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The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner (2016)

Ben Lerner’s brief essay makes some smart if not new points about poetry’s most ancient and fundamental sorrow: It cannot succeed. The “re” in “representation” means that poetry’s always at a remove from the genuine. Plato was the first to note this bummer; folks still aren’t over it. As Lerner correctly writes, “The fatal problem with poetry: poems.” An ideal and perfect Poetry can exist as an imaginative category, but every actual poem has fallen and will fall short of that ideal. Lerner quotes George Oppen: “Because I am not silent, the poems are bad.” Lerner: “Hating on actual poems . . . is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the utopian ideal of Poetry.” Exactly right. Poems are always large or small failures, but the beauty and force of Poetry is eternal.

So what then? My personal advice: If the ideal matters to you, instead of writing poems, be a poet. (Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to write poems to be a poet.) Lerner astutely points out that “‘Poetry’ is supposed to signify an alternative to the kind of value that circulates in the economy as we live it daily, but actual poems can’t realize that alternative,” because the making of poems is just another commodity production process. But being a poet merely means that you are devoted to the idea of the ideal. It doesn’t mean you think yourself (or anyone else) capable of realizing or reifying that ideal. That would be crazy. Writing poems is a doomed enterprise, but to be a poet is to live a dream. The only downside is that I mean that literally; you can only be a poet in your dreams. Once you wake up, you’re just a writer of poems, a failure.

I hope Lerner writes more criticism; he seems capable of being in uncertainties, which is my chief qualification for a critic. Nice read.

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American Honey, Andrea Arnold (2016) and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Amy Heckerling (1982)

American Honey: Two hours and forty-three minutes of Ryan McGinley‘s Instagram feed, if he still has one. Or two hours and forty-three minutes of Larry Clark’s Tulsa updated for the century of Fetty Wap and fracking. Well anyway it’s definitely two hours and forty-three minutes. It is way too long and self-indulgent; I really wonder how Arnold got away without having to edit more. I’m thrilled when she cuts away to a dog wearing a superman cape in the parking lot of a crap motel. Pow! Super memorable image. But then a minute later she cuts to the dog again. And after another minute she cuts to it again, and stays on it for a good thirty seconds, while it has a pee. The movie’s full of this kind of overkill. No bee, butterfly, beetle, or grasshopper on Arnold’s set failed to get filmed, and not one of them wound up on the cutting room floor. The first bug crawling up a weed in the hazy honey light of a Kansas sunset adds to the atmosphere. The tenth makes you want to call Orkin.

The star of this movie is the cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who we get to know very intimately, as he draws a great deal of attention to himself. His story is deeply tragic. He can’t hold the camera steady, never learned to focus, and has a pathological obsession with lens flare. I sentence him to watch a week’s worth of Peckinpah — no, better, Cassavetes –to learn that you don’t have to jitter the camera constantly to infuse your mise with unease and spontaneity.

The movie’s formal failures are real and dispiriting, but what depresses me most is its content. Initial appearances suggest that Arnold’s primary goal is to celebrate the joys of American youth culture — getting high, getting laid, singing along to pop songs with your friends, eating junk food, falling in love, spoofing grownups, above all driving around — but that she also wants to expose some peculiarly American strains of loneliness, danger, and fear, through her depictions of poverty, abuse, and waste. I approve of both these messages! But unfortunately, Arnold drastically underrealizes both. The joy parts don’t seem very joyful at all, mostly because the kids on the mag crew whose adventures make up the plot of this movie don’t really seem to give much of a damn about each other. Their solidarity of purpose consists mainly of sharing joints and hooking up, and further we come to understand that they are explicitly in a zero-sum competition with one another, because if you don’t generate profit, you get dumped. So much for sticking it to the man; these kids are near-perfect little capitalists. Meanwhile, Arnold’s depiction of the dark side of these characters’ situation is so misguided it falls off a cliff into a chasm of irresponsibility. We do see children living in poverty and under threat of abuse, but the mag crew, our footloose heroes, never suffer any of the very real tragedies that their nonfictional counterparts do. If you live like these kids, bad things happen, such as rape, human trafficking, assault, drug overdoses, hunger, untreated illness, unintended pregnancies, police harassment, etc. We see none of that in American Honey. Arnold’s is a world where a teenager in a bikini can get into a car with three strange men, or a lonely truck driver, and not only have nothing go wrong, but make money and have fun. It’s absolutely insane.

