Monthly Archives: August 2005

August 29, 2005

My Favorite Wife (1940)

directed by Garson Kanin
written by Bella Spewack and Samuel Spewack
story by Leo McCarey, Bella Spewack and Samuel Spewack

Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. I saw this on TCM. I think it’s proper to say I caught this on TCM, meaning (to me) that before it began, I neither knew that I was about to watch it nor had any particular intention to watch it, ever.

I had caught the first three-quarters of it, also on TCM, some months earlier, and had enjoyed it well enough, and was glad to get the chance to see the rest. But there was no need. A lot of the movie is loose and tepid, and I had already seen all the good stuff. Now that I’ve seen the whole thing I know that the good stuff accounts for a dissapointingly small percentage of the whole.

The good stuff is mostly Cary Grant clowning. His unique quality as a comic actor is, I think, that he himself is amused by what’s going on, but isn’t generally at liberty to come out and be open about it, 1) because as a charming well-bred fellow, it’s more suitable for him to say something witty, and 2) because it’s a movie and it would be improper for his character to be amused by circumstances that couldn’t possibly be amusing from his point of view. That is, his constant understated amusement reads both as a charming attribute of his character and as the proof that he is not really the character after all, that it’s all just some fun. This is a very hard line to walk, as evidenced by someone like Jimmy Fallon, whose willingness to be amused by his own performances is detrimental to the material both internally and externally. Whether or not it is calculated (but especially if it is), it is indefensibly unprofessional. Oh yeah, but back to My Favorite Wife. Cary Grant gets to do some fun stuff during the early honeymoon hotel sequence, and has a few more moments of pleasant goofiness scattered through the rest.

His scenes with Irene Dunne show them to have satisfyingly similar instincts about how to balance the characterization with the absurdity. I should see The Awful Truth, their previous – and by all accounts much better – movie together. As I said above, and I’m sure I’m not the first to observe this, the appeal of the screwball style derives from simultaneously being in the story and not really being in the story. It works particularly well with couples, because it’s closely modeled on the kind of attitude longstanding couples can have toward their own well-worn schtick. Screwball is warm and satisfying in the way that it’s warm and satisfying to see a couple playing at being mock-frustrated with one another: they’re free to pretend only because they’re actually so stable and content.

That thing about both being in the story and also outside it, having fun with it, accounts for the good-natured appeal of so much old comedy. That’s how the Marx Brothers are, too, and Bob Hope, and lots of other “classic” comic performers; it’s a vaudevillian sort of attitude toward material, one that doesn’t privilege content over entertainment. I’ve heard someone (Christopher Guest?) say that for something to succeed as comedy, the stakes for the characters have to be real and have to be high. But that’s not a universal; that’s a recent attitude, and it creates comedy with a different, less sympathetic flavor. In that school, you’re really laughing at the characters; there’s no with because they’re not laughing at all. Frequently they’re quite genuinely upset. You might still have sympathy for them, but it’s dramatic sympathy for characters, not that old sense of actual comic camaraderie.

But old-style “inclusive” comedy has always lived on, in diluted form, in the sitcom, among other places. Of course, it’s hard to say whether that really counts as living on, since sitcoms (particularly the warmest, most inclusive ones, like Home Improvement et al.) are generally idiotic, and they also frequently seem to forget how the game works. Witness Drew Carey’s grotesquely stupid show, which seemed actually to take pride in how little it believed in itself. But the “quality” sitcoms, like Frasier, have managed to maintain that sense that the people who live in a comedy are really there but are always, in some unshakeable way, having fun. Unlike Spinal Tap and, you know, any of those movies where bad things happen to Ben Stiller’s penis.

The high point of My Favorite Wife is right in the middle, when Cary Grant learns that his wife was, in fact, with some dude when she was shipwrecked on a desert island for seven years. Irene Dunne makes the dude out to have been some harmless wimp, but Cary Grant is suspicious. He tracks the guy down to see what he looks like, and finds that he is Randolph Scott, hanging out by a pool with several women at his side. Cary Grant’s anxious jealousy/sexual discomfort peaks as Randolph Scott shows off his broad-chested body to the crowd in an athletic performance on rings before diving into the pool, to admiring applause. The sequence quite explicitly stands in for Cary Grant jealously imagining his wife having sex with this guy, which is a bit dirtier than anything I expected in a movie from 1940, and the heightened, exaggerated quality of it all delighted me both times – Scott’s ridiculous, self-satisfied grin as he casually launches into his acrobatic routine, Grant’s cringing as though he’s seeing something nightmarish, all to the winking strains of, I believe, the Skater’s Waltz (or a close approximation). I generally like scenes in comedy where something goofy and exaggerated is staged for the benefit of one of the characters; I like watching people have to cope with seeing silly things. The Coen Brothers use some form of this setup in almost every one of their movies.

But after that things start to go downhill. The irritatingly protracted final sequence had all of us groaning with frustration. The elements of the story seem perfectly sufficient for this sort of movie, but scene for scene, the setups just aren’t funny enough, and the efforts to make something out of almost nothing are only occasionally successful. I blame the writers, for sloppy pacing and weak “jokes,” and the director, who lets everything linger just a little too long.

The movie is said to be inspired by Tennyson’s “Enoch Arden,” (uncredited, but Dunne’s character’s name is Arden…) which I attempted to read in preparation for writing this, but gave up when I saw how long it was going to take. It’s so long! I’ll read it soon and report. On first look, it seems like it’s also the inspiration for Cast Away, the Tom Hanks movie.

Here’s a picture of Bella and Sam Spewack, the writers, better known for writing Kiss Me, Kate. Everyone knows that pretty much all the pictures on this site are thumbnails, right? Click on the picture for the bigger version. You knew that already, right?

August 28, 2005

Iggly Tune

I often find that some little tune I’ve made up is running over and over in my head. These tunes are generally characterized by being both cheesy and a little iggly, a little sour. I’m not sure what it says about me or my musical imagination, but these slightly squidgy little ditties are my natural musical product, they’re what I come up with when I’m completely unselfconscious. Just like everyone’s got their own standard output when doodling with a pencil; it’s something like that.

The arrangement of this particular tune is probably a little too convincing. Part of the appeal of the first six notes, when they first occured to me, was that they were nauseatingly wrong, in a chromatic way. Iggly, if you will. In putting it all together, I think I may have diluted that quality too much. That’s always hard for me in doing compositional work; when I want to preserve some appealing weirdness, I tend to find that I’ve erred on one side or another; either I leave it too raw and arbitrary/clumsy-sounding, or I somehow overwhelm it with convention. The latter is probably the more artistically responsible way to lean, but it can be disheartening to find that your original interesting intentions have disappeared inside something unrelievedly bland.

As here. Cheese and iggle fought it out and cheese won more ground than I intended. And the ground held by iggle (the slightly awkward chord progressions, especially in the middle) now just sounds unskilled rather than dreamy. Oh well.

The battle between cheese and iggle – or, properly, between convention and novelty – seems to be one of the fundamental challenges of all creative work, but I don’t know that I’ve ever heard any wisdom about how to think about this conflict, other than basic “be original but be well-versed in convention” stuff.

After all this, this little musical fart is going to seem really ridiculous. Without further ado: this stupid tune.

Unedited score and sloppy recording.

August 23, 2005

Everything Is Illuminated (2002)

by Jonathan Safran Foer

[extended as of 8/26/05]

In the New York Times Magazine profile of the author, a few months back, Mr. Foer was quoted as saying something like “I don’t write to make people think I’m smart, or that I’m a good writer. I write so that I can feel less alone.” (=rough paraphrase from memory). Then it is mentioned that when he was very young, he wanted a flamboyant suit to wear, and then his mother is quoted saying something about how he has always been able to come up with the most moving things, things that touched her deeply.

I hadn’t read the book at the time, but I found all this off-putting. It didn’t bode well for his writing, in my mind. I finally read the book, and all my fears came true.

