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FILM NOIR: SLOW FADE TO BLACK


by L. E. Ward

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Certain genres of film seem to yield more and more, as the decades go by, of their richness, denseness and complexity. One of these is, certainly, the belatedly titled (by French critics of the 1950s) black film, or film-noir. The reputations of literateurs in our history (including Poe and Washington Irving), have often begun in Europe, not to mention that entire post-WWI generation of expatriates — who had been predated by Henry James and Gertrude Stein, among others, in the late nineteen, and early twentieth centuries.

At times, American excellence is too close-up; too visible to be “seen”; or viewed with a vision of the happenstance; the taken-for-granted. The Scriptures said it originally: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country.”

I first saw films-noir as a matinee-going child of the 1950s. At that time, I was not aware of them by a name, or even, necessarily, as a genre, except as depictions of crime and corruption, usually in a tense, urban setting. Films which stood out for me — with no recommendation or reference other than my own personal, boyhood viewing — in that era, were Finger Man (1955; Harold Schuster) and The Prowler (1951; Joseph Losey) — these, in particular, and for their particulars. Titles which emerged were The Phenix City Story, various city “confidentials” and “exposes”; even imported, low-budget British films, like The Square Ring (1953; U.S. release, 1955). Frank Lovejoy and Richard Conte were typical protagonists. Espionage or theft under a low sky emerged in Shack Out on 101 (1955) and Highway Dragnet (1954) — films remembered, by me, today, only in terms of an impression of atmosphere.

As I recall, after a third of a century, The Prowler had to do with a policeman (Van Heflin) enticed by a housewife who claimed she was disturbed by a “prowler”, and who lured him into a scheme to kill her husband. The climactic car chase on a dusty road is the only image retained by me. Finger Man yielded more: the terseness, tenseness, of Frank Lovejoy as a criminal, gone undercover after a booze-ring, with the heroine (Peggy Castle), walking alone on a dim-lit, city street, to her death at the hands of a scarred villain. When Lovejoy later apprehends the fiend, he says: “I know why you killed her, but did you have to do that to her face?” decades before I ever heard of existentialism, this remains my vivid, non verbalized introduction to the “night-world.”

The 1940s films-noir were seen by me, almost in toto, when they came to television, in the late 1950s, and early 1960s, when various studios sold their backlogs to television. One had heard of some of the more famous; but one got to see, and learn to appreciate, to immerse oneself, in the ambiance; the period atmosphere, again, independently.

Most of the films not only were in black-and-white but they used shadows for emphasis; for, indeed, a kind of poetry. If anything is disturbing about these colorizing fiends, it is all that they have missed, and has been missing, in recent decades. Present color has accompanied an abandonment of the old shrewdness in mannerism, art direction, and set decor.

The German Expressionist backgrounds, as well as the flight from the Nazis, of many of the writers, directors — and even some actors of “black” film, are undeniable; or, at the very least, suggestive. Some critics have squabbled about how something — a genre –could really exist, if its makers had not so labeled it and declared themselves, and their intentions.

The strongest, clearest, adequate evidence is the films, themselves and their abundance, in both quality and quantity. What B-film or television episode about crime or detectives, or not, can compare to the work of the 1940s (and somewhat of the 1950s)? Miami Vice has had effects, visceralness, “colors”; so has Crime Story. To me, neither is matchable.

This is definitely to be said for the 1940s movie-makers: they created a corrupt, aristocratic, materialistic world — making it compelling, and not glossy. It was a world imbued with a knowledge of lofty ideals, but a realization of the way men really “live,” and the beast that dwells underneath the skin. Some revisionists have carped that Hollywood did not know, or “allow,” the atrocities of the fascists, either to be seen explicitly or precisely, in the wartime era, or even its aftermath. While one can counter this, somewhat, with examples like Saboteur (1942), The Stranger (1946), and a few others, this is not, terribly, the point.

The vision of blackness is timeless, is eternal, is instinctive, as well as subjective. Of course, it involves a visual, as well as aesthetic ambiance; we are-entertained, entranced, by inequity and iniquity. Still, one was never puzzled, or less than certain, of what inhumanity or corruption was. The city — impersonal, dangerous, uncertain, and unreliable — contrasted with rural and small-town bourgeois values. The seduction of the cosmopolitan -that glitter that was gold, and not “golden” — was a conundrum. I recall the moral center of Veronica Lake’s impassivity, which was, really, not passive, either in the main or in its results. Most of the detectives were loners, independents; they were a part of, yet apart from, the often-corrupt, and always tractable, “police.” They knew the score; worked for hire, for a living, were rarely conned, although they could be; and were resolute to the photo-finish.

Before the 1940s, the “detectives” were urban gentlemen (whether Philo Vance, Nick Charles, or Sherlock Holmes — or Charlie Chan), who approached crime as a hobby, as well as an intellectual incentive. By the advent of John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), nothing would be so elitist or flippant, again. For all the tartness of 1940s detectives’ tongues, and their maintenance of an attitude of cool, of tight-lipped composure, they were like aerialists on a tightrope of experience, with only the abyss, or the knowledge of the abyss, beneath.

The genre progressed, and changed, slowly but surely. Alfred Hitchcock was one of its greatest originators, as well as stylists, but so were Fritz Lang, Orson Welles and Robert Siodmak. Some producers focused upon unusual intelligence and even artistry in handling of mediocre material, significantly, Val Lewton. Billy Wilder, Henry Hathaway, Otto Preminger and many others brought additional nuances.

By the 1940s, private detective films became a surfeit; although their guises were, truly, various and subtle. Consider Edward G. Robinson as the insurance investigator, Keyes, in Double Indemnity (1944), as well as the committed Nazi-hunter in Welles’ The Stranger (1946), as indications of just how precise, yet variable, depictions of the moral adversaries of the “immoral,” could be.

Some historians have seen the femme-fatale as a causal factor of blackness to descend upon humanity; others have been attuned to the aestheticism of elitists, themselves (the old saw of art versus reality; education versus feeling). Double Indemnity, among others (Ivy, The Locket, etc.), can be cited in the former instance; many others (Laura, The Unsuspected, The Madonna’s Secret), among the latter.

Film-noir, probably, does have parameters, but they are not as easy or as facile as this. Above all, dark film is serious; it is like a cat enticing a mouse into its trap. What would not succeed as a sermon, captivates as a come-on.

Take the “world” of Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) in Laura:  Can anything have been more visually “lovely?” Consider the elegance of urban “great houses” and country-retreats moved through in Saboteur, The Fallen Sparrow, The Unsuspected. Consider the elegant eroticism of “loveless lovers” in Gilda, Mildred Pierce,  and Double Indemnity; and consider the wide (if unrecognized) strain of a sexual nonconformity — too easily dismissed as misogyny. Book after book on film-noir comes from the presses, but I still see no reference to Van Heflin as a platonic gay companion of Robert Taylor in Johnny Eager (1942); more to the point, what did the hatred of conventionality mean for the audience and the actors, in Laura, The Uninvited and Rebecca (with strong suggestions of lesbianism); and the woman-killing “Uncle Charley” (Joseph Cotton) in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943).

Sometimes, the fascists were established as explicit enemies: cold, wealthy, impervious to human feeling, and life, itself–whether as Conrad Veidt in Casablanca (1943) or Claude Rains in Notorious (1946). The sex may have been “bad,” and “good,” but only rarely was it given a suggestion of goodness, as in the case of the psychiatrist (Ingrid Bergman) who saves Gregory Peck in Spellbound (1945). Even in Road House (1948), the good man -Cornel Wilde — saves the good woman (Ida Lupino); but twisted sex, in the form of the evil jealousy of Wilde’s partner (Richard Widmark), put both their lives and limbs at risk, until the conclusion. The political seriousness of film-noir in the 1940s with prewar, wartime, and postwar corruption and criminality all being called, at various times, and in various guises, to account, as well as to attention — can be emphasized by a kind of negative proof. When the true brutalities of war, and its immediate, postwar aftermath, ended (or at least ebbed), the budgets (at the very least), and critical and commercial importance of films-noir, did not cease, but they, frankly, subsided.