It was late when I finished this, but I stayed up a little longer to watch some of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. This movie, thirty four years old, does such a better job of conveying both the joy and the terror of being a teenager in America it’s not even funny. Literally, it’s not funny. Sure, there’s a lot of dated, goofy stuff in there. But you’re remembering the wrong stuff. Sean Penn is fun, but Jennifer Jason Leigh’s story is the real one here. Her highs are transcendent, and her sorrows are crushing. I think the main reason the emotional contours of Heckerling’s story are so much more satisfying is that the relationships between the kids — whether healthy or unhealthy — seem real, rather than simulated.

 

 

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Influenza Playlist

Being sick loosens the customary strictures of my TV ethos. Normally, oppressed by my needs to maximize efficiency and minimize shame, I mostly try to watch things I haven’t seen before and things that aren’t total garbage. But six days on the sofa with the flu lends license to revisit old things and wallow in crap.

In addition to random episodes of various television shows, a Green Bay Packers playoff game, a Crimson Tide championship game, the Golden Globe Awards where Meryl Streep talked about how we need to protect journalists and insulted MMA, and dunes of additional flotsam (I discovered my Apple TV can stream every Simpsons episode ever, which is good to know), here’s some of what I can remember watching in living DayQuil-vision over the last week.

Once Upon a Honeymoon, Leo McCarey (1942). Carey Grant and Ginger Rogers try to conduct a playful romantic comedy amongst the Nazi intrigues leading up to WWII. Featuring a scene where they’re mistaken for Jews and confined to the Warsaw ghetto. One of the most schizophrenic movies I’ve ever seen.

Being There, Hal Ashby (1979). Revisited for obvious reasons. Ashby, working off a script byJerzy Kosiński, posits that a complete idiot uncomprehendingly reciting snippets of TV advertisements could rise to political power, but he doesn’t quite dare to get Chauncey Gardiner all the way into the Oval Office, he just hints at the possibility. Outrageous satire then, business as usual now.

Caddyshack, Harold Ramis (1980). This amused me less than I thought it would. I didn’t remember how much of the comedy turned on sexism. The Chevy Chase character has held up better than the Bill Murray character, I think.

High Fidelity, Stephen Frears (2000). This wasn’t as fun as I remembered, either, and for sort of similar reasons. The movie proposes the girls as existing only to thwart or satisfy the boys. The boys are the only characters whose problems actually matter, and they’re all a bunch of assholes. It was fun seeing all the posters in the record store, though. The Silos! God. The year 2000 was a lot of years ago all of a sudden! Amazing how little consciousness of hip hop these boys have.

Rushmore, Wes Anderson (1998). Very nice, but really all I can think about it what a quantum leap it was from this to The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), which is so infinitely better.

His Kind of Woman, John Farrow (1951). Uneven and claustrophobic romance/noir suffered a lot of production problems and it shows. But I’d watch Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell hang wallpaper, and Vincent Price is a hoot.

The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino (2015). You know, I got about eight hateful minutes into this and turned it off. It’s just boring. Probably unfair.

Blue Velvet, David Lynch (1986). Hasn’t lost an ounce of weirdness in thirty years. You can’t imagine it being made today. There’s something so frank (forgive me) about its presentation of depravity. It doesn’t wink at itself, or us; it doesn’t say, “Ooh, look how naughty and outré I am.” It’s just like: Look at this.

The Secret Rules of Modern Living: Algorithms, David Briggs (2015). Notice how both this documentary and the article I mention below mention “secret rules.” I’ve been abstractly terrified of the Internet for some time now; since the election it’s not very abstract. (I squarely blame the Trump presidency on the Internet, period.) I came across this documentary on Netflix and I’m glad I watched it. Math has never been my strong suit, but the cheerful Oxford don explains algorithms in terms even I could understand, and I feel I have a glancing knowledge now of how, for instance, Google search works. Pretty fascinating.

The Secret Rules of the Internet,” Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly (2016). I so wish we had Orwell with us to see what is happening to the nature of public discourse. This article really got me thinking about how we’ve increasingly ceded authority and standards for truth to the radical flatness of the Internet, where information moves because of money and/or ideological agenda, and the truth is completely optional. Meryl Streep was right; we need to support real journalists now more than ever.

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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers (1940)

Wow, this is just a beautiful novel. I’m not sure what took me so long to get to it, but this was a nice moment to find it, when I’ve been doing so much driving around through small towns of the South, thinking about tribes and clans, fear of the outsider and the other, whether there’s any warrant for beauty without blood on it. When young Mick Kelly, McCullers’ avatar, wants to absent herself from the physical and cultural poverty that surrounds her, she retreats to a mental space she calls her “inside room,” where she imagines travel to foreign countries, playing symphonies she’s composed for appreciative audiences. I know that room! I’ve been living half my waking moments in it lately. (My preferred fantasy is making photos of the sea in Rotterdam, but you get the idea.)

Mick’s one of four major characters who orbit the absence at the book’s center, a man named Singer who is deaf and dumb. Singer, like The Brother from Another Planet and Chauncey Gardiner, has an obscure interior; he mainly (though not entirely — McCullers does give him one great obsession) serves as a screen for others to project their desires and fears upon. In addition to Mick, the type of sensitive kid who hides in the moonlit shrubbery to listen to music from a radio playing in a fancy house, there’s Jake Blount, a would-be labor activist who can’t persuade the town’s laborers to get as enraged about their oppression as he is. And Biff Brannon, the owner of the New York Diner who creates a safe space for misfits but can’t ever make a human connection with any of them. Most affecting of all is Dr. Copeland, an elderly black doctor with a kid named Karl Marx, who lives a life of uncompromising dignity and service in the tragically mistaken belief that self-respect will lead to respect from others. All four of these idealists are worn down, sometimes slowly and sometimes with sudden violence, by the brute realities of ignorance, indifference, contempt, and cruelty.

McCullers handles her plot, characters, pacing, themes, and all that excellently, but what I really admired here was the book’s openness of attention. Even as she’s running down some pretty programmatic themes — alienation, oppression, etc. — McCullers takes plenty of time, and plenty of pleasure, in describing the smell of the sun on the summer sidewalk, the goodness of delicious food, the feeling of being in an old body, or a young one. There’s a physicality to this world that helps it transcend being merely a brace of socialist parables. Loved it.

 

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Into the Inferno, Werner Herzog (2016) & Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, Werner Herzog (2016)

Herzog, in his mid-70s, continues to make excellent new work at an absurd pace. These two are ostensibly documentaries about volcanoes and the internet, respectively, but they work more like essays or poems which begin with the idea of something (e.g., volcanoes, the internet) and then spiral out associations from there. Into the Inferno has talking head scientists explaining how magma works and all that, but Herzog is perfectly happy, when visiting a volcano in North Korea, to spend a good chunk of time on North Korean politics and culture. So you’re watching along, enjoying the insights, and suddenly you ask yourself, wait, why am I learning about North Korean history in the middle of a volcano documentary? And then you’re like, whoa, hold on, is there some metaphor at work here? And by right about then, Herzog’s back to talking about magma, and the moment passes. Then all of a sudden he’s talking about cargo cults, and you’re like, wait a minute . . .

Lo and Behold is even looser in its organization and freer in its range of attention. We see the dingy UCLA office where a computer called up another computer for the first time, and we hear Elon Musk talk about connectivity, but Herzog also visits the National Radio Quiet Zone to talk with people suffering from electromagnetic sensitivity, conducts an absolutely devastating interview with the family of a girl whose gruesome death was photographed and shared on the internet by a couple of assholes in the employ of the California Highway Patrol, and — a favorite moment of mine — asks a young Carnegie Mellon student if he in fact loves the robot he and his team have designed. “Yes,” the student answers. “We do love Robot 8.”

There are certainly critiques available for Herzog’s documentaries. He prefers grandeur to details, poetry to prose, and so sometimes you get the sense that inconvenient data is being elided. He’ll let a MOOC proponent enthuse about the phenomenon’s potential, but won’t talk about the problems, for example. And some will be annoyed when he inevitably comes around to his portentous voice-over moments, which are so easily parodied. Ever since seeing Into the Inferno, I’ve taken to loudly announcing in a strong German accent that “Zee depthless abyss of molten lava reminds us zat all human endeavor iss futile.” Personally, I’ve for decades considered these Herzogian pronouncements a feature, not a bug.

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Ketchup

600 Miles, Gabriel Ripstein (2015). You can’t just point a camera at someone driving a car with golden hour light on their face and let it run for three minutes. It’s not suspenseful; it’s boring. A small story like this depends on effective characterization and unfortunately that doesn’t happen here. Too bad because we have a  dire need to see normal human Mexicans on the screen instead of just caricatures and thugs.

Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle (2015). So ridiculous it almost gets fun, but no. This is terrible.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain (2012). Really wanted to like this but the prose is so jumped-up it made me nervous like I’d had six cups of coffee. Someone told Fountain that there need to be three fancy whiz-bang usages per page in order to keep the reader’s interest, maybe? There was a point where I thought we were getting into Tim O’Brien-style magical realism, but then it turned out that I was just being asked to believe something totally unbelievable, and that bothered me. I guess Ang Lee made a movie out of this in super high 3D HD; I don’t get why.

Alabama in the Twentieth Century, Wayne Flynt (2004). I’ve been meaning to get to this for a long time. It’s an academic history from a university press, and thus unsurprisingly a little long on data and a little short on synthesis for the lay reader, but I still came away with a much better sense of the political, social, and cultural dynamics of my adopted home state. In a nutshell, it’s run by an oligarchy of major landowners and businessmen who by and large don’t give much of a hoot about the public good.  Which is more depressing: Watching my true home states in the Midwest devolve from their progressive labor-informed roots into paranoid right-wing madness, or living in a place that never had any progressive labor-informed traditions in the first place?

Straight Outta Compton, F. Gary Gray (2015). Trucks with a lot of the Behind the Music clichés, sure, but they’re clichés because they’re so frequently true. It’s really a pretty good movie, well-acted and visually dynamic. As with all based-on-a-true-story stories, there are certainly robust arguments to be had about what got put in, what got left out, and what got made up. For example, there are some gestures toward acknowledging the violence against women perpetrated by the group, but IMHO not enough.

The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino (2013). I keep going back and forth on this one. It’s a classic imitative fallacy problem: Is the movie critiquing self-indulgence, narcissism, half-baked art, vacuous philosophizing, and bourgeois complacency, or is it an example of all of the above? Maybe both/and. It’s certainly delicious to look at, and I do find myself smiling an awful lot. Makes me feel both wistful and embarrassed to feel anything at all.

The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer (2012). Everyone said to watch this, but when I read about it I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to handle it. My solution was to watch it in several successive sessions, not all at once, which worked OK. It is so weird and heartbreaking and mesmerizing and horrifying and beautiful. It should never have been made and it’s a fantastic accomplishment. I watched it two months ago and I’m still not over it. It’s like Night and Fog crossed with 8 1/2. It’s about corruption and genocide and torture and power and all that. And it’s also very much about history and historiography, particularly how monstrous crimes get narrativized and thus normalized. So you have to grapple with abstract questions about historiography and representation and power while simultaneously grappling with very non-abstract realities of people killing each other in cold blood. It’s a lot to take. This really deserves thinking about at more length and in more detail but I’m kind of scared of it.

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, Göran Olsson (2011). Terrific footage shot by Swedish journalists forms the backbone of this documentary, and it’s fascinating and wonderful to watch. When the editors and director start trying to be synthetic historians the piece gets a little watery, since they are incapable of seeing their subjects as anything but totemic heroes. Never mind the commentary and absorb this instead as raw history; it’s fantastic.

