Monthly Archives: February 2006

February 19, 2006

The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues (1975)

by Ellen Raskin

Everyone liked The Westing Game (1978), and back when I was 11 or so, I read Ellen Raskin’s other three puzzle-mystery-ish books, The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) (1971), Figgs and Phantoms (1974), and this one, The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues (1975). In the years since, whenever I’ve looked these books up, this one has been by far the hardest to find and the least often recommended (I think it was reprinted fewer times) and so I’ve come to think of it as more interesting. I have a geekish tendency to assign things a secret value based on how forgotten or well-hidden they are. This sometimes gets weirdly doubled up in my own head and I end up assigning vague prominence to the things that I never think about. After listening to a CD many times and always skipping some track that doesn’t appeal to me, suddenly one day there’ll be turnaround in my brain and that track will take on a certain mystique for being the underdog “lost” track. I think this is related to some kind of defensive mechanism – my subconscious does passes over itself checking for potential weaknesses, and maybe skipped tracks feel, in their way, like blind spots that might potentially be exploited against me. Well, ha ha, I’m too smart for that sort of thing! I don’t know, maybe not, just a little psychological theory I came up with on the spot.

Point is, after re-reading The Westing Game several times over my increasingly adult life, including, most recently, aloud to Beth last year, I thought maybe it would be fun to go back and find the unsung other books and read those. Somewhere along the way I had tricked myself into thinking that as a kid I had actually liked The Tattooed Potato better than The Westing Game and The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon. And you know, I very well might have, out of pure underdog-logic.

But it’s not as good, not at all, and I felt a little ashamed of myself, having to face down that truth. It has things going for it, conceptual things and atmospheric things. But the details are fussy and frequently inelegant, and the semi-grotesque silliness of the character names, the plotting, the flattish whimsy – it just doesn’t flow into a satisfying whole. In The Westing Game she manages a much larger group of characters and concepts, going for the same kind of silly/serious gray farce, and attains a marvelous balance. I really think Wes Anderson should make a movie of it. In The Tattooed Potato, her essentially improvisatory style is more apparent and comes up with less satisfying goods. A lot of the comedy, and this is a major issue, just isn’t funny. But probably the biggest problem was that the two main characters were sketched ineffectively and their faces remained more or less blank for me to the end. That’s a serious flaw when the promising premise of the book is that it will investigate the way that art can reveal the underlying truth of a person. The thought in the book is about depth, and yet the world in which it takes place persisted in seeming superficial.

It was all, I think, purely a question of craft. I liked what the book was trying to do, and I liked it when on occasion it got there. But when the charm of any given event faded, there wasn’t a sturdy enough ground to fall back on. It felt too loose and the author didn’t seem invested enough in her characters, only in her concepts. The concepts, as I said, are good, and I’m glad I was exposed to them in 5th grade, or whenever. The book asks the question “what is art for and what are artists trying to do?” and answers it through parodic Encyclopedia Brown-isms. That’s an inspired idea for children’s literature. The idea at the heart of the book, that an artist is like a detective of essences, made an impression on me and stayed with me. Even if I’ve moved past it since then.

It’s just a real shame that it’s not a better book, that’s all.

Also, Ellen Raskin was an illustrator and book designer, her stories all incorporate art and/or design-like thought, and in their original editions (as I read them back in elementary school), they left particular impressions through their integrated, carefully worked-out design. This wonderful site, including all sorts of manuscripts and sketches for The Westing Game plus a long and interesting audio recording of Raskin talking about her working methods, makes clear how the fidgety fun of solving design problems is an integral part of her work. But the edition we read recently had some stupid new 90s paperback cover illustration, and though the interior seemed to have been offset from the original edition, the overall feeling was that we were reading just another junky kids’ book. These things make a real difference, especially in the world of children’s literature, where fragile aesthetic effect is frequently the raison d’être. Sorry, I don’t want to be the kind of person who says raison d’être, but there I go anyway.

The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues is such an unsung “lost” book that I can’t even find a proper scan of its original Ellen Raskin cover online. All I can find is this “Amazon reader-submitted photo” of what looks to be a library copy, of the sort where the center of the jacket cover is snipped out with scissors and glued down to a binding made of some indestructible brightly-colored material.

Despite the quality of the image and the library-binding isse, just looking at it, I can see how much better I would have liked the book this time around if it had had this cover on it. I really don’t understand why books – especially children’s books – get refitted with new covers when they get reprinted. Are kids really that sensitive to the “dating” of earlier styles of illustration? And if they are, aren’t they also sensitive to the “dating” of the associated book itself? I find it much easier to get into the proper mindset to appreciate a book if the entire package is sending me the same signals, historical or otherwise, and I think this applies to kids too. A book severed from its own design, certainly whenever the author participated in it (or in this case, created it herself), is a book severed from a part of itself. Right? At least in the 20th century.

February 19, 2006

Philosophy of Music (2004)

by R.A. Sharpe

Acumen Publishing, UK, 2004
McGill-Queens University Press, North America, 2005

I swear I can do this fast.

I picked this up at the bookstore because it looked like the kind of book that interests me, written in the kind of voice that appeals to me, and it had a nice cover. I was in a mood where the idea of reading non-fiction, philosophy in particular, seemed like it would be fulfilling. I resolved on purchase (in part because it was a bit expensive for a paperback) to read it attentively in its entirety. The prospect of ultimately committing my thoughts to public html here gave to that experience, as to others I have had in the past months, a kind of heft of well-formedness that satisfied me.

The book, though short, was frustrating to read and ended up taking me more than a month. My attention was not easily held, despite the fact that the subject matter and the nature of the discussion were both, as they say, right up my alley. I finished it in a spirit of determined loyalty to my needlessly formalized self-obligation, and here I am writing about it.

Because of my backlog here it’s been yet another month since I finished it, and I’ve had a lot of time to plan what I wanted to say about this book. Mostly I wanted to quantify what was wrong with it, because make no mistake, I did not enjoy it. My plan until recently was to start with the very last thing in the book, which is a brief, annotated discography: the author names some recommended recordings of a few of the works that he has mentioned in the text. Mind you, none of these works are analyzed in detail or even written about at any significant length; they are all passing examples, invoked to make passing points in the flow of the discussion. Nonetheless the author lists the recordings he likes. I don’t have the book in front of me but I’m pretty sure that what I’m about to say is a fair representation. The last recording he mentions is of Thomas Tallis’s work Spem in Alium. He says something about why he likes the recording, and then writes, “Imagine dying and never having heard this music!”

