Thursday, August 28, 2008

STL #76 Summer's End

I had thought of writing posts on both summer movies and summer reading, but since summer ended suddenly (it's the first full week of classes), I might not get to both. So instead I'll roll both into a cumbersome omnibus (cumnibus).

I. 3 Super Hero movies: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Dark Knight: 2008 will certainly mark the apex of the "comic book movie"--Wanted and the second Hell Boy movie also came out, and next year's Watchmen adaptation is provoking buzz and booksales with its trailer. Watchmen might well be the Heaven's Gate that ends the comic book (actually superhero) movie motherlode by exceeding its grasp, but this summer, the genre has offered a range of spectacle and even aesthetic satisfaction. Iron Man was maybe the most satisfying as spectacle--though I enjoyed the fun performances of Downey and Bridges (the Dude turns evil), what sticks with me is the coolness of armor. My favorite scene was an action set piece. Iron Man sets down in the middle of a hostage situation--terrorists have guns close on a number of innocents. We switch to the Iron Man internal display--like a high tech security camera, with digitized information of some sort floating around the figures of the scene. Abruptly, guns built into the armor pop up and take out the terrorists in one precise instant. As a display of technology and force, which is after all the appeal of this movie as a techno-thriller, it's pleasing in its mastery and abruptness. The situation goes from impossible to solved in the blink of an eye.

As spectacle, the Hulk movie leaves a lot to be desired. The animated title character is offensively fake--not that I want the 7 foot tall green monster to look "real," but I don't want it to look like a video game demo, which is what the last third of the movie is. I like the first third quite a bit. The backstory is dealt with quickly in an old fashioned montage of news reports and headlines, and the movie becomes a tense and human fugitive movie for a while. The Rio shanty town is a captivating setting, and Ed Norton's performance brings out the desperation and sorrow of his character, along with one unexpected joke, when he warms some bullies in his broken Portugese that they "wouldn't like him when he's... hungry."

The Dark Knight is really the one that demonstrates the potential of the super hero movie to succeed as a serious work. It's a probing psychological piece that transcends the apparent silliness of its costumed protagonist. He's simply a driven man with some unusual methods. Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker is of course getting a lot of attention, but it's well-deserved. While Nicholson's performance was also ballyhooed, the contrast between that and Ledger's reveals the ham-handed clumsiness that it is. Every choice Ledger makes is toward the understated. His Joker looks down at the ground, mumbles, demonstrates a deep protectiveness of his interiority. It's a shockingly good and immensely scary portrait of real evil. I'd like to watch it again, to think about how Bale's Batman follows and departs from this model. The Batman voice is extraordinarily grating on the ear, but I think that's the point--on one level it's a mask for hiding his identity, but on another it's his true mad and wounded self.

II. Summer Reading

I had some time for reading this summer, which is nice. I reacquainted myself with some of the sf/fantasy writers I liked in my early teens. I read books by Michael Moorcock, Urusla K. LeGuin, and Philip Jose Farmer. I read 2 of Moorcock's "Von Bek" books--The Warhound and the World's Pain (which I had read before) and City of the Autumn Stars (which I had not read). I liked the former--the protagonist and Lucifer were enjoyably presented, and the magical "Mittelmarch"--a counter-Europe hidden in strands across the continent--was a lot of fun too. One of the most provocative bits is a passing reference to an adventure in the alternate Europe where Carthage destroyed Rome and, centuries later, an order of Rabbinic Knights had arisen as a sort of counterpart to the Knights of Malta. The latter book didn't captured my fancy. It had more of Moorcock's multiverse philosophy of a strugle between order and chaos. Moorcock's ideas seem to have been vastly influential on Dungeons and Dragons, and is actually a simple but powerful tool for thinking about ethics, but can make for tedious writing. It's a problem in the Elric novels I also read through. I had fond memories of Elric, and while I still like the idea of the character--the effette end of a long line of emperors, a weak albino kept alive by drugs, spells, and an evil, soul-eating sword--the novels read little better than role-playing scenarios.

