27 December 2010

How to Defeat These Thoughts: The Questions of Wallace Shawn

[This essay originally appeared in the Winter 2009/2010 issue of Rain Taxi Review of Books. The Winter 2010/2011 issue has been published, so I'm now free to reprint this essay, and I'll also recommend the new issue to you, because in addition to the wide-ranging reviews of books, there are also good interviews with William Gibson and Lewis Hyde.]

ANDRE: Well, Wally, how do you think it affects an audience to put on one of these plays in which you show that people are totally isolated now, and they can't reach each other, and their lives are obsessive and driven and desperate?  Or how does it affect them to see a play that shows that our world is full of nothing but shocking sexual events and violence and terror?  Does that help to wake up a sleeping audience? 
—Wallace Shawn & André Gregory, My Dinner with André

Wallace Shawn's most recent play, Grasses of a Thousand Colors, is a dream and a provocation and a conundrum, but most of all, it is a culmination: if all of Shawn's previous plays were to sit down and write an autobiography, this is what it might look like.

26 December 2010

The Length of the Gimmick

J. Robert Lennon points to an essay by Ed Park in the NY Times from a couple days ago, "One Sentence Says It All", which I missed until now, but which obviously appealed to me, an avowed lover of long sentences, because it concerns books that are written as a single sentence.

Park's focus is primarily on what "really" makes something a one-sentence novel, a kind of purity test, while Lennon mostly just seems grumpy, declaring the whole idea to be "the kind of fake formal experimentation that a writer is more likely to use as cover for his incompetence than for any kind of genuine insight into character, situation, or language".

I think Lennon's opinion is noxious, and I'm skeptical of any use of the word "gimmick" for a writing technique, because it seems to me a particularly prejudicial and generally inaccurate term -- in a broad sense, any literary (as opposed to purely pragmatic) way of writing is gimmicky, because any writing that is not so conventional as to be invisible draws attention to itself. Anything in the plot of a narrative that draws attention to itself is, then, a gimmick, any word that is not banal is a gimmick, etc.

It may be that Park's focus on what a one-sentence novel actually is inspires some of this annoyance from Lennon, because it moves the focus away from the purpose and effect of what are, in fact, different techniques employed by the various writers; but Lennon's grumpiness comes, I suspect, from deep-seated assumptions about what writers should do -- the sort of assumptions that are useful for writers themselves, because they can be fuel for writing, but are dangerous when elevated to the level of absolute statements for everybody else. I'm all for writers saying, "I'm going to write this way because I don't want to write that way," but I'm ferociously suspicious of writers who say, "My way of writing is the best and your way of writing is wrong." (It reminds me of when somebody once saw a t-shirt that proclaimed, "My God is an awesome God," and pointed out the subtext: "Your God sucks.")

When talking about writing, people don't usually use gimmick to mean just a technique that draws attention to itself (the way a performer would say, "You gotta have a gimmick"); instead, it's usually meant to point to something considered by the word-wielder to be inauthentic or artificial. It's sibling to the wheezy old canard about non-mimetic fiction: it's a game, it's a trick, it's not real fiction. Real fiction provides, as Lennon says, "genuine insight into character, situation, or language". Note the word "genuine", highlighting the idea that gimmicks are the path to fake insight. Real insight, apparently, comes from pretending that fiction is true, from relying on verisimilitude, from suspending disbelief. This is residual Victorianism, the continuing belief that the 19th Century British dominant novel form is the single goal toward which writers should aspire. I like plenty of novels written that way, but I don't think they should be given a special place of honor above novels using other approaches.

If we assume (and it really is an assumption) that we should read fiction for "insight into character, situation, or language", then I fail to see how a single-sentence novel doesn't at least have the chance of providing insight into language, nor do I see how the one-sentence technique itself must inevitably lead to false insight into character or situation. Perhaps what Lennon means is that such a technique distracts from where the reader's attention, in his scheme, should be: on thinking about character and situation, and not thinking about one writing technique in particular. But this idea is contradicted when he asserts that "the writer generally finds new ways to separate ideas and establish rhythm, and the reader quickly gets accustomed to them." If that's so, then the technique is not distracting, and therefore there shouldn't be anything getting in the way of the proper, legitimate contemplation of character and situation.