This little comment, in my plan for what I was going to write here, was going to be taken to epitomize what’s wrong with the book. The general idea was going to be that this silly construction reveals the author to be too enamored of his own tastes, too enamored of the glory and quality of the music he endorses, and too lazy of rhetoric to ever write a treatment of this subject dispassionate enough to be valuable. Because while reading the book, that was my assessment, and my principal annoyance.

In the course my college music education, I witnessed many of my professors make passionate show of the fact that they instinctively and whole-heartedly identified the work of Bach, say, as being of near-holy perfection. I was vaguely put off by the seemingly demonstrative and self-satisfied flavor of these pronouncements, and also distressed by the way they left my ambivalence – perhaps unschooled ambivalence, but ambivalence all the same – out to dry. If their sanctification of “the greats” was, as it seemed, at the core of what they wanted to convey to me as my education, what was I to make of my own uncertainty in the face of the ostensible transcendent? The implication, which I came to resent, was that I was constitutionally barred from the elite and lucky group to which they belonged. “Imagine dying and never having heard this music!” indeed. I for one have never heard Spem in Alium. I am, as per your request, Professor, imagining my death now.

Having left college behind, however, I was able to come to a new and freeing realization, one that had been with me all along but that, like Dorothy, I had had to learn for myself: classical music professors are nerds. Nerds express their enthusiasms intemperately and with little regard for their listeners; my professors had more likely than not simply been letting their likes and dislikes fly with recklessly overblown abandon, and revelling in the decadent atmosphere of academia, where for once in their lives, such indulgences were encouraged. Furthemore, to compensate for a general sense of impotence, it is textbook nerd behavior to jockey fiercely for status within a well-defined niche, somewhere on the far fringes of actual social relevance. And so it is entirely possible that I was witness to displays that were indeed meant to demonstrate that my professors were closer to God (= Bach) and more sensitive to that infinitely delicate substance, genius (= Bach) than I, but these displays reflected only their tragically elaborate ego choreography, and had very little to do with music, and certainly nothing to do with me. A further thought, that I’ve had only still more recently, is that classical music professionals spend a great deal of time engaged with 18th and 19th-century aesthetic thought, to the point where the intellectual climates of the 18th and 19th centuries may be semi-permanently emulated within their psyches. So it also seems possible that I was merely witnessing the unwitting emergence of antiquated notions and once-fashionable formulations about genius and art and such, which, by virtue of their astonishing anachronism, had sounded to me like a kind of vainglory.*

In short, I was able to see that my relationship with music was not so necessarily inferior, and that I had no reason to feel, as I had, like an uninvited boor in the cathedral. Thus freed from the intimidating and discouraging effects of classical music nerdiness, I moved to my present attitude toward it**, which is exasperation. How can we ever discuss the aesthetic qualities of Beethoven if the “greatness” of Beethoven is axiomatic? How can we ever talk about “taste” if we begin with the belief that certain assessments are undeniable?

I ask these questions rhetorically; “obviously we can’t,” is my answer. In his book, however, R. A. Sharpe, asks these questions literally. He can’t imagine dying without hearing Tallis, and he really and truly can’t imagine a reasonable and educated person not liking Beethoven. The philosophical problems he tries to untangle stem, for him, from that sort of “observation.” He gives examples of subjects on which taste might reasonably diverge, like Tchaikovsky, and those where it might not, like Beethoven. The discussion proceeds with a tone of curiosity, but the landscape he is exploring is that of his own imagination, and it is as rigidly pleased with its own status quo as any of my canon-touting professors. It seemed outrageous to me, while reading it, that this book, which by its own description was an attempt to sort out the problems that surround questions of taste and value in art, was actually a completely nerdbound tour of those problems from the inside, by a philosopher who chooses to be intellectually brave not by abandoning any of his confusedly self-satisfied notions but rather by reaching and publishing the conclusion that ideas about taste and value in art are fundamentally inconsistent and thus do not submit productively to philosophical analysis.

I was going to write this, and say that this was the principal flaw of the book. But that, I have since decided, would not be quite fair, because, to be honest, I was never entirely certain that I had correctly identified the author’s shortcomings. Repeatedly, I would begin reading a section and think, “I can’t believe these are your assumptions! They completely beg the question; it’s no wonder that you find yourself tangled up in contradictions if you investigate everything except yourself and yet base the whole thing on your own opinions!” … and then, somewhere late in the discussion, would find that he did, eventually, entertain the idea that perhaps he had been wrong all along. Sometimes he would say something like, “in fact, as we will see, I do think I have been wrong, in a certain sense.” Then the subject would disappear for a while, and only reemerge in the context of a different discussion. All this would disorient me. Perhaps I was actually only reading a book that assumed its readers to have certain biases, and was first trying to appeal to them by acting as though those biases would go unchallenged. Or perhaps he was intentionally constructing his chapters to begin with that which would later be rejected, because he thought that was good philosophical form. I just couldn’t be certain, though evidence like the “Imagine dying and never hearing Tallis!” comment supported my thinking that he was just a sloppy thinker and a sloppy writer.

What is undoubted is that the book did not shed any light on its subject matter. It did not offer me even a transitory experience of clarity, and is that not the one thing we can ask of philosophy? It may be because I misunderstood him throughout, but in that case I blame his writing, which generally meandered with no clear trajectory and never even revealed a retrospective architecture (he does, after all, end by saying he must conclude that there are few conclusions to be drawn), and which lapsed constantly and ambiguously into enthusiasms and/or tradition, to no clear intellectual purpose. He may have had one in mind, but it was never clear.

So that was the principal flaw of the book. Through one shortcoming or another, and I really can’t say for sure what it was, this book failed to offer me any sort of help in sorting out these issues. And it sure seemed to be because my guide was so fond of the hallowed haze with which he was surrounded.

By contrast, I recently sat at the library and read the Introduction to Richard Taruskin’s gigantic Oxford History of Western Music, which, in laying out his attitude about how to write music history, cleanly and convincingly sliced directly through the scatterbrained shrug of Sharpe’s book. Art is a social phenomenon. Art reception is a social phenomenon. A history of music is a history of social phenomena and can only be sensibly treated as such. The “greatness” of Beethoven, he says, is of objective importance as a concept because it influences so many people who subscribe to it, but only in this form does it have any place in a scholarly study of music history. By contrast, in that book Move Closer that I enjoyed so much, the author is writing about art’s aesthetic value to the individual, and says that this sort of value is necessarily specific to the individual’s experience; that the moving and enriching qualities of aesthetic experience are fundamentally not social phenomena, they are uniquely private. To me, these two attitudes are not only compatible, they form a complete and straightforward picture. Sharpe and some of my old professors let that picture smudge together in the center and then, like alchemists building their elaborate towers of half-baked science, delve into the smudge in search of its secrets.

There is a general principle here that I would like to be able to name. It comes up all the time in bad philosophy of all sorts. Essentially, it is the inability to look at a million ants walking in a line and talk intelligently about the fact that they are discrete ants AND that they are a line. Yes, some of the ants might actually be slightly to one side or another of “the line.” Yes, the “line” itself does not actually exist in any pure and continuous form. But this is how things are. We all get it. There is nothing here to be confused about, and yet would-be thinkers seeking to “problematize” their world find this principle endlessly susceptible to abuse, which is unfortunate as it underlies the nature of all matter, all meaning, all experience. Can someone give me a name for this? I would love to be able to dismiss these things by saying, “well, that’s just a form of THE SUPRA-REDUCTIONIST FALLACY,” or something like that, and have everyone agree. “Incompatibilism?” Anyone?

Oh man, I so didn’t do it fast. Sorry.

* “Vainglory?” Who’s writing this?

** Or more generally toward any sort of aestheticization, in the humanities, of the canon. And, I suppose, even more generally, toward treating taste as a human virtue rather than a means to experience.

February 19, 2006

King Kong (2005)

directed by Peter Jackson
screenplay by Fran Walsh, Phlippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson
after a story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace

I mean, really, they should say
based on the film King Kong (1933)
directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoesdack
screenplay by James Creelman and Ruth Rose
after a story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace

because it’s not as though Peter Jackson read the original story notes and then re-interpreted them. This is as fannish a remake as you’re likely to see; it’s assertively based on the actual editing and performances of the original. And beyond that, it’s based on the actual iconic stature of the original, which, come to think of it, is sort of an odd attitude for a remake to take. You’d think that a remake would want to act like it invented the wheel rather than admitting off the bat that it’s an imitation product.

But no, at least, in this post-The Brady Bunch Movie (1995) era, that’s definitely not the case. Remakes, like TV-show movies, are just another form of comic book adaptation wherein the comic book just happens to be another movie. So many movies willingly lower themselves to the status of sequels: only fully functional when they’re plugged into some other movie, like someone on one of those breathing machines that must have a name but I can’t think of it. I’m not even talking about Psycho (1998), which was just a half-baked stunt. I mean stuff like Fat Albert (2004), which wasn’t a movie about Fat Albert; it was a movie about what would happen if the characters on that TV show Fat Albert came out of the TV, which is only a viable plot concept if you’re already versed in the Fat Albert universe, the inherent entertainment value of which is the ostensible justification for the making of a Fat Albert movie in the first place. Why would they do that – cripple their movie by making it dependent on a TV show, and then sabotage it by taking the focus off the subject and putting it on the meta?

In that case I really don’t know what they were thinking – but only because it’s such a grotesque example. I mean, really, like there’s enough Fat Albert love in the world to support a straight movie, even less a meta? And no, of course I didn’t actually see it.

The rest of the time, though, I would say it’s all part of a general tendency in the entertainment industry to cater to nerdy behavior, I guess because obsessions are more consistent, and thus more profitable, than curiosity. No entertainment property is truly inexhaustible*, but cult-devotion is forever. It’s smarter to bet on being able to sucker people into a fetishistic commitment than it is to try to keep appealing to them over and over with new actual content. For some reason, this is only being discovered now. It took TV Guide decades to stumble into the fact that if they print four covers and say “collect all four,” they will sell more copies, especially if they put pictures of Star Trek characters on the covers. It is not coincidental that nerds and fetishists are overlapping genera.

Maybe American society is getting more nerdy, or more fetishistic, or maybe commercial culture is just getting savvier/more cynical/more shameless about exploiting it. I dunno. I don’t have a thesis here. I’m just trying to talk about King Kong.

So. It all relates. I don’t think Peter Jackson is the next Spielberg, or whatever they’re saying. BECAUSE… he’s too much of a fetishist, or a nerd, or something. He’s miles above Attack of the Clones, mind you, but watching his movies I still feel a hint of that sense that I’m at some little kid’s tea party, playing along, and that it’s not really for me, per se. Or rather, it’s only for me if I’m a co-conspirator in the tea party and am thus willing to play along. Peter Jackson, for concrete example, has shown time and again that he thinks a chunky low-framerate slow-mo effect is fun and exciting. Maybe it’s just me, but I think it looks like crap. I don’t just mean that it reminds me of crap, that it’s too lowbrow a technique – I mean, it actually looks bad. It’s not a good thing to do with your film; it’s hard to watch and it tends to break the spell of whatever alternate reality has been created by somehow making everything look much more like props and sets and actors in makeup. It’s just not effective, but Peter Jackson loves it. He thinks he’s offering it up like junk food, like a guilty pleasure, but he’s actually offering it up like a kid showing you how cool his toy car is by going “vroom” and making it ride up the side of the wall and then along the tabletop and then down the table leg and then along the floor, while you have to watch, wondering whether he still even remembers that he told you to watch.

Obviously, Peter Jackson is far from a distractable kid. But the things I admired about The Lord of the Rings and King Kong – the spectacle, the effects, and I suppose the durable old-fashionedness of the characterizations – these weren’t exactly Peter’s doing. He has a very clever special effects group working for him (those behind-the-scenes documentaries on the Lord of the Rings DVD’s were really cool, I thought) that manages to turn his overblown visuals into entertainment – a fine counter-example to the doofuses who managed to make those Star Wars movies so cluttered and garbagey. And his wife and her friend seem to be mostly quite smart about the big scripting decisions – the relationship they constructed for Kong and the woman was a very well-calibrated solution to the assignment of writing a love story for a giant special-effect-monkey and Naomi Watts. Except that I personally didn’t buy or want to see their moment of peaceful bliss sliding around in Central Park. And I really didn’t need to see as much pre-Kong stuff about anyone – the whole first hour could have been cut way way down. But otherwise, good.

But anyway, Peter Jackson’s actual directorial style is not those things; it’s something nerdier, less thought-out, that gives form to those things. The spirit that motivates those low-framerate effects (there’s a particularly ridiculous one in this movie where Adrien Brody types each letter in the word S K U L L while the camera careens clumsily toward him) seems to lurk everywhere – an undiscriminating fondness for things that seem like they’re much cooler than they actually look. And only his fellow nerds in the audience are there rooting for these things, because, as participants in whatever fetish is being indulged at the moment, they are already at the tea party. And I’m torn, watching these movies, in the choice between thinking, “but this just doesn’t come off, for me,” and thinking, “whoa, dude!” Unless I’m really and truly uncomfortable, I choose in favor of the latter because it’s more fun. But I still know inside that it’s just not the highest quality, sharpest fun around – it’s fun that we’re kind of hyping up to ourselves as we go, to cover the gaps. Spielberg, by contrast, has, or at least had, a great visual sense and a great pacing sense, and always attuned to theatricality. Jackson is simply more of a nerd; he’s doing it in his world. I want my escapism brought to me, not played out in front of me.

I’m talking here only about his crowd-pleasing megamovies. Heavenly Creatures was a whole other animal. Somehow his craftsmanship there was both recognizably the same, and also much richer in effect. Though perhaps that was a one-time-only affair. It’s interesting to note that Heavenly Creatures was a movie about the darkness that lurks behind nerdy obsessions. It’s a depiction of childish escapism that’s meant to be disturbing in its insularity; maybe that’s why the childishly insular slant to Peter Jackson’s direction happened to strengthen the effect of that movie. I think it may have been a sort of serendipitous coincidence. It’s just not clear to me how much control he has.

And who even knows about his early trashy splatter horror comedy whatevers. I’m never going to watch them. I guess what I’m saying here is that his origins as a purveyor of cult-interest-only exercises in gore are still apparent, and I don’t think that spirit serves the fantasy escapism genre quite as well as it could; it transmutes it into something less communicative, less whole. Just like remakes that resort to fandom and fetishism. Right. I’ve said this all ten times. But no revision! Let’s keep moving forward.

The music by James Newton Howard was undistinguished in both the action and melodrama categories. I know he had to write it really fast because Howard Shore was mysteriously dropped from the movie at the last minute, and it sounded that way, like the most reflexive, fastest possible solution to every problem. There were a few gestures toward 30s Hollywood, as with the title cards, but like the title cards, the gestures weren’t memorable or forceful enough to impart the actual tang of “vintage” to the movie, which would have benefited from it. Why couldn’t the whole score have been all old-fashionedy and classically symphonic (as opposed to slick-synth-symphonic, the way everything is orchestrated these days)? Oh well. Just like Lord of the Rings, an opportunity to do something cool was wasted on forgettable blandness.

All the complaining about Peter Jackson above is an attempt to articulate the difference between the movie and some higher standards I would have preferred it to meet. But, you know, roller-coaster overkill was the point of the movie and pretty much whenever it was on the tracks, I was having a great time. The gross-out sequence was my favorite part. Again, it speaks to Peter Jackson’s strengths. It was like a kid holding a bug in your face and watching you squirm. The kid nailed it! And when those dinosaurs were all running at the camera, it didn’t look perfect but I was still smiling because the movie’s sense of delight at having so much dinosaur onscreen at once was, again, so overblown that it became accessible to me. A-plus, kid!

And seriously, that’s worth something. It’s a rare and ticket-worthy thing, to get grossed out and overwhelmed. I knew Peter Jackson would do it well, it’s why I went, and I got it, and I had fun. On those counts, he definitely beats Spielberg – this movie’s bug scene was far, far better than the one in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. But the movie wanted to be at least a little bigger than just the thrills, and I don’t feel altogether safe with Peter out there beyond the amusement park. You must be taller than this sign etc.

* Well, maybe some are, I don’t know, sake of argument, work with me here.

February 18, 2006

Moby-Dick vocabulary, i

I read Moby-Dick very badly back in high school. Which is to say I only read probably 1/4 of the text, and my selection included the beginning and the end. Now, because I’ve received a lovely lovely copy for my birthday, I have the urge to do it right. Excessively right – no proceeding until I’m sure I know what everything means. “Means” in the most literal sense. Like I have to understand all the words. Not holding myself to a high enough standard in this respect, I believe, has been a major impediment to my enjoyment of many books. I am not alone in having suffered from the white-lie self-delusion of “okay sure fine I get the idea.”

So I’m writing down everything that I need to look up. I expect this to take about a year, maybe more. Actually, I expect to abandon this effort before I come anywhere near completing it. Usually when I start doomed OCD projects like this, their abortive fruits end up lost in the bowels of my personal computer (abortive -> fruits -> bowels?), but now that I have this lovely forum, you’re all beneficiaries. And you can share in the shame of it all, too.

The following will be incomprehensible without a copy of Moby-Dick. Like this one. Or this one. Read along with me, at my sub-glacial pace! Until I quit!

Here you go, internet.


usher, n.
4. An assistant to a schoolmaster or head-teacher; an under-master, assistant-master. Now rare.

Richard Hakluyt (1552-1616), author of several important works on travel and exploration, including The Principall Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589/1598-1600). Melville’s quote comes from this section on Iceland (text version / original edition), where it would seem to actually be from the pen of one Arngrímur Jónsson (1568-1648). The language in question is, as you might have guessed, Icelandic.

Richardson’s Dictionary
A New Dictionary of the English Language, by Charles Richardson, published in 1837. Richardson’s dictionary had no definitions, only quotations. In this sense, a precursor to the OED.

Incidentally, neither the current Merriam-Webster nor the current OED specifically mentions derivation from “roundness,” “to roll,” or “to wallow” in its etymology for whale.

PEHEE-NUEE-NUEE, Erromangoan.

Fegee is obviously just Melville’s spelling of Fiji, by which he means the language Fijian. Erromangoan is now Erromangan, a language of Erromango, in Vanuatu, one of the most language-dense nations in the world. Melville’s source for these is presumably personal experience, and no doubt things have changed a lot since he was there, but Melville’s words seem to derive from Polynesian languages, and Erromangan and Fijian seem to be rather different beasts. But frankly it’s a complicated mess down there and I’m not about to work it out.

But I will go a bit further, because I just came across some guy’s textual notes, apparently for a forthcoming edition of Moby-Dick, hiding in the Google cache, and here’s what he says:

Etymology: Melville’s list of non-English language words for “whale” is not entirely correct. The Hebrew word is particularly garbled. Both American and British editions print the letters nh (nun and he), or “hen” (as read from right to left), which has a number of meanings, none of which is “whale” or “leviathan.” HM’s source was no doubt Kitto’s Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature, which gives the letters nt (nun and tav), or “tan,” as “whale,” even though the actual Hebrew word for whale is “tanin” or “tanim.” Chances are HM intended Kitto’s erroneous word “tan” but his printer gave him “hen.” The NN [Northwestern-Newberry, 1988] edition corrects the text to “tan”; however, LCE [Longman Critical Edition, forthcoming!] retains the original to underscore this textual problem. … The Greek in both American and British versions is rendered in a non-standard typeface and seems to begin with the letter chi; however, it is, in fact, a kappa, which is proper. LCE follows this original Greek transcription. It corrects “whœl” to “whæl” for the Anglo-Saxon entry. However, it does not correct “Hvalt” (Danish for “arched”) to “Hval” (“whale”), nor HM’s confusion of Dutch for German, nor the repetition of “Whale” for the Icelandic (instead of “Hvalur”); all of which are revised in the NN edition. The Fegee and Erromangoan words are either sailor talk or HM’s invention; the Polynesian for whale is actually “pahua” or “palaoa.”

First of all: guy who wrote that, if find yourself reading this and you want me to take down your as-yet-unpublished notes that you were foolish enough to leave where Google could find them, just leave a comment and I’ll be glad to do so!

Second of all, I am reading from the beautiful University of California Edition, which identifies itself as a sort of preliminary version of the “NN” edition. However, for the Hebrew, I see chet dalet, which is seriously off the mark, apparently a second generation of typesetting error by someone who doesn’t know from Hebrew. However, contrary to that guy’s notes, my research (and instinct) suggests that “tanim” is the plural and “tan” is indeed the correct singular for, say, Jonah’s whale. No?

My edition also, incidentally, seems to have fallen for the Greek error mentioned. It seems to have χήτος instead of κήτος. Hm. I think. Or maybe it’s just a direct reproduction of the confusing font from the original. You can see what I’m seeing by “searching inside the book” on Amazon. (Search for “nuee.”)

Third of all: In chapter 40 of Omoo, Melville writes:

All over these seas, the word “nuee” is significant of quantity. Its repetition is like placing ciphers at the right hand of a numeral; the more places you carry it out to, the greater the sum.

This is clearly the Polynesian word now written as “Nui” meaning “big” or “great.” And though I can’t find any “pekee” or “pehee,” I do find “pakake” meaning whale. And also (same link) “paikea,” a whale and/or a mythical sea monster. This is also the name of the protagonist in the hit Maori film Whale Rider (2002)! So anyway, I don’t think “sailor talk or HM’s invention” is fair at all – I’m willing to buy that Melville was really trying to get it right but ended up with pehee-nuee-nuee and pekee-nuee-nuee in his attempt to say “really, really big sea monster” in two variants of Polynesian (which Fijian and Erromangan aren’t, quite).

Okay. I have now so totally read page viii of Moby-Dick and nobody could reasonably claim otherwise. Yeah yeah, I thought about it, too. Babel; mortality; civilization; cannibals. Man, language, the eternal. I gotcha. All very Dave Eggers of him to put it on the “Etymology” page, too.

Just vii+576 left to go!

February 13, 2006

Rossellini semi-double feature

Roberto Rossellini was born on May 8, 1906, so the centennial of his birth is coming up. This showing had something to do with that. Isabella, who introduced it – that’s right! – told us that no Rossellini film has been seen on American television for twenty-five years, or something like that, and that in honor of the centennial, the Sundance Channel is going to show the following on May 8. I think.


My Dad Is 100 Years Old (2005)
directed by Guy Maddin
written by Isabella Rossellini
16 min.

Quite an oddity. My sense that something heightened and unlikely was happening – namely, that I was watching a short film by Isabella Rossellini while she sat nearby with her bored-looking son – got a serious boost when I saw what the actual film was like: wacky. It’s a completely Isabellacentric memoir of her father with about equal emphasis on her personal recollections and on his artistic ideals and struggles. As she said, in introducing it, anyone could do a documentary about him; she wanted to do something that only she could do; hence: a movie that takes place in her mind. The technique is, um, Euro-whimsy. I.R. told us that her strongest memory of her father, as a little girl, was of his big belly as he lay in bed. So: Roberto Rossellini is portrayed as a giant, screen-filling belly, which jiggles in some sort of celestial fog while Isabella’s voice, modulated down to sound like god, rumbles his wisdom. Meanwhile, narrator-memoirist Isabella (in black turtleneck and jacket) wanders through a run-down movie theater where the specters of Fellini, Hitchcock, David O. Selznick, and Charlie Chaplin engage in stilted exchanges about the merits of realism, commercialism, art and whatnot. All are played by I.R. in variously bizarro caricatures. Eventually she shows up as Ingrid Bergman. We’ve all wanted to see her do that, right? Yeah, but oddly, dressing up as Ingrid Bergman only made Isabella Rossellini look much less like her than usual. The whole strange dream ends with Isabella in a void, caressing a giant sculpted landscape-like belly and expressing her love for her father and her sadness at his diminishing reputation.

What can we say to this? The whole time I was watching it, I felt pretty clearly that it was ridiculous. The elaborate poetic-cinematic aggrandizement of any individual person’s private feelings is a bad idea; the implication here that we should care about a visualization of this particular person’s feelings because her father was famous (or worse, because she herself is famous) was a little irritating. But all memoirs can be tricky that way; there’s a fine line between generously open and self-indulgent. For all that the scripting seemed artless and self-involved, I came away with the feeling that as a “love letter to her father,” the project had been entirely sincere, uncomplicated by any other sort of ego aspirations. And if the notion of a memoir-film is legitimate, why shouldn’t it be self-involved? Flamboyantly self-involved, even?

The look and feel, and probably the specifics of the writing too, were Guy Maddin’s doing. I haven’t seen The Saddest Music In the World yet, but I will. I’m hopeful but wary. From this little piece, I got the sense that his sorts of pseudo-antiquated stylistic quirks will tend to shut me out more than invite me in. Maybe that was my problem with this film in general – it was supposed to be this warm, human thing, but it was done as a weird magic-lantern show. I know, I know, it was all supposed to portray the sensation of fading memories. But a piece either exists inside the mysterious life of the mind or outside it, and seeing Isabella sitting in the midst of all that fog, looking so well-groomed and famous and talking directly to me about the artistic philosophy of Roberto Rossellini, pretty much answered that. I was kept well outside the poetic space where the visuals wanted to live. Maybe that tension was their joke, their vibe, but it didn’t gel for me.

But, you know, whatever. I was a little embarrassed, watching it, but there was no need. She’s obviously doing just fine, and this little movie is getting very warmly reviewed. So who was I embarrassed for? Whom, in fact?

Next came an actual Rossellini film, one that Isabella said was a personal favorite. After it started, she and her son slipped out of the room. So did several people I was with. But they shouldn’t have, because it was good.

It being:

Francesco, giullare di Dio (1950)
directed by Roberto Rossellini
screenplay by Federico Fellini, Father Antonio Lisandrini, and Father Félix Morión
story by Roberto Rossellini

The English title was The Flowers of St. Francis, though a literal translation of the Italian would have been Francis, God’s Jester. We watched this projected from the Criterion DVD that had just recently been released. This was and is the only Roberto Rossellini film I have yet seen.

Those people who want to explain why art films (European art films, usually) are worthier stuff than standard American fare tend to sketch the same outline: slower pace, less artifice, more interest in the human, more room for the lyrical and the profound, more ambiguity, greater resonance. We all know this list well; I’ve come to have a very clear sense of the slow, admirably humanistic “European art film” as an archetype. But until now I wasn’t entirely sure I’d ever quite seen it. This was definitely it.

I wasn’t sure I’d ever quite seen it, because when I’d seen it before, it didn’t exactly do all those things it was supposed to do. Why is slow better? Why is ambiguity better? I don’t really buy this idea that real, humane human affairs are the ones with the soft pillows, or that the faster the car, the less soulful the driver. The word “humanistic” and its little cluster of connotations/implications seems to me a gang that could be broken up a bit. It’s become one of my stock disillusionments to realize that something is purporting to be “humanistic” in the sense that it relates to human universals, potentially to my own life, but is actually only “humanistic” in the sense that it is froofy.

But St. Francis was exactly that film you hear tell about, wherein the basic, traditional links between humanism as a way of thinking about life and humanism as an aesthetic approach shine through as essential and fundamental. Sure, I might want to break up that gang now because it’s gotten out of control*, but in the end I know there’s something down there that still makes sense, and there it was on the screen in front of me, playing out at that “leisurely pace” you hear so much about, and I understood what it was worth.

Analogously, this is a movie about the ways that religious devotion and goodness relate and connect. The connection is traditional, frequently overemphasized or misconstrued, and at bottom, real and important. The film is absolutely, unquestionably loving toward St. Francis and his followers (portrayed to great effect by non-actors), and, like them, toward all humanity that passes by, even the barbaric, the spiteful, and the annoyed. The whole of the world is presented with that certain grace of being a great gentle comedy, in the classical sense, which is how St. Francis sees it. And yet, with that attitude established beyond question, Rossellini’s portrait is more complicated. To what degree should we actually be emulating these lyrically, comically simple men of God? Not clear. We see their self-denial taken to unsympathetic extremes; what are we to make of it? Is their goodness of God or of themselves? Room is left for many possible interpretations.

The Italian title, “God’s Jester,” which I didn’t know while watching it, helps me a bit in clarifying – Francis and his followers are portrayed as divine innocents, not unlike clowns. Or Harpo. Francis himself is very slightly more knowing than his followers; one young guy is slightly less knowing than everyone else. They’re all pretty much absolute in their simplicity and dedication to simplicity. The sermon to the birds is, characteristically, played both as absurd and spiritual at once. Is devotion nonsense? Possibly, but we all know that nonsense has something divine in it. That’s basically what I took away from the film, but the film itself was bigger and bigger-hearted than that.

The movie breaks down into a series of titled vignettes, a format which very successfully evokes the world of the parable – depth in simplicity. Events are significant as they relate to philosophy but not to any narrative. The beauty of any given moment or idea is left to resonate in spiritual space rather than being tied to a structure of meaning. That sounds flaky but it’s just the way I expressed it. The loose structure works because of Rossellini’s dedication to his sort of realism, to a completely earthbound presentation. God only knows what he would have thought of Guy Maddin.

The biggest showpiece sequence somewhere in the middle of the film has the simplest of the brothers and some kind of hairy tyrant warrior brute confront one another. The tyrant stares down the monk, threatens him, makes enormous infuriated faces at him, but the monk does not flinch or vary his simple, mild smile. The tyrant is absolutely befuddled – what is this person and how can he be this way? In the absolute perfection of his bottomless simplicity, the existence of God is demonstrated, at least to this guilty conscience. The scene is reduced to a beautiful comic image, and the possible meaning of the image can extend in many directions – political, spiritual, philosophical. Rossellini (and Fellini) are not judging and despite what it might seem, they are not preaching. In this scene they present an image as fine and durable as any fairy tale or bible story.

I also found the scene with the leper particularly rich and affecting.

I can’t imagine a better Christian movie.

If that’s what it was.

* Business politics are one thing, but is the independent coffee house actually a better place to sit than Starbucks? Is the coffee better? Is your individuality better-loved there? And what Christmas tree should Charlie Brown have chosen?**

** I keep using the word “humanism” and talking about its connotations, but I’m actually only talking about it in the most generic, ahistoric sense, which is how I tend to think about most words. I realize that “Humanism” has meant several different distinct philosophical movements in several different eras, and right now tends to be used a lot as a partner to “secularism,” but, guess what, I don’t mean any of that stuff. Just the basic stuff about relating to human interests and values. Hm. I just looked it up and apparently the opposition to the supernatural is sort of the defining aspect of the word. So… I guess I won’t be using this word any more. What word did I mean, friendly readers? I want a word that just means “relating to human (rather than institutional or abstract) interests and values; based on a respect for aesthetic experience and the experience of the individual” but doesn’t actually oppose itself to religion. You know – like in The Flowers of St. Francis and also in A Charlie Brown Christmas.

February 13, 2006

Oscar 2005 short films double feature

I think at the time of the showing, I was told that I was going to see two short films that had been featured in the Sundance Film Festival, which is true, but it seems noteworthy and probably intentional that both were Oscar contenders in 2005. One of them won, in fact.


Two Cars, One Night (2003)
written and directed by Taika Waititi
12 min.

A gentle slice of life thing with a couple of kids, Maori Norman Rockwell in a parked car. The kids had charm and the black-and-white was pretty. I think my enjoyment of this particular slice of life was slightly hampered by certain mannered aspects of the whole package, which included some snippets of time-lapse (or otherwise tricked-up) photography, meant to sketch passing impressions of the neon world of adults. Those, and perhaps the all-around black-and-white quiet short-film seriousness itself, put me in mind of artsy/literary aspirations, whereas the very sentimental spirit of the thing (check out the official site and you’ll get the idea) really demanded the most absolutely direct approach. Like Norman Rockwell, whose tableaux of pure sweetness manage not to seem distasteful by virtue of the sobriety and clarity of their craftsmanship.

But the film understood all the basic stuff about how a sentimental tune needs to be a simple one, and other than the sped-up motion, it didn’t make any mistakes. The kids and their moment are genuinely cute, and the overall sense of nostalgia was clearly heartfelt. I drew a connection, possibly absurd, to turn-of-the-century sentimental parlor songs, with their gently wistful recurring sentiments about childhood sweethearts meeting and parting and such. The film found that sort of thing in a more or less contemporary setting.

After the showing, some other people present were saying things like “what a beautiful people they are,” and “what wonderful accents,” and I must admit to feeling uncomfortable about this sort of response. Any sort of aesthetic assessment of racial characteristics seems to me worrisome. Maybe that’s irrational racial anxiety on my self-flagellating white liberal American part, but I don’t think so. At the very least, saying that the Maori are “beautiful” is sweepingly simplistic – surely, many of them, like many of everyone, are ugly. These kids, however, were cute. The “what a beautiful people they are” comment would seem to stem from conflating these kids’ particular cuteness with their general Maoriness, and that sort of confusion seems to me to be genuine kin to the infamous bad kind. Albeit obviously benign.

But I can handle that. My real discomfort comes from the fact that I can readily imagine that Taika Waititi (who is “of Te-Whanau-a-Apanui descent and hails from the Raukokore region of the East Coast”) really did intend to convey “the beauty of his people” or some such thing, and that I was indeed being invited to admire the bone structure and marvel at the regional accents (which were, I must say, THICK and difficult for me to disentangle). And that sort of thing is hard for me to take. The relationship between foreignness as a point of pride and foreignness as an illusion of provincial minds is still troubling to me; no matter how the issue gets sliced, it always seems like somewhere along the way, some irrelevant middlemen got their egos tangled up in it. Does it make a Maori feel good when an American sees a 12 minute movie about kids in a parking lot and decides to say that the Maori are a beautiful people? Or does it make a Maori angry?

For my part, I just have to hope and trust that nobody cares, Maori or otherwise, because any kind of cultural agenda in a work of art, per se, is pretty much doomed to fail. That might be a bit broad, but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling it. This is a politically loaded subject and I don’t want to talk about it right now; I actually don’t feel all that strongly about the general political/cultural questions, which are more complex. I just know that artistically speaking, whatever might allow a work to be classed as “[ethnic] interest” is not, in itself, any kind of interest.

This movie was made in New Zealand starring New Zealanders who looked and sounded it. I watched the film assuming that those facts were context rather than content, and I hope they were, though I know it’s all fuzzy. Admittedly, foreignness is an undeniable element of the experience of watching something foreign, and if it adds to the experience for a viewer, I guess I can’t knock that. But that sort of thing is specific to the individual viewer’s associations and shouldn’t be passed off as part of a general response. The clanging parallel fourths of cheap Charlie Chan “oriental” music are offensive not specifically because they are inaccurate, but because they, as a subjective reworking of real Chinese traditional music, presume to know just how “foreign” that music would sound to a listener and thus reveal an implicitly exclusionary attitude. If my fellow audience-members thought that this movie was wonderfully “New Zealandy,” they needed to recognize that they themselves brought that, not the film. Or if the film brought it intentionally, it, um, shouldn’t have. Hm. Or something. My cranky discomfort seems to be swallowing its own tail here.

All I’m saying is, I didn’t like hearing “what a beautiful people they are” as a response to this film. But maybe I should just get over it.

But doesn’t it just sound so patronizing?

Oh well, I’ve said stuff like that lots of times.

Wasp (2003)
written and directed by Andrea Arnold
26 min.

This one won the Oscar. If you’re so inclined, you can watch it in its entirety here – how’s that for a link?

It’s a “tough stuff” movie that proudly announces “tough stuff, coming through” with rough handheld camerawork and the sort of full-on garish grit that I associate with contemporary art photography. I’m not inclined to like that sort of thing – “we dare you to face the ugly truth” deadpan is an easy, bitter game to play. The world will always be full of ills enough to allow any number of contemporary artists to assault me with their social consciences. But after staring down all my reservations about this particular prodding of the beach rubble, I ultimately came to the conclusion that it had been a respectable and sufficiently humble attempt at capturing a certain depressing social reality. The nightmarish image from whence the title was a bit too much, but once that moment had ventured over the line, the rest of the movie became, retroactively, less abrasive and less indignant than it had at initially seemed. By the final sardonic long shots, I felt pretty sure that the whole thing had been trying for fairness rather than ugliness, despite the relentless ugliness. If I knew more about the subject matter, I might be able to stand up and say, “well, this isn’t how it really is, it’s just been done for shock value,” but I can’t, and I find it entirely believable that this is probably how it really is. Perhaps that’s naive. I feel obligated to keep clearly in mind that a movie, even a real-world-social-ills movie, should not be my primary source of information on any real-world anything, so I must acknowledge that this movie depicted a situation and problem that seemed to purport to be realistic, about which I continue to know very little.

The straightforward narrative style combined with the moral mudpie made for an interesting sort of effect. Our empathy for the protagonist was, rightly, just about nil, and was simultaneously sort of all-encompassing. The movie didn’t pull an “anti-hero” inversion, nor was it dismissive of the character’s humanity. That dismissal was left up to us, and I appreciated that. The ugliness was as unpleasant to her as to us; if we chose to distance ourselves from her, it was by choice and therefore on our own terms. That’s the kind of setup that actually inspires thought about an issue, the sort of thought that artists are always claiming they want to inspire.

Now, I’m pretty sure my thoughts about the issues in this movie aren’t worth anything, but the fact that I was made to engage emotionally with this material is, I think, good. The spreading of “awareness” is still definitely a commendable goal, despite the rampant flakification of the concept. This is how it should be done – through art that induces the viewer to consider the issues in the course of sorting out a reaction to the art itself. A lot of artists are under the misapprehension that shock is a good technique for bringing this about, but it’s not. Shock, generally, just makes me think about the obnoxious artist who shocked me, rather than the implications of the material they used, or (as if!) my own capacity for being shocked.

This film flirted with the lure of the shocking, and I maintain my several reservations, but on balance, I think it was trying to communicate, not offend, and that’s what counts to me. Of course, I’m not about to watch it again any time soon.

The acting is again quite good.

February 5, 2006

Remember the Titans (2000)

directed by Boaz Yakin
written by Gregory Allen Howard

Who here remembers the Titans? Raise your hands if you remember the Titans.

I actually don’t remember the Titans very well because they were such a by-the-book genre movie, in a genre that I haven’t learned and loved well enough to file subtle variations separately in my brain. Did this one play the race card and the football card into some new hand? Maybe, maybe this was the first movie ever made that dealt this particular setup. But if it was, it succeeded at not seeming like it was, which is probably exactly the sort of milkshake-smooth ride that they aspired to.

My thoughts watching the movie and thinking back on it all revolve around the idea of old-fashioned genre moviemaking. In Barton Fink, the title character loses his existential bearings because he is assigned to write a “wrestling picture” that remains unimaginable to him, a symbol of the inscrutable absurdity of the universe. If I’m remembering Barton Fink correctly, which I may not be. Anyway, genre movies do exist in a strange half-world. It would seem like this movie was all about people and their lives, and race and loyalty and teamwork and whatever, the things that count to humans. And then again it was entirely that other thing, a “feel-good” formula flick, and what are we to it? If Denzel Washington looked in at our lives, what could he possibly think? That’s not where he comes from.

This is the essence of art, I guess, back to the Greeks, who I must always remind myself, reading Sophocles or whoever, did not actually live and speak in masks. But what is the connection between life and the Titans? I guess they serve us better by not being like us; the bible is a best-selling advice column because it’s so weird, and kids read fairy tales because their applicability is always and only metaphorical. Kids on IMDB are telling me that they watched Remember the Titans in high school health class. Barton Fink gets lost because he believes that art should be a mirror, but art can also be a tool, carved roughly in our own image only because that makes it more obvious how to apply it. Remember the Titans (and most of the classic Hollywood output of which it reminded me) makes a lot more sense to me as a quasi-functional artifact done up with a relatively sophisticated trompe l’oeil facade than as a rendition of reality that’s been abstracted down to its essentials (or to its crowd-pleasing components). But this model is stupid; obviously all art is the fusion of the tool and the mirror. This is the meaning of “pageantry,” no? At some level I still haven’t quite gotten my head all the way around the issue, and maybe I never will, and maybe that’s the fascination of art for everyone. But here I am watching a pleasant enough, by-the-numbers Hollywood pageant and feeling uncertain what manner of thing it is. I mean, what are we, life on earth, trying to do, making movies like this and showing them to ourselves? I guess I am saved from these sorts of questions during other movies by the fact that they provoke thoughts on their own terms. But this was a very simple movie and it didn’t have anything up its sleeve, and I knew that it didn’t, so I was free to feel like I was in someone else’s temple watching their lovely ceremonies with interest. But then I thought, well, actually, this is my temple too, isn’t it, and I don’t know what any of these rites mean.

I kind of want to read this, but oh man, that’ll be heavy going.

There, I found a thought to think about Remember the Titans, albeit a roaringly pretentious one. I’d been putting this one off a long time, because, really, what is there to say? I don’t need to tell you that I didn’t actively choose to watch this.

It was very well done, I thought.

February 5, 2006

Explaining/Not explaining

Yesterday I told Beth that writing my thoughts is hard because I think so much faster than I can write. This was supposed to sound vain but was also true. Then again it’s probably true for everyone.

Things seem worth writing about because they occur to me in constellations of seven or eight points. The connections between these points make sense to me because of how my pre-existing thoughts were configured, but in most cases I tend to doubt that they will be apparent to anyone else. So the task of writing is pretty much the task of explicating these long strands that lead from one point to the next, which were never really part of my thought process in the first place. (Which is a shortcoming, right? Both as a communicator and a thinker? Is it better to think things irrationally and then test them for rationality, or is it better to always stick to the rules?) By the time I’ve explained my way from point one to point two, all the interest has been drained out of the subject for me and for the reader and I end up wrapping things up in a spirit of futility, never having quite said what I was excited about in the first place.

Beth said that this was indeed a problem for me and made a good case for my not writing that way anymore. So from now on: more points, less explaining. More concise, less clear! Better to build something opaque and then cut windows in it rather then stretch everything too thin in quest of transparency. This is, I think, a silly putty metaphor.