I'm unlikely to go back to Moorcock, but was very excited by Le Guin's work. I loved her Earthsea trilogy when I was younger, and while they hold up (I have two of the later second trilogy to read yet), I'm very excited by her science fiction. SF of the seventies, reflecting a range of foment from radical collectivism to libertarianism, produced some of my favorite genre novels. Her short stories that I read in The Wind's Twelve Quarters inspired me to read The Left Hand of Darkness and especially her anarchist novel The Dispossessed.

The seventies also produced Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld. The first book, To Your Scattered Bodies Go is short and readable, but the real triumph is, as so often in this genre, the idea. The entire population of the world's history is clustered near a river with no known beginning or end. Courageous individuals are able to navigate this river, though they don't know where they're going. This is really a lovely metaphor for the human condition, though I'm not sure if that's enough to keep me reading through three more novels.

So summer's over, like I said. I'm off today, trapped in the house by torrential rain. The last movie I saw was early Fall fare--Woody Allen's Vicky Christina Barcelona. I'm reading Adam Bede. People are deceptive but not costumed. The have secret identities but are not heroes. They fight but with paltry power, with words and negligence, and not laser beams or swords. I guess I'm back in the real world now.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Favorite Movies, 1999 edition

Found a print out of the following in my files. Recorded for posterity's sake. Strikethroughs made at some later date.
Noslen 100 (sic=99)

8 1/2
A Nous la Liberte
Across 110th Street
The Apartment
Apu Trilogy
The Bad and the Beautiful
The Bad Lieutenant
Barry Lyndon
Bicycle Thief
The Big Lebowski
Bonnie & Clyde
Bride with White Hair
Bring me the Head of Alfred Garcia
Bringing Up Baby
Broadway Melody of 1935
Children of Paradise
Citizen Kane
City Lights
The Conversation
Cries and Whispers
Crimes and Misdemeanors
Days of Heaven
Dr. Jeckel
La Dolce Vita
Don't Look Now
Double Indemnity\
Drowning By Numbers
Easy Street
Elevator to the Gallows
Everybody Says I Love You
Fallen Angels
Fanny and Alexander
The 400 Blows
The Godfather Trilogy
Grand Hotel
Irma Vep
Hard Boiled
High Noon
His Girl Friday
Hoop Dreams
Jules and Jim
King Kong
King of Comedy
Last Days of Disco
The Letter
Lone Star
The Man Who Knew Too Much
McCabe and Mrs. Miller
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
The Naked Kiss
Night of the Hunter
Nights of Cabiria
Out of the Past
Out of Sight
Pat and Mike
Paths of Glory
Picnic at Hanging Rock
Philadelphia Story
The Player
Pulp Fiction
Rear Window
Roaring 20s
Rules of the Game
Scarlet Empress
Seventh Seal
The Shining
Stranger than Paradise
Stop Making Sense
The Sweet Hereafter
The Thin Man
The Third Man
The 39 Steps
To Have and Have Not
Touch of Evil
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
The Wild Bunch
Woman Under the Influence

Final Cuts: Annie Hall, The Big Sleep, Discreet Charm, English Patient, Kiss Me Deadly, Lolita, Once a Cop, Rashomon, Reservoir Dogs

Written Down Later: Hud, Chinatown, Duck Soup, Raging Bull
I am a Fugitive...
Sunset Boulevard, Aguirre, Sweet Smell of Success
Singing in the Rain
My Best Friend's Wedding

Saturday, August 9, 2008

STL #75: Four San Franciscan Medievalists

On Helen Adam, Brother Antoninus, James Broughton, and Madeline Gleason

Moving now into the second geographical grouping of the anthology, I encounter a group of poets I am much less familiar with. Of the 13 poets in this section, I only know a handful by name and have only read Lawrence Ferlinghetti and a couple of poems by Lew Welch and Philip Lamantia. What little I do know about the SF poets is through Beat connections, so I'll be interested to see how the groups diverge in the NAP. (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, and Peter Orlovsky get a section to themselves.) Two poets I most associate with SF, Duncan and Kenneth Rexroth, aren't here--Duncan is filed under Black Mountain and Rexroth was apparently born too early (1905). So I have fewer preconceptions about this grouping than the last, so I'll have to develop a wholly new framework for reading this group. Toward that end, I'll be grouping poets together when there's a reason to. Strangely enough, the commonality I see in the first four poets of this section is, despite the group's naming as the San Francisco Renaissance, a real interest in the medieval period.