They did not, of course, disappear, even into the present. From time to time (the mid and later 1960s — upon occasion, during the 1970s and the 1980s) they, like Satan, have recurred when we have had need of them. The old ambiance of wealth, Eros, and danger recur in Chinatown (1973) — with its suggestion that Mrs. Mulwray cannot go to the police (“He owns them, too”). One cannot even trust oneself, as William Hurt discovers in Body Heat (1981) — where his salvation and nemesis, in the form of Kathleen Turner turns out to be one and the same person.

Evil, corruptibility, malleability have all remained constants. What was unique was what, in a burst of pique, yet fascination, numerous 1940s filmmakers made of them. They looked at the monsters close-up: of big people, who were low-living; and of small, or little, people, who could be corrupted. One rarely, if ever, laughed — or even cried — while watching film-noir. Laughter and tears are, after all, feelings; emotion; sentiment. Film-noir — for all its gaudy apparel — is a black world, a dead universe; where feeling has ended. One may tear a little, in remembering the films and film-viewing experiences, of eras past; At Tangerine being played in the background, at the end, of Double Indemnity, or at Clifton Webb reciting Dowson’s “They are not long the days of wine and roses, love and desire and hate,” near the end of Laura.

One remembers bits and pieces — dialogue; interior decoration; other oddities — from more of such films, than anything except the most beautiful and buoyant of musicals — which are, of course, their antithesis — even to the Technicolor the musicals were almost always originally photographed in: Bette Davis, falling dead on the railroad tracks, to the strains of Chicago, in Beyond the Forest (1949); Gene Tierney, wearing dark glasses, sitting as “Danny” (Darryl Hickman) drowns in Leave Her to Heaven (1945) — a fine film which the rare, original Technicolor, destroys, dramatically and thematically. Marilyn Monroe as the tawdry, yet understandable, Rose — writhing up the final steps of the bell tower in Niagara (1953) — one of the few films-noir made in Technicolor, where the color was not only an “asset,” but not a liability. “They can’t play for you anymore, Rose,” Joseph Cotton says about the bells to the lifeless body of Marilyn Monroe he has just suffocated.

But they “play” for us endlessly, on film, and in such films. For politics, Eros, color, or black-and-white, changing pretensions and fashions, aside, film-noir returns us to the original, undying jungle of earth, both pro and con — at one and the same time. In their presence, we are both villain and victim. Both Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train, ruining the child’s ice cream cone, strangling Laura Elliott, and the vision of Hitchcock, seeing her murder — helpless to assist, or prevent — through her glasses, which have dropped to the grass. We are mortal; guilty yet innocent; innocent yet guilty — as we witness the great shadow of Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce — move from the room in which her younger, neglected daughter has just died. We see the shadow on the wall, alone; and it expresses the inexpressible; nothing, yet everything. We are in the world none of us ever made; and from which none of us will ever escape alive; informed of our pleasure, and pain; our complicity — and of our own sentence to the “night-world” of eternity.

Ed. Note: This essay previously appeared in Movie Zine

For fans, the six years spent with LOST, one of the most ambitious and transformative shows in the history of television, are hard to replace. Especially disconcerting are the number of network simulacra that have tried to fill its shoes. (witness FastForward and The Event). In many ways LOST aired during what we might call the Golden Age of Television, alongside The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, Dexter, the list goes on. Many of these shows have concluded their runs, and while AMC picks up the slack with the stellar Mad Men and Breaking Bad, the pay channels continue to attempt high budget shows that always seem doomed to cancellation – see The Borgias and Game of Thrones, who run the risk of going the way of Rome, Deadwood, and Carnivale. So, for the nostalgic, and as an anniversary of sorts, I want to share with you a conference paper I wrote about LOST‘s narrative structure. Critical literature on the show is slowly but surely surfacing, especially now that it’s finished. Randy Laist’s Looking for Lost: Critical Essays on the Enigmatic Series is a fine start. My analysis takes on the show’s narrative specifically, focusing on a few particular elements. It goes without saying that a major spoiler alert accompanies this paper.

* * *

With its achronous storytelling and depictions of literal time travel, its supernatural mysteries and cliffhanger endings, LOST is ripe for narratological analysis. Now that we have access to the entire series, it is especially appropriate and necessary to engage the narrative arc in its entirety. Despite the disappointment among loyal fans in the relatively solution-free and borderline mawkish finale, “The End” (the title turned out to be quite literal) did continue the show’s acute tendency to allow a season finale to dramatically shift how we read the near two-dozen episodes that preceded it. In this case, however, a necessary re-reading is enacted on a local and a global scale. “The End” not only requires us to re-view Season 6 through a new lens, but the entire trajectory of the characters’ adventures over all six seasons. Regardless of our feelings about the (again, quite literal) afterlife of these characters, “The End” leaves us feeling much like John Locke upon watching the Orientation video in season two, muttering “We’re going to have to watch that again.” Or, for more disgruntled fans, we may be left feeling like Jack at the end of Season 3, desperately moaning “We have to go back!” either to recapture the show’s purer ethos, or, as I plan to do here, to make sense of some of the formal moves this narrative made.

“The End” is not a terrible place to begin. If we rely on Peter Rabinowitz’s theory of privileged positions in fictional texts, we see the type of retroactivity an ending can enact.   He writes, “Our attention during the act of reading [endings and other privileged positions such as titles and first sentences] will in part be concentrated on what we have found in these positions, and our sense of the text’s meaning will be influenced by our assumption that the author expected us to end up with an interpretation that could account more fully for these details than for details elsewhere.” This phenomenon is no more clear than in “The End,” an uncharacteristically unambiguous conclusion to what was perhaps the most ambiguous of LOST‘s narrative arcs.  Namely, the alternate reality, in which the stranded characters were never stranded but nonetheless come together by other and perhaps equally mysterious means, turns out to be some sort of collective intermediary afterlife, a purgatory of sorts. Their interactions within this universe were, we now realize, actually steps toward a mass apotheosis into what we are led to believe is heaven in the final scenes. This revelation not only serves the primary purpose of having one tear-jerker of an ending, but also the not-so-distantly secondary purpose of causing the viewer to re-read these afterlife story lines in a new light.

It is, indeed, a character dominant conclusion. But something very interesting happens to Season 6′s narrative structure as a result of the final scene. In it, we have returned to the Island, where Jack has just defeated the smoke monster and prepares to die from the wounds suffered during the battle. The final frame mirrors the first frame of the Pilot episode, which begins with a close-up on Jack’s opening eye, having regained consciousness from the plane crash. Here, Jack returns to what we are led to believe is the same spot, lies down in roughly the same pose, and closes his eyes in another closeup. This provides neat formal closure, in the looping style characteristic of many of the show’s story arcs.

But this is not, technically, a loop, rather a parallelism. That doesn’t mean, however, that a smaller loop has not been established. Season 5 ends when an atomic bomb explodes at The Swan construction site with the hopes of returning the characters to their previous lives, thus ensuring that they’d never have to go through their turmoil on the Island. Season 6 begins with Jack looking out the window of an airplane, which we quickly learn is Oceanic Flight 815. He’s wearing his same clothes, sitting near the same people, and experiencing the same turbulence (only this time the plane doesn’t split in two). After landing, we learn that his father has just died and he is flying from Australia with the coffin in tow. In short, many of the details for Jack and others correspond to those of Season 1. Each episode of Season 6 focuses on a different character’s experience in this alternate universe, inviting the viewer to read the differences in situation and personality closely, without real indication of what is going on. Not until the re-introduction of Desmond in the latter quarter of the season does any semblance of a plot arise, one in which he is on a mission to unite these characters and remind them of another existence together, on the Island.