The problem, the gimmickry, seems to come from what Lennon assumes is the writer's over-exertion, or misplaced exertion. "[N]obody's really being challenged here--it's all proof-of-concept," he says, adding yet another generalized assumption. "If you're going to break it up with conjunctions or semicolons or what have you, you might as well restore the periods, indentations, and chapter breaks, and devote more of your energy to evoking the wrinkles in grandma's forehead or the smell of jasmine wafting over the piazza." Thus, sensory description is, to Lennon, a legitimate activity for a writer to expend energy on, but punctuation and sentence style are not. (I expect he would reply that what he was trying to communicate was the idea that a writer should, of course, pay attention to punctuation, but they shouldn't do so at the expense of evoking sensory details. That equation proposes a see-saw act between style and sensory detail that seems absurd to me: sensory detail is a result of stylistic choices about punctuation, rhythm, diction, etc. Writing is language first.)

I also think it's flat-out inaccurate to say that the breaks created by "conjunctions or semicolons or what have you" are the same as those created by periods. I certainly don't read periods the same way I do conjunctions and semi-colons. A hugely long sentence is a totally different reading experience for me than a bunch of shorter sentences, and I have an almost physical reaction to some types of punctuation -- works composed primarily of short sentences are just about unreadable to me; lots of short sentences make me feel like ants are crawling all over my skin.

What interests me here is not so much that Lennon is wrong (no, not THAT!), but rather the offense that he seems to take from Park's essay. My own rather strong response to his response may also seem a bit odd, because Lennon's post was clearly an off-the-cuff statement of preference, so why did I feel impelled to put everything aside and analyze it? It's not like there are lots of one-sentence-novel writers who are now going to become destitute because J. Robert Lennon said he thinks they're just hiding their incompetence -- which means, of course, that they aren't real writers, and don't deserve to be taken seriously, especially not by such a prestigious mainstream outlet as the Times, castle of the competent.

No individual statement like Lennon's is particularly meaningful or effective, and such statements might even be useful in inspiring contrary-minded writers to prove the asserter wrong. My own concern comes not because of Lennon or any other proselytizer, but because the assumptions that Lennon's post appears to embody are ones I see a lot, ones that promote what seems to me a narrow and unadventurous idea of what is or isn't an appropriate, legitimate, authentic way to write. Continued expression of such ideas creates a consensus and solidifies a prejudice about what should or shouldn't be valued.

Next thing you know, people will be trying to contact the nearest politician to propose a Defense of Multi-Sentence Novels Act...

23 December 2010

Some Books

My brain doesn't seem to want to participate in year-end roundups this year, as every time I try to think about what books or films or music or legumes I've encountered, I mostly go blank. I seem to have lost the capacity to link such experiences to the experience of time in annual chunks. I wouldn't in any case be able to write a "best of the year" post because I've spent a lot of this year catching up with stuff from other years (well, no old legumes -- that would be gross...). Probably still a hangover effect from my years as series editor for Best American Fantasy.

However, some books, at least, do come to mind as things I haven't posted enough about here, and which I would like to recommend. So if you get some good giftcards or something during the holidays and feel impelled to buy something; or if you happen to want some stuff to look for in the library, here are a few titles (arranged alphabetically by author) I've thought rewarded the time I spent with them.

21 December 2010

Third Bear Carnival: The E-Book

Remember the Third Bear Carnival? Of course you do.

Well, after a lot of hard work from various folks, we now can offer all of the Carnival posts, plus some new content, as a free, downloadable e-book.

Thanks to the contributors, to Matt Staggs for doing the initial compilation, and to Jill Roberts and Elizabeth Story at Tachyon for making it all look great. And thanks to Wired.com for hosting the file!

And don't forget -- The Third Bear is always happy to go home with you...

Requiem // 102: 32

[This post is a contribution to the Requiem // 102 project created by Nicholas Rombes. The gist: Requiem for a Dream, isolating one frame from each minute of the film. For more on the concept, see the About page at the project home. This post concerns frame 32:]


We are following the back of a little boy.

The past and future are familiar countries. They do things similarly there.
The main characters of Requiem for a Dream spend all their energy and money and passion on trying to escape the present. They retreat into memories, they pin their hopes on a tale of the future. Now is always terrible and terrifying and terrorizing; then was wonderful, and soon will be bliss.

A mass for the repose of a soul into death. The OED describes an obsolete meaning: An invitation to one's soul to take the peaceful rest one has hoped for or earned. The earliest citation is from 1607: "Every man sings a requiem to his own heart."

A requiem is also a family of sharks.

Fluidity in Vignette.
The edges of this scene are vignetted. The movement blurs the objects even more. The effect is dreamy, hazy. White light bounces sharply off the surface to the left. The muted hues of all else make the yellow in the boy's shirt pop.

The other frames around this, when put together, create fluid movement, the result of being filmed with a Steadicam system. The image flows and sways like the images of one of the most famous boys captured by a Steadicam, Danny in The Shining. The angle is different here, though: Danny was shot at his own height, but young Tyrone is shot from an adult's height.

