kind of poetry. Our world is a continuous field of the spouting of impulse--both real (like a flower), and abstract (as a thought)--together with the decay (the gradual deconstruction) of those impulses. Critical pruning of the inspiration of any original sense of joy, or sadness, or revulsion, may result in the depletion of such inspiration. 
There is something deeply onanistic, deeply frustrating about The Alphabet, which no amount of excuse-making can vacate, for me. In its refusal to summon any over-arching implication, to seize a meaning from experience, from the effort of writing itself--but only to offer the reader instead ever more tantalizing, titillating tidbits of distraction, of choice instances, fragments, snapshots, spins, echoes, etc.--it strikes me that it is only a placeholder for the delayed task or duty--so long now postponed--of commitment to some coherent vision of the world that takes full responsibility for that commitment.
If such a commitment seems pompous, or overly audacious, then it may be that the skeptical side of one's sense of the world has come to dominate one's nature. A lyric by Donne is so much more than a lyric by Thomas Wyatt. A lyric by Hopkins is so much more than a lyric by Wordsworth. This is because the possible reinterpretations of linguistic expression are many times more variable than the forms which may seem to contain them. And yet there may be no ultimate Progress--at least in the sense in which the 19th and 20th Century thinkers and writers imagined it. 
How we respond to our present may be no more voluntary or deliberate than being falsely accused of the crime of existence. If we feel trapped inside time, one possible exit might seem to be to deny the sequential nature of time itself, which is, after all, one of the key functions all poems perform--a measure. Is it possible to get rid of time by refusing to make machines (organizations) of words which connect sequentially? Is it possible to escape the traps of a time-bound procedure by setting up strict notational markers, taking whatever comes, no matter the apparent irrelevancy? Does this notational tyranny answer the needs of history? Who can say?     
Pound's Cantos, Zukofsky's A, and Olson's Maximus stand as major monuments of Modernist/post-Modernist efforts at extended, life-defining and measuring records of historical witness and commentary. Each explored widely varied kinds of lyrical modes, over several decades of time. In each case, the poems themselves withstood the sweeping changes in condition and viewpoint which occurred over the life of their respective authors, ultimately stretching and fracturing along assumed linkages or traces of formal expectation, to accommodate major personal, political, psychological and historical changes and watersheds of the century. 
In Silliman's The Alphabet, there appears to be no such fluidity or flexibility, since both the content and the voicings (the style) are homogeneous throughout. That a poem written over this length of time--over 30 years--should show no change in attitude or theoretical approach--as measured by its minute stylistic increments and constituent pieces--may seem somewhat troubling. One could impute a static apprehension of the world, or of a still-born conception which was never sufficiently challenged to require any adjustments or self-doubting. This kind of certainty may be one reason for the poem's homogeneity and perceived flatness: If you are thoroughly confident of every assertion--or if, by extension, you never ask questions pertinent enough to require a crucial, telling answer--the work may seem airtight, admitting of no possible entree except as a percolating, mildly diverting light-show. 
How could someone as intelligent, as erudite about form and the possible ways of making poems as Silliman is, produce a work with such little variability of manner and content as The Alphabet? Thirty + years of the same line, the same poem, the same voice. Silliman often complains of the lack of variety and responsiveness to change in the works of the Quietist tradition. But dogged dedication to a single, relatively simple style could be just as suspect.    
Addendum to Post [5/4/10] -
There seems to be misunderstanding about what my criticism of The Alphabet suggests about my taste, and my appreciation of what the poem's value might be. There is nothing about my discussion of the poem which should lead anyone to think that I find it uninteresting, or insincere. It is a very deliberate poem, completely in control of its means, and it accomplishes exactly what its author sets out to do. These things, alone, would make it an impressive work, even if it weren't filled with fascinating, delightful, brilliant observations. Poets generally get judged to a standard that their work itself sets. Since Ron has such authoritative command of his poem(s), it is fair to ask, for instance, what his readers might deduce from the style he has employed. 
What most troubles me is the degree to which the poem itself doesn't function for most readers as a self-sufficient, fully integral event. Nonsense poetry, or pure music, need only create the delight of sound or suggestive apprehensions in the reader/listener. A good cartoon--especially one not in need of any captions--may inspire a chuckle, or give one pause. But in poetry, it's how one fits the raw data of observation, thought, and the impulse to shape things that matters. Readers can be affected by a poem's message, the manner of its saying (eloquence), or by a combination of these. But deliberately denying a reader a way into the argument of a poem defeats what most people come to poetry to find. Few readers of poetry would be able to, or would be interested in, explicating exactly how a poem functions for them--that's an appreciation mostly restricted to poets themselves, and some critics. 
People used to complain that Eliot's The Waste Land couldn't stand alone, that the "Notes" weren't sufficient to fill in the gaps in understanding, that it (in effect) required a critical introduction and glosses for any average intelligent reader to comprehend what the poem was doing, and what it meant; and that's probably still true, as it is for The Cantos, or Olson's Maximus, or Zukofsky's A. In the case of The Alphabet, the work's apparent accessibility--which derives from its wealth of casual, daily observation and immediate sensory data--is no less opaque than those earlier epic poems. It has no plot in the usual sense, it has no expedient occasion for its utterances. It is not music; it is not narrative; it is not lyric, or elegy, or ode. The common reader may then ask what it is that he needs to know about it that it doesn't already furnish in the way of content. Does it come with batteries, an instruction booklet or a blueprint? 
In other words, it is a poem in a tradition of long works which really require a critical exoneration of some kind, an exegesis that warrants our indulgence and interest, beyond whatever initial pleasure the poem may afford. The necessity of such a critical function strikes me as a potential weakness of the poem, in that it suggests that there is a correct, and an incorrect way of interpreting the poem's meaning. In other words, it's possible to be completely at sea with respect to what the whole poem means, while participating in any one of its constituent parts or sections. Unless one is given the key--as to Finnegans Wake or The Waste Land or Pale Fire--one is not granted access to its hermetic, underlying significance. 
The critical writing of Silliman, Watten, Bernstein and others in The Language School movement suggests that the act of writing, and the act of reading, are subservient to the external objectification of any work; that the critical web we weave around the meaning of any work (or any work imagined) is potentially greater than the work itself, and that these two functions (the writing of a work and the reading of a work) are co-dependent: Neither one is sufficient to stand on its own. This symbiotic, synthetic view of the phenomenon of literature is a poetics that I find problematic, in that it excludes the casual reader. 
By mixing the contexts of sentences broadly across the expanse of a long work, the author dilutes the potential reduction of its parts to a fixed meaning. By denying the common reader this fixed meaning, the reader's commitment and attention are diluted, and ultimately frustrated. In its refusal to commit either to a form, or a coherent argument, The Alphabet suppresses the ordinary human tendency to conclude, to summarize, to unify. What is it that experience and thought teaches? Experience and thought happens. One after the other, in an endless stream of consciousness which it is neither our place nor our desire to organize or prioritize.                    

Aside from questions about overall unity, one must wonder at the apparent monotony of the style itself. Since it is intentional, and not accidental, and not some kind of oracular possession, we have every right to ask why a poem of this length, or this proportion, should all be written in a homogeneous style. Is the fact of its consistency somehow to be regarded as an argument in its favor? And if so, what is it about this style that it should be so privileged? As a repudiation of all possible prosodic alternatives, does it bid fair to replace them all? Are its strengths and advantages sufficient to meet the needs of a 1000 page work?     

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Arizona Enacts New Legislation Aimed at Controlling Illegals

The State of Arizona this week passed new laws designed to prevent illegals--mostly Mexicans and Central Americans present in this country without papers--from openly soliciting employment, in defiance of Federal and State laws. 
As anyone who lives in any major Southwestern state knows, the growing trend toward unofficial "labor" solicitation on our street corners has grown into an epidemic. These scofflaws sneak across the border, melt into the immigrant subculture network of ghettos and support groups. Since they can't legally be employed by respectable businesses, they hire out as cheap day-laborers, to contractors in the building and allied trades, loitering around building-supply outfits, or near highway intersections. This has in turn spawned a whole new corrupt system of exploitation by unscrupulous trades-contractors, who willingly and aggressively leverage this cheap, illegal labor, charging customers "American" rates while paying their "employee" (scab) laborers dirt-cheap daily cash rates. Most of these "day laborers" have some experience, but few are qualified to do skilled work, and none of them has been certified.  
Despite the hardships which these illegals suffer here, they still regard these as necessary inconveniences in the quest for higher income, and the chance to live in the U.S. In other words, unless they are vigorously prevented from pursuing the scab labor market, they are perfectly willing to risk embarrassment, even capture and temporary detention, as long as they know that the system of tolerance which allows this shadow employment market to exist continues to turn a blind eye to its effects.  
Estimates are that, on average, illegal labor now accounts for something like 25% of all the jobs in America in agriculture, manufacturing, contracting (construction), and service industries. These are not jobs "Americans won't do" but jobs which illegals find the easiest to steal from their American counterparts.                         

Perhaps the most offensive part of the immigration situation, is the evident indignation of the Mexican government, and of the illegals living in America, towards attempts to address the problems they cause. "How dare you treat our people this way!" the Mexican government struts. "Legalize all foreign nationals immediately!" the illegals demand. But these people aren't Americans. They don't share in the privileges of American life and governance. They steal and plunder the American bounty, then complain when they're caught or scolded for doing so. "Human rights!" they scream. "We want justice!" 
But true justice--American justice--has declared them illegal, and there are penalties for breaking immigration laws. The Federal government's failure to adequately control the immigration of Central (most Mexican) immigrants into this country has put an intolerable burden on many of the states in the Union. Finally, after decades of abuse of our residence and employment laws, and wave after wave of Mexicans have sneaked into our country, state governments have taken matters into their own hands. Who can blame them?  
Immigration policy has traditionally prefered law-abiding, educated, reasonably secure, healthy applicants. We have quotas for individual countries, based on estimates of how much population can be comfortably absorbed into our society, without disturbing the rights and privileges of our own citizenry and its institutions. But this policy has been ignored by Mexico. It's perfectly happy to encourage hundreds of thousands of its poor and dispossessed, sick, uneducated, and criminal fringe to emigrate illegally into America. And why wouldn't it be? Are these really the kind of people we want to encourage to come here?
We're told that what America needs is a highly trained, highly educated population, able to compete in the world-wide high-tech market. But how can we provide education to illegals, especially those who can't even speak English? We're told that our medical system is falling apart, overburdened by the under-insured and uninsurable. But if that's true, how can we afford to entertain hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals who traipse into our emergency rooms demanding free treatment, and birthing children to gain a foothold on residency? 
The immigrant lobby wants to eliminate all controls on the movement of people across our mutual border. They want immediate and unrestricted amnesty--immediate citizenship, immediate entitlement to all benefits of citizenship, and uncontrolled movement of goods and services back and forth across borders. In effect, they want our two countries to share in the burdens of support and responsibility which Mexico's hoards of poor and forsaken populace need.  

But Mexico isn't America. It has its own government, and its people are its own responsibility. If it refuses to shoulder that responsibility, America has no natural obligation to assume it for them. Refugee populations represent one of the world's great real problems. But moving people from one place to another, without systems, without order, is a recipe for every kind of corruption, and suffering on a grand scale. 
As long as America allows Mexico to fob off its refugee population to the North, we will have big problems, and Mexico will simply be encouraged to pursue its misguided, corrupt policies a little longer. Arizona's attempt to stop the street solicitation of scab employment will go a long way towards frustrating Mexicans from stealing jobs from American workers--particularly in the building trades. If these scabs find out the game's up, they may think twice about jumping the fence again, the next time they're deported. It's legislation I wouldn't mind seeing here in California.   

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Pianist [2002] - Polanski's Masterpiece

In my blog for April 13th, 2010, I pilloried Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds as a piece of ineptitude and adolescent indulgence. Watching one kind of moviemaking can often cause us to forget temporarily the larger story. There have been countless movies made about World War II, and the complexities, dislocations and human dramas, both real and imagined, which it caused. For a long time--three decades, really--the movie industry gave us military adventures, espionage, suspense, and political intrigues about the war, but they shied away from dealing directly with the Holocaust. 
A list of movies which touch on, but do not deal directly with, the subject of the Holocaust, would include The Diary of Anne Frank [1959], Exodus [1960], Judgment at Nuremberg [1961], Cabaret [1972], Holocaust (TV miniseries) [1978], but it wasn't until Sophie's Choice [1982] that we really get an unsanitized narrative devoted to the creepy details and up-close graphic violence of the Nazi tyranny. Then, of course, there is Schindler's List [1993], a sort of epic of the Holocaust, which some have complained about as being too generalized, and unfocused, except perhaps on Oscar Schindler, the Polish industrialist responsible for salvaging a few hundred Jewish factory workers from being sent to the Death Camps. 
Aside from Mel Brooks's The Producers, I can't think of another production--cinematic or legitimate--which treats the Nazi phenomenon comically, the way Tarantino appears to do. And Brooks's ironic approach is in fact a savage attack on Nazism, rather than the indulgent bit of mischief from Tarantino. 

It's difficult to understand why the shenanigans of a spoiled, overgrown aging-teenaged lout like Tarantino can be accepted as quality film-making, when there are so many examples of superior work made from the same material. What kind of a mind derives unfettered amusement in depicting cold-blooded killers and their collaborators as fascinating, comical marionettes, utterly without moral ambiguity or irony? I asked, rhetorically, before how such material would be handled by a skilled film-maker, with a sensible view of history, instead of by someone like Tarantino. 
Perhaps the best example would be Roman Polanski's film The Pianist. Based on a real character, Wladyslaw Szpilman, a classical pianist who survived to tell the tale of his years of concealment during the Nazi occupation of Poland, it accurately portrays the Kafka-esque existence of a fugitive living a shadow-existence for years in the Warsaw Ghetto, narrowly escaping capture and death, as the city is systematically gutted around him. The devastation of a whole people--as seen through the eyes and travails of a single, vulnerable, lucky witness--is made emphatically clear, and immediate, in a way that no dramatized account of personal heroism or valor could accomplish. Indeed, the value of witnessing history is raised to a high level here, as opposed to futile sacrifice.        


Among contemporary film-makers, Roman Polanski is perhaps uniquely qualified to have directed The Pianist, since he was a direct participant in the events which the story depicts, having been trapped, as a child, in the Krakow Ghetto, his mother perishing at Auschwitz. Escaping the ghetto, and living as a Roman Catholic, he managed to survive the War and the occupation, to become the auteur we know today. Polanski's personal history gives to his handling of The Pianist account a biting veracity and immediacy. (One is reminded of Kosinski's The Painted Bird, another harrowing tale of a child wandering around Central Europe during the War years.)
Crucially, from a perspective of Polish nationalism and the plight of Poland in the 20th Century, it's important to note that The Pianist evokes nativist sentiment through the identity of Chopin, Poland's greatest composer, and one of the giants of classical music, and of the keyboard in particular. Chopin felt profoundly committed to his nation and his countrymen, and many of his compositions--particular the Mazurkas--are fervent hymns to, and evocations of, a proud patriotism. Making the central figure of the story a pianist who specializes in playing Chopin's keyboard works enables Polanski (a Polish nationalist himself in a way) to unite a sense of patriotic feeling with the victimization of the Holocaust, so that Szpilman's fate is identified as a symbol of Polish culture itself. It isn't just Jews who came under attack by the Nazis, but all of Polish history and civilization. 
Szpilman isn't a particularly strong man, or a courageous one. It's his vulnerability, fragility which impresses one, rather than his cunning or intrepidness. He's a survivor, but his survival is almost an accident of fate. History chooses unlikely witnesses, and the testimony they provide is often greater than the value of their individual lives. (I touched on this previously in my post about Jan Karski, the Polish freedom fighter and underground courier, whose book Story of a Secret State [1944], documents his travails on behalf of Poland in those years.) 
Polanski's film, thus, serves as an extended, partially fictionalized, witness to history account not only of the Holocaust generally, but to the plight of Poland and Polish Nationalism generally. It may be seen that this apparent de-emphasis of the Jewish bias in documenting the Holocaust is in fact a more comprehensive view of the meaning of racism and ethnic persecution than has traditionally been employed.       

Within the scope of the whole film in its final version, the key episode, towards the end of the story, occurs when Szpilman's hiding place in an attic of an abandoned building, is discovered by a German officer, Captain Wilm Hosenfeld. In what is probably the most suspenseful segment of the movie, Hosenfeld asks him to play something on a piano that has survived in the building. Obviously impressed by Szpilman's playing, deferring his natural inclination to kill him or turn him over for disposition to the camps, Hosenfeld allows him to live, and even brings him food and offers him his coat. Polanski plays the scene neutrally, allowing us to appreciate Hosenfeld's almost clinical appraisal of Szpilman's performance as an acknowledgment of the power of art, rather than of his sympathy with the pianist as a merely vulnerable human being. The power of the officer to give or take life is balanced against the rationalistic appreciation of beauty and genius, which may in his mind transcend the comparative pettiness of duty, even at the risk of his own honor, though at this late stage in the War, the Germans know that time is running out, and they're running out the string as the eventual losers.        

Polanski has said that this scene is the key one for him in the movie. And indeed, from a biographical perspective, the director's own role as a persecuted artist--widowed by the Manson murders, and pursued by the American legal system for a case of statutory rape dating back to the 1970's--comes directly into play. Szpilman's jeopardy, as a talented artist wrongly persecuted because of his ethnicity and national identity, is held precariously at risk. Forced to abandon Hollywood, in 1978, in order to avoid an anticipated imprisonment, Polanski has lived for 30 years as a French citizen, until being arrested in Zurich last September at the request of U.S. authorities. The final outcome of this episode in Polanski's life has yet to be determined.
There have been many turns in Polanski's interesting life. There is no question that he is one of the greatest movie directors of all time, with The Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, Tess, The Ninth Gate and The Pianist. There's no way to tell how many other good efforts he might have turned in, had he not been excluded from the movie capital of the world during the primary years of his career. Orson Welles, similarly exiled from Hollywood, under somewhat different circumstances, fared less well artistically, his directorial work severely limited after Citizen Kane [1941] to just a few productions, and, aside from The Magnificent Ambersons [1942] and Touch of Evil [1958], rather forgettable.
In terms of Polanski's career, The Pianist occupies a central position, both for the power of its subject matter, as well as for the importance is carries in his biography. He could hardly have chosen a more useful narrative to express the dilemma of his own artistic life. Adrien Brody's performance earned him an Oscar, as did Polanski's direction. 
Despite whatever happens in the justice system's case against him, Polanski's award vindicates in some measure the enforced neglect and frustrations that have dogged him throughout his life. As a witness to the hardships, both deserved and undeserved, which talented people may endure, his example is not without interest. You don't have to like people to admire what they may accomplish. Looked at in its entirety, Polanski's life is complex, and morally ambiguous. But he has turned his experience and feelings into high art. Art as witness, as the powerful testimony of history, may be the greatest gift any of us can give. That is what The Pianist is. And that is why it is so much more than anything someone like Tarantino can do. There's simply no comparison.         

Monday, April 19, 2010

Believe You Me Crocodile - Eigner Cummings The Typewriter & A Poem

In my essay "The Text as an Image of Itself" in the Stanford University Press edition of the Collected Poems of Larry Eigner [Edited by Curtis Faville & Robert Grenier, 2010], I reference Larry Eigner's acknowledgment of E. E. Cummings's influence on his work. Crucially, both Cummings and Eigner composed their poems on the typewriter, though for somewhat different purposes. Eigner, who was disabled from birth, was unable to write with sufficient ease longhand, and the typewriter enabled him to compose poems. Cummings, on the other hand, actually preferred the typewriter as a medium, believing that it allowed him to make a visually organized impression. Cummings was both a writer and a plastic artist, and liked to refer to himself as a "draughtsman of words" and an "author of paintings." This sense of composition--conceiving of writing poems as both a visual, as well as an aural process--is a key element of some post-Modern literature, and the work of Eigner presents one of its most direct expressions. Below is an image of Cummings's portable typewriter. In our edition of Eigner's poems, we chose as the frontispiece of volume I, a photo of Eigner's battered old typewriter. The image of this device, at the beginning of the collection, is intended to foreground our apprehension of Larry's work as a poetry which originates, and is expressed through the mechanical characteristics of this handy tool of modern technology, now rapidly becoming extinct since the inception of the computer age, and the personal cathode ray tube projection screen, with connected keyboard and accompanying automatic printer.                   

From an historical perspective, the era of the typewriter--assuming that its use is never revived in the future--looks like a transitional device in the development of the mechanization of print technology, mid-way between the invention of the printing press (with later augmentations and efficiencies) and the arrival of the personal computer. The effect of this device upon writers and artists in the 20th Century has been largely ignored, but it's likely to be recognized, going forward, as an important, integral component of the creative process during the segment of its effective life (1900-1995)--just as computer technology is influencing the writing of literature in the present era. Just as the typewriter enabled writers to generate their own print text, without the intermediate step of writing it out longhand or dictating it beforehand, the computer has expanded the capabilities of writers to compose texts visually, using different fonts and spatial arrangements with a great facility, and has brought, too, a capability for rapid reproduction of text, incorporating the data-driven copy machine. We're just beginning to understand how this may affect literature--the generation of material and non-material texts--in the future.         

By any measure, E.E. Cummings was a fascinating man. Raised in a cultured milieu--his Father was a Harvard professor and Unitarian minister--Cummings was a precocious child, who began writing and drawing while still in his teens. At Harvard, Estlin (as he was called, to distinguish himself from his Father) graduated cum laude in 1916 with a Master's Degree in English and Classical Studies, delivering a commencement address on "The New Art" in which he noticed important new Modernist trends. A minor controversy ensued. For the rest of his life, Cummings would resist convention, maintaning an iconoclastic profile with respect both to intellectual pretension, and popular opinion. 
The familiar account of Cummings's enlistment in the ambulance corps in WWI, his unjust imprisonment, and his book about this, The Enormous Room [1922], are all well-documented. Of more pertinent interest, here, is the incredibly prolific burst of literary production which began after his release, continuing up through the mid-1920's, during which period he wrote over 1000 pages of startlingly original, and unusually skillful poetry (only some of which was published in a sequence of books--Tulips and Chimneys [1923], & [1925], XLI Poems [1925], is 5 [1926], ViVa [1931]). Composed about equally of classically inspired sonnets, and eccentrically set lyrics and satires, it forms a body of work--both in its mood and appearance on the page--unlike anything that had come before in the history of literature.
What Cummings noticed, uniquely, was that the way a poem looked on the page was an integral part of how it was perceived. As a serious plastic artist, he was sensitive to the ways in which a text expressed both our sense of the progression of its unfolding (as read), as well as the overall design and energy of its visual shape. These were revolutionary ideas in 1920, ideas which virtually no one else was exploring at the time. 
As a teenager in the early 1960's, I was immediately attracted to Cummings's love poems, which were, and continue to be, among the most direct, frank and romantically lyrical ever written. Their apparent innocence, sense of mischief, and adventurousness were all aspects likely to interest young people, as they have done now for the last four or five generations. The sense of fun--of the "virtual pin-ball" quality of their typographical structure--not only moving words and phrases around on the page, but fussing with punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and grammar--to suggest alternate kinds of address--is irresistible, especially in contrast to the air of gravity and solemnity with which poetry is usually presented in the classroom and on the podium.                              

One of my favorite Cummings poems, which I must have read when I was perhaps 13, long before I could have understood, really, what it meant, was "MEMORABILIA". Unlike most of Cummings's poems, it has a title, which is an immediate tip-off about tone, and what it sets out to accomplish. MEMORABILIA is a satiric rant, a full-fledged swipe at the ugly American tourist class, so dear to Henry James and Edith Wharton, who made the "pilgrimage" to Europe along the Grand Tour route, spending conspicuously and looking for suitable matches among the landed class.    

stop look &
listen Venezia: incline thine 
ear you glassworks 
of Murano; pause 
elevator nel 
mezzo del cammin’ that means half- 
way up the Campanile, believe   
thou me cocodrillo—   
mine eyes have seen 
the glory of   
the coming of 
the Americans particularly the 
brand of marriageable nymph which is 
armed with large legs rancid 
voices Baedekers Mothers and kodaks 
--by night upon the Riva Schiavoni or in 
the felicitous vicinity of the de l’Europe   
Grand and Royal 
Danielli their numbers   
are like unto the stars of Heaven….   
I do signore 
affirm that all gondola signore 
day below me gondola signore gondola 
and above me pass loudly and gondola 
rapidly denizens of Omaha Altoona or what 
no enthusiastic cohorts from Duluth God only, 
gondola knows Cincingondolanati I gondola don’t   
--the substantial dollarbringing virgins   
“from the Loggia where 
are we angels by O yes 
beautiful we now pass through the look 
girls in the style of that’s the 
foliage what is it didn’t Ruskin 
says about you got the haven’t Marjorie 
isn’t this wellcurb simply darling” 
                                                          --O Education: O 
thos cook & son   
(O to be a metope 
now that triglyph’s here) 

I'm not sure whether, as readers, feeling warm about Venice, Italy matters much in one's appreciation of this mockery of American speech and upper middle-class pretension. As with most Cummings poems, the vituperation and ill-humor seems less important than the delight he takes in lampooning hapless targets, in twirling webs of impish tricolor bunting around the over-dressed ingenues and their matronly escorts, like mummies being readied for entombment.
But the first aspect of the poem that catches my attention is its mimicry of American advertising "ad-speak" or annunciatory journalese. "Stop, look & listen" is like the huckster's command, except that here it is addressed to the city of Venice [Venezia]. Then we get the quotation from Dante nel mezzo del cammin ("mid-way upon the journey--of life"), meaning, here, the interrupted "elevator" ride up the picturesque red-brick Campanile (bell-tower) in the main plaza in Venice. Believe you me, crocodile! In the mock language, then, of The Battle
Hymn of the Republic--"mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Americans particularly the brand of marriageable nymph which is armed with large legs rancid voices Baedekers Mothers and kodaks." At night, strolling the esplanade along the water's edge before the stylish hotel Danielli their numbers are legion, we hear the palaver of English and Italian voices mingling in the warm night air--
I do signore 
affirm that all gondola signore 
day below me gondola signore gondola 
and above me pass loudly and gondola 
rapidly denizens of Omaha Altoona or what 
no enthusiastic cohorts from Duluth God only, 
gondola knows Cincingondolanati I gondola don’t  
--the repetition and enjambment (Cincinnati/gondola) of the word gondola like a chant or frustrated mimicry of the tourists arguing with the gondoliers. The unimpeded translation of this sequence would be I do affirm, all day below me and above me pass loudly and rapidly denizens of Omaha Altoona (or what?), no!, enthusiastic cohorts from Duluth, God only knows!, I don't! Followed by the jumbled tour-guide/lady's companion (Baedecker guidebook in hand) summoning (invoking!) Ruskin (The Stones of Venice) to inspire the attention of Marjorie to notice the pretty well-curb, all in furtherance of her Education (!). Whence interferes the office name of Thomas Cook & Sons, the venerable travel agency and money-changing office, even then a by-word for foreign travel exigencies. 
(O to be a metope 
now that triglyph’s here) 1
I suppose I maundered over that couplet for several years, before finally discovering that it referred to the bas-relief sculptured figures along the channeled tablet of a Doric freize, which are common in classical architectural detail. Just the sort of specific detail, of course, which tourists would be commanded to appreciate. Indeed, the implication clearly suggests that these "substantial dollar-bringing virgins" from America have become themselves a brand of metope along the metaphorical triglyphs (promenades) of modern-day Venice. 
Like many Cummings poems, this one manages to look and feel thoroughly contemporary, while rehearsing what is, in substance, a very traditional broadside against the pretensions of the ruling class, a class which served as the subject for a whole segment of our literature (a la James and Wharton)--of the relationship between the old and new worlds, the 2000 year old culture of Europe (and beyond that, of the ancient Mediterranean world), and that of the grand spanking, brand new world of Am-MARE-ee-ka! The "content" of the poem, again ostensibly about the old world revulsion at the crudity of the new, is really about the objectification of speech through an autonomous projection of a disembodied voice. In 1920, the technology of media was in its relative infancy: there was the telephone, and radio, still quite novel in their use; crude motion pictures were just beginning; musical and voice recordings were very new. The objectification of speech--as projected autonomously through a device--spontaneously inspires the sense of language (and sound) as a kind of oral-visual environment. Different levels of address--shifting, conflicting contexts of prose, lyric, advertisement, signage, noise--mix chaotically as tapestries of raw data, received haphazardly and discerned as accidental dialectic and atonal progressions. In the Cummings poem, these voices intertwine and mix in a cacaphony of competing economic and cross-cultural currents--a dance of conditions--an anthem to the procession of history across continents, a parody of the modern mating-dance ("nymphs").             
The Modernist American poets of the first half of the Twentieth Century--Eliot, Pound, Stevens, H.D., Marianne Moore, Zukofsky, Oppen, Stein, Williams, Crane and Cummings--broke with European formalist models, choosing to create works out of native materials, or re-casting traditional models within new contexts. The post-Modern poets built upon the experiments of Modernism, though they were largely freed from the impinging conflicts of repudiating convention as a social act. A poet like Larry Eigner could treat the page, and the occasion of writing a poem, as a much freer and uninhibited adventure than Cummings could, in 1920, not having, as his predecessor had, to defend his right to make new statements about the world in a way no one had ever thought of doing before. What Cummings had tried, 30 years before, opened a pathway that led to further experiment. But while Cummings had been hemmed in by strict categories of literary purpose--love, satire, pastoral--Eigner was able to concentrate, for instance, upon pure perception or imaginative flight, without the interposition of a classical address. The Cummings poem, then, is a classical exercise, not unlike something Catullus might have appreciated, in satirical vituperation, though couched in what looks superficially like modern public address speech. Nevertheless, its form, and movement, suggest new different ways of scoring words in space, and this is what Larry picked up when he first read Cummings's work in the late 1940's.                            
On a metaphysical level, Cummings's visual/typographical experiments suggest a multi-dimensional approach to subject-matter, in which the ostensible matter of referents is revolved like a prism, separating constituent colors, textures and caricatures into helixes of language, pulling or jamming grammar and syntax apart or together, to create gigantic mobiles of free-form word-sculptures, the poet either bound up in the persona of the poem's voices, or standing back, manipulating its means. Thinking of a poem's potential in this way was an entirely novel notion in 1920, one that would have seemed profoundly alien to writers in earlier centuries. To achieve it required a consciousness sufficiently objective in its relation to the material text--the print technology derived from mechanical means (the printing press)--that it could imagine moving words, stanzas, phrases, individual letters even, like pieces on a board. The independence from the tyranny of externally produced, mechanically generated alphabetical texts, clearly made this imaginative leap possible. Sitting at his manual portable typewriter, inspired by the new techniques from painting and sculpture and music, Cummings realized that he was engaged with a machine which could perform--within given limits--the same kind of functions which a paint-brush could on a canvas. Not abstract shapes or actual colors or textures, but linguistic settings, variable in sound and movement, within the space--line, increment and grid--of the typewriter page. 
Neither Cummings nor Eigner went so far down the road of alphabetical disintegration that they literally tampered with the symbolic system of writing itself. But they were able to adapt it to their respective interests: in Cummings's case, the jagged vernacular mimicry of colloquial slang, the playful toying with punctuation and capitalization, the lightly-inflected sense-&-nonsense-puns and so on; in Eigner's case, the subtle vectored intuitive leaps, covertly hidden inside conversational observations and asides, the multi-dimensional forward and back through time and space, placing the reader in a speculative position with respect to sequence, locus, and meaning.
Eigner's authorial persona is of the static observer, whose power to move about freely in a poetic space is not bound by fixed intervals of prosodic extent, or by the narrative flow of the poem's "argument". That persona is neither in a dialectic with the "reader" nor omniscient in the old sense in which he's totally in control of everything that "happens" inside the parameters of the poem. The typewriter page is a work space--it looks a little messy because it's "unfinished" during its process.
The evolution from the inter-spliced voice-ings of the Cummings satire, to Eigner's spacial arrangements is a clear instance of a progression in the development of the influence of media over literary form, and the way in which an incrementally expanding sense of linguistic contexts occurs. The linkages may seem indirect and slightly gratuitous, until we look at the minute particulars of each writer's work. Their respective differences are a measure of the rapidity of change occurring over a half century of cultural time.                                 

1. Parodic take on Robert Browning's poem "Home Thoughts From Abroad"--the line "Oh to be in England / Now that April's there." 

Painting above by E.E. Cummings, "Fourth Dimensional Abstraction", copyright the Estate of E.E. Cummings.