But, after “The End,” and only after “The End,” do we have the necessary tools for reading this sequence. In addition to the shocking revelation within the sphere of the alternate reality, the closing of Jack’s eye at The Very End completes the loop. That is, at the moment he dies on the Island, he wakes up on the plane, in this strange new reality. He even bears the not completely healed scars of his battle with the smoke monster, though the nature of these wounds are of course not revealed until the finale. So, while Jack’s experience in this universe eventually is teleological (he reunites, finally, with his father, who leads him and his friends through some sort of pantheistic pearly gates), Season 6′s existence as a narrative, thanks to this final image, is a moebius strip that cycles continually through Jack’s demise and re-awakening.

But how might we classify this ending in Rabinowitz’s terms? He asserts that according to the second metarule of configuration, readers “expect that the ending will somehow be prefigured in the beginning,” that there will be overarching textual balance. Moreover, there is with readers a “tendency…to find what they expect and want in a text,” and they “assume that authors put their best thoughts last, and thus assign a special value to the final [elements] of a text.” LOST is most polarizing in this regard. There are so many mysteries, unresolved plot threads, and open endings, and so many of them piled up over the seasons, that “The End’s” overt focus on character left the LOST literati reeling over the lack of precious “answers.” So much so that executive producers and head writers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse shot a coda in which some mysteries were addressed. In short, “The End” has the feel of needing to appeal to a broader audience, at the expense of the science fiction element that had drawn so much popularity to begin with.  It is in this sense, in addition to the They’re All Dead revelation, that “The End” was such a surprise.

But most interesting here is how “The End” corresponds to the two major ways Rabinowitz sees endings potentially defying the rules of balance, either by violation with a deceptive cadence, or exaggeration, with an excessive cadence. In both cases “the undermining of a conventional ending tends to stress the conventionality of that closure, and hence makes us aware of the gap between authorial and narrative audiences.” Such flouting of conventions can critique either the form itself or “question the ideological assumptions behind the convention.” LOST does all of the above.

I’ll begin with exaggeration.  Rabinowitz writes, “Thematizing a text’s conclusion is more complex still when a convention is undermined not by overthrowing it, but rather by following it in such an ostentatious way that it looks absurd.”  With LOST, we are dealing with one of the most massive ensembles of characters in television history. That nearly each of them is granted the most ultimate of happy endings – entrance into heaven – directly flouts the convention of the happy ending to an extreme degree. This mass apotheosis brings everyone together in remembrance of good times (almost like a reunion episode before the show is even over), but it consequently renders whatever happened to them over the course of their life-changing adventures seemingly irrelevant. No matter what you did or what happened to you – alcoholic, abusive father or husband, torturer, thief, murderer, liar – everything is going to be ok if you gain a certain sense of spiritual self-awareness. Regardless of one’s personal beliefs about the afterlife, this move is unusual, and it draws keen attention to both the formal convention of the happy and utterly conclusive ending and the ideological assumptions about the cosmic consequences of our actions.

For Rabinowitz, this is problematic: “many realistic writers prefer endings in which the full consequences of the events portrayed – even the consequences immediately pertinent to the narrative at hand – are neither worked out nor clearly implied.” Consequences are completely ignored in this case. Namely, the shocking deaths of and vexing grief over some of our favorite characters, some as recently as two episodes prior, are suddenly assuaged and anesthetized. But “The End” tells us that how and when you died, or even how and when you lived, doesn’t matter. That, in The End, it’s all about the personal connections we made.

But Rabinowitz delivered the above quote about realistic writers in reference to the other form of deviation, violation.  Endings violate when they “flagrantly defy what has come before” for the sake of shock and surprise. This establishes what Rabinowitz calls a “deceptive cadence.” Previous season finales of LOST engage in just this type of conclusion. At the end of Season 3, when the castaways on The Island are on the verge of rescue, the “flashback” off-Island sequence is inverted in its final scene, when a distraught Jack meets with Kate and utters the famous line “We have to go back!” indicating to the audience that this is not a flashback of the type they had grown so accustomed to over three seasons, but a flash forward, into life after rescue. Nothing in the narrative to this point (except for the general arc of potential rescue) indicates that this move was going to occur. Similarly, the finale of Season 4 builds up to the long anticipated (since the finale of Season 3) revelation of who is in the coffin. The outcome, John Locke, bears no contingency to any possibilities so far established (he was not, after all, one of the Oceanic 6 who escaped the Island). In the case of each example, a sense of the ending is delayed to later points, when new developments can aid a re-mapping of previous occurrences. Only at the end of Season 4 do we learn how and why the Oceanic 6 were able to leave the Island, and only in the early parts of Season 5 do we learn about Locke’s journey off the Island and adoption of the alias Jeremy Bentham that was thrown about during the Season 4 finale.

But there are no such opportunities with “The End.” And there are no analogous models upon which to build expectation. Even though the sheer ambiguity of the off-Island situation throughout the season warrants enough speculation that one may actually guess the ending, that this alternate reality is indeed the afterlife is in no way prefigured (Lindelof and Cuse even frequently directed attention away from the Island-is-purgatory theory, perhaps in order not to give away the real endgame of the show). Even the most conspicuous supernatural element of the show, the cosmic duel between Jacob and the Man in Black over the fate of the Island and of the world, is downplayed if not rendered completely irrelevant by the cosmology of this afterlife.

Rabinowitz’s conclusion may indicate a larger problem. He asserts that in cases like these, “the process of interpretation involves treating the [text] primarily as a popular [piece] (stressing the solution) rather than as a serious one (stressing the indecisive conclusion).”  The relevant question here may be, How seriously did LOST take itself, ultimately? Is the excessive conventionality of this happy ending indeed a “serious” flouting, or an appeal to popularity? Are we engaging a more “popular” mode of interpretation when we yearn for a smooth solution to all of the show’s myteries?

Regardless, Rabinowitz reminds us that “there is a general tendency in most reading to apply rules of coherence in such a way that disjunctures are smoothed over so that texts are turned into unified wholes.” Readers bring to a reading their own socially, intellectually and ideologically determined interpretive strategies, which they can employ to adapt the complicated text to their desires. Hence, in this case, the innumerable blogs, chat rooms, and theories, not the least of which came from Entertainment Weekly’s Doc Jensen, continuing months after the finale. But what must we do, in light of “The End,” to make the rest of LOST feel coherent (if that’s in fact what we really want to do)? Further analysis in the vein of Rabinowitz’s treatment of privileged positions (namely, season finales and premiers) will reveal a consistent devotion, as we’ve partially seen already, to the type of deviation Rabinowitz outlines. The formal effect in turn mirrors the content-based aim of the show – to challenge, if not subvert, prevailing ideological assumptions about the relationship between the natural and the supernatural, science and spirituality, and interpersonal relationships.

We’ve seen already how LOST‘s other finales enact a necessary retroactivity. They resolve mysteries and pose new ones in ways that are not prefigured. Thus, with this new and surprising information, we have no choice but to re-read. Just this occurs, for example, at the end of Season 3, when we have to re-view Jack’s off-Island narrative as a flash-forward rather than a flashback. But season finales have the luxury of being directly followed (however many months later, unless you own the DVD’s) by a season premier that begins to smooth over the gaps opened by the finale. Thus the beginning of Season 2 begins where Season 1 left off. Jack and Locke were left staring into into the abyss of the hatch before the screen fades to black. Season 2 opens in the hatch, with Desmond inside. Similarly, Season 4 ends with the disappearance of the Island, and Season 5 begins on the Island, having moved in time. Season 5 ends with the ultimate cliffhanger (and perhaps another excessive violation) an atomic explosion and a fade to white. Season 6 begins as the white fades into picture again, of Jack in an alternate universe (this is not a linear progression, but a deceptive one, that, we have seen, is resolved only at the end of Season 6). In each case the finale and the subsequent premier are in dialogue with each other in a way that assuages audience anxiety.

But I submit that LOST generates the final thrust of its narrative through even more privileged positions, at least here. And they are located in almost the exact middle of the arc.

With the happy ending of “The End,” the odd man out is John Locke. The heroic man of faith was murdered as he was preparing to commit suicide, never to see the fruits of his mission to bring the Ocean 6 back to the Island to save it. He dies desperate and deceived. But his mission is the fulcrum by which the endgame of the show is enacted. It begins in the Season 4 episode “Cabin Fever.” The Island is under siege, and Locke sets off to find the mysterious cabin to discern from the Island-deity Jacob what to do. The off-Island flashback focuses on Locke, and how throughout his life he just missed being recruited by Jacob and becoming the special person he always wanted to be. One such scene occurs when Jacob’s right-hand Richard Alpert visits Locke as a child. He lays a series of items on a table, including a knife, compass, baseball glove, and comic book, asking Locke to choose the items that “belong to him already.” When young John chooses incorrectly, Alpert storms out. At the end of the on-Island arc of the episode, Locke’s desire for heroism seems to be fulfilled, as he encounters the ghost of Christian Shephard (Jack’s father), who is not Jacob, but “speaks on his behalf.” From Shephard Locke learns that he must move the Island in order to save it.

These two examples are crucial mysteries in the trajectory of Locke. In the Season 5 episode “Jughead,” amid the Island’s chaotic shifts through time, Richard gives Locke the same compass we saw in “Cabin Fever,” instructing him to give it back to him as a sign of recognition at a later meeting. When Locke shows up in the 40′s (the Island has shifted to this point in time), he gives Richard (who is over 150 years old but  doesn’t age) the compass. Richard is dumbfounded. He doesn’t know John. But Locke instructs him to pay him a visit a few years later, when he’s a child, to validate what he is saying. Richard does just this, as seen in the “Cabin Fever.” That the young Locke doesn’t recognize Richard is one of the great disappointments of LOST, as it signals Locke’s future of always coming up just short, which turns out, sadly, to be his defining characteristic. But we can only read that disappointment through a re-vision equipped with necessary information that is impossible to prefigure.

The mystery of Christian Shephard takes considerably longer to answer. Locke succeeds in moving the Island, but amid the deadly time traveling, Alpert instructs him to leave the Island and convince those who left to come back. This was the only way to stop the shifts in time and save everyone. Locke leaves the Island, but when he can’t convince anyone to return, he tries to kill himself, and is murdered by Ben Linus before he gets a chance to. Hence Locke ends up in the coffin, as we see at the end of Season 4. But the episode in which we learn of Locke’s murder begins with an alive-and-well Locke, walking around on the Island, seemingly back from the dead. Only through flashbacks do we learn how he died. This seemingly improved Locke has a new mission: to kill Jacob. He succeeds, at the very end of Season 5.

It is only in the finale of Season 5 and the premiere of Season 6 (another example of the smoothing over of finale-anxiety) that we learn the mysterious truth of Locke’s return from the dead. Namely, the Locke that we think we know is in fact Jacob’s ancient rival, the Smoke Monster, having assumed Locke’s corpse as his own body. As the season progresses, we learn that it was the monster, who, as Locke, coerced Richard to give Locke the compass and instruct him to bring the Oceanic 6 to back to the Island, not to save everyone, but to kill them, and thus be free of his curse. To top it all off, by the end of Season 6 we learn that the monster also posed as Christian Shephard, and was thus the man whom Locke spoke to in the cabin and convinced him to move The Island, setting this entire arc in motion.

All this, especially if you’re not familiar with the show, is very confusing. But the point is this: what was once the turning point of Locke’s heroic adventure turned out, through a series of retroactive revelations, to be, as we have just seen, a painfully intricate plot on the part of the smoke monster to lead Locke to his death so he could assume his body, kill Jacob, and finally leave the Island (he doesn’t succeed in this final endeavor).  In other words the audience expectation for Locke, embodied in a long arc, was disrupted piecemeal along strategic points (what we might label, therefore, as the most privileged positions) of that very arc. This move, in my opinion, was masterful, however tragic. It emphasizes LOST‘s most valuable attribute, namely its keen interest in narrative deviation in a way unprecedented in television.

These deviations, as may be clear now, are perception-altering. Because of all these twists and turns, the central themes of the show are even more foregrounded. What we think we know about the supernatural, the scientific, the cosmic, the afterlife, the trajectory of our own lives, etc., is never what we think it is, and occurs in ways more spatial than linear. Moreover, the necessary deja vu enacted through this textual retroactivity signals a need to look more closely at the intricate workings of our own lives, and their unexpected privileged positions along the way.

James Copeland is a tall man, who rides a tall bike, drinks tall drinks, and writes tall poetry. To My Plants is a tallish, stiff chapbook of words arranged by James, printed on cellulose by James, and containing a DVD of a short film shot by a friend of James, from which the still photographs interspersed throughout the chapbook originate. The cover is two-sided, both unassuming, without any words to indicate title or author. You get clouds and mountainous valleys at first glance, but the sleuthy reader will check under the flap and be delighted, or maybe teased, with a string of automobiles as silent as any natural wonder.

You’re right, I’m stalling, but only because To My Plants already says everything that needs to be said about itself. It’s a book that delights in a cat-like batting about of your preconceptions: Plants, oh, James is a hippie, or: “Science arises from the green and yellow star, / ready for panoramas, radiant with facts”, oh, James thinks he’s smarter than me. Which is where he gets you, feeding us lines we think we get (or don’t) but seconds later instinctively reconsider. It isn’t slippery so much as twisting, squirming, revolting, linguistic revolutions around the star that bore us.

Plants and science greet us throughout this slim book/tall poem. The long lines mirror time’s inconstant rhythms (despite what the atom says) and throws everything into transition.  The “Children, too, are present, looking at their final bowls of cereal / before being called into service.” From plant to paper, child to servant (soldier? cubicle drone? janitor?), things are shifting throughout. Mountains are unsettled, lions act like men, “The sunlight washes over the mustard on the man’s fingers / like the visions of violent wealth that wash over the young girl’s sleep.” There’s our yellow and green star again.

But if everything is moving, where is it going? Even random paths, viewed from far enough out, can’t help but cough up a pattern. To My Plants offers the returning lion, which may be us, unless we are the plants, or the men and women, or maybe the “dollop of carbon”  left on the fingertip. There are animals, and plants, both are carbon-based and can’t help but be. We can’t help ourselves, “We are part of the ocean, the gorge, we lurch into the surrounding smell / to know nothing except volume.”

There is hardly an “I” to be found in this book amidst the swirling patrons of planet Earth, but James slips, shows us that he is human, that “Like anyone else, he enjoys the feeling of corn syrup running down his forearms. / And by enjoy, I mean he swears by it.” We are what we enjoy, even if, at this point, that enjoyment is bringing the whole works down. James is no prophet but his poetry is a telescope turned on this place we call home. Sitting on this messy, throbbing rock, overrun with planets and animals, James gives us the pattern in one fell poem. Would that we may learn something about ourselves by it.

We’ve all justified seeing a particular movie or following a TV show by saying “It’s terrible, but it’s just entertainment/pop/etc.”–I know I have. There’s that niggling feeling that we should not have enjoyed that film/show as much as we did. But this justification is an easy-out, something that is surprisingly accepted among even the most erudite and critically astute circles. Indeed, it seems acceptable even in modern critical discourse about film. For Armond White, this is an indefensible critical blasphemy. And as difficult as the line is to hold (and exhausting, to be honest), I find I must agree with him.

I’ll get into that in a few paragraphs, but first I want to look at White’s incredible self-published collection of essays on Michael Jackson–Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles–which I hope to will serve as the foundation for a general exploration of White’s idea of criticism and argument for why I think White is an important critic.

While reading through Keep Moving, readers can watch White evolve as a critic. The essays themselves are various pieces that White wrote concerning Michael Jackson from the mid-80s onward. While the insights about Jackson are impressive, what is more interesting to me (for the moment) is how these essays give context and depth to what is too often dismissed as a troll-like, curmudgeonly attitude by critics of the critic. White explains his own evolution:

In reviewing my Jackson pieces [for the book]…I was forced to recall my own relationship to Jackson. It had changed from my customary critical skepticism to sincere awe. I wasn’t the biggest fan of Thriller when it first appeared in 1982; it didn’t fit in with my rockist criteria for album art. But Thriller won the world for its superlatively crafted program of single tracks; it was an album in music culture’s original sense–a collation–while I was infatuated with the cohesive impudence of Prince’s 1999….I was not prepared for the subtle revolution of Thriller.

To read White discuss what makes Michael Jackson significant is an honest pleasure. Moreover, it’s fascinating to watch White navigate the racial and social issues of the day (and today) in his criticism. Armond White’s ability to cut through the bullshit and say something lasting and worthwhile is on display. Take, for example, White’s meditation on Jackson’s line “if…you’re thinking about being my baby / It don’t matter if you’re black or white”:

That phrase, coming from anyone else…would be highly offensive. But the sentiment has to be taken more seriously coming from Jackson, who literally has inscribed that belief in his flesh.

Michael’s physical transformation isn’t a game of truth or dare like the costumes put on and cast off by Madonna or David Bowie. Consider that the one identity Madonna and Bowie never flirted with is as a racial Other. But their “probity” is more shrewd than judicious; they know the identity from which expressive freedom customarily is withheld. Silence is their ultimate taboo. But silence unleashes the part of Jackson that always was suppressed in song. He dances free of the personal, social, racial constraints that are inseparable from Jackson’s Black and human experience in ways that empowered whites may never understand.

It’s important that Black folks understand Jackson’s physical appearance isn’t anything so superficially pathetic as wanting to be white. His greatest desire–which he sang passionately about in “Man in the Mirror”–is to “lift yourself” above the common, petty fetters and divisions that affect most people’s lives.

White’s ability to connect the dots between Jackson’s music and his publicly private life is part of what makes him a great critic (and, perhaps, problematizes our cultural distinctions between “public” and “private”). White is always attempting to outline the shape of the person in his criticism. I believe this is why the auteur film critic Andrew Sarris is so important to White, because he must always be able to trace a piece of art back to its human element. And this ability to find the human is what convinces me that White’s criticism is fundamentally a humanist criticism. It’s what lends weight to White’s ability to “speak truth to power.” I find that so many who are concerned with “speaking truth to power” are really just concerned with their own power and semiotics. But this focus on the human person allows White to cut right to the heart of cultural issues without getting lost or tossed around in the media firestorms that accompany cultural events.

Because of that, White’s primary concern in this book is understanding Michael Jackson through his art. This focus yields amazing insights. See White’s commentary on the perennial (or at least what was perennial) controversy over Jackson’s skin color:

Most artists submit to [the Black performer’s understood contract with the white-controlled world of show business] to some degree. Jackson’s only gone the Jewish entertainer’s nose-job ritual–known as the “Hollywood circumcision”–several organs better.

Almost a hundred years after minstrel shows, Jackson has engineered the ultimate critique/reversal of the blackface tradition. His plastic surgery answers the exploitation and humiliation that have always loomed ambiguously before Black performers who were ready to give the marketplace the hairstyle it demanded….

His new face is just a manifestation of the compromises he’s forced into as a private and public person, as a naive young man in an industry of predatory cunning, as a powerful Black cultural presence skeptically admitted into a largely white hierarchy….

Michael Jackson has become the social and ethnic anomaly he was raised to be….Jackson has fashioned himself into what the Western world has ordained: an androgynous, uniracial creature of presumably limitless appeal.

While the media has focused on how strange Jackson had made himself (and let’s admit it–most of us gawked along with them), White’s insight shifts the burden of guilt where it rightfully belongs: our desire, channeled through the media, to be at once fascinated and disgusted.

There’s much more to say about White’s book on Jackson. In many ways, it’s a beautiful book, and it almost brought me to the verge of tears at points. While reading, I was filled with regret about what Jackson went through as an artist; how I was (and still am) implicated in that. It made me wish that I could go back and appreciate the man more while he was still alive.

But now I want to speak more broadly about White as a critic (I plan on coming back to the Jackson book later). I mentioned White’s humanism. I really do believe that White’s is one of the great practitioners of a critical humanism. You may totally disagree with his analyses of films (which, at points, can be admittedly bizarre); you can find his tone and j’accused sloppiness frustrating, but that a true humanism at the basis of his criticism, I believe, is above reproach. At times, White may fail to live up to his own humanist standard, but who doesn’t? That’s not a glib dismissal of White’s failures as a critic. It’s only to say that White’s failures to live up to a standard don’t negate that standard.

One thing that confirms White’s humanism, in my mind, is his deep and abiding belief in democracy. That White believes in democracy might seem counter intuitive, given some of the statements he’s made about bloggers (which we generally believe to be the ultimate democratic medium):

The Internetters who stepped in to fill print publications’ void seize a technological opportunity and then confuse it with “democratization”—almost fascistically turning discourse into babble. They don’t necessarily bother to learn or think—that’s the privilege of graffito-critique. Their proud non-professionalism presumes that other moviegoers want to—or need to—match opinions with other amateurs….The journalistic buzzword for this water-cooler discourse is “conversation” (as when The Times saluted Ebert’s return to newspaper writing as “a chance to pick up on an interrupted conversation”). But today’s criticism isn’t real conversation; on the Internet it’s too solipsistic and autodidactic to be called a heart-to-heart. (Viral criticism isn’t real; it’s mostly half-baked, overlong term-paper essays by fans who like to think they think.)

And in print, “conversation” is regrettably one-sided. Power-sided. This is where the elitist tendency sours everything. The social fragmentation that fed the 1980s indie movement, decentralizing film production away from Los Angeles, had its correlative in film journalism. Critics everywhere flailed about for a center, for authority, for knowledge; they championed all sorts of unworked-out, poorly made films (The Blair Witch Project, Gummo, Dogville, Southland Tales) proposing an indie-is-better/indie-is-new aesthetic. The sophomoric urge to oppose Hollywood fell into the clutches of Hollywood (i.e., Sundance). Similarly, the decentralized practice of criticism now scoffs at former New York Times potentate Bosley Crowther, while crowning a network of bizarro authorities—pompous critics who replace Crowther’s classical-humanist canon with a hipster/avant-garde pack mentality (from The Village Voice to Time Out New York to IndieWire).

This quote might seem to confirm that White is just a poor, confused man: he attacks centers of power, while at the same time favoring a “canon”? I don’t believe White is confused, however. Let me explain by way of G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton explained what he felt the basic principles of democracy to be–and I think you’d be hard pressed to find any better explanation:

This is the first principle of democracy:  that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately.  And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common….It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on.  For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well.  It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love-letters or blowing one’s own nose.  These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly.  I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses.  I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them.  In short, the democratic faith is this:  that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves–the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state.  This is democracy….

This definition is so useful because it brings into relief the belief opposite to democracy: that the things that humans hold in common should be ruled by those “who know better.” According to White’s jeremiads, you have an unfortunate convergence of power-interests and a supposedly democratic groundswell of bloggers. Hence the reason why White likes to quote Molly Haskell so much: “The internet is democracy’s revenge on democracy.” White is not a know-nothing populist. But that doesn’t mean he’s not a democrat.

White, like Chesterton, believes genuinely that people should deal with their own business, not be forced to submit or be coerced by the will of corporate interests (every bit of White’s criticism that I’ve read confirms this). But that doesn’t mean that anything goes either, that the “mob” knows best. For White, the critic is there to help the masses. But he does so not as a gatekeeper of “artistic greatness.” The critic may be the defender of a canon but does so as an advocate.

And this is the problem with the “it’s just a movie” defense. When we allow movies (or any art for that matter) to fall into that cheap dichotomy, we actually subject ourselves to the gatekeepers of “greatness.” We cut off our critical legs and have to wait until the right people say it’s OK to take something seriously (note how White is excoriated for taking a film like Norbit seriously). Who else but the elites will determine whether a piece of art is to be considered “actual art” or “just pop”? Pop must be treated with utmost seriousness because otherwise we leave ourselves at the mercy of the same gatekeepers we thought we just escaped. I ask you: who decided we must take Lady Gaga more seriously than Brittany Spears? Beats me, but somewhere along the line it was obviously decided, though both are selling records just fine. Of course, White says it best (and more pithily):

To discuss movies as if they were irrelevant to individual experience—just bread-and-circus rabble-rousers—breeds indifference. And that’s only one of the two worst tendencies of contemporary criticism. The other is elitism.

White believes desperately in the role of the critic as a guard against both an anti-human indifference and the elitism that capitalizes (literally) on indifference to enslave us.

This brings me full-circle to White’s book about Jackson and White’s deep-seated critical humanism. If Chesterton is right, then the democratic ideal comes from a fundamentally humanist impulse, one that should guarantee the dignity (and equality) of individual persons. Now, compare Chesterton’s explanation of democracy to White’s final denunciation of the power structures that are incapable (or unwilling) to recognize the actual greatness of Jackson:

When the current President of the United States grudgingly admitted to “have all his stuff on my iPod,” it seemed either disrespectful or just further submission to the will of the media elite. What POTUS didn’t say was that even a relative “ditty” like the imperishable “P.Y.T.” was more than “stuff.” Listen to the way Jackson took R&B’s romantic entreaty and sang it as more than booty-begging or nut-busting but as the epitome of goodness. It is the kind of manifold richness that many people underestimate in Black pop (even when made apparent by a white postmodern brainiac like Green Gartside who deconstructed Jackson’s aesthetic into Scritti Politti). MJ’s “Wooooo’s” and “repeat after me” were sensual and rhetorical confirmations of personal and communal loving. He solicited call-and-response from the world–and got it. “P.Y.T.” makes the joy of life and art into one–it’s just an added blessing that you can also dance to it. If that doesn’t justify our democracy, then trade MJ’s Civil Rights moonwalk for a goosestep.

“Civil Rights moonwalk” (aside from being a brilliant turn of phrase) is the perfect example of how deadly serious White is about pop art. Pop isn’t “just pop.” The very principles of democracy can be at stake in a song. And while MJ is certainly an “elite” in a sense, White spends most of his book on Jackson explaining how the real core of Jackson’s songs are, in fact, personal expressions of the democratic ideals (see, especially, the essays “The Gloved One Is Not A Chump” and “Screaming To Be Heard, Book I”).

What is most important to White, however, what confirms MJ’s greatness is the fact that, despite all the media “kicking dirt in [MJ’s] eye,” despite Jackson’s confused and troubled response to the perverse demands of fame (which the media creates then capitalizes on later), despite the attempts of cultural gatekeepers to keep Jackson relegated within preordained modes of entertainment, Jackson’s art cannot be “reduced to pop,” because it speaks on a deep, visceral level. The level on which Jackson was operating is demonstrated by the outpouring of grief for Jackson by the “victorious plebiscite” (which AOL explained was a “seminal moment in internet history. We’ve never seen anything like it in scope or depth.”), whose “resistance to media fiat” White says “is proof of democratic goodwill in action.”

~~~

While I hope this post stands independently as a commentary on White and his book, it’s also a bit of a continuation of some of my thoughts on the relationship between art and democracy, which I hope to continue with later in order to answer some of the excellent questions that were asked in my original post.

If James Franco’s first name had been Ben, it would take very little to convince me that he is, in fact, the 24-hour multimedia reincarnation of the original King of Enterprise and Toil, Benjamin Franklin, whose parades through Philadelphia at the dawn bell with a wheelbarrow full of already-completed paperwork resemble Franco’s continuous and uncanny stream of films, art exhibitions, grad lit classes, short stories, and appearances on soap operas.  Sam Anderson rode the wave briefly over the summer, and wrote a telling profile for New York Magazine, concluding,

Plenty of actors dabble in side projects – rock bands, horse racing, college, veganism – but none of them, and maybe no one else in the history of anything, anywhere, seems to approach extracurricular activities with the ferocity of Franco.

Except for, well, Franklin. Anderson continues,

This fall, at 32…he’ll be starting at Yale, for a Ph.D. in English, and also at the Rhode Island School of Design. After which, obviously, he will become president of the United Nations, train a flock of African gray parrots to perform free colonoscopies in the developing world, and launch himself into space in order to explain the human heart to aliens living at the pulsing core of interstellar quasars.

Anderson’s quippy exaggerations nonetheless point up the outrageous nature of Franco’s juggling act.  But it begs the appropriate question: is this seeming jack of all artistic trades still a master of none?  Anderson smartly points out the lack of virtuosity in much of Franco’s work, particularly his fiction. He doesn’t, however, attribute it to being thinly spread, but to a more organic transitional period that besets every artist’s life. Ultimately, “He’s an excellent writer, for an actor. He’s brilliant, for a heartthrob. But he has yet to produce art that’s good enough to break the huge gravitational pull of his fame and fly off on its own merits.” Regardless of the quality of his work, his unabashedly zealous desire to work inspires me.  Would that we could all be so tireless.

While many, including Anderson, may consider Franco’s entire professional life (this might be redundant—he doesn’t seem to have any other kind of life) to be a piece of performance art, I want to talk about two actual such pieces.  In Franco’s fashion, two films—Howl and 127 Hours—are currently playing that have cast him as the lead, and each has the potential to establish Franco among the upper echelon of screen actors.

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s take on the inception, production, and delivery of Allen Ginsberg’s euphoric masterpiece exists across a series of evenly paced set pieces.  The film begins as a seemingly reticent Ginsberg stands before an eager crowd at the now legendary Gallery Six in San Francisco, preparing to read for the first time those famous and often parodied opening lines. We return to this scene periodically as the entirety of the poem is eventually read across the film.  The rest of it alternates between the obscenity trial (with a Hamm-like performance from Jon Hamm and well placed cameos from Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels), which ultimately serves an interpretive function, an interview with Ginsberg circa 1957 in which we glean most of our biographical information, flashbacks to his life pre-”Howl,” and an hallucinogenic rendering of the poem itself from animator Eric Drooker.  This is by far the biggest risk of the film, but I don’t agree with the Times‘ A.O. Scott that it was “nearly disastrous, the one serious misstep in a film that otherwise does nearly everything right.”

I’m going to disagree with not only the first part of that claim, but also the latter part.  There is one grating thing that, for me, Howl misses. The film does well to emphasize that much of Ginsberg’s poetic energy sprung from his (questionably) unrequited love for Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady.  But each of these figures is presented as a stiff, Don Draper type, rather than as the real madmen that they were.  For a movement so devoted to the lovely power of the human voice, these characters have a combined total of—get this—zero lines.  Not only does this serve to render Ginsberg’s love unrealistic, it does a disservice to the Beat generation and what it stood for. Both Kerouac and Cassady come off as leering fraternity brothers, in a malicious way. The real Beats were assholes—just not that kind of asshole. Ginsberg himself claims in the interview portion (granted, the entirety of the dialogue is drawn from historical record, but this was still a directorial choice), “There is no Beat Generation. It’s just a bunch of guys trying to get published.” I don’t think anyone, including Ginsberg, believed that in 1957. Regardless, Franco’s performance across these set pieces is every bit as “impressive [and] beguilingly sensitive” as Ann Hornaday claims in her Washington Post review.  The film is worth seeing for that alone.  What is more, with the sudden recuperation of the perpetually “in production” adaptation of On the Road, we may see a great Beat Generation film sooner rather than later.

*                                  *                                  *

Whatever hype I had encountered about 127 Hours, Danny Boyle’s follow-up to Slumdog Millionaire, spoke to the climax, what David Denby of The New Yorker has dubbed “The Scene,” namely the re-creation of Aron Ralston’s brutal extrication from a dire encounter with a rock.  If you’re like me, then perhaps the most excruciating element of this experience is the anticipation.  When is he going to get trapped?  Is now the time when he will begin cutting?  Are these screams going to be even more blood-curdling when he hits the nerve? But Danny Boyle spends this time of nervous anticipation artfully juxtaposing crowds and solitude, noise and silence in a way that prepares the stage for Ralston’s spiritual crisis (in all, Boyle stylistically airs it out on a premise that could have come off as, well, boring). Regardless, you will throughout the film sit with your hands (for which you are suddenly very grateful) at the ready to cover your eyes, pull at your hair, or just wring for minutes at a time.

Generically, 127 Hours can be compared to Sean Penn’s adaptation of Into the Wild, but while Emile Hirsch’s Chris McCandless treks to Alaska out of a rejection of society (not to mention everyone who loves him), Franco’s Ralston is passionate about the wilderness.  He’s not escaping; Canyonlands is his “home away from home.”  But his love and positive enthusiasm (when his co-worker tells him to have a good one, he replies, “Always do.”) are put to the ultimate test over five days, as his ordeal transforms from a race against time to free himself from the rock without dying of thirst into a spiritual journey through his conscience, memories, and hopes for the future.  He “has nailed himself to his own special cross” (Denby), eventually realizing that “this rock has been waiting for me for thousands of years.”  This is Ralston’s Trial, and it is ultimately a parable about embracing life.

The beauty of Franco’s performance resides in his preservation of Ralston’s quirkiness amid desperation.  This story is so powerful because we know that this is a regular guy who has done something extraordinary.  But Franco and Boyle were brilliant not to locate the human universality of the story in the unfathomable circumstances but in Ralston’s personal experience.  Faced with death, he repents, remembers times of love, and laments unrealized future ones, all via nicely placed flashbacks, dreams, and hallucinations.  But the nuance here is important—Ralston’s not a bad guy.  He loves his parents, misses his ex-girlfriend (whom he apparently did slight), and laments his vainglorious subconscious wish not to have anyone know where he is.  His life wasn’t in shambles, hence his happy-go-lucky attitude that pervades the first part of the film.

His transformation, however, is no less remarkable.  His family knows he loves them, so he doesn’t need to ask forgiveness for wrongdoing; rather, he, and we all can identify with this, apologizes into his camcorder (which, for much of his ordeal, serves as a Bakhtinian superaddressee, a God-figure) “for not acknowledging you in my heart as much as I could.”  This was powerful, and had me weeping, childlike.  The acknowledgement of a higher power becomes more palpable the deeper into crisis he becomes. As he agonizes, his bellows of “Please!”—to the rock, to the camcorder, to God—resonate with our similar moments of angst.  But his utterances after he gains freedom (which, thankfully, only took about five minutes, contrary to rumor) are most revealing.  Standing there, suddenly unbound, bleeding, he almost immediately mutters, “Thank you.”  He says nothing as he staggers his way out of the cave and—incredibly—rappels down a canyon wall.  Soon after, he sees, murkily, a group of hikers, and, desperately, but at this point triumphantly, begins screaming for help.  Of course, he needs medical assistance. But in this moment he is also affirming that he needs help in the same way that we all need help.  The subsequent dénouement is exuberant, an exaltation over the letting go of material life—our literal attachments to our bodies—for the sake of a new, spiritual life. Which, for Ralston, is as enthusiastic as the one he already led, only with added consciousness.  One comes away from 127 Hours not necessarily thankful for being spared a similar ordeal, but jealous of Ralston’s trial and awakening.  But true to the humanness of this story, it reminds us that every day we are faced with the possibility of death, and should act and think accordingly.

I could say a lot more about this film, especially about Boyle’s work, but I will stay on task about Franco.  Truth be told, I wrote the first half of this article before I saw 127 Hours, and a large part of me wants to take back that jack-of-all-trades bit.  What if Franco wins an Oscar for this performance?  Will he continue with his Alexandrian feats of intellectual conquest?  Or will he focus on fulfilling his vast potential as an actor?  Regardless, I propose Franco begin his speech as follows, in keeping with the mysterious and ironic fashion of his persona: “I’ll make this brief – I’ve got somewhere to be.”