The little boy runs. The world blurs around him. The world is hard concrete. The world is detritus. The horizontal lines of his shirt reach toward the horizontal lines of the stairs, seeking symmetry.

The little boy is a memory. The little boy takes us running with him into the past.

We are following...

We run, moving forward through a present that is past. Are we chasing the little boy?

Who are the "we" named in the script? We are observation, we are sight and sound perceived.

We are not following the little boy. We are following the back. We are going back. Borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Memory Dismembered.
In the frame, Ty remembers and Ty is the one remembered. Remember derives from Latin: rememorare, "to call to mind". We enter the shot because Ty flashes back to his childhood, but we do not see it through his eyes: instead, we follow behind. We are not Ty; we are an observer to his memory.

Occasionally, to remember has meant the opposite of to dismember. The OED cites Herbert Spencer: "Mind is a synthesis of states of consciousness -- is a thing we can form no notion of without re-membering, re-collecting some of our mental acts."

Among other things, Requiem for a Dream is a Spencerian mind: it synthesizes states of consciousness, it collects and re-members the mental acts of its protagonists.

Spencer coined the phrase "survival of the fittest" and was a proponent of laissez-faire Libertarianism: the state ought never to interfere with such things as education, the economy, or health care.

The social context for the characters is shown only in quick gestures and broad strokes, but the requiem sung is all American dreamy: work, striving, buying, selling. Harry's not lying when he tells his mother he's "sort of a distributor" and works for "a big importer". It's all capitalism, and it gets in your veins and leads to rot. But the characters in power, the characters with money (Arnold the Shrink, Big Tim, the doctor, various dealers and gangsters) have only one use for people like Marion and Sara and Harry and Ty: to own them for pleasure and profit. Once that purpose is served, once power has reached the last extent of its exertion, the subjects of power find themselves tossed out, thrown aside, anathema. Uncontrolled memories and hopes mess up the money machine, but memory and hope are social ills the ruling powers know how to cure. Television is the opium of the people. The profit motive is the opium of the people. Opium is the opium of the people.

At the end of the film, Ty brings Harry to a hospital. There, Harry and Ty are arrested. In prison, Harry's rotten arm stinks. Doctors sever the arm. Our last vision of Harry is of him on a hospital bed, an angelic nurse telling him that Marion will be sent for, that she'll come, and Harry denies it. She will not come. He will not be re-membered.

Our final vision of Ty: on a prison bed, sweating, pained, jittery. The camera pulls up and Ty's memory of his mother returns to share the frame. His mind returns to that moment past, that moment of potential, when he could promise his mother that one day he'd "make it", and she could reassure him that he doesn't need to be a cog in a machine to be loved: "You don’t have to make anything. You just gotta love your momma."

Peaceful Rest in the Perpetual Present.
These characters who have been working so hard to get to the past or the future end up in an unending present. Each is lying down: the men in pain, anguished by choices gone; the women in the bliss of delusion, thinking they have achieved the future they sought. They have been put either into hell, tortured by history, or they have been granted a palliative oblivion. The film has reached its endpoint, not the conclusion of life (which is death) but frozen flashburn moments -- in our minds, this is where the characters stay, this is their eternal now.

Anybody wanna waste some time?

The boy runs. Time stops for Tyrone while he remembers; time is displaced into memory. (He is fascinated by his new mirrors.) The boy runs to his mother. They live in the amber of dreams. Her arms around him deny time.

Time is a commodity in Requiem for a Dream, something that can be bought or sold, something that, like money or a mind, can be wasted. To be drunk or drugged is to be wasted, to be outside time, free of the commodity, or, more accurately, able to manipulate it. (Harry offends Sara when he calls her pills speed.) The film itself replicates the manipulation. Film unreels in time, and the editor controls, or tries to control, the time of the spectacle as it rolls into the time of the real -- the editor, like a skilled pharmacologist, determines how many of Aristotle's unities get shot up. Time stops being real.

The boy runs.

Throughout Requiem for a Dream still photographs serve as totems, fetishes, mnemonics, and traces of the past preserved. Sara has the picture of Harry's graduation: the family together, the red dress displayed in all its glory. Harry and Marion have photographs of themselves in happy, hopeful moments; one of those photos will get Big Tim's phone number written on its back: hope debased and erased, an image shattered by scrawled symbols.

I remembered a photograph of Ty's mother, but I've gone through the film again and again in search of it and haven't found it. Maybe it's there in a quick shot I somehow missed, one of those second-or-less traces that you can only happen upon, that disappear when stalked. It's more likely, though, that I have turned this frame into a still photo in my mind.