When I was a freshman in high school, I was still very uncomfortable with how I might or might not fit into the social life of the classroom, even during academic time. I didn’t trust that my contributions would be appropriate and wouldn’t annoy teachers and/or students; I had the sense that at most times, other people generally “knew what was going on” and that I fundamentally didn’t, even if I intellectually felt like I understood the material or the social situation or whatever. So I had various strategies for coping and not losing too much face. One strategy was to say only one or two things per class, but have them be “intriguingly outside the box.” “Intriguingly outside the box” is pretty easy to pull off if it’s your only criterion – you just have to sit tight for a while and notice which way the conversation is headed, and then imagine some other direction it could have gone and then mention that in a way that suggests that it’s an intellectual mistake to ignore it. As long as what you say is both surprising (because it fights the natural flow of conversation) but blatantly on-topic, you get credit from teachers for contributing something “valuable” and at the same time, little risk of having to defend yourself or get corrected, because nobody was thinking about it. So this little gambit was a safe way of regularly scoring enough points to stay afloat without really entering into a game that I didn’t think I could play properly.

My story is that during that freshman year, my English teacher used to sit among the students while we discussed our reading, and one day while I was making one of my “but what about THIS?” comments, she apparently leaned over to one of my fellow students and whispered “isn’t he funny? – he thinks he’s so wise.” Apparently, she thought I was so clearly absurd a character that nobody would think to report this to me. I don’t know what she was thinking, really. But it’s beside the point.

The point is that I was doing this calculated thing, yes, exactly, to get points for seeming wise, because I desperately needed some kind of points and I had hit on this thing I could pull off. And the moral of this anecdote is that it didn’t fool anyone: my teacher (and everyone else) thought it was comical; my “wisdom” was contrived and formulaic; my self-serving motivations were irritatingly apparent. I had taught myself a method for creating the impression of thoughtfulness and was relentlessly enacting it to meet my own psychological needs.

Ahem. Before I go on, let me point out that I have the utmost sympathy for my past self, as well as for anyone else who behaves similarly. Social interaction is tough, and I think it’s not just forgivable but in fact necessary for people to rely on these sorts of preset “systems” for creating pseudo-spontaneous effects. Happens all the time. It even, in fact, happens in literature all the time. My anecdote here is simply meant to show that when it’s too transparent, it’s annoying (even to teachers), and that it is possible for “wisdom” to actually be nothing more than a formulaic bid for approval.

So: Jonathan Safran Foer thinks he’s so wise. But since he’s a widely-praised author and his books are enormously successful, I, unlike my 9th-grade English teacher, cannot find the generosity of condescension in my heart to say that I think it’s “funny.” It just frustrates and annoys me.

His wisdom-generating-machine is of a different variety than mine ever was, and based on the Times profile (which is really quite a piece of work – I just now found it online again, via the link on this page), it sounds as though he turns its crank near-constantly.* He certainly does in this book.

He plays not for the “he sees things that other people miss” crown, as I did, but rather for the laurel of “he is so sensitive: he says the most moving things, and he can find beauty and magic in anything!” And he does so expertly. His pretentions are finely honed and virtuosic; his bids for our admiration have more grace and sophistication to them than those of even the most extravagantly self-indulgent personalities I met in college. He is, I have no qualms about saying, a true artist of the form.

Everything Is Illuminated intends to be a swirling whirling wonderworld of emotional truth, it wants to first dazzle us with a thousand tricks and treats, and then reveal that they are all tied to the painful, joyous throbbing heart that is all human experience. Right, so far so good. But have I, by writing that sentence, actually found the material to write such a book? Not hardly. I would need to first of all have something to say about human experience.

This book does not have anything real to say. And it says it in many many ways. Does it have things in it that might make people cry? Oh sure, sure – like, slowing down time to a stop during the naively ordinary instant during World War II just before an innocent peasant village is bombed to oblivion and everyone is killed, prolonging it to typographically flamboyant extremes through two pages of “. . . . . . .,” and shouting stuff like “(run while you still can!)” in parentheses because we know that they did not and will not no matter HOW MUCH WE WANT THEM TO!, and saying so explicitly, etc. etc.

That example is actually the climax of the book, in some ways. Sorry I just gave it away. But this exact same stunt actually happens at several other points, where time slows down cartoonishly to the point where the meager, unconvincing poignancy Foer has built up can be strenuously, blatantly mined out from under the toenails of the moment. So to speak.

I can tell you how that passage might make Jonathan Safran Foer’s mom cry. First of all, it’s built around the idea that the inevitability of that which has already happened (the destruction of this shtetl) still has the potential to be upsetting. Next, it refers to the fact that people will mentally dwell on such moments with the active desire to change them, even though that is of course impossible. Elsewhere in the book, he has talked about the fact that some people may desire to “rectify” history fictionally when writing it down, in attempt to psychologically address the pain of some irreversible past event. Foer is not discovering these truths for us, or even presenting them for our analysis; he is simply using them. And what is he using them to say, or do? He is trying to make mom cry. What does this book offer us? That experience of being made to cry in this way, and that is all.

Perhaps knowing that he needed more, Foer made the book structurally complicated. The structure, in fact, has a lot of potential. “Jonathan Safran Foer” and his Ukrainian translator (you’ve read excerpts, you don’t need me to tell you about that) alternate chapters, one writing about the present and one writing fantastically about the past. Interspersed are the Ukrainian’s responses to JSF’s work, which sometimes mention unseen responses sent from JSF to the Ukrainian. Guess what! JSF finds the Ukrainian’s chapters VERY MOVING, ALMOST HEARTBREAKING, and the Ukrainian finds JSF’s to be ALSO VERY MOVING! They also frequently find time to mention that they found the events that are being described to be VERY MOVING. Only we the readers get the pleasure of knowing that this all amounts to self-congratulation by exactly one real live dude.

The subject matter is JSF’s family history, but as he imagines it, which means a torrential helping of soggy faux-folk “Jewish heritage!!!” whimsy, which incorporates a good deal of “earthy” sex that is almost entirely off-putting. The present-day stuff, ostensibly “realistic” by comparison, is about JSF seeking out said family history in Ukraine and not finding it, plus some stuff about the Ukrainian that takes center stage by the end even though it remains only very loosely sketched.

The emphasis on family, on Jewish lore and tradition, on loss and memory – this stuff would seem to indicate literary substance, and he increases that impression by running many, many parallels and ambiguities up and down through the already overwrought folksy parts of the text. But the impression of substance is circumstancial, superficial. You may untangle as much as you like, but you will not find a coordinating wisdom. Writerly resourcefulness, certainly, but none of the precious WISDOM that is implicitly advertised on every page.

In fact, the more untangling you do, the less well-crafted the structure starts to seem. If you finish the book and learn all there is to learn, and then begin again, you’ll see that much of what comes at the beginning isn’t quite exactly in keeping with what comes at the end. “Moving” effects from early on make little sense in the context of the whole. I tried to work out a generous theory that made this all out to be intentional, and just another layer of the book’s interest in the artifice of writing, but I couldn’t find a way to make it work out. There’s just no getting around it: the book’s more complicated than it can handle.

I am also put off by the attitude toward dealing with Jewish heritage that is in evidence here. The real Jonathan Safran Foer seems to think that by portraying “Jonathan Safran Foer” as a spoiled American with no real cultural clue, he is demonstrating that his interest in his own Jewishness is somehow better founded than his alter ego’s. What it ultimately is is a conflation of sentimental memories of his grandmother with secondhand Yiddish folklore/Isaac Bashevis Singer. Plus some New York-y “You’ll know we’re the chosen people when you taste this delicious bagel, nu?” crap. Then he acts as though being able to channel this bunch of charoseth (in combination with a penchant for making mom cry) puts him in good standing to take a whack at recreating the emotional truth of the Holocaust. Maybe it’s wrong of me, but I found this aspect distasteful. I felt like the book was establishing Jewish “cred,” which ought not to be a prerequisite for writing about the Holocaust or about one’s grandmother. I was offended that he seemed to think it was necessary/appropriate to put this Jewish-ish stuff in, and I was also uncomfortable with the fact that this is the specific blend of stuff he picked.