 

 

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Zootopia, Byron Howard & Rich Moore (2016). April and the Extraordinary World, Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci (2015)

I swear, sometimes I can’t tell if I’m a total snob or a total goat. My standards are on the one hand absurdly high; on the other hand it appears I’ll put just about anything into my eyes. Cartoons (or “animated films”) are an interesting test. I can be and have been persuaded equally by the assertion that they are only for children and the assertion that people who think they are only for children are myopic snobs. Anyway.

Zootopia strikes me as very American and very much of the moment. It’s super preoccupied with proffering a morality, but it’s so desperate not to get anything wrong or offend anyone that its moral message becomes garbled beyond comprehension. It seems to be against discrimination, graft, prejudice, biological determinism, anti-intellectualism, unfair drug crime sentencing, racism, the police state, urban blight, and all sorts of other bad things, but the categories of who’s supposed to be bad, and who good, and who’s being represented as bad but is actually good only society has made him bad, etc., get totally out of hand. This fellow parses out the problems well and in detail. I’ll only add that the happy ending is that the bunny and the fox, supposedly blood enemies, become best friends. But they’re also both cops. I don’t get it.

April and the Extraordinary World is French to the core. Twilit, melancholy, witty, fanciful, open-ended. It’s concerned with utopia and dystopia too, but far less concerned with determining tidy moral categories, which ironically opens a path to a far stronger sense of moral imperative. There’s also an abundance of historical consciousness here, which I love. Not least, it’s a lot more fun to look at the spiky, messy, impressionistic world of this cartoon than the uncannily smooth and bright world of Hollywood animation. I like that there are a lot of pratfalls in this, too. One thing that makes a cartoon good for grownups is a certain enforcement of silliness.

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Amulet, Roberto Bolaño (1999)

41e7ncucp6l-_sx322_bo1204203200_So far the only things of Bolaño’s I’ve really dug have been By Night in Chile and Distant Star, which are terrific. I struggled to care about The Savage Detectives, and felt the similar ambivalence about Amulet, which is a satellite work to The Savage Detectives. Books where the main focus is hagiography of writers-as-writers always turns me off. I’m often interested in poems, but very rarely interested in poets.

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The Drowned World, J. G. Ballard (1962)

the-drowned-world-book-coverI’m thinking I might just read science fiction for the next four years. There are a lot of iconic writers I’ve never read, or read only a bit of (Butler, Delaney, Dick, Heinlein, Le Guin, et al.), and I confess I wouldn’t mind thinking about society and culture at one remove for a while, instead of right up close in the moment. Sort of like putting on a pair of psychological sunglasses, maybe.

I did read this novel before, a long time ago, but went back to read it again after recommending it to a student working on a story which takes place in a world where the seas have risen to the point that people are living underwater.

Much has been made of Ballard’s prescience; I’ll skip all that and make a few notes regarding the book on its own terms. I like it less than I remembered liking it. Probably when I first read it — in college, maybe? — I was mostly focused on its hypnotic thanatos. This time I got hung up on its repetitiveness (no synonym of “miasma” goes unused), and also the flat characters, in particular the one female character and the “Negro” characters, who are so flat they barely register. It does certainly, though, set in motion some interesting trains of thought. Not so much about human-made climate change and the perils of overdevelopment — there is none of that — but rather about the archetypal fiction of the cool, scientific, organized, rational North vs. the hot, irrational, chaotic South. It’s fun to think that a global catastrophe drowning the planet under 60 feet of water would naturally cause the British to deploy scientific research stations, and that the researchers would drink sherry in their off hours.

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Leviathan, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2014)

4Extremely Russian. We meet an unremarkable, basically decent guy, and then watch as everything that could go wrong in his life does, all before a moody arctic backdrop of blue-gray mist, gray-green ocean, black basalt, winter-battered buildings, rusty machinery, and weak light from oil lamps.

Why would you put yourself through this? Well, if you are someone who doesn’t believe that the contemporary world is run by a transnational kleptocratic cabal, this might help you see the light. If you’ve already got that message, then you watch this for the spectacular acting and the grandeur of the landscape. I also think it’s just salubrious to sometimes take in some culture that doesn’t apologize for being serious. We don’t get a lot of that out of Hollywood.