Mother Love.
His name is Tyrone Love. He gets the best, most luxurious, most loving love scene in the movie. His love is not just the love of addiction (in all the implications of the phrase), but seems a genuine, even gentle love. 

His memory loves his mother, his reality loves Alice, and our frame appears right in the tension between the two:

Why don'tcha come back to bed, baby?

Come on now, Alice. Got plenty of time for that.
He spends a little time in his memory with his mother, then leaves his memory to go love Alice. At that moment, both memory and reality offer him a wonderland.
Whatcha doin', baby?

Nothin'. Just thinkin' 'bout you.
Mother and lover get melded. In the end, though, when he's strung out and alone, when his mind seeks the most solid solace, mother wins. (But then, Norman Bates knew that years ago.)

Let's not forget the whole statement Ty makes, however:
Nothin'. Just thinkin' 'bout you. And all the nasty things I'm about to do to you.
Tyrone says it with amusement and humor, but it is a meaningful statement in a film where nearly all the black men do far nastier things than Tyrone: some get shot, some do the shooting, and some push sex and shame. In what the script calls "Big Tim's Lush Studio", Marion gets the ungentle, unloving version of Ty's position with Alice -- what a bystander calls "ass to ass". (Marion hadn't thought she could be more debased than she was with Arnold the Shrink; Big Tim teaches her otherwise. Black men, in the world of this film, are always the nastiest.) Where Tyrone holds Alice's back to his front in mutual pleasure, Marion must be back-to-back with her compatriot in terror and degradation, a spectacle of "patty chicks" performing for multicolored men.

But all that is in the future.

Return to Frame
The little boy runs. We follow him back. The world blurs around us. Nasty things have not invaded this wonderland yet; the memory is one of purity and innocence and comforting naïveté. Once we've arrived, it's a place we might want to stay in forever.

16 December 2010

Borges y Boucher, Yo

In my latest Sandman Meditations column, I tackled the prologue of Season of Mists, and ended up spending a lot of time talking about Jorge Luis Borges and his first appearance in English: "The Garden of Forking Paths" in the August 1948 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine:
The EQMM “Garden of Forking Paths” appeared in a translation by Anthony Boucher, which means that Boucher was not only a well-respected writer of mysteries and science fiction, not only an important and influential reviewer of mystery fiction, not only the man whose name is honored by the annual World Mystery Convention (Bouchercon) and its awards (the Anthonies), not only the man who co-founded The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, not only an important mentor to many writers, including Philip K. Dick — he was also the man who first brought Borges’s work to the United States. Later translations would become the standard ones (as far as I know, Boucher’s has rarely been reprinted), but Boucher was first.
For those who are curious, below the cut I've posted scans of the first three pages, which includes the introduction by, I assume, editor Frederic Dannay (one half of Ellery Queen), although it could be by another member of the magazine's staff. Interestingly, according to Jeffrey Alan Marks's Anthony Boucher: A Biobibliography, Dannay rejected Boucher's translation of "Death and the Compass", which was later published by New Mexico Quarterly.

14 December 2010

Icarus on the Lonesome Road

News from Lethe Press that the new issue of Icarus is almost ready. It includes a new story of mine, "Lonesome Road", which I think they quite aptly describe as "almost a literary version of hauntology, a different kind of ghost story -- postmodern, but chilling all the same."

The same issue includes an interview with THE ... Sodomite Hal Duncan, plus stories by Sunny Morvaine and Alejandro Omidsalar. And more! Single copies will be available for purchase via this link, and subscriptions are available here.

Elements of "Lonesome Road" were inspired by one of my favorite recordings, Sam Collins singing "Lonesome Road Blues", available freely and legally via Archive.org:

Everything They Say We Are

I want to have adventures and take enormous risks and be everything they say we are.

--Dorothy Allison
That quote comes from a post at Shiri Eisner's Bi Radical blog called "The myth of myth-busting: normalcy discourse and bisexual politics", a post I discovered via a friend's link on Facebook. The post questions and challenges the assumptions of another blogger's post called "Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know, or: 'how I came to stop worrying and like the word bisexual’, Part 2", which sought to counter some "myths" about bisexuality, namely:

  • Existence. Yes – we do.
  • Monogamy. Yes – we can.
  • Fidelity. Yes – we can. And – we do.
  • HIV & AIDS. No – it’s not all our fault.
  • Confusion. No – we’re really not.
  • Indecision. No – that’s not what fluidity means.
  • Greed. Yes, we can have just one piece of cake.
  • Pants. Yes – we’re as capable as anyone else of keeping our various bits in them.
  • Choice. No – we cannot choose to be straight; we cannot choose to be gay; we did not choose our sexual orientation in some thoughtlessly frivolous moment of rapacious abandon. Who does?

Eisner summarized this as:
No, we’re not promiscuous. No, we don’t sleep around. No, we’re not infectious. No, we don’t choose to be the way we are (SRSLY, why would anyone choose that?). Yes, we’re normal. No, we don’t threaten your sexual identification. Yes, we are just like you. No, you are not in danger of being like us. No, we don’t threaten your beliefs, your society or your safety.

Needless to say, all this is aimed towards the ubiquitous (all-existing, all-domineering) Straight White Middle Class. The one we don’t threaten, yes?
She then offered a point-by-point exploration/rebuttal. And now a complex discussion has begun in the comments section of the post, at the moment focusing on the last part of that summary (the "ubiquitous [all-existing, all-domineering] Straight White Middle Class").

In the comments, the original blogger, TSB, has, it seems to me, a moment of missing the point, or at least missing the point about the power of the word "normal" and the work it does to create unmarked and marked categories (for more, see this PDF). "I guess, my point," she says, "is you posit a monolithic concept ('normalcy') and spread it far & thin ('in our society') and give it a great deal of unshiftable power ('forever') that I do not agree it has." I'd agree that the word "forever" suggests an immutability that it's probably best to reject, but otherwise the commenter here is actually making Eisner's point for her. This is, in fact, the trouble with "normal". While certainly there are variations on what in any region, city, town, neighborhood, street, house, family is accepted or not as "normal", that doesn't mean we can't speak generally of what is and isn't unmarked. The desire to be normal is the desire to be unmarked, to be the default. What is unmarked is what is, sometimes, most common; as often, it is what is most powerful: it is what is able to shape and construct perceptions of the norm.

Once "normal" gets tinged with morality, it becomes a weapon of power: normal equals good and desirable and is opposed to abnormal, which is bad and should be eradicated.

The discourse of normality often pops up, as here, with anti-choice, biological-determinist discourse. "Choice" is entirely the wrong word to use, because the folks who hate queers don't care if choice is involved. (A terminal disease is not a choice, either.) If your sexual identity is not a choice, then it's something that could be cured, perhaps, or segregated from normal society, or at least pitied as an affliction. If it is a choice, then it's a bad one. Damned if you choose, damned if you don't.

Much of the original list is aimed at a certain type of traditionalist morality, a morality that sees monogamy, fidelity, and abstention as inherently good. It sees any behavior other than monogamy, fidelity, and abstention as not only abnormal, but shameful. It is suspicious of experimentation and ephemerality (it would certainly never want something to be "a phase", even though all of life, against the fact of nonexistence, is just a phase). If "Yes -- we can" then "we" must try, must put forth effort, must aspire. We are able, we are capable. We can be normal. We can be good.

Dorothy Allison's essay "A Question of Class" is a worthwhile follow-up to this discussion. As is Samuel Delany's Times Square Red, Times Square Blue.

12 December 2010

From the Streaming

I've been a subscriber of Netflix for quite a few years, and because I've mostly lived in the rural part of a small state where all the cinemas get the same 8-10 major studio movies and the (now rare) video stores don't have particularly rich selections, Netflix has really been an extraordinary addition to my life. This summer, I bought a very cheap, very entry-level Blu-Ray player that allows Netflix's streaming video, and have been enjoying discovering what's available there, because it includes many titles not available on DVD. Through the last few months, the selection has grown significantly, and with the company's recent announcement that they plan to focus their efforts on streaming, it's fun to see all the new things popping up. I'm not convinced Netflix can continue to keep their prices relatively low for unlimited streaming forever, so we might as well enjoy it while it lasts...

Dennis Cozalio at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule (one of the really essential film blogs) recently wrote a post on "10 Buried Treasures from My Netflix Instant Play Queue", and I thought I'd do something similar here.

Thus, below are two lists -- films I've seen and recommend, and films sitting on my queue waiting for viewing. These aren't even remotely complete (there are currently 231 titles in my Instant Queue! I hate making choices...), but are instead lists of some things that particularly grab my attention at this moment.

Films Seen
Big Time -- A movie I've watched many times on an old and very faded videotape, Big Time has not, to my knowledge, ever been released on DVD.  It's a concert movie of Tom Waits from his Frank's Wild Years tour, but with additional surreal film footage amidst the songs and linking them together. If you like Waits's music from the '80s, this is an exciting and essential film. If you don't like that era of his music, watching the movie may feel like someone trying to chew their way out of the inside of your skull.

Black Girl -- Ousmene Sembene's first film, and one of the most interesting and complex cinematic explorations of colonialism that I know. I've seen it probably a dozen times (I show it for lots of classes), and it has never lost its power.

Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss -- The first bit of writing about film I ever did was a paper for a high school history class in which I wrote about Nazi propaganda movies. My father's interest in WWII meant we had a bunch of videotapes and actual prints of some of those films, including Veit Harlan's Jud Süss. I was particularly interested in Harlan, who was among Goebbels's favorite directors. A lot of that came back to me as I watched this documentary, which looks not only at Harlan's life and career, but at the effect of his work and reputation on his family -- including his niece, Christiane Harlan, who married Stanley Kubrick. The story of Harlan himself is fascinating, but the value of the documentary is the way it shows how much his family was scarred by his ambition being so well used by the Nazis -- it reminded me at times of both Mephisto and Mother Night. I just wish there had been more information about his post-war film Different from You and Me, which apparently attempted to portray homosexuals as people worthy of sympathy.

The Keep -- What Dune was for David Lynch, The Keep seems to have been for Michael Mann (and Jürgen Prochnow was in both films...) Michael Mann is in my pantheon of greatest living directors, so finally getting to see this film was exciting for me. I went in with incredibly low expectations, having heard the movie is awful in every conceivable way, and so was surprised to discover it's not quite that bad. Yes, it's unfortunate Mann's full version has never been seen, but I expect even at its full length it's probably not a great example of his work, which may be why he's stayed silent about it (especially given how many different versions of some of his better films, such as Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans, and Miami Vice have been released). If you care about Mann as a director, The Keep is worth seeing. (Also, the Tangerine Dream soundtrack is pretty good, for Tangerine Dream.) If you don't care about Mann, then there are plenty of other incoherent sci-fi movies with middling-to-bad effects out there that you could watch instead.

Marat/Sade -- Peter Brook's ideas about theatre were a profound influence on me at a pretty early age, and this, his film of one of his most famous stage productions, was a movie I saw many times on an old videotape I bought for $1 from a store sometime in the mid-'90s. I love two of his other films also available via Instant Play, Lord of the Flies and King Lear, too, but it is Marat/Sade that is forever imprinted on certain pleasure centers in my brain.

Nobody Knows -- Hirokazu Kore-eda's strange, sad, beautiful film about children living in an apartment in Tokyo after their mother just one day doesn't return home. I really can't describe it; it's one of those movies you've just got to watch.

Metropolis (Restored) -- I'd seen Metropolis twice before: once on videotape and once in its previously restored version. It never quite got me the way some of Fritz Lang's crime films do -- I could watch M every week for the rest of my life and still enjoy it, I expect, and the Dr. Mabuse films (two out of three of which are available for streaming) are almost as wonderful. Many of his Hollywood films (especially Fury and The Big Heat) are compelling, too. But Metropolis, aside from some great set design, just seemed ... well, tedious. Watching the new version, though, I finally connected with the film, and it was the additional material that did it. The story is still pretty ridiculous, but the way that story is now recontextualized is revelatory. The new material of Fritz Rasp as The Thin Man is especially effective, giving that character far more purpose and meaning than before, and helping to link various events together.

Trust -- My favorite Hal Hartley movie. A particular kind of off-kilter realism, or kitchen-sink absurdism, that I usually find precious and shallow, but in Hartley's best work hits every right chord for me. Trust seems to me his most perfectly balanced film, the only one where every scene feels essential, every line of dialogue just right. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for any movie where one of the protagonists is named Matthew and carries a hand grenade.

Films Waiting to Be Seen
Born in Flames -- A feminist science fiction movie by Lizzie Borden. I didn't much care for Borden's Working Girls, but I'll give this one a try, since she is certainly important as a feminist filmmaker, so I feel at least a certain obligation to be familiar with her work.

Michael -- Carl Theodore Dreyer's 1924 film about gay angst. Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc is just about my favorite silent film, and I've got a soft spot for old movies about queers, so I'll probably watch this fairly soon.

Redline 7000 -- One of Howard Hawks's last movies, and the last one I've ever seen anybody defend, and since that anybody was Robin Wood, I'm willing to give it a try. I love Hawks's best work as much as that of any other American director, and don't even mind his lesser films. He was one of the absolute greats, and I've long been curious about Redline.

Salt of the Earth -- Being constitutionally incapable of sifting and choosing, I stick so much stuff on my Netflix queue that inevitably there are titles there that I have no idea where I first got the idea to watch them. This is one of those. I know I was interested in it because of its historical situation -- it was made by blacklisted filmmakers in 1954 and tells the story of Mexican-American miners on strike in New Mexico -- but I don't know how I first heard about it. No matter; I'm thrilled it's now available for viewing.

Ugetsu -- So many people have said this is one of the greatest films of all time that I've been afraid to watch it. I loved Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff, so I expect I'll also like Ugetsu very much, but I keep waiting for exactly the perfect moment. Such moments don't exist, so I'm just going to have to plunge in one of these less-than-perfect days.

XXY -- A film from Argentina about an intersexed 15-year-old. Reviews have called it sensitive and subtle, and so I quickly stuck it on the queue.

05 December 2010

Best American Rich White People

What this man needs is a good short story...

Roxane Gay at HTML Giant:
I recently read Best American Short Stories 2010, edited this year by Richard Russo who is one of my favorite writers. Straight Man? Amazing. Empire Falls? Amazing. My expectations were high. I generally enjoy reading BASS because it gives me a sense of what the literary establishment considers “the best” from year to year. I may not enjoy all the stories in a given year’s anthology but I am always impressed by the overall competence in each chosen story. I don’t think I’ve ever read a story in BASS and thought, “How did that get in there?” At the same time, I often find the BASS offerings to be shamefully predictable. The stories are often sedate and well-mannered even when they are supposedly not. I don’t see a lot of risk taking and more than anything else, I don’t see a lot of diversity in the stories being told. This year, though, BASS really outdid itself. Almost every story in the anthology was about rich or nearly rich white people to the point where, by the end of reading the book, I was downright offended. I know people will disagree with my thoughts here and that’s fine, but I really think shit is fucked up in literary publishing. That’s coarse but I cannot think of a better way to convey my frustration. Anytime I talk about this issue, that’s the best way I can encapsulate my feelings. This issue has been on my mind for a couple weeks (and years) and two things triggered my… current pre-occupation with whose stories are or are not being told.
I've had similar thoughts about many volumes of BASS.  I don't think it's the guest editors' faults entirely -- putting the question of the stories' diversity aside for a moment, there seems to be a systemic force pushing the books toward the sort of stuff published by The New Yorker and Harper's and the best-known of the lit mags.  The guest editors change, but it's rare that a volume is published where the guest editor's taste seems especially different from her or his predecessors'.  The exceptions are volumes like those of Michael Chabon and Stephen King, but even there the exceptions are a few stories, not the whole -- and it's the whole that's really the issue.  Individually, the stories in the books are 99% of the time unimpeachably "good": aesthetically accomplished (but not "difficult") and emotionally affecting (but not in any uncomfortable or challenging way), fitting a very mainstream idea of what "literary quality" means.  And occasionally they're a whole lot more than that.

But an anthology isn't just a collection of good stories.  There are more good stories published in a year than can fit in one book (or, if you're particularly critical, no single year produces an entire book's worth of good stories).  An anthology's meaning and purpose, its implication and effect, derives from its selection.

I glanced at the table of contents for the Russo volume when it came out, and it seemed to me unadventurous, so I didn't read it.  Previously, I'd been very excited when Salman Rushdie was announced as a guest editor, but when I saw his volume last year -- a volume that could have been called Best American Short Stories from Harper's and The New Yorker, Plus a Couple Extras -- I was appalled.

I've long been fond of John Gardner's 1982 BASS for two reasons: 1.) he wasn't much interested in fiction from the "slicks", and 2.) he said he'd read a lot of science fiction, but nothing much struck his fancy that he saw -- he clearly would have loved to have included at least one SF story, if he'd found one that fit.  It's not that I hate the slick magazines -- I subscribe to them! -- but that they don't really need more exposure, at least not in the way that little magazines do.  And in some ways, including a bunch of their stories feels like cheating: they pay so well and are so prestigious that they're able to attract the world's best writers, leading to a certain general level of quality.  If you don't feel like exposing yourself to the whole range of American short fiction, sure, you can get plenty of entertainment, and occasionally even some enlightenment, from the slicks.  But you're getting a very narrow vision of what American short fiction is and can be.

In some ways, Richard Russo's apparent preference for stories about rich white folks gives a good focus to the anthology.  I mean, it's not a book I have any interest in reading (I don't even like The Great Gatsby, the rich white fantasy novel to rule them all!), but at least it's got some coherence, and the choice of fiction from the usual sources especially makes sense, since generally those are publications aimed at rich white folks (if their advertising is anything to go by, at least).

How about this, Powers That Be At Houghton Mifflin: Next year, get a guest editor who isn't a rich white guy, and encourage her or him to choose stories that aren't about rich white people and don't come from magazines primarily sold to rich white people.  Sure, some of the best American short stories of that year will be excluded, but every guest editor always bemoans the fact that there were too many good stories to choose from, anyway.  Encourage the guest editor to make a really individual selection, a selection that maybe nobody else would make.  That's why you have guest editors in the first place, right?  (No, probably not.  The reason why you have them is for marketing, so that you can put a famous person's name in big letters on the cover.  Nothing wrong with that -- if you don't sell books, the series will die.  [Oh, do I know that!]  But one of the main reasons you have guest editors is for the individuality of their selection, the personal vision, the independent taste.  Right?  Yes?  Maybe?)

Remember the short-lived Beacon Best series?  I loved those books, and they opened a whole world of literature to me.  They were edited by Ntozake Shange, Edwidge Danticat, and Junot Diaz.  The goal of the series was to show the diversity of of writing out there -- they didn't limit themselves by region or by form (the anthologies contained all types of "creative writing") -- and they certainly had a different feel from BASS and even The Pushcart Prize (which also includes a wide variety of types of writing, and only draws from small presses).

I don't know why the Beacon series only lasted three volumes, but I suspect it had something to do with sales.  Sigh.  As marketing strategies go, aiming for rich white folks isn't a bad one.  With continued growth in the income gap, ever-rising Wall Street bonuses, and the U.S. government's utter subservience to corporations and businessmen, in the future the only people who will be left with any discretionary income for books are likely to be exactly the people Russo's BASS is all about.

And hey, somebody has to provide books for all those nice people in gated communities...

04 December 2010

John Coulthart on the Hide/Seek Controversy

If you haven't read John Coulthart's commentary on the recent controversy over an exhibit at the Smithsonian, do.  It's called "Ecce Homo Redux".  Here's the first paragraph:
If the news of the past few weeks has felt like a re-run of the 1980s—ongoing recession, government cuts, riots in London, Tories casting aspersions on the undeserving poor, the threat of another royal wedding—then add to the list ofdéjà vu moments a flurry of outrage concerning art and religion in America that’s like a recapitulation of the Helms vs. NEA spats of 1989. On that occasion Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ was in the firing line, accused of being a blasphemous portrayal. This week it’s been the turn of a video installation of a short film made the same year, A Fire in My Belly, by David Wojnarowicz, a work featured in an exhibition I linked to a couple of weeks ago, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC. Los Angeles Times piece previewing the exhibition also connected Hide/Seek and the earlier attacks by the right against the NEA, ending by saying “Times and attitudes change”. Well, not always…

Last Year's Links

I've been sharing items via Google Reader's sidebar widget on this site for quite a while, calling it "Fresh Links".  Whenever I see something in the RSS feed that seems interesting, I click the little share button, and voila, y'all get to see it.  It's increased my laziness, causing me not to create linkdumps much any more.  If there's something I am especially impressed with, interested in, or challenged by, I'll incorporate it into a post somehow; stuff in the Fresh Links section is stuff that seemed to me worth the time I put into reading it.

One of the things it allows me to do, if I choose, is see all I've shared.  I haven't done this before, but today I wondered what, for instance, I had noticed at this time last year.  Here's what was there:

December 3, 2009

December 4, 2009

And then nothing again until December 7, which happens to be a wonderful day because it is the birthday of Noam Chomsky, Tom Waits, and my mother, among other luminaries.  Here's what I shared then:

Oh, those were the days!  Back when we were all so much younger, so much better looking, so much more 2009ish than we are today!

I shall wear the bottoms of my blog posts rolled...

02 December 2010

Spectacle and Antinomianism

Many on the left worry about being "offensive" and indeed worry even more when other people are being "offensive." Many on the right -- conservatism being a sort of machismo these days -- are pleased to offend, of course. This doesn't make them any good as readers or writers. I'm always amused when I run into a young conservative fellow who signed up for a class or writing program after reading a left-wing and homoerotic book like Fight Club. It touched them somehow, but not in any way they could understand, so they just take the stuff Groundlings always take away from some piece of art: spectacle and antinomianism. Antinomianism is part of why so many middle-class white dudes see themselves as victims; they can't be tough rebels if they acknowledged that they're actually already Empire.

--Nick Mamatas

01 December 2010

Fallen Books

I was upstairs and heard a crash.

I came down and discovered some of my ever-precarious piles of books had fallen.

Had I let the piles grow too large?  Had one of the many books I'm in the midst of reading been placed unartfully on the pile?  Had a small earthquake rustled the house?  Had gravity changed?

No, none of those were the reasons that multiple piles fell at once.