Helen Adam is only a few years older than Kenneth Rexroth, but it is probably her strong attachment to Duncan that brings her here. I don't have any tangible evidence, but I strongly suspect Duncan somehow convinced Allen to include the eccentrically medieval Adam. I've heard that Duncan would withhold his work unless he had a commensurate page count to Olson's, so perhaps he also insisted that his mentor be included. He credits her example with freeing him from the Modernist cult of style. Duncan writes that "Adam was right, passions may have voice in ballads and orders appear in fairy tales that were otherwise mute or garbled." Before coming to write this piece, I was inclined to agree with Duncan's idea but nonetheless thought that Adam's ballad seemed 'wrong.' But I'm starting to find the mysterious gaps that make a ballad like "Sir Patrick Spens" enchanting. The way that the man's fetishizing of the woman's hair somehow magically imbues it with the power to revenge her death suggests one of these deep, muted passions. While I think anachronistic forms can do the work Duncan says--heck, we're talking about print forms in the 21st century--but I doubt if I'll be spending much more time with Adam's work.

William Everson, aka Brother Antoninus, also appeals to a medieval tradition--Catholic mysticism. He modulates it through a nice variety of the nature lyric, as seen in "The South Coast." The sound pattern of this short poem prominently features long vowels, e's and a's, mostly "closed" by consonants (that is to say, the long vowels are curtailed by consonants at the end of words--like "bean" rather than "be.") Short vowels are similarly closed, with few exceptions for the nigh unavoidable "the." The effect is a very consciously articulated, clipped sound. Here's the beginning of the poem: “Salt creek mouths unflushed by the sea/And the long day shuts down.” “Sea” and “day” are two of six substantive nouns that have an open sounding, and all the rest rhyme with “sea”: three, lea, sea, He, be. Since “He” is God and the “sea” is the focus of Antoninus’s meditation, the long e is a crucial part of poem’s meaning. It’s part of the central question about the pattern Everson sees: “Whose mind conceives?” Both a and e contribute to the answer: “God makes”; “His own mind conceives…Where He, whom all declares,/Delights to make be!”

Based on this sample, the defining aspect of the San Francisco Renaissance seems to be philosophic anachronism. We next come across James Broughton, somewhat more modern in style and perspective, although his "Feathers or Lead?" seems to be an alchemical treatise at first blush. On closer inspection, it’s actually a portrait of medieval quackery haunting modern medicine. The physician, “the Devil of Remedies” locks his patient in the exam room to “claw [her (?)] belly.” Some sort of “Other” is aborted, and the speaker tears the physician apart. The speaker looks at the pile of disgorged “filth”: “Feathers or Lead?/ the dungheap cackled/and slithered out under the door.” Broughton’s poem shares in the fairy tale ordering that Duncan attributed to Adam. The meaning is in the poem but not extractable from it. It resists the intelligence successfully.

Madeline Gleason curiously combines the all the virtues of these quasi-medieval poets. “Once and Upon” exhibits Broughton's ability to modernize time-worn themes in a modern style and sensibility yet emulates Adam's commitment to tone of the the ballad tradition (though in a modern form) and also equals or surpasses Everson's finely crafted sound, with Christian overtones to boot. Here's a representative stanza:

Once and Upon

she ate the plum

and from a full mouth

disgorged the pit

into her hand

while Mother spun as she canned

peach and plum in season--

the land, holy Mother to

the plentiful fruit

Gleason's poem does more to "make it new" than Adam, yet avoids the jaded, dated hipness of Broughton. It has the mystery of language and action that might draw me back.

To read: Michael Davidson's San Francisco Renaissance. I think I consulted this book while working on my dissertation, but nothing stuck. Maybe some more Gleason and Everson.
To listen: Howls, Raps & Roars: Recordings from the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance