Monthly Archives: January 2008

January 22, 2008

A Sportsman’s Notebook (1852)

Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883)
Записки охотника (A Sportsman’s Notebook) (1852, expanded 1874)

The roll was 969 = Ivan Turgenev. First work below his name is 970 = A Sportsman’s Notebook, translated by Charles and Natasha Hepburn. I purchased (from The Strand) and read this very translation. See above. The Everyman’s Library edition is a pleasure to hold in the hand.

Unconnected short stories of Russian peasants and landowners. “Sportsman” here means hunter.

One point of reference that occurred to me is Dubliners, from 60-odd years later. Both are portraits of the quotidian that zoom inward until some tiny detail seems to reveal a hidden kind of significance. Joyce very much had allegorical meanings in mind, and the idea that the everyday could serve as an allegory for the profound was absolutely part of the project; Turgenev I don’t think had any specific notion of meaning in mind. What they have in common is that they sketch whole scenes, characters, courses of events, painting in broad strokes, then finer and finer, until, at the pivotal moment, they just breathe very lightly on the canvas, and it’s as though the whole structure has just been to give us sufficient context for this breath to register. In Joyce these “breaths,” the tiny non-epiphanic epiphanies, have fairly clear moral content. In Turgenev they sometimes “wrap things up” in a clear enough way, or blatantly surprise us, but to actually pick them apart and understand them is more difficult because the stories do not contain any clear moral content at all. The subject of the stories is the experience itself. Smells, colors in the sky, breezes are given genuinely equal weight to the characters and dialogue – and the infinitesimal point of drama to which each story progresses ends up seeming to embody, in some mysterious way, the crucial essence of that experience. This is the effect of the form, and of his control with language, but it captures something real about life: the way – described by Proust many times over – that some certain detail of an experience can arbitrarily become, to an individual, the linchpin detail in the memory of that experience.

Another point of reference for me, and this is deeply stupid but god bless the internet for giving it a home, was text adventure games of the Infocom variety. In those games, an eerie sense of actual locality builds up around the reader/player, just from the sheer emphasis on descriptions of surroundings – an emphasis not found in many other kinds of writing. Turgenev’s calm, descriptive voice placing trees, waving grass, shifting clouds, dirt roads, sheds, shadows, etc. etc. etc. all around me was infinitely more artful and refined than the one that told me I was “in a valley in the forest beside a stream tumbling along a rocky bed” but had a similar effect of drawing me into a world of actual space that was, like Adventure, strangely quiet – almost more meditative than the actual outdoors. The characters in the stories sometimes seem palpably distant, seen only through the scrim of the narrator’s reflection on them, despite the fact that this reflection is completely unstated. We feel his presence because we know he’s the one smelling the air and noticing all those clouds. In one of the stories – probably my favorite one, “Bezhin Meadow,” the narrator gets lost walking home through dark fields, and the sense of physical, sensory situation, and of lostness, is very strong. This is a particular and peculiar sort of talent for an author to have.

I went to the right, through brushwood. Meanwhile night approached and grew on me like a storm-cloud; it was as if darkness was welling up from the ground on all sides, with the mists of evening, and streaming down from above at the same time. I fell in with a rough, overgrown path, and went along it, keeping a sharp look-out ahead. Soon it was all dark and still around me–there was only the call of quails from time to time. A small night-bird, flying low on soft and soundless wings, almost knocked into me and shied off to one side. I came to the end of the brushwood and continued along the edge of a field. It was already difficult to distinguish distant objects; the field made a white blur around me; beyond it was a gloomy, towering mass of darkness which looked nearer every moment. My footfalls sounded muffled in the stagnant air. The sky, which had become drained of colour, began to grow blue again–but, this time, with the blue of night. Against it, little stars were stirring and twinkling.

What I had taken for a wood turned out to be a dark, round hillock. “Then where on earth am I?” I repeated again…

The passage is much longer than that and it all accumulates wonderfully up to that point and beyond it. And then, only after this has all built up, we are introduced to the characters of this story, and after that to the “theme,” and then only at the very very end, to the dramatic throwaway that either is or isn’t the point of the whole thing. I know this kind of concentric spiral construction was common in 19th-century literature, but generally I’m used to such things leading to a big shocker that in retrospect makes clear how the buildup was meant to function. In these stories, though, the would-be payoff only lends value to what preceded it, rather than drawing value to itself. I said that already.

Another angle on the same: It is rare in literature that one reads about things described for their own sake. Here the scenery is not particularly the scenery for some action; it is simply scenery “in-itself,” to be experienced directly, perhaps in combination with other meanings and events but not mediated through them.

Another author for whom the scenery is the message: Tolkien.

These stories were beautiful and their quietude seemed philosophically durable; they did not feel at all antiquated, even though they’re entirely concerned with the details of a lost time and place. I very much enjoyed the book.

Here’s a food-for-thought postscript. I recommended the book to my grandmother, who was inspired to do a search for Turgenev, and quickly came across a somewhat obscure early story, “The Jew” (1846). The stock character of the slimy hateful Jew goes with the territory of 19th-century Russian literature, but this story is strikingly noxious. (My grandmother notes that the Russian title itself, Жид, is in fact a slur – some translations give it as “The Yid.”) For my grandmother, that was it for Turgenev. I personally feel torn.

My initial reaction was honest surprise, because there is in fact a Jew in one of the stories in A Sportsman’s Notebook, portrayed in the same even, potentially sympathetic light as nearly everyone else in the book. From a certain point of view, the story is actually a sort of satire on the meaningless and undeserved prejudices that burden the Russian protagonist’s dealings with him. It may be worth noting that this is one of the two stories added 20 years after first publication. But there’s no denying that this early story, “The Jew,” is morally indefensible; it savors in the repugnance of the Jew’s amorality and the horrible pathos of his whining as he is executed.* And, most damning of all, that’s the entirety of the story; there’s nothing else in there giving it purpose.

This brings us to the old Wagner question – does it matter to us what terrible things the artist believed? In Turgenev’s case, what if he didn’t believe them his whole life? Or what if we can’t be sure what he really believed? A Sportsman’s Notebook is not in any way itself an anti-Semitic book; how relevant then is the issue? I generally don’t like the kind of thinking that holds grudges against inanimate objects; or, rather, boycotts against dead entities that cannot feel the sting of the boycott and will never learn their lesson. Outlawing “Tristan und Isolde” in Israel implicitly lends legitimacy to some of Wagner’s most hateful thinking: that anti-Semitism is the core of a rich philosophical vein, a whole aesthetic way of being, and that it can produce great art. “Tristan” doesn’t really have anything to do with Jews and is quite beautiful – holding it in contempt as “aesthetically anti-Semitic” is being awfully generous to anti-Semitism. Of course, the situation is more complicated – Wagner’s present-day admirers are the actual intended recipients of the boycott’s sting, and perhaps that’s not so unreasonable.

So as for Turgenev, “The Jew” I deem absolutely indefensible; A Sportsman’s Notebook I highly recommend, and in general that wouldn’t seem to me hypocritical. But in this case, discovering “The Jew” did in fact give me pause, and I still don’t know how to reconcile my feelings on the question.

The capacity for grotesque bigotry indicates an insensitivity to seeing the world accurately. These stories I so admired were all about the gentle, introspective observance of life. I read them in sympathy because I felt that the narrator was truly open – as open as I can be, at least – to things revealing themselves as they are. Prejudice is the very opposite of being open to things revealing themselves as they are, and learning that the quietly observing person at the center of these stories was capable of sneering racial contempt is not just a historical incidental; it is at direct odds with my reading of the stories. Their philosophy was opposed to it. Maybe this is a case of the reader projecting his own beliefs into a void, a blank self. Or maybe Turgenev was being insincere in one place or the other, or both. I don’t have an explanation for it. But it has indeed tarnished my reading. I note that the question of Turgenev’s ambiguous thoughts on Jews has been written up in several scholarly articles that I find online. I can understand why.

I give the book a strong aesthetic recommendation draped precariously over a moral question mark.

One more down. Four more to go before I’m caught up with myself.

* Actually, the tone of the story becomes peculiar toward the end, as though Turgenev is striving for something rich and humane, all within the context of this horrendous caricature. Maybe there is even some kind of twisted attempt at sympathy in there. All the worse, in a way. But there’s certainly room for debate about what particular effect he was going for. That’s not to say there’s room for debate about whether the story is founded on a hateful stereotype. Boy howdy is it ever.

January 21, 2008

Disney Canon #2: Pinocchio (1940)


BROOM I liked it. I thought it was a lot better than Snow White and I enjoyed it a lot more.

ADAM It’s a lot more dramatically taut than Snow White. Although it’s still not a fully developed story. It’s a picaresque with three episodes. But that’s definitely better than the interminable doodling of Snow White.

BROOM It may not be like a normal plotted movie in form, but it’s something legitimate in itself. While we were watching, Beth said that the movie was like…

BETH ….a terrible dream. It is.

BROOM I think that’s a legitimate thing for a movie to be. There wasn’t a point where I wished it were more plotted or had more of an arc. It has its own kind of arc.

BETH Where does the story come from?

BROOM It’s by an Italian author, Carlo Collodi, but I don’t know what the original is like; I don’t know if it’s stories or a novel or what. I’m curious to read it.

ADAM Would anyone in 1940 have known the original source material?

BROOM The opening shot of the storybooks implies that it was on par with Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland.

BETH Was it their goal to make movies out of all of the canonical fairy tales and children’s literature? Both these movies start with a book. Alice in Wonderland does too, I think.

BROOM A lot of them start with books, to show that “we took the beloved book and brought it to life.” I don’t know if it was a goal, exactly, but it was clearly something they thought was a good idea.

ADAM Last time you talked about the “beautiful European classic” quality of Snow White. That was largely removed here. Jiminy Cricket speaks in a wise-guy vernacular, which is much more amenable a voice than the “Once upon a time” tone of Snow White.

BROOM It felt like they had relaxed into storytelling the best way they knew how. But it was still within a European framework. It seemed maybe to take place in southern Switzerland. You see the Alps.

ADAM Except that it’s also somehow on the sea. It seemed to be Northern Italy. Turin.

BETH It seemed like Italy.

ADAM It occurred to me that the character of Jiminy Cricket is exactly the same character as Timothy Mouse, from Dumbo. And I like that character. But Jiminy Cricket was not a fully realized version of the character; in many parts he was plainly just a Greek chorus.

BROOM I think their idea was that he would guide the viewer through. I could imagine them saying something like, “How will we get Americans to relate to this Italian story? I know, we’ll have an American character who’s the liaison between the audience and the protagonist.” But the idea of a cricket being his conscience probably comes from the original book.

ADAM It was still clunky. The use of the same character in Dumbo is smoother. I want to return to talking about the nightmare quality, which is easily the most compelling thing about the movie. It’s really frightening.

BETH I hated Pinocchio as a kid. I remember being made to watch it in school and just wanting to run away.

BROOM I remember it being quite scary but I don’t think I hated it.

BETH I really didn’t like it. Maybe it’s more of a boy’s movie.

BROOM I remember there being many things in children’s movies that scared me so much, as a child, that I would avoid them and would worry that I might be forced to watch them. But though I certainly remember thinking of this as very scary, I don’t remember thinking of it as too scary to watch.

BETH It’s very unpleasant, because the entire time, he’s in situations that you don’t want him to be in. It lasts the whole movie; he just moves from one situation to another, and it makes children feel uncomfortable.

BROOM It’s supposed to be a story about moral choices, about discovering morality in a complicated world, but it doesn’t read that way to children at all, because the moral choices are indicated in peculiar vaudeville ways. The supposed “temptation” to run off and become an actor becomes a comedy of whether or not he’s being physically turned around by Honest John. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the question of choosing a life for oneself.

BETH Even to me as an adult, it still doesn’t seem to resonate because Pinocchio is just a kid. He doesn’t have any knowledge of what his choices are.

BROOM He’s a complete innocent. When he’s at Pleasure Island it makes a little more sense; when Lampwick says, essentially, “isn’t it fun to chop up a piano with an axe,” Pinocchio says, “yeah, being bad is fun!” He understands what’s he’s doing.

ADAM But those other boys are not saved! They all become donkeys and there’s nothing to save them. It’s awful! I don’t think they’d be willing to do that in a Disney movie now.

BROOM I think that sequence was morally effective for me as a child. First of all, the shot of him smoking a cigar and then becoming ill in three different ways – that shot was more effective than any anti-smoking ad. It gives a visceral idea of what it will be like to suck on a cigar: your eyes will spew water and you’ll turn green and things will spin around. But beyond that, the whole situation is recognizable. You get in a situation like that and it’s familiar from that scene. Any situation where you have to ask yourself, “who is this kinda creepy, noisy guy I’m hanging out with, telling me to be bad?”

BETH Did you truly ever think about Pinocchio in a situation like that?

BROOM I never actually made the connection. I’m just saying that, unlike the business about wanting to be an actor, the psychological environment of Pleasure Island was recognizable to me in my childhood. And it does teach a little bit of a moral lesson. But it’s also bizarre, because the morality of it is cloaked in this weird sort of magic. Supposedly they become donkeys because they’ve gone down the wrong moral path, but as a kid I was obsessed with the question of what force could possibly be physically creating the donkeyness. When Pinocchio gets over the rocks, will it have ceased to affect him, and why? How far away does he need to go? What kind of power is it, and how is it getting inside him?

ADAM When the creepy British man asks, “And what is your name?” and the donkey says “Alexander! I wanna go home to my mother!” and instead he just gets put in a pen to wait for his humanity to be altogether destroyed, and you never see him again – that’s awful.

BROOM Although in that scene, the moral explanation breaks down, because that donkey boy is no longer indulging hemself immorally. He wants to go home. He can still talk; he realizes the error of his ways. So what force is now going to continue the transformation? Maybe it’s meant to be like drug addiction: even when you realize you are now in the gutter and homeless, you’re still trapped with the error that brought you there.

ADAM Or like contracting AIDS. “There’s nothing you can do about it now – sucks for you.”

BROOM Well, I doubt they were thinking about AIDS.

ADAM I was thinking recently about Pinocchio because of the W.H. Auden poem “Pleasure Island,” which is about Fire Island – where I have a house this summer – as a place of wreckage and dissipation. It’s creepily moralistic, and the moralism gets to me in a crude way.

BROOM When the coachman says “I take ’em to Pleasure Island,” and Honest John says, “Pleasure Island? But the law!” – we’re to understand that there’s some legal document that actually mentions Pleasure Island, and says “don’t go there” or “don’t bring children there” or something like that?

BETH Who created Pleasure Island, and are they constantly restocking it?

BROOM Yes, you have to wonder how they’re gonna get it ready for the next round of kids. They need to buy a new grand piano… But isn’t it ironic that this movie portrays Coney Island and amusement parks in the light of being the path to iniquity… and then twenty years later Disney builds an amusement park… and now they have an actual resort called “Pleasure Island” at Disney World, for adults.

ADAM They do? Oh, how awful.

BROOM How could they resist? Here, right in the Disney canon, is this reference to amusement parks. But the amusement park is hell, home to all the devil’s lures.

ADAM I wonder if this movie is the original source for the popular image of the horrible abandoned amusement park.

BROOM There were many images in this that became established imagery – much more from than in Snow White, I thought. When you see the church bell, and birds fly out of the steeple, and the camera zooms through them down to the village below – it feels like that’s been in every animated movie since.

ADAM Or being locked in a swinging cage in a gypsy wagon. I think there’s a clear line from there to 101 Dalmatians, for example. I’m pretty sure there’s some kind of gypsy wagon in 101 Dalmatians.

BROOM In a lot of these movies, a child gets kidnapped by a lowlife and locked up.

ADAM The pathos of Geppetto probably did not occur to me as a child, but really made me feel bad now.

BETH I felt so sorry for Geppetto.

BROOM Psychologically, the relationship between the child and the parent wasn’t entirely absurd. Like when he comes back at the end and has donkey ears, and his father asks sadly, “What happened to you?” It’s like he’s been tainted by the world to some degree. That’s what happens when you send a child out into life.

ADAM And he still loves him. It’s heartbreaking.

BROOM I didn’t see it as a challenge to his love. In that scene, I felt like the donkey ears represented whatever about him has changed, whatever makes him no longer quite the child he was.

ADAM The smudge of experience.

BROOM Yes, it’s how experience has changed him. And it’s also made him stronger: now he’s ready to do something brave, because he’s been to Pleasure Island, and been through the ocean. The bottom of the ocean stuff, which I had mostly forgotten, is really beautiful.

ADAM What did you think of this visually? In many places it seemed to me a little more slapdash than Snow White. Like they spent less time on it.

BROOM I don’t know if that’s true. Whereas in Snow White we were made to say, “Oh, look at the water,” I felt like in Pinocchio the water actually looked better and they didn’t make as much of a deal about it.

BETH They seemed more confident. But I thought the cat wasn’t animated very well.

BROOM The white-on-black shading makes the cat stand out.

ADAM There was a distracting white boundary around black objects.

BROOM Geppetto’s hands and feet weren’t done perfectly. Geppetto’s animation in general was a little uncomfortable because he was a non-rotoscoped person, and obviously they were still unsure how to execute that.

ADAM What does that mean, “a non-rotoscoped person”?

BROOM Rotoscoping is where they film something and then they trace it to a degree – like the Blue Fairy, who was very clearly taken from live footage. She also looked prettier in a more contemporary way than anyone in Snow White.

BETH Yes, she looked like a 40s movie star.

BROOM The movie was a technical advancement in every way, even though they did allow in a few things that weren’t quite right.

BETH At the end, the trail of the raft in the water wasn’t done right.

BROOM I didn’t notice that. I did notice that a lot of the water in that climactic sequence was fantastic and yet you weren’t really supposed to be watching it. There was a shot where the whale was coming at the camera and the water was zooming away under it that looked as accurate as computer animation. They showed a lot of tight control like that. Some of the mechanisms at the beginning, like the whistler that Jiminy Cricket watches, would turn through space perfectly and never lose a convincing solidity.

ADAM I really enjoyed that clock sequence at the beginning. Not only was it very pretty and an effective way to establish time and place, but I thought it worked as a representation of Geppetto’s curdled bachelorhood. Intricate tinkering as a substitute for intimacy. It was upsetting.

BROOM Geppetto is not a strong figure. He’s a bit clueless. As a father he’s not able to be the source of any answers.

ADAM All he is is love; he’s not guidance. He’s just as naive as Pinocchio.

BROOM And he’s all that Pinocchio knows. As for what you were saying earlier about Jiminy Cricket’s personal character – Jiminy Cricket is Pinocchio’s conscience, not his mentor. He’s Pinocchio’s conscience, which means that he’s only as good as the best part of Pinocchio. When Pinocchio’s trapped in the cage, he says “well, I’m gonna try and pick the lock of the cage,” and then he can’t, and then he says, “well, I don’t know what we’re gonna do.” He can’t necessarily do anything to save him, he can only make the best effort Pinocchio could make.

ADAM Maybe he can’t take always take action, but I really do think of Jiminy Cricket as an operator, whereas Pinocchio’s just an idiot. Pinocchio’s weak-willed and easily led astray, whereas Jiminy Cricket is a slickster.

BROOM I think you’re confusing a slickster with a tramp. Just because Jiminy Cricket has no home and needs to sleep in their house for the night doesn’t mean that he’s an operator.

BETH Yeah, I don’t see him as an operator.

ADAM He just seems very willing to take the good things that come and not question where they came from. He’s primarily pleased to become Pinocchio’s conscience because he gets a snappy new waistcoat and top hat.

BROOM I think we’re supposed to see that as innocence. He’s sort of like the Charlie Chaplin character. He’s got a good heart; he just doesn’t have any money.

ADAM I’m not saying he’s bad, I’m saying he’s morally easy. You know, he talks this talk about taking the straight and narrow, but it’s not convincing until he too learns to not do the easy thing.

BROOM I don’t think that’s the plot of the movie.

BETH Jiminy Cricket wouldn’t have run away with Honest John.

ADAM That’s only because he’s savvier than Pinocchio.

BROOM As he says, he’s Pinocchio’s little internal voice, he’s his conscience. You can take the cricket out of the movie and think of him as Pinocchio’s actual inner voice.

ADAM But he’s not Pinocchio’s inner voice, he’s an external figure who gets arbitrarily assigned the role of Pinocchio’s inner voice.

BROOM It’s another conceit that kids don’t understand. “A cricket is his conscience?” As a kid, you just barely know what a conscience is. For a kid it’s hard to know what to make of Jiminy Cricket being his conscience and also singing “Let your conscience be your guide.” It’s a strange device.

ADAM Oh, I felt comfortable with that.

BROOM Well, it seems like even now we’re disagreeing about what that device means.

ADAM As a kid, I had a series of books, “The ValueTales,” which were about prominent figures from history, and in each of them, their conscience or inner voice is represented by a cartoon animated animal. Like “The Story of Harriet Tubman,” in which her special friend is a talking mouse or something. [Ed: Actually a bright star named Twinkle]

BROOM Did you read The Golden Compass? No, neither of you did.

ADAM But I know what you’re talking about.

BROOM They each have a little thing that talks to them. But it’s just a part of them. I don’t think Pinocchio makes sense if you think of Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket as individuals learning from each other.

ADAM I don’t think the movie hangs together as a plot, but I do think it’s got a lot of very suggestive and interesting elements.

BROOM I think it does hang together, as an allegory about boyhood and encountering the world. And it hangs together for children in a different way, as a dreamlike succession of compellingly weird things.

ADAM Yes, it completely hangs together imagistically, and as an entertainment, but I maintain that as a plot, it’s creaky.

BETH Do you want me to be a tiebreaker? I side with BROOM on this. It may be thin, but I think it does hang together.

BROOM I thought it was thin in a lovely, legitimate way. I actually felt that it was really successful as some kind of art, whatever it is they were trying to accomplish with these feature-length animated movies. I feel like whatever they accomplished here is a pretty good thing to have set their sights on. New line of questioning: was the coachman Irish?

ADAM No, he was English.

BROOM And was Lampwick Irish?

ADAM Lampwick was from Boston or New York. He had an American east coast urban accent. It was interesting that the villain should have a British accent in a movie made in 1940.

BROOM Was Honest John a Jew or an Englishman?

ADAM Neither. He wasn’t a Jew. He wasn’t coded as a Jew.

BETH I didn’t think he was a Jew. When you first saw him, did you say “Jew?”

BROOM I remembered thinking, when I saw it in college, that he and Gideon were these sort of Shylock-y characters – but actually they’re those two guys from Huckleberry Finn. [ed. note – I am confusing Shylock and Fagin]

ADAM The Duke and the Dauphin. Stromboli is a gypsy.

BROOM He’s an Italian gypsy. He mutters in Italian under his breath. In fact, he’s clearly an Italian. He’s a gypsy only in that he moves around.

ADAM They refer to him as a gypsy, and he’s in a gypsy wagon. He’s a swarthy gypsy.

BROOM Yeah, all right, fine.

ADAM Well, I thought this was thoroughly good, and it works better than any of the fairy tale stories.

BROOM Snow White was a technical showcase. In this, all the technical advances were used in service of the story. I thought the underwater effect, when he’s in the distance and seen through wavy glass of some kind, was really well done. The rain also looked really good. And there were a lot of fancy sweeping shots where the camera moves over a complicated background, zooming in on something as it pans.

ADAM Did you like the scene where Jiminy Cricket was hopping toward the house, and you could see his point of view hopping up and down?

BETH No, I didn’t. I thought it was like when you walk with a camera and you see that violent bouncing – I don’t think he would actually see so dramatic a bounce.

ADAM I agree.

BROOM Those creatures that close the doors at Pleasure Island…

ADAM The “blokes”?

BROOM The black things. Demons…

ADAM It’s interesting to me that everything I really enjoyed about both this and Snow White were the ghoulish and disturbing elements. The only good thing about Snow White was the witch. There were many more witchy things here, and they’re the best parts.

BROOM I asked Beth this the other day: why is it that pretty much every children’s movie has something scary in it, and most grown-up movies don’t?

ADAM I don’t know. Maybe because kids don’t have a sufficiently subtle or complex ability to react to events. In a movie, fear is an outsize stimulus, relative to anything else.

BROOM Maybe that’s why you like those parts.

ADAM Kids don’t get the jokes. Jiminy Cricket made a lot of grown-up jokes that would have totally gone over my head as a child.

BROOM Do we have anything to say about the butt humor? It’s going to be a running theme in this film festival.

BETH I’m surprised at how many butt jokes and shots of butts there were. I think I counted six. That’s a lot. It started in Snow White too.

BROOM Really? I didn’t remember any.

BETH When Grumpy plays the organ…

BROOM Oh, right, with alternating buttocks.

ADAM There was another example in Snow White too, I believe.

BETH I don’t remember what that might have been. But it really happened a lot in Pinocchio.

BROOM I think the Disney people – and it’s in Warner Brothers cartoons too – I think at that time it was just deemed an admissible sort of low humor.

BETH Harmless.

ADAM Acceptable under the Hays office.

BROOM Right. It’s a little bit risque – there’s sort of a sexual side to it, far off in the distance, and there’s sort of a scatological side to it – but mostly it’s just about the fact that you’re not supposed to show your butt, or talk about butts. And yet they do! So kids will laugh at that.

ADAM The scene where the unwitting sleeper thinks there’s a monster in the house and is frightened of what turns out to be our innocent hero was almost identical to the same scene in Snow White.

BROOM Paced better here.

ADAM Yes, because it wasn’t ten minutes long. I liked that Figaro was kind of a jerk – totally self-absorbed and obnoxious. That appealed to me.

BROOM Any comments about the songs?

ADAM They were mostly lame.

BROOM I was surprised that “When You Wish Upon a Star” was so little used. It’s just barely sung at the beginning, and then just barely sung at the end, by the chorus. It doesn’t figure very much in the incidental score, either.

ADAM But, like, “Give a Little Whistle?” That’s not a good song.

BROOM I think it’s a pretty catchy song. Snow White was like a series of discrete musical numbers. Here there were several semi-integrated songs, but there were only a couple full-fledged numbers, and even those were incorporated more cleverly. “I’ve Got No Strings” he does on stage as his performance. “Little Wooden Head” is only half of a song. And like I said, “When You Wish Upon a Star” is just bookends, it doesn’t actually show up in the movie.

BETH There’s also the song that the bad guys sing when they’re leading him astray.

BROOM “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee.”

ADAM …”(An Actor’s Life For Me).”

BETH Which was also the theme played at the amusement park when they first enter.

BROOM It’s the theme of temptation.

ADAM Temptation represented here, curiously, as pool and cigars and breaking things.

BROOM Hooky.

BETH It’s just a boy’s life circa 1940.

BROOM Yes, but they made it actually seem like a dirty dirty world.

ADAM And also legitimately appealing. I wanted to chuck a rock through a stained glass window.

BROOM But his first temptation in life is to be an actor. That’s really from a different era. Nowadays that might be a dangerous temptation after high school – or after college! But back then, no stage of your education was quite a sure thing, and people would still run off to join the circus at the age of 8.

BETH Well, it was the depression.

BROOM But that doesn’t read now. When you see it as a kid, you just think, “Okay, now he seems to be in a show!” All right, that’s all I wanted to say.


January 14, 2008

The Cannibal (1948)

John Hawkes (1925-1998)
The Cannibal (New Directions, 1949)

Roll #9 is 2332: The Cannibal by John Hawkes.

So can we talk about that cover? That is the most unacceptable cover I have ever seen. A swastika is always gonna be pretty rough going, but there can be mitigating circumstances. But in combination with a motorcycle? Forget about it. The effect is only bolstered by the typeface and the layout. And frankly the title doesn’t help either. This cover seeks to be offensive and succeeds, wildly. Way to go, cover designer Gilda Kuhlman. Note that Gilda Kuhlman (nee Hannah) was the second wife of Roy Kuhlman, whose first wife had been Ellen Raskin. I’m not sure what that’s worth but it’s interesting to me. Book design was a small world, I guess.

So I got assigned this book by the randomizer, found it – to my pleasure, in a nice old used copy at Westsider Books – and then had to immediately hide it until I could make a plain brown wrapper. I think I ended up using a page from a catalog with pictures of chairs on it. Did it not occur to Gilda Hannah Kuhlman that making your book cover scream “I AM AN ACTUAL NEO-NAZI” is a way to prevent people from wanting to buy it? If I saw a dude reading this book on the subway I’d stand somewhere else.

Also, to gradually approach the subject of the book itself, this is a terrible cover for this book. There is a motorcycle in it, true, and it is set in war-torn Germany (sort of). But it all takes place in a dream and a haze; the Nazi party isn’t really mentioned as such – I don’t think the word appears – and swastikas play no role that I can recall. Human degradation is the theme of the book, and the ghost-town shadow-puppet experimental-literature fantasyland “Germany” in which it takes place has very little to do with, and is poorly represented by, a big fat swastika. This itself might be a count against the book – in fact, I’m going to say it is – but the book still has to take ideological precedence over its own cover.

But yes, you might well ask: if this book isn’t actually or specifically about what happened in Germany during World War II, why is it “about” that in a dreamy way? And is it not perhaps a disservice to recent history, and to human tragedy, to use it as fodder for an aggressive avant-garde-ism; is it not, shall we say, in poor taste? Or, shall we say, obnoxious?

Or shall we say student-y. We shall probably not say the non-word “student-y” but we shall say that this book has the grim stubbled quality of the ambitious, self-regarding collegiate experimentalist. In a professorial introduction by Albert J. Guerard, we hear that this talented young writer has forged a genuinely new style that requires careful consideration and acclimation. What we do not hear, but what is true, is that this young writer is Albert J. Guerard’s student at Harvard and that Guerard has arranged for his publisher friends to publish this book, which will launch his student’s career. I’m not saying that such circumstances could never produce a work of true greatness. Nonetheless I found this information helpful, when I came by it, in giving some shape and category to my dissatisfactions.

I would esteem this a very worthy submission indeed, if I were a writing professor, and I would encourage this student fully. On the other hand I would not know exactly how to go about helping him improve.

Hawkes – who, please note, was 24 when he wrote this – had flunked his way out of his first year at Harvard, had then become an ambulance driver in Europe during the war, and then had a few years later eventually returned to finish his undergraduate education. The tone and subject of the book are derived from his war years, as are some descriptions in the book of various specific horrors. For example, there is a description of a chicken being killed in someone’s bare hands; this apparently is something Hawkes had occasion to do under some semi-desperate circumstances during his service. His basic artistic conception is perfectly sound: this kind of immediate, personal horror is both a nightmare symbol and actual symptom of the war as a whole. One could write a book on the ravages of war entirely in nightmare mode.

The problem is that he purports to have historical perspective even though the technique is utterly ahistorical. The book is in three parts: 1945, 1914, and then 1945 again. In 1914 we see the characters younger and get a smattering of World War I references, including a quasi-Kaiser and an abstract “reenactment” of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Then we return to their degraded World War II selves. The heavy implication is that we are learning something about how Germany came to be what it is, the ghosts of history that walk through the present. But unless I missed some subtle historical thesis – which I may have – Hawkes’s sense of history is actually just as impressionistic and limited in real depth as everything else in the book. All the historical specifics are a sophomoric pretense to an understanding that he doesn’t actually have. What he has written is a dream-impression of a ravaged town (and a contrasting impression in flashback); the insinuation that the whole thing is girded by an elaborate scheme of penetrating historical symbolism is, I suspect, just a smokescreen, which a more mature writer would have been confident enough to do without.

Okay, a break of several months occurs here in the writing of this entry because I’ve been very busy, and also because I felt a sudden trepidation about my attitude. I don’t actually know that much about German history, so where was I getting off saying this book didn’t either? Maybe it knew a lot more than I did and I was missing the whole point. So I went back and tried to reread it with a humbler and more attentive mind. Really, to reread the whole book. After the first section I felt reassured that my first reading had been pretty close to the mark, so I stopped. But it did put me back on track a bit, and some of the above is indeed a bit out of line.

The book is obviously attempting to be a psychic history of Germany, not a real one. But it is, and maybe I had underappreciated this, sincerely attempting to be a psychic history of Germany. I guess that’s not inherently a misguided task, but it’s a difficult one. Some historical specifics are in order – but which ones, and what order? How the history of human psychological experience relates to the history of events and artifacts is a deep and intricate question – for the philosopher, for the historian, for everyone. (What I found so wonderful about Auerbach’s Mimesis (still haven’t finished) is that he was making convincing inroads into this question.) Hawkes’ model for the relationship is, I stand by this, too simplistic and vague, and derived more from thinking about literary style than from thinking about humanity. But it was probably wrong for me to write that it was mere student-y pretension, which is an obnoxious criticism. His efforts to address something real certainly seem sincere enough. Sorry about that.

It’s my personal position that we must be very careful about the distinction and relationship between interior experience and exterior fact, and I feel that this book’s conflation of the two is due not just to poetic license but to an actual philosophical misapprehension. There it is in a nutshell.

Okay, that feels more fair. Now to the positive. The over-grim landscape felt a little ahead of its time – it felt as seedily gothic (or gothically seedy) as a music video, or some other late-20th-century fantasy of decay. I thought of music videos several times, not only because of the claustrophobic gray grime, but also because the formal construction was similar, intercutting among several semi-independent tableaus as they each become progressively morbid. The final surreal shocker in this book (from whence the title, hint hint) comes as the sick payoff of a long chain of vague ill omens. Just like on MTV. It’s actually very well delivered. For these things, for the purely aesthetic side of the book, Hawkes deserves some credit.

Even so, fantasies of decay aren’t really my cup of tea; and contrariwise, I don’t know that the teenagers whose cup of tea they are would ever find anything gratifying in this wordy book with the air of a college literary magazine. So I’m not sure I can recommend it. I don’t yet feel like I know the lay of the land well enough to really judge whether it merits inclusion in Bloom’s canon. But it’s hardly an obvious choice on any grounds I can see right now.

Here’s some sample text for those of you at home to make your own call. The aforementioned chicken-killing scene. Reader discretion is advised, I guess. This paragraph really sums up the whole book. If you like this, you’ll love The Cannibal, by John Hawkes.

“But you don’t have to take my word for it.” Cut to Albert J. Guerard.

Before dawn on the morning of the riot, Madame Snow stood alone by candlelight in a back room where cordwood had been piled, holding a stolen chicken struggling lightly beneath her fingers. She did not see the four stone walls or the narrow open window, and standing in a faded gown with the uneven hem that was once for balls, the untied soiled kimono flapping against her legs, she looked into the frightful eyes of the chicken and did not feel the cold. Her bare feet were white, the toes covered with grains of sawdust. The door behind her was locked, tallow dripped from the gilt holder and the bird fluttered, tried to shake its wings from the firm grasp. The old woman’s pulse beat slowly, more slowly, but steadily, and the narrow unseen window began to turn grey. The feathers, bitten with mange, trembled and breathed fearfully. The soft broken claws kicked at her wrist. For a moment the Kaiser’s face, thin, depressed, stared in at the cell window, and then was gone, feeling his way over a land that was now strange to his touch. The old woman watched the fowl twisting its head, blinking the pink-lidded eyes, and carefully she straddled the convulsing neck with two fingers, tightened them across the mud-caked chest, and with the other hand seized the head that felt as if it were all bone and moving bits of scale. The pale yellow feet paddled silently backwards and forwards, slits breathed against her palm. Madame Snow clenched her fists and quickly flung them apart so that the fowl’s head spurted across the room, hit the wall and fell into a heap of shavings, its beak clicking open and shut, eyes staring upwards at the growing light. She dropped the body with its torn neck and squeezed the fingermarks into a bucket of water, and stooping in the grey light, squinted, and plucked the feathers from the front of her kimono.

Whew, glad that’s done with. It’s been months and months and months that this has been sitting here waiting to be finished. Even more months since I actually read it. What happened to all my time?

January 9, 2008

Disney Canon #1: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)


First screening in an ongoing festival in our apartment reviewing the 40-some canonical Disney animated features. Roundtable discussion immediately following the screening, liberally transcribed.

ADAM It has certain iconic images that are competitive with anything else Disney produced, but as a story it’s much too slow. It’s archaically paced and boring.

BETH I had thought that the last scene, where she was in the glass case, took fifteen minutes of screen time. My memory of it was that it was much longer than it actually was, and the rest of the movie was much shorter – I guess because I was so upset by it.

ADAM Upset? Or entranced by her on her bier, as a child?

BROOM It’s a fine line between upset and entranced, as a child.

BETH I think mostly upset.

ADAM I don’t think as a kid I knew enough to root for the queen, but I was definitely rooting for the queen this time. She was much more charismatic.

BROOM She’s much more interesting. Ninety percent of the movie is quasi-comic business with the dwarfs that doesn’t completely work.

BETH When the dwarfs were chasing the queen up the mountain, I thought it was very strange that these bumbling, comical dwarfs were intimidating this scary creature.

BROOM I think in the earlier scenes they overshot how much the dwarfs came off as clownish. I don’t think the characters were originally supposed to be that ridiculous, but somehow those scenes got bloated.

ADAM Those scenes just felt like an outgrowth of “Steamboat Willie” – like when he plays on the teats of that pig.

BROOM It’s a “short feature” kind of thinking. There’s a series of gags on the same theme, which is how you construct a short. Here there were a lot of gags about washing.

BETH Well, they had never done a full-length feature.

BROOM But full-length plays and movies had been done before. They chose to construct it in a weird episodic way. Whereas the whole plotted first sequence, with the huntsman, works well.

ADAM It was like eight visual setpieces. There’s the one where they’re washing up, and there’s the one where she’s washing up… I wonder whether that was because they were thinking of them in terms of animation setpieces, rather than as one flowing story. Pinocchio‘s not like that.

BROOM Well, Pinocchio is also episodic, but the story itself is episodic. First he wants to be an actor, and then there’s Pleasure Island, and then he goes searching for Geppetto and goes into the whale…

ADAM I feel like Pinocchio is just much more exciting, though maybe I don’t remember it very clearly. Whereas I fell asleep in the middle of this.

BROOM Did you actually fall asleep, or just drift?

ADAM I wanted to fall asleep but I didn’t allow myself to.

BROOM I looked over when I thought you might be asleep and you didn’t seem to be.

ADAM I opened my eyes when I perceived you turning to look.

BROOM I thought this was very pretty. I liked the backgrounds. I just liked the lush feeling. It seemed like they wanted to make it feel like a children’s storybook had come to life and you could enter into it – I liked that you could get that feeling from it. I even liked the way it feels in their house, where the most boring parts of the movie take place. Even when it was boring, I still liked the way their chairs and doors looked.

ADAM I was really annoyed by her voice. It got upsetting. And her nanny-ish coquette thing was really annoying. “Now, now, now!” “Wash your hands!”

BETH Yes. They were obviously doing just fine before she came into their lives.

ADAM I also don’t like her outfit. I think of the signature Disney princess outfit as being Cinderella’s ballgown, and maybe that’s ruined Snow White’s outfit for me. But the yellow and blue and red thing was much too primary-color for my taste.

BROOM I think it was their idea of what lavish royal garb looked like, except toned down and not actually made of ermine or whatever.

ADAM The queen’s outfit totally holds up.

BROOM What is that skintight wetsuit she wears?

ADAM I’ve seen it on nuns.

BETH Is it just so that you admire how beautiful her face is?

ADAM I assume it’s for concealing her hair out of modesty.

BROOM I think it’s to give her a cold and sterile kind of beauty instead of a sensual one. If she had flowing hair she would be more inviting. It’s still a pretty bold costuming choice. But she does look good.

ADAM She looks great. And as the hag she looks even better.

BROOM I liked when she asked the skeleton if it was thirsty and then kicked the jug at it.

ADAM And then a spider crawled out.

BROOM Just to show you the water was long gone.

ADAM It’s funny, there’s no actual bit of dialogue or interaction that’s particularly memorable. But all the songs are pretty memorable.

BROOM I dare you to sing “The Silly Song.”

ADAM I can sing “Whistle While You Work.” And everyone can sing “Heigh-Ho.” And as Michael Eisner points out on the DVD, most people can sing “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” including the greatest voice of our time, Barbra Streisand.

BROOM But can you sing “One Song,” the prince’s theme? Can you sing “Bluddle-Uddle-Um-Dum,” the washing song?

ADAM I would call this a promising first effort for Disney. But it’s no Ratatouille.

BROOM But when I think about what movies were like in 1937, and then I compare this…

ADAM Well, Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz are from 1939.

BETH There were great strides made between 1936 and 1939.

BROOM But let’s even compare this to The Wizard of Oz, which is also a visual spectacular that holds up well. It’s still stagier and blockier than all the crazy kinds of motion you see in Snow White. In Snow White the camera spins all around. The scene where the witch transforms – what else looked like that back then?

ADAM Well, I don’t know. That’s become a visual cliche.

BROOM And when she’s in the scary forest, there are all those zooms. There’s a dynamic quality to what’s on screen that must have been incredible at the time.

BETH That’s because they were completely unlimited.

BROOM I imagine if I had been an audience member then I would have been just blown away by how much of an entertainment it was. And the fact that most of it was vaudeville crap of one kind or another wouldn’t have been noteworthy, because that’s what everything was.

BETH I guess, but some scripts at that time were certainly better than that.

ADAM If my choices were to see this or The Little Tramp, I’d rather see this.

BROOM I’ll bet audiences going to this expected a spectacular, like a kickline show, rather than a truly plotted movie.

BETH How would they know what to expect, since it was the first ever of the form?

ADAM This movie was entitled Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, correct? So they knew there were dwarfs coming. Nobody actually thinks the beds belong to children and then is surprised when dwarfs show up, correct?

BROOM That’s right.

ADAM Just asking.

BROOM I think audiences knew they were going to see a spectacular feature-length animated movie, and that was probably a lot like going to see an Imax movie of Mount Everest. You know it’s not going to have a plot – or if it does have a plot, it’s going to be something like: “Oh no, how do we get to the mountain?” And then you see the incredible mountain! In Snow White they say “Oh no, how are we going to wash our faces?” And then animated water splashes all over the screen!

ADAM Maybe we should ask our grandparents what it was like to see Snow White when it was new.

BROOM Their expectations probably weren’t quite so specific as that, but I do think people were probably very ready for the movie to be whatever justified looking at the visuals.

ADAM 1937 was not that long ago.

BROOM I think my grandmother remembers seeing it.

BETH My dad’s mom was eleven. Or maybe thirteen.

ADAM When was Dumbo?

BROOM 1941.

ADAM Because Dumbo is a riot.

BETH I’ve always thought it was a real masterpiece.

BROOM Dumbo holds up a lot better, although in parts of it, the visuals cut corners more than in Snow White.

ADAM You’re right, even the pink elephants scene in Dumbo is a little bit schlocky in certain ways.

BROOM I think that’s one of the better parts. There are just some other parts of Dumbo that look a little chintzy. But you’re right, Beth, the aesthetic changed so much over those few years. Dumbo feels very like the 40s, like the war years.

ADAM It feels jazzy.

BROOM But Snow White was designed to feel like something from the old Brothers Grimm tales. There are hints of the actual period a few times, like that musical interlude when she’s being brought to the cottage. She sings “With a Smile and a Song,” and then you hear a sort of 30’s dance version of it. What’s another movie from 1937?

ADAM Let me look it up. I’ll tell you what won the Oscar in 1937.

BROOM I’ll tell you that Snow White won the special “seven little baby Oscars” Oscar. And I’m sure you can see footage of Shirley Temple giving it to Mr. Disney on this DVD.

ADAM The 1937 Best Picture was The Life of Emile Zola. In 1936 the winner was The Great Ziegfeld and in 1938 the winner was You Can’t Take It With You. Here is the trailer for The Life of Emile Zola.

BROOM I feel like that shows a world in which Snow White would have been a huge splash of life. When we were watching it now and saying things like “that water looks pretty good,” do think that we were trying to find something worth noticing about a movie that we were bored of, or that we were watching in exactly the same spirit that the original audience would have watched it?

ADAM Isn’t that the same spirit in which you watch Beowulf 3D?

BROOM Yes, I think that’s exactly what it was then. Even though now it may feel now like going digging for something, to admire those sorts of details.

BETH But the water in that shot is what they wanted you to look at. Just like the curtains falling realistically when the queen swished them. The quality – the lushness, as you said – is what Disney wanted you to notice.

BROOM The movie offers a lot of that. And I can still enjoy that. What do you think about the fact that kids today are still given Snow White to watch? I personally don’t remember watching it that many times when I was a kid. It’s kind of boring.

ADAM I think I only saw it once. Whereas there are some that I watched a lot.

BETH I think girls probably like it more, because they want to be Snow White.

BROOM But the parts that bored us wouldn’t be particularly appealing to girls or boys.

ADAM How much of the fact that all Disney movies are about princesses stems from the fact that they happened to pick this story for their first movie and it happened to be very successful? What if their first movie had been about Mickey Mouse?

BETH Well, they also made a lot of mouse movies.

BROOM I feel like an undercurrent to his first few movies – especially Fantasia – is that Disney wants to show that what he’s doing is artistic, so he picks something with class, something with an old-world, European kind of legitimacy, and puts all the trimmings on it. I think the book that opens at the beginning of Snow White is a completely sincere signal indicating that “You are now going to see something classic and dignified.”

ADAM What if he had picked Red Riding Hood instead? How would our culture be different?

BROOM I think they intentionally picked something with a royal setting.

ADAM Not that many of the 40-some Disney movies are actually about princesses. It’s only sort of laterally, in the last fifteen years, that Disney has decided that “princesses” is a killer concept. Beth, when you were a girl, do you remember thinking of the Disney princesses that way?

BETH I was a princess for Halloween when I was nine.

ADAM But were you obsessed with princesses?

BETH No. I know people are really obsessed with princesses now. We had My Little Pony.

BROOM I don’t think that’s necessarily just because of Disney. That’s been around for longer. In “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown” there’s a whole routine where Lucy talks about her fantasy.

ADAM But Lucy wants to be the queen. She’s going to have a queendom. I don’t think that’s about frilly femininity. That’s something very different; that’s just about imperiousness.

BROOM I don’t think this movie was about frilly femininity, either.

ADAM No, but now all the Disney princess stuff is about, you know, “When You Wish Upon A Star…”

BROOM A cricket sings that to a marionette.

ADAM Yes, but now it’s about princessdom. My little cousin is obsessed with princesses. She goes to Disneyland solely to be photographed with all the princesses.

BROOM I don’t think that Disney realized at some point that they should make more movies about princesses. That’s a marketing thing from the last twenty years.

ADAM Yes. It was a conscious branding decision about 15 years ago that they were going to incorporate all their princess movies into one line of Disney royal princesses, and co-market them.

BROOM I don’t think that really happened until after The Little Mermaid, which was a very intentional, calculated effort to recapture something that would seem like “classic” Disney.