Yesterday I stood and flipped through Harry G. Frankfurt’s tiny hardbound essay On Bullshit, which you’ve probably seen in large quantities at the bookstore. From my breeze-through, it seemed like a well-considered blend between very dry cuteness and legitimate light philosophy, and I’m pleased to think that it’s selling well, even if it’s for the most superficial reasons. I’m sure Princeton University Press is pleased too. Anyway. Frankfurt’s point (which he makes far more precisely than I’m about to) seems to be that bullshit, which is so prevalent in contemporary life, is distinct from lying, in that it represents not an attempt to disseminate falsehood but rather a complete disengagement from the concept of truth. It fundamentally disregards the obligations that follow when one takes seriously the possibility of being accurate, being correct. It does not actively defy those obligations but lives outside them.**

Anyway, Everything Is Illuminated does the artistic version of just that. It is artistic bullshit. It does not tell us anything about life (even though it seems to), but it is not because Foer is trying to deceive us; it’s because he has opted for a project that, for all its tears of pain and joy and love and death and war and family, does not believe that it is necessary to be concerned with those things. They are just used as the playing field for another game entirely.

Here is the score of the game: Yes, Jonathan Safran Foer, some of those things you wrote about are sad and whimsical things. Yes, I do not know anyone else who has thought of quite so many of these particular sort of sad and whimsical things. You manufacture many premium notions. You also write much better than, say, me. I. Your book was interesting to read. But it wasn’t about anything, and it acted like it was about important things, and so I didn’t like it. I know that you might not actually think you’re so wise. I know this book probably wasn’t who you are. It’s just something you’re trying to do. Despite your protestation, I think you did write this to convince people that you’re smart, and a good writer. And you know what? You convinced me. But I do not think this book will help you to be less lonely, as you claimed to want. Were you really trying to connect? It’s much simpler than all that, but very different.

I hope to god you never actually read this, and this second person thing is pure affectation on my part. Good god, Jonathan, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry. Lots of people I know loved this book. That’s in fact why I read it. I just wasn’t the target audience.

Oh, but just this one last thing – among the reviews of this book at can be found the following nugget of white-hot condescension:

You people who “loved this book!!!!” are slaves. This book doesn’t even qualify as a shadow on the wall of the cave.

It made me laugh.


I think I have a little bit more to say. Two things.

First: the humor in the book is grating, in that it is both smugly deadpan and yet hopelessly secondhand. I tried to read the opening chapter when it was published in the New Yorker before the book came out, and couldn’t manage to finish it, because it was so obnoxiously proud of itself over an incredibly tired gimmick. It, and a good deal of this book, was essentially the old “Wild and Crazy Guys!” routine. Yes, Foer puts his own spin on it by keeping this character around for a whole book – and the idea of taking old joke stereotypes seriously is in fact kind of interesting. But he doesn’t acknowledge it as an old joke. He thinks it’s clever.

I’m not going to go into it here at too much length, but I think you’ll know what I’m talking about when I say that there is humor and there is “humor,” and that the latter is not actually a form of creativity, but merely a sort of social quirk that rarely contains any real invention. Pre-fabricated sarcasm (“welcome to my world!”), deadpan conceits (“you my pimp daddy, Doug”), put-on mock-pretend lying (“I hate you, honey.” “I hate you too.”) all qualify as this lesser thing. There are also more elaborate quasi-comedic constructions that nonetheless are this thing, or at least are equally kin to this thing as they are to real humor. Much of the humor in this book is like that. I grant that I may be indefensibly oversensitive to this distinction. But in the context of all that affectation, it seemed baldly, irritatingly insufficient. Not unlike a teenager who is infuriatingly confident that because he can casually and dryly drop “you my pimp daddy, Doug,” he is too cool for, among other things, school.

Second: Above, I describe the “protracted moment of doomed innocence” passage and complain that its only purpose is to make us cry, as though that’s a problem. In fact, I say throughout that what the book lacks is a “point,” and imply that mere emotional manipulation is artistically inadequate. But that was a mistake: I don’t actually think that at all. I don’t look to art for philosophical news (though I appreciate it when it’s there) – I look to it for aesthetic experience, and, yes, emotional experience. Art doesn’t have to have a “point” to be good and satisfying; not a “point” beyond its inherent aesthetic effect, at least. It’s not even at all damning, I don’t think, for a writer or a reader to be uncertain what the “meaning” of some emotional effect is, so long as they derive some kind of aesthetic satisfaction from it. I confused myself into complaining that substance and purpose were lacking, but that’s the wrong complaint.

I got confused because it’s a very hard line to draw. I’m reminded of the discussion I had with a friend after leaving Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997). My friend said that the movie had been terrible because it was so manipulative. I said that I liked that movies can be manipulative, I like being manipulated, so I didn’t think that was the problem. She said that she was insulted and offended by the form of manipulation in this particular movie, which I agreed with. But it was hard for either of us to quantify what it was the movie had done to become offensive, what line it had crossed.

I have theories about how to formulate the distinction between pleasurable and infuriating manipulation, but I’m not really fond of any of them. My other complaints about this book, above, are good indicators of the direction of my thinking – I suspect it has something to do with feeling “used” by the artist himself, not just the work. Maybe.

I’m going to think about the question some more and if I come up with anything good I’ll write about it here. Anyone else wanna take a whack at this?

*I’m sorry this is going to be so mean. I’m sorry, Jonathan Safran Foer. I was very attentive and open, while I read your whole book. And the whole time, I felt like you didn’t actually care about saying anything to me, I felt like all you really cared about was getting me to be impressed with you, and it offended me that you did it by pretending to want to tell me about life and love and feeling and important things. I know you didn’t really mean to exploit those subjects, or exploit the Holocaust, or anything like that – and I know, you were drawing your material from real feelings that you’ve really had – but I still couldn’t help but feel that it was fundamentally self-serving of you. So I feel entitled to say what I thought. I know, it’s rude to say these things, and I feel bad about that. But I’m going to continue.

**Something like that. That’s what I came away with, anyway. Maybe I should read it for real.

August 21, 2005

Broken Flowers (2005)

written and directed by Jim Jarmusch

This was my first Jim Jarmusch movie.

The whole first section of the movie felt ultra-low-key, as though nothing was really happening, despite the various things that happened. At the time I was worried that the entire plot would slip past this way, like less than a shrug; but of course that’s not how the movie proceeds. In retrospect, the lazy stasis of the first act of the movie served a valuable function: it was the boring level ground of the present, below which the character digs and finds remnants of his past. It gives the audience that feeling of mild malaise that haunts the character, and to which we (and he) refer later, trying to find a way to connect that long, slow blandness to his other experiences. That is to say: that portion of the movie gave me a feeling for “what it’s like to just be at his house” that was crucial for the emotional impact of the whole. And any kind of unconventional pacing (that ends up working) appeals to me. So I thought that was a cool aspect of the movie.

I thought it was interesting that the movie got one of its biggest laughs out of the fact that the Lolita character is in fact named “Lolita.” Or rather, it gets the laugh out of the fact that Bill Murray’s character amusedly recognizes this to be outlandishly blatant of the movie/his universe. A lot of the laughs came from his character getting to observe the oddities that have been placed in his path, but I thought this one was particularly unusual, since the oddity is not really that he’s in the company of this girl named Lolita, but that Jim Jarmusch has been so bold as to write Lolita into his script. When the character chuckles, that’s what we take him to be chuckling at. Except that for him, we have to assume, it’s an existential chuckle.

I also suspected that there was a larger nod to Nabokov and to Lolita going on. I think Nabokov probably would have enjoyed this movie. It shared with Lolita that sort of dry-wet sense of whimsy and a melancholy fantasy of driving around the backroads of the USA. It also, like Nabokov, relished both the absurdity and the mystery of symbols and correspondences – the pink, the typewriters, the dog named Winston – and kept lightly pulling the drama around in unexpected circles rather than in a straight line. I think Vladimir would have identified with both the milieu and the dramatic aims. And I have to assume, given the presence of Lolita, that Jarmusch had something like that in mind.

The other literary connection that occurred to me during the movie came at the very end, which instantly called to mind of one of the best bits in City of Glass by Paul Auster. Those who have seen the movie and read the book will know what I’m talking about. The concept is slightly different (more stark and magical) in the book, but a comparable impact is still created in the movie – to greater emotional effect, I think. Anyway, with this rolling around in my mind, it happened to jump out at me that in the final “thanks to” credits, there was a thanks to Paul Auster and his wife. Somehow that felt like confirmation that I’d made the “right” connection. I want to at least assume that Jim Jarmusch has read it.

The driving scenes – especially the scenes of driving down wooded roads – were somehow extremely vivid to me and called up the sensation of being a in car better than any movie I’ve seen before. I don’t know whether it was the sound editing or the cinematography or the accumulated atmosphere or my mood that day, or what, but somehow the “yeah, it’s just like that!” factor was high. There was a shot of the map on the front seat that seemed absolutely perfectly true to life. Then again, why wouldn’t it be? I really don’t know why I was having that kind of response. Maybe it was just because those woods looked like the woods where I grew up. I wonder where they filmed it.

Anyway. Of these movies where Bill Murray plays this character (Lost In Translation, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Broken Flowers, and, really, Rushmore), this seemed in some ways the most monotonous character study, because he was called upon to do almost nothing other than just be this guy, going about some business. But it also, cumulatively, offered what might be the most convincing emotional experience that this character has had in any of those movies: he is ultimately slightly jostled. This is interesting to compare with Lost In Translation, where he is ultimately invigorated by real emotional contact. In Broken Flowers, he is ultimately invigorated by a real fear of having no emotional contact. That’s at least how I read it: in the final moments, his vague, distracted ennui breaks through into actual fear that his lonely life truly cannot be made sense of. To me, that seems like the most valuable thing that can be done with this character – peel back his veneer of world-weariness and show the living uncertainty that defines him. I think that’s actually one of several things that Wes Anderson was trying for in The Life Aquatic, but all as seen in the mind of an 11-year-old boy, which is emotionally sort of an impossibility (11-year-olds aren’t world-weary and they wouldn’t understand world-weariness if they tried), and I’m not sure why he thought it could work. It worked here. By comparison, Lost In Translation seems hopelessly romantic. Not that that’s a bad thing. I think that’s what she was going for. But this seemed like a more mature viewpoint.

Of course, this is an over-confident reading, on my part, of a fairly enigmatic ending to a fairly enigmatic movie. I liked the vibe and I liked the ambiguities; even if they meant nothing in particular, they were pleasant aesthetic food to chew on. (Isn’t that, in fact, what Nabokov believed in?) That’s my review right there.

August 20, 2005

Gates of Heaven (1980)

directed by Errol Morris

I watched this on a very hot night after a very hot day, and I drifted into a sleep-related fuzzy state in the middle. So…maybe I shouldn’t be “reviewing” it.

It was interesting. But I feel odd being invited to laugh at real people for who they really are. It’s one thing to notice people yourself and be amused by them; it’s another to make a movie about them and distribute it with the intent of making people laugh. The movie wasn’t exactly unsympathetic to these people, but the quirky framing (did Errol Morris invent that “look?” It seemed ahead of its time) and the maximum-absurdity editing seemed to be saying “crazy show, isn’t it?” I’m not saying that’s irresponsible or mean-spirited. But I was aware, the whole time, that empathy was left up to me; Errol Morris sat it out. Or took it for granted. Certainly the moviemaking itself was, if anything, at the subjects’ expense.*

In the end, I felt an interest in the various figures that went beyond mere amusement. Because any real person, given enough screen time, deserves more than a simple reaction. But again, I don’t know what to say about the film on those terms. If it had just been interviews where people expressed themselves, and that was the entire content, presented journalistically, I think I would have felt differently about this obviously good material. But the movie was made quirky, well beyond the quirks of the people interviewed. I guess what I’m saying is that to me, that sort of detracted from the humanity-encountering pleasures that were the core of the movie.

Also, the overall construction of the movie was pointlessly odd, I thought. The whole first section was devoted to less memorable interviews, about a story that was never quite made clear, and was eventually dropped. The artifice-emphasizing framing and editing were even more present in that section; seemed like Morris was working hard to try to build something with character out of his footage. And yet I couldn’t say what that character was supposed to be. I didn’t really find my footing as a viewer until the more interesting interviews later on. So I don’t really want to give that much credit to Errol Morris for what I got out of it. At least not until I see his other movies.

On the other hand, as I mentioned, I did kinda fall asleep. So, um, forget all this, because I don’t know what I’m talking about.

It was interesting. And amusing.

* I can imagine a fan of this movie saying that it’s actually intensely empathetic, just by virtue of the fact that it gives its subjects the time and space to be themselves, and implicitly says that we owe them our attention. But there’s a difference between thinking that people are intriguingly weird and feeling empathy for them, and when Morris occasionally tips his hand, we see only the former. I can believe that he might well have felt the latter too, when he was being silent, but I can also believe that he didn’t. So as far as I’m concerned, it’s something I had to bring to the movie. That’s all.

August 20, 2005

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)

written and directed by George Lucas

SOCRATES: This movie may have been somewhat less unpleasant to watch than Episode I and Episode II, but it was still a far cry* from the original movies that I grew up with.

R2D2: Oh come on. Have some perspective. You were a kid and you saw those movies through entirely different eyes. “Star Wars” movies have always had bad acting and writing. Your sense that something has gone wrong is just based on nostalgia and your new “grown-up” standards, not on any objective difference between these and those.

SOCRATES: No, I’m telling you, these are worse, for real. They’re vapid in a way that those weren’t.

R2D2: Pauline Kael et al. seemed to see how equally “vapid” the originals were. You didn’t, which isn’t surprising because you were between zero and four years old. What are you claiming is actually different now?

SOCRATES: The original movies seemed to believe in their stories in a way that these didn’t. When Obi-Wan Kenobi is killed in Star Wars, the movie seems to really believe that something dramatic is happening, and that’s what makes it cool. When Momba-Nil Balloono** is killed in Revenge of the Sith, the movie seems to believe that something really cool is happening, and hopes that will make it dramatic. But it doesn’t. That’s not how drama works. It’s not even how coolness works.

R2D2: You’re still just talking in terms of your impressions. If you’d been a kid, you would have liked this movie.

SOCRATES: Hard for me to know what I would have thought of a lot of contemporary culture if I’d been a kid today. Even as a kid, I was certainly capable of thinking that certain things were just too trashy, too undisciplined to take. I never had the stomach for He-Man, or Voltron, or any of that low-frame-rate stuff. I’d like to believe that if I were a kid today, I would think that the new Star Warses were too soulless, too insular/nerdy, too CGI-y.

R2D2: You aren’t really claiming any kind of redeeming value for the original movies, though. If you’re honest and acknowledge your childhood dedication to those movies, you have to admit that worthless, pulpy roller-coaster movies with bad writing and acting were just your cup of tea at one point.

SOCRATES: I’m not saying that this movie was bad because it was pulpy, or a roller-coaster, or “worthless,” whatever you mean by that (something like “humanly irrelevant, purely escapist,” I assume). I’m saying it wasn’t a good roller-coaster. I’m saying that it was bad craftsmanship. For example, unlike a lot of people, I don’t think that Jar-Jar Binks was conceptually an unforgivable abomination – I recognize his kinship with all kinds of stuff that had already existed in Star Wars movies – I just think they totally screwed him up. They just didn’t have someone on staff saying “we have to watch out that it doesn’t get too annoying. That’s just a good moviemaking principle, to not annoy your audience, and I think we need to consider that as we do our work.” Or “this CGI stuff that we’re using, it comes off as a little insubstantial, you know? A little less momentous than, say, miniatures. It doesn’t blend as well with live-action, despite all our valiant technical efforts. So let’s accept that, and think about how to keep it restrained so as not to numb the audience with visual Nutrasweet.” Nobody took those kinds of quality-control steps. So I’m not complaining that they weren’t artistically more mature, I’m just complaining that they weren’t smart about doing their immature thing. I’m saying these movies didn’t handle their material as well as the originals.

R2D2: You’re saying that you weren’t pleased, and then you’re working backward as though it’s some kind of principled thing. But that’s just arrogance. It’s just subjective.

SOCRATES: Um, yes, this is all just subjective.

R2D2: Well there you go.

SOCRATES: That’s a lame argument, R2. Seriously. You were originally arguing that I was unfairly holding the original movies and the new movies to different standards, but I disagreed and argued I was holding them to the same standards, which I accordingly tried to express in terms of principles.*** Now you’re just saying that those principles aren’t objective principles, but that’s irrelevant. We all acknowledge that criticism is subjective. You’re just using it as a smokescreen so that you can back away from your earlier position. Your accusation was that I’m being inconsistent. Stick to that.

R2D2: Calm down, dude.

SOCRATES: I am calm. Don’t tell me to calm down.

R2D2: Dude, seriously, calm down.

SOCRATES: That’s really rude. Don’t do that.

R2D2: I’m just saying you need to calm down!

SOCRATES: You’re just trying to avoid the argument.

R2D2: Dude, it’s just a movie.



** Samuel L. Jackson. The real character name is, I think, “Mace Windu.”

*** A couple other principles ignored by Revenge of the Sith (and by other pulpy stuff I don’t like):

I. Design is subordinate to content, not the other way around. Your idea for a cool location might precede the idea for what happens there, but in the final product, that can’t be apparent. This movie had an establishing shot of the beautiful fantasy landscape of the Wookie planet. Good so far. But then nothing happens there. The camera never sits down and lets us feel that we are there. We’re just looking at it. Ostensibly we’re looking at something plot-related, but the irrelevance of the plot, compared to the design, is overwhelming. Princess Leia’s hairdo in Star Wars was cool, but it wasn’t the point of the scenes in which she wore it. Things happened despite the hairdo. When Natalie Portman comes out with the same hairdo in this movie, it’s the point. “Get it?” The movie itself is like the flatbed that carries the parade float of the design. It might as well just be sitting still on the ground. Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone was another example of an excellently designed series of still images that was just barely a movie.

II. Lines should as much as possible be interesting in themselves, not only in relation to other lines. Scenes should as much as possible be interesting in themselves, not only in relation to other scenes. Movies should as much as possible be interesting in themselves, not only in relation to other movies.

III. Disney/Dickens rule of characters: if you’re not going for realism, pick two adjectives (or for complex characters, three) and then have the characters consistently be those things. Fit scene-to-scene emotions into the context of those things. Do not figure out scene-to-scene emotions and then hope that they will cohere into overall characterization. For example, in Star Wars, Luke Skywalker was: boyish, eager for adventure. Han Solo was: self-satisfied, reckless, mercenary (but secretly susceptible to idealism). In Revenge of the Sith, Natalie Skywalker was: ??, ??. Ob-Ewan Kenobi was: ??, ??.****

**** REAL PERSON WHO JUST READ THIS: “The whole thing is pretty nerdy, but that last part is like you giving everyone advice on how to make a movie, or just how to do stuff. Don’t you think it’s kind of snotty?”

ME GETTING DEFENSIVE: I’m not actually “giving advice”; I’m expressing my displeasure and dissatisfaction with this movie, which is a normal part of a “review” or “response,” which is what this is. But I don’t like just reading that something was “bad,” so I’m trying to think and talk about what made it bad, which seems more interesting to writer and reader. I’m expressing that in the form of so-called “betrayed principles,” because that seemed to me like the most thoughtful analytic way of handling my displeasure. Do you disagree with the principles? Do you think there’s a better way of expressing them?

REAL PERSON WHO JUST READ THIS: [is eating pizza, stopped listening]

August 19, 2005

Fake Words

Some weeks ago, I was on the subway and in a particularly relaxed state of mind. A teenage boy of a certain type was walking down the car, and I had the idea of exercising my language faculties by describing him to myself. But my mind was some kind of loose, at that moment, and I found myself using words that don’t exist. Specifically, I remember thinking that the boy had

a gewy, thuggish murmance

about him.

I assure you that these words came naturally; they were not the result of any kind of attempt to invent new words. Rather, I seized on certain things about the boy I wanted to verbalize, and then refused to put conscious thought into the word-picking process. I simply let my mind cast the sentence, in a single mental impulse, out of whatever materials it chose. I focused only on meaning, not words, and then misled my brain into believing that no more attention was necessary.

I’m explaining all this because I think the words that came out are pretty good. I enjoyed them then and I enjoy them now.

To understand what they mean, you first have to know what the boy looked like. He was wearing a loose basketball-style jersey and had sort of a dead look in his eyes; he was tall and thin and his shoulders and arms were muscular in a ropy way, where each muscle seemed clearly defined from the others. He looked pale in an eastern-European way. He was making his way slowly down the car, letting his body sort of lean and bob and lazily reach for the poles as he walked. There was something lightly threatening about his blank expression and his lanky muscledness and his irregular, animal-like movements. I felt, looking at him, that this “something” was familiar to me, that I’d seen it before, and that I should therefore be able to describe it in such a way that it could be identified as being…what it was.

So that should help get at what gewy means. It has to do with the tall, thin, ropy look, and also connotes that a thing is blankly ominous or semi-threatening. It’s not necessarily a visual description, though it can be.

Thuggish is a real word and is used properly.

Murmance is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the overall vague suggestion created in your mind in response to something. Extremely useful word; it should always be used, as here, as though it refers to an attribute of the stimulus itself, even though it fundamentally describes the beholder’s impression. That book has a nostalgic murmance.

I’m half-joking, telling you how these words are to be used, but half not. I’m certainly not “making it up.” My knowledge of these words was instantaneous and thorough, as soon as they came into existence. I assure you that I could answer, with complete and non-arbitrary confidence, any question put to me about the usage of these words.

Anyway, this experience was oddly gratifying, and later, again on the subway, I tried to recreate the mental process, with good results, though I neglected to write the words down and have forgotten most. I do remember that the poles in the subway car were best described, collectively, as frial (vertical, immovable, dignified, mute and perhaps mysterious, but also unimpressive).

All these words came easy. My mind was ready and willing to do this task; I’m sure everyone’s can do it. I’m personally not much of a poet, but it seems to me that there is a lot of untapped potential here for art. Now, the obvious problem with using invented words is whether the words will convey to readers what they’re supposed to mean, but I think two things: a) they will if they’re really good, because the really good ones are linguistically well-formed and thus intuitable (like the word “intuitable,” for example); and b) readers are extremely willing to assume they understand a word based on contextual assumptions.

When I would read difficult books as a child, I would fill in the meanings of lots and lots of new words with my context-based deductions.* In fact, the words that I was defining for myself would tend take on meanings much more nuanced than their real dictionary definitions. These words, when they first appeared, were implicitly assumed to be full of subtle and exquisitely appropriate connotations, and would frequently also pick up bits of meaning from their apparent linguistic relatives. Even after at least 10 years of knowing the truth, it has been almost impossible for me to shake off the compelling notion that the word “bemused” (= confused, bewildered) might mean a type of confusion that is just slightly shaded by “amused.” It in fact does not mean that. But what a much more valuable word it would be if it did. I tend to use it that way.

So why not use fake words more often? Readers – at least young readers – are perfectly ready to start providing suitable meaning when the text isn’t clear. A fake word can be the perfect empty mold for a concept that is better served by contextual and semantic implication than by any word currently in the OED.

Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” is the classic, best-loved example of fake wordery. But those words are used to a different effect than I’m proposing; Carroll wants his words first of all to be funny in their silly pseudo-antiquation (it’s sort of a parody of Beowulf, right? I have always assumed that Carroll was poking fun at the alien quality of earlier forms of English) and second of all, he enjoys the fact that they do not describe real things and thus do not “mean” anything in particular, but rather only “might mean” one of several things. When the hero comes “galumphing back,” we might – good lord, Microsoft Word doesn’t accept “nuanced” but it accepts “galumphing” – we might have a rough idea of what galumphing is, but we intentionally cannot have a specific idea. Carroll never intended to allow for a truly specific understanding. I am talking about using fake words to convey specifics.

Another classic example is Finnegans Wake, but once again that’s something different. Joyce’s text is in many ways quite the opposite to what I’m describing – a semantic scramble produced not from the natural impulses of the linguistic mind of a fluent English speaker, but rather from a calculated, intentionally wide-ranging mish-mash of stuff. His “portmanteau words” do not attempt to create new definite meanings out of the combination of two or more old words – they create a state of simultaneity of multiple meanings, overlapping but unresolvable, in attempt to recreate certain characteristics of dream thought. There is no definition for hierarchitectitiptitoploftical, just a constellation of connotation. No part of Finnegans Wake is true description, because it is always multi-layered. By contrast, I am proposing using created words as part of a scheme of otherwise fairly standard communication.

I started thinking about this yesterday (weeks after the initial gewy murmance) because I was reading Michel Houellebecq’s essay about H.P. Lovecraft (review to come very shortly). In it, Houellebecq defends Lovecraft’s hopeless stylistic offenses; most prominent among them: wildly overblown yammering when attempting to depict overwhelming horror. Houellebecq essentially argues that these passages – rhythmic streams of beloved adjectives (eldritch cosmic miasmal Cyclopean yada yada) – are justified, because they are a means of expressing dreamlike extremes of horror and awe that are too strong to be touched by any kind of restrained, stylistically “proper” writing. Okay, well, he doesn’t exactly come out and say that, but I think it’s what he believes; I’m filling in the blanks for him.

Anyway, I certainly respect the idea that words, as we normally use them, tend to be associated not with the intensity and variety of real experience, but rather with the mild, controlled world of other words. I furthermore recognize that the multi-applicability of words is a liability when it comes to their expressive impact. Since we are able, for example, to apply the word “vast” both to interstellar space and to the produce selection at a good supermarket, the word “vast” cannot carry the burden of meaning that Lovecraft would like it to carry when referring to some nightmarishly enormous structure. One has the choice of either seeking out a less common, more specific word, or refining “vast” with additional adjectives. This latter option is the standard strategy (for everyone, not just Lovecraft). This is unfortunate, from a certain point of view, since the “oh my god so big”-ness of the “vast” thing feels like a single characteristic that ought therefore to be described in a single semantic unit, not triangulated by a web of mutually qualifying adjectives. Lovecraft, for all his outlandish strings of descriptives, did seem to desire other ways out of the problem. So he dug up obscure words unsullied by mundane overuse; in this case, “Cyclopean,” among others.

But, I say, why didn’t he just go all-out and invent his own? After all, the fact that the word “eldritch” is not his invention is something most people have to look up; I know of no other writers who have ever used it. For his purposes, the word would have worked equally well had it been a pure coinage. And he obviously respected the power of aesthetic responses to non-lexical words; his lovingly crafted, barely-pronounceable alien nonsense (Cthulhu fhtagn, anyone?), though it’s not exactly my cup of tea, shows a clear interest in achieving literary-poetic-linguistic effects that required actual phonological invention.

So, I’m saying, it’s too bad that even an adventurous hack like Lovecraft, whose only literary objective was to inspire a sense of having gone beyond the ordinary, still didn’t feel free to populate his prose with newly coined words. After all, rather than calling a thing “Cyclopean,” wouldn’t it be more truly dreamlike to say of an unthinkably enormous tower that there was a hoaring vline on the horizon extending antically into the sun? Wouldn’t it be better to describe one of his monsters from beyond time as globrean, covered with tubulent, undulous morms?

Well, maybe not. But maybe that’s just because I’m not a true poet of coinage; surely someone is. I want to believe that some words can simply be that good, even on first hearing. And while, sure, the Lovecraftian fantastic literature of the beyond is a genre where this sort of thing might well have a place (I think Dunsany engages in a little free coinage, actually, in a whimsical vein), why couldn’t it also find its way into the literature of the real? After all, my initial impulse was in response to the fact that the truest flavor of experience, like the particular murmance of that boy on the subway, is almost impossible to capture with our imperfect, circumlocutory words. Coining words means more chances to nail the damn thing on the head, or at least get closer to it. Coining words means greater linguistic sluance and a finer pinth of expression.

Ha ha. Let me just be clear that I realize this is mostly silly. Mostly. Also, I should mention that I am aware of the pseudo-spiritual version of this sort of talk that comes out of the mouth of a monomaniac in Paul Auster’s City of Glass. An old man collects junk from the street (a broken umbrella, I recall, is the example), and asks what the words are for these things, now that they are no longer properly “umbrella,” etc. Their names have been forgotten by mankind. God’s language, the language before Babel, gave the true name for everything. Now we speak a fallen, arbitrary tongue. It’s a nice little book, City of Glass.

But maybe I should be explaining why what I’m proposing is feasible, sort of, whereas that’s just raving. Because I’m not talking about coming up with words that are more right than “vast,” or “umbrella,” or whatever. I’m talking about looking at a thing like the murmance of that guy on the subway and thinking, “that’s a something, so I’m going to set up a word that points directly at that something.” The broken umbrella is extremely well-served by the term “broken umbrella.” To say that it is actually a lornick is frivolous, because in what sense is the word lornick more than just a mere substitute for “broken umbrella?” I’m talking about wordifying the unworded, not reducing complex nouns to simple ones, etc. Okay.**

Somewhere in Proust (volume III? I forget where) he says something like “experience is an extensive dark space, in which we are able to shine light on only a few scattered points. Artists are explorers of this space, and by creating a work of art that captures something about life, they shine a light onto a new point in the darkness and make it accessible to the rest of us. They give us the means of knowing that point, though living it has always been ours.” Something like that. He’s talking about music, I think. So, all I’m saying is, something similar goes for language – words give us those few points of light in the darkness of amorphous, unnamed experience. A good artist of coinage should, like a good composer, be able to create a new point in the darkness, and make “concepts” out of what were previously just undefined aspects of the sloshy sensory whole.

* There’s a very nice discussion of this phenomenon in Francis Spufford’s thoughtful and well-written but badly-titled memoir of childhood reading, The Child That Books Built.

** Yes, I can see that a real, rigorous philosophical consideration of this problem would go into deeper waters. But I can see where it would go, and I would end up arguing that there is still a distinction between lornick and gewy, albeit one of degree rather than nature. And, as with many things, that’s still good enough for me.

August 14, 2005

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767)

by Laurence Sterne

Apparently, John Updike never made it through Tristram Shandy, but I did. That feels pretty good. To quote Updike’s passage directly, “Like many an autodidact I have taken simple-minded pride in finishing a book once I began to read it.”

Updike’s miniature assessment of Tristram seems accurate to me, except for his central assertion that it is boring. “Facetious,” even “chirping,” certainly. But delightfully so. I mean, come on.

Of course, it did take me a very long time to finish it, on a schedule that incorporated several long hiatuses. But that makes sense; Tristram Shandy was published in five separate installments over the course of eight years, and I therefore opted to read it more as five amusing short books than as one long master-book. One hopes that nobody in 250 years is suckered into reading all ten million pages of Harry Potter as though it is a horrifically bloated single work, though arguably it is a horrifically bloated single work. I remember feeling similarly that Bleak House suffered from being reduced to a mere continuity rather than remaining a truly serial experience. Laurence Sterne seems to have believed for a while that he would live off of Tristram indefinitely, publishing new volumes every few years for the rest of his life. Accordingly, the individual volumes are modest in length and charming, while the work taken as a whole is a fair bit overweight. But avoiding boredom is easy; take time off in between installments, just like Sterne did. Don’t know why Updike didn’t see that.

I don’t have any real knowledge of the general nature of 18th-century humor, so maybe this is just ignorant of me, but I was astonished at how well the wit had aged. And the book is indeed mostly wit. Several of the contemporaneous reviews I’ve read refer to the book as a “performance,” and though for all I know that may simply be a standard 18th-century usage, I think it’s telling. The work felt very much like a kind of one-man show, an intricate song-and-dance delivered by a storyteller who blatantly intends to be fascinatingly eccentric. But unlike other “look at me!” writers I’ve read (Vonnegut comes to mind), Sterne completely embraces the standup-act quality of his undertaking and truly takes advantage of his chosen performance medium. Some of it’s sort of like prop comedy of the printed page.

Is it funny when a chapter and 10 pages are missing from the book, and then Sterne/Shandy tells us he tore them out because they were so well-written that they overwhelmed the rest of the work? I think so. Is it funny when the first sentence of a chapter gets tangled in subordinate clauses, drifts off to some other topic, and finally Sterne/Shandy says he needs to start again, and gives it another go in the next chapter? I think it is, yes. It’s a bit Monty Python, that sort of thing. And Monty Python was indeed very clever, back when it was new. The freshness and boldness of Tristram Shandy rang through for me, 250 years later. It’s genuinely clever.

It’s also very funny in a non-gimmicky, situational, frequently bawdy way. I laughed out loud several times; usually at penis-related humor, of which there is plenty. By contrast, the most dated elements are the rather abrupt injections of “sentiment,” generally in the form of lumps in the throats of men feeling deep affection for their loyal friends. The interrelation of these two poles – the sentimental and the vulgar – is in some ways the theme of the book, and one that Sterne, the clergyman and preacher, clearly takes seriously in a spiritual sense. The welling-ups of brotherly love may have seemed a little lame, to me, but the overall message I took away was extremely sympathetic. Roughly, I understood the book to be saying, “God’s Earth is full of all kinds of stuff; tons and tons of stuff. Every imaginable thing can sustain our attention, and everything, from the sacred heights of love to the dirty depths of sex, is part of the picture of what makes up creation and what makes up life. And love isn’t actually all that far from sex, is it. Life is a holy overabundance of tiny things, buttonholes and long noses included. The idea that some things are important and others aren’t is an absurdity; some of the greatest human joy is found in worthless projects and lazy conversations. The title is a red herring in this book about nothing in particular, just as any purported ‘meaning of life’ is a red herring in a creation full of silly, vulgar details. And that’s how a joyous, witty God wanted it.”

The book as a whole may be a bit of an uneven hodgepodge, but the overarching sense of a warm philosophy behind it all came across clearly throughout. At the same time I occasionally got the sense that I wouldn’t want to spend any social time with Sterne, whose self-amusement is tangible. But since I, too, was amused, that impression didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book. Prior to reading this, I had read A Sentimental Journey, the work he began immediately after the final volume of Tristram and left incomplete at his death. I think it may actually be more successful in conveying a similar philosophical message, and a finer literary product as well. But Tristram is the more memorable, for sheer volume of comic invention if nothing else.

Reading Dickens, one frequently feels the thrill of being in the presence of bold, durable, archetype-creating characters. Sterne draws his characters much less efficiently and with some false steps, but by the end, Walter Shandy, Uncle Toby, and Corporal Trim are similarly vivid, charming little people. By the late scenes of Toby and Trim (such as the one in which Trim attempts to tell Toby the story of the King of Bohemia and his Seven Castles but never really gets past the title), I felt that thrill, the joy of watching characters who were so strong as to seem “famous,” for want of a better word. A bit like the pleasure of actually reading the conversations of Don Quixote and Sancho, or Holmes and Watson, or even watching Casablanca: that’s really them, you think, and they’re really doing that thing they do, in all its glory. That’s about the strongest praise I can think of for this kind of characterization.

The various famous “goodies” – the black page, the marble page, the blank page, the line diagrams of the narrative, etc. etc. – all these things are actually fun, when they arise. Knowing about them in advance, out of context, as I did, just detracts from their proper value within the text. Sure, maybe this is an early “modernist” novel, in that it’s full of gimmicks and talks about itself and doesn’t do what it says it’s going do. But, you know, so’s Don Quixote (a direct, acknowledged influence on Sterne), and if I was a real scholar I bet I could find a bunch of other examples. In the final analysis, “whimsically self-referential” (or “whimsically unconventional”) is just one of a thousand things a book can be. It’s a tool, a device that doesn’t carry with it any particular aesthetic value. Tristram is a charming book, a funny book, and a humane book. It happens to use the device of “whimsically self-referential” to excellent effect. Let’s be impressed by the effect rather than the device. I don’t think I have the stomach to read this (report on its predecessor to come), but I’m led to understand that it’s the most recent tick on the prison wall of books that are full of gimmicks because they believe that GIMMICKS ARE MAGIC. Gimmicks are not magic. Don’t be dissuaded from reading Tristram Shandy by overemphasis on the gimmickry. Sterne knew what he was doing.

Tristram Shandy is an early “modernist” novel in a more important sense of the word “modernist” – its catholic embrace of all things high and low as equally significant. It’s the forward-looking philosophy of the book that has kept it alive. People often ask how Thomas Jefferson (or some such person) would manage if transported into the present day. I think Laurence Sterne, for one, would manage quite well. He saw and commented on all the particulars of his time, but from a perspective well above and beyond that culture. I understand why Joyce took him as a model for Finnegans Wake.

No “original edition cover” for this one – you had to get your own binding, back then. Here’s the attractively bound set of first editions that’s been going at for just under $30,000.

And here’s the title page and frontispiece from volume one (7th edition, as you can see).

Several online editions are available. For some reason, internet folk seem to love Tristram Shandy. A lot of them talk about how it’s a sort of proto-hypertext (get over yourselves, people!). I personally think it’s because of the gimmicks. Anyway, I can’t imagine really reading this whole book off a screen. For what it’s worth, this one makes a point of maintaining all the original formatting quite strictly, as does this one (albeit with all kinds of annoying HTML navigation and “annotations”). This is of course just plain text. I read the Oxford edition and found the footnotes (and layout) extremely satisfying. Far superior to the Norton Critical edition, which I also glanced through.

August 8, 2005

Bad Mood Music

I was in a pretty sour mood just now so I wrote a little tune to clear my head. I’m kind of amused at what came out. Maybe it’s just me, but I hear a little Michel Legrand in there. Among other things.

Here’s a recording.

And here’s the score.

Strictly speaking, there are a few voice-leading “mistakes” in this (“direct octaves,” that sort of thing), but I’m aware of them, and I tried hard to get rid of them and, well, the “correct” versions didn’t sound as good. So I went with what I liked better, the rules be damned.

August 8, 2005

Scriabin: Prometheus (1910)

Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915)

The Poem of Fire

for large orchestra and piano with
organ, chorus and light keyboard
Op. 60

~23 min.

This may be the most unnerving piece of music I know. I mean that as a good thing. I’ve been listening to it a lot recently because I like the way it’s unnerving.

Enjoying it requires investing some time in listening repeatedly – it’s not particularly “easy” – but it’s well worth the effort. The three main reasons that it’s not “easy”: 1) The crucial melodies/motifs are rather eccentric and aren’t likely to “catch” too firmly on a first listening. 2) The piece is long, with many distinct episodes, but the form isn’t clear, so it’s easy to feel structurally lost. 3) What the piece is famous for (well, one of the two things): it’s made up almost entirely of variants on a single chord (“The Prometheus Chord”), which means there are very few clear harmonic guideposts to help the listener. The harmony is in fact handled brilliantly, but on the first several listens the sense of homogeneity will probably be numbing.

Once you’ve gotten on its wavelength, these things all end up being really marvelous characteristics of the piece. The strange little melodies are, I think, some of the best in late Scriabin. They’re more cleanly carved than a lot of his other melodies, at least to my ears. He had a fascination with fragmentation that I think undermined the listenability of some of his other works from this period, but in Prometheus, the fragments are bold little molecules full of character, and once you know them, the whole thing sings continuously. There are four or five very short ideas that make up most of the material in the piece, and two or three less important ideas that account for the rest of it. It’s actually not that much to learn, but because they are so short, it takes some listening before you can hear them and remember them as melodies.

As for the form: the long, ambiguous course of the piece is still a little confusing to me (and I’ve been spending a lot of time with it these past few weeks), but the overall flow is compelling once you have a rough sense of the landscape. I never like it when liner notes describe a piece as “building to a series of climaxes,” because I think it’s a worthless description; that said, this piece builds to a series of climaxes, and now that I know the particular character of each of those climaxes, I feel comfortable enough following the piece’s progress even though I can’t see any clear scheme that governs it.

The reason the form of the piece is so difficult to map is probably because, like several of Scriabin’s other works, it has an explicit – and yet totally abstract – mystical program. As I understand it, it’s about man’s place in the cosmos; man as a rebel who steals the power of creation from the eternal gods (hence the title). Some of the musical motives have to do with the life and efforts of man; some of them have to do with the universe/the eternal/nature/god. The solo piano is man, sort of. The chorus that joins toward the end is all mankind. Scriabin may have been a bit of a nut, but I’m willing to take this stuff moderately seriously.* But without more specific play-by-play information, I can’t use it to help me make sense of the overall structure.

Nonetheless, the really remarkable thing about this piece is that it actually sounds like a piece about man and the cosmos. At times it sounds like it’s about something even more awesome and unthinkable than that. Frankly, I think it’s absolutely terrifying. I’ve heard people say that Scriabin’s music is sexual, or spiritual, but for me, the strongest connection is with horror. I’m talking about heavy-duty horror of the unknown, “cosmic and uncanny” in the Lovecraftian sense. Several times while listening to the piece and getting a creepy feeling of supernatural discomfort, I’ve been reminded of Arthur Machen’s The White People, and in particular this passage:

“Then, on the other hand, we underrate evil. We attach such an enormous importance to the ‘sin’ of meddling with our pockets (and our wives) that we have quite forgotten the awfulness of real sin.”

“And what is sin?” said Cotgrave.

“I think I must reply to your question by another. What would your feelings be, seriously, if your cat or your dog began to talk to you, and to dispute with you in human accents? You would be overwhelmed with horror. I am sure of it. And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad. And suppose the stones in the road began to swell and grow before your eyes, and if the pebble that you noticed at night had shot out stony blossoms in the morning?

“Well, these examples may give you some notion of what sin really is.”

Scriabin’s late works, like horror of the Machen variety, have some of that power of overwhelming one with a sense of something being profoundly wrong, something weird and sour in the center of your mind.** Some of the strangest, most pungent sensations I have ever experienced have been tiny flickers of weirdness, neither smells nor sounds nor textures but reminiscent of them, that every now and then pop into my head, particularly when I’m exhausted or sick. I’ve compared notes on this experience and I know that at least some of my friends have occasionally experienced something similar. Scriabin’s best music reminds me a bit of those weird, wrong, not-quite sensations. He takes some peculiar, gooey little idea – usually containing a single chord-change and a temperamental melodic fragment – and then obsesses over it. The weirdness never explains itself, it just is; over and over and over, looked at from every point of view, built in to all sorts of different configurations, but never evolving into anything other than itself, like a creepy Magritte man who turns around to reveal that his head is continuous back, but no face. There are some very beautiful moments in Prometheus that induce in me a kind of exquisite nausea.

I get some of the same creepy-crawly uncanny-beauty feeling from Tristan und Isolde, actually, and I think it’s part of the experience that one is expected to have with that piece (it’s certainly part of the experience you’re expected to have with the faux Tristan score to Vertigo). But Wagner’s idea was to delay resolution at great length, to create a heightened sense of striving and yearning. At the end of the opera, famously, the resolution comes as promised. Scriabin’s music, too, strives and yearns, but not for any earthly closure we can anticipate. Prometheus certainly creates a sense of expectation, but it’s hardly the expectation of resolution. It’s more like the expectation that the fabric of reality will tear open. Or, to put it another way, the expectation that the universe will end and all creation will be reunited with its creator in transcendent, incomprehensible flaming oblivion.

Which is indeed what happens.

Programatically speaking, of course. It happens in the form of a terrifying, tremendous, world-destroying chord; quite possibly the loudest in all music. By contrast, the piece Scriabin was working on when he died, Mysterium, was meant to actually end the world. Seriously. Luckily for those of us who like the world, he didn’t manage to write very much of it.***

The real climax of the piece a few minutes earlier, an enormous flaring ball of overwhelming awe, never fails to give me goosebumps. It could kick Daphnis et Chloé‘s ass.

Scriabin commissioned a special cover illustration for the score from fellow wild-eyed mystic Jean Delville, who had concidentally already painted this on essentially the same exact theme. Delville’s work in general seems to me to be a very good match for Scriabin, albeit much inferior – there’s something trashy and overbearing about a lot of it, like fantasy-novel covers. But there’s no question that he too had his finger on something inexplicably terrifying. I’m never clicking on that link again. I think I’m gonna have nightmares.

Anyway, Delville’s Prometheus cover is really amazing and a perfect, perfect match for the piece. Sadly, it hasn’t been reproduced very often or well since the first editions. I have the following lovely scan courtesy of the Sibley Music Library at the Eastman School of Music. The clipping at the top and right side apparently occured during binding, long ago. Oh well.

The end of the piece sounds exactly like that picture.

That’s actually the cover from the original two-piano reduction by Sabaneyev, a ridiculously dense, viciously difficult arrangement that’s nonetheless a convenient way of studying the score. And you can (quite legally) download a pdf of the whole thing here!

Here’s a smaller scan I found online of the unclipped cover as it appeared on the full score, plus the title page from the original pocket score (first issued somewhat later).

Koussevitzky’s publishing house, the Edition Russe de Musique, had offices in Berlin as well as Moscow and St. Petersburg, and I get the impression that the different locations sometimes issued different covers for the same scores – French for the European market and Russian for Russia. Hence the rather different cover designs seen here. That’s my guess anyway.

Recordings: I’ve heard several recordings, and none of them really struck me as perfect. Nobody seems to want to take Scriabin’s melodies seriously – conductors and pianists just revel in the harmonies and textures and don’t properly deliver the actual rhetoric of the piece. Everyone also plays everything a lot slower than Scriabin marked it. I’ve read reviews saying that Ashkenazy’s performance is the best and I haven’t heard that one. I’ll let you know when I do. Because of the excellent sound quality and instrumental polish, the one I’ve been listening to is the recent Gergiev/Toradze recording. But I’m sure the piece can be done better.

The one thing I haven’t mentioned is the second of the two things for which this piece is famous: the “light keyboard.” What is a light keyboard? It’s an imaginary instrument; you play it like an organ but instead of sound it produces light. There’s a part for it in the score; certain notes correspond to certain colors. Has it ever existed? No. But people talk about this ambitious, nutty idea a lot more often than they talk about the music itself. You can bet that absolutely any discussion of “visual music” will eventually touch on Prometheus.

The reason I haven’t talked about it here is because for most intents and purposes, it isn’t part of the experience of listening to this piece. Some live performances attempt to realize the light part in some form or another – read all about it – but Scriabin himself never saw it performed with lights. I know I certainly haven’t, and I still like it.

I’m also putting off talking about the light thing because I’ve got a little multimedia presentation in the works but it’s not done yet. Stay tuned.

Addendum 11/05 – Okay, now it’s done!

*In college I took a seminar on 20th-century music where Scriabin was discussed. After distributing a handout containing outlandish quotes from Scriabin about the relevance of mystico-sexual energies in his life and work, the professor furrowed his brow and tentatively said, “I think we should try not to just dismiss this.” As I recall we didn’t live up to his request and he didn’t really know what to say either. I respected his attempt, though.

**I’ve read that John Ireland composed several works explicitly in relation to Machen’s writing. I’m certainly curious about those, though I suspect they’re more “mystical British pastoral” rather than “world-rending horror.”

***I’m not sure why this hasn’t been made into a sci-fi/occult movie, yet. I mean, we’re talking about actual madman-style end-of-the-world plans, here! The story would start with someone discovering a previously unknown complete copy of the score, and then it would get stolen by a mysterious group of villains, and our hero has to find them and stop them from performing it. The movie would be called Mysterium, obviously. Someone needs to tell Jerry Bruckheimer about this. Or Dan Brown, or Neal Stephenson, or some other jerk.****

**** Addendum 1/06: I have been roundly encouraged to take this ridiculous suggestion seriously (along with some other related ridiculous suggestions), so as of now, that other jerk is me. Hands off, everyone! Don’t worry, I’ll keep you all posted regarding the movie rights and the tie-in CD. Boffo, Lenny! Socko, Lenny!