There’s been a bit of back and forth about questions of translatability (here and here), and I thought it was worth some observations.

I have mentioned this before on the blog, but for those who do not know, I teach upper level ESL to students who plan on entering graduate school in North America. It’s basically a college writing class, but the ESL aspect creates interesting dilemmas for me as a teacher. For example, I’m consistently torn between allowing students the comfort of pulling out their electronic dictionaries and forcing them to live in the uncomfortable space between languages. If I allow dictionaries, I will essentially handicap (or allowing them to handicap) their future English skills. They will forever be tying English words to words or phrases in their native language. As a result, they will never be fully fluent in English (at least not in the same way as a native speaker is fluent–which is often what most of my students desire). If, however, I force them to use context, word roots, and experience to understand words, eventually they will understand English words in an English sense. Perhaps an end-run around this dilemma is letting them use an English dictionary, forcing them to associate English definitions with English words. Unfortunately, students often come upon words in the English definition that they don’t understand, so we’re back at the same dilemma again. Spare the rod, spoil the child, anybody?

Typically, by the time students get to a level or two below my class, electronic dictionaries are forbidden in the classroom. It’s much harder, though, to break them of the habit of composing whole sentences in their own language and translating them, an attempt which is doomed from the start. I get lots of grumble and pout when I tell them to start thinking about their papers in English. I feel a bit like a parent coaxing their child to stand up to a bully. And in many ways, a new language is a bully. I always tell my students that learning a new language is not really learning a new way to communicate, but a new way to think. When working in English, you have to know how to work within or manipulate the categories and expectations of English–something we native speakers do without realizing.

Which brings me back to the blog posts I mentioned in the beginning. As Geoffrey K. Pullum points out at Language Log, “untranslatable” doesn’t really mean there is no translation, it just means there is no one-word equivalent in English. This is the difficulty with translating poetry and why it is often such a fruitful angle to approach questions of poetics. What makes the poetics of a particular work tick? By poetics, I don’t just mean poetry, I mean all art forms (I tend to think of “poetics” as an arch-art form). Dziga Vertov, for example, thought that film was a new international language, a sort of visual esperanto. In his avant-garde film, Man with a Movie Camera, Vertov boldly declares in the first title cards:

The film Man with a Movie Camera represents
AN EXPERIMENTATION IN THE CINEMATIC TRANSMISSION
Of visual phenomena
WITHOUT THE USE OF INTERTITLES
(a film without intertitles)
WITHOUT THE HELP OF A SCRIPT
(a film without script)
WITHOUT THE HELP OF A THEATRE
(a film without actors, without sets, etc.)
This new experimentation work by Kino-Eye is directed towards the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema – ABSOLUTE KINOGRAPHY – on the basis of its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature.

Vertov’s ambition is palpable in the film. Each cut is gravid with meaning. Not only would film be the first international language, it would be the language of the revolution (according to Eisenstein). Many of us still think that film is an international language. In many ways, it is true. It certainly speaks across many cultures, but as McLuhan points out in Gutenberg Galaxy, film is the product of a literary mind. The conventions of film (at least as Vertov sees them) are the conventions of visual print culture. That is, we read films much in the same way we read books.

McLuhan describes the experience of aid workers (in the 1960s, I believe) showing hygiene films to people from what McLuhan identifies as aural-tactile culture (that is, lacking the thought structures that are inherited from print culture). It’s a bit too long to quote here (to read the whole section, click here), but the basic gist is this:

“Literacy gives people the power to focus a little way in front of the image so that we are able to take in the picture in a whole glance. Non-literate people have no such acquired habit and do not look at objects in our way.”

Later McLuhan quotes John Wilson:

“Film is, as produced in the West, a highly conventionalized piece of symbolism although it looks very real. For instance, we found that if you were telling a story about two men to an African audience and one had finished his business and he went off the edge of the screen, the audience wanted to know what had happened to him; they didn’t accept that this was just the end of him and that he was of no more interest in the story. They wanted to know what happened to the fellow, and we had to write stories that way, putting in a lot of information that wasn’t necessary to us. We had to follow him along the street until he took a natural turn–he mustn’t walk off the side of the screen, but must walk down the street and make a natural turn….Panning shots were very confusing because the audience didn’t realize what was happening. They thought the items and details inside the picture were literally moving….the convention was not accepted.”

The point of sharing all this (aside from the point that it’s generally fascinating) is to show that even images, which we often consider somewhat universal, often require certain conventions of thought. So even there, the poetics of an art form are mitigated by “translation,” which, quite literally, must translate it from one form of thought to another.

I do believe fruitful translation can and does happen, but we must be aware of the “extra layer(s)” of intent that exists over top a piece. I want to focus more on what we as poets (and poeticists) can learn from and through translation when I review the new translations of Horace’s Odes (edited by J.D. McClatchy), so the rest of this discussion will be postponed until then.

Oh hai.

For those of you who missed it the first time around (myself included), The Story of English is an excellent documentary on the history and nature of the English language. One enterprising YouTuber has posted the whole series on his channel. The videos seem quite dated, but much of the topics discussed are still relevant.

There’s another great series called The Adventure of English that’s worth checking out also.

Now for a spin on the story of English from the internet age…LOLcats. In particular, the LOLcat Bible Translation Project. Many linguists depend upon the work of Bible translators deployed around the world in remote (to us, at least) regions of the world. I happen to know a man who worked as a Bible translator and created the only existing dictionary in the world for his regional dialect. Concerns about dictionaries (and their purpose) aside, the LOLcats Translation begs a question: is LOLcats a true pidgin English? It has a history, it has its own grammar and rules, and now it has its own Bible.

Here is the Lord’s prayer in LOLcat:

Ceiling Cat Prayerz n stuffs
9 u pray leik dis: Praise Ceiling Cat, who be watchin yu, may him has a cheezburger.10 Wut yu want, yu gets, srsly.11 Giv us dis day our dalee cheezburger.12 And furgiv us for makin yu a cookie, but eateding it.13 An leed us not into teh showa, but deliver us from teh wawter. Ceiling Cat pwns all. Him pwns teh ceiling an flor an walls too. Amen. (sum aweforehtehz ad “srsly”)
14 if u sais sry Ceiling Cat will be leik s’ok iz kewl.15 if u donut sez sry Ceiling Cat will pwn u.
kthxbai.

FALSTAFF
God save thee, my sweet boy!

KING HENRY IV
My lord chief-justice, speak to that vain man.

LORD CHIEF-JUSTICE
Have you your wits? know you what ’tis to speak?

FALSTAFF
My king! my Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!

KING HENRY IV
I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest:
Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and the feeder of my riots:
Till then, I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.
For competence of life I will allow you,
That lack of means enforce you not to evil:
And, as we hear you do reform yourselves,
We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
Give you advancement. Be it your charge, my lord,
To see perform’d the tenor of our word. Set on.

Exeunt KING HENRY V, & c

FALSTAFF
Master Shallow, I owe you a thousand pound.

SHALLOW
Yea, marry, Sir John; which I beseech you to let me
have home with me.

FALSTAFF
That can hardly be, Master Shallow. Do not you
grieve at this; I shall be sent for in private to
him: look you, he must seem thus to the world:
fear not your advancements; I will be the man yet
that shall make you great.

SHALLOW
I cannot well perceive how, unless you should give
me your doublet and stuff me out with straw. I
beseech you, good Sir John, let me have five hundred
of my thousand.

FALSTAFF
Sir, I will be as good as my word: this that you
heard was but a colour.

SHALLOW
A colour that I fear you will die in, Sir John.

FALSTAFF
Fear no colours: go with me to dinner: come,
Lieutenant Pistol; come, Bardolph: I shall be sent
for soon at night.

Re-enter Prince John of LANCASTER, the Lord Chief-Justice; Officers with them

LORD CHIEF-JUSTICE
Go, carry Sir John Falstaff to the Fleet:
Take all his company along with him.

FALSTAFF
My lord, my lord,—
Lord Chief-Justice I cannot now speak: I will hear you soon.
Take them away.

PISTOL
Si fortune me tormenta, spero contenta.

Exeunt all but PRINCE JOHN and the Lord Chief-Justice

LANCASTER
I like this fair proceeding of the king’s:
He hath intent his wonted followers
Shall all be very well provided for;
But all are banish’d till their conversations
Appear more wise and modest to the world.

LORD CHIEF JUSTICE
And so they are.

LANCASTER
The king hath call’d his parliament, my lord.

LORD CHIEF-JUSTICE
He hath.

LANCASTER
I will lay odds that, ere this year expire,
We bear our civil swords and native fire
As far as France: I beard a bird so sing,
Whose music, to my thinking, pleased the king.
Come, will you hence?

Exeunt

EPILOGUE

Spoken by a Dancer

First my fear; then my courtesy; last my speech.
My fear is, your displeasure; my courtesy, my duty;
and my speech, to beg your pardons. If you look
for a good speech now, you undo me: for what I have
to say is of mine own making; and what indeed I
should say will, I doubt, prove mine own marring.
But to the purpose, and so to the venture. Be it
known to you, as it is very well, I was lately here
in the end of a displeasing play, to pray your
patience for it and to promise you a better. I
meant indeed to pay you with this; which, if like an
ill venture it come unluckily home, I break, and
you, my gentle creditors, lose. Here I promised you
I would be and here I commit my body to your
mercies: bate me some and I will pay you some and,
as most debtors do, promise you infinitely.
If my tongue cannot entreat you to acquit me, will
you command me to use my legs? and yet that were but
light payment, to dance out of your debt. But a
good conscience will make any possible satisfaction,
and so would I. All the gentlewomen here have
forgiven me: if the gentlemen will not, then the
gentlemen do not agree with the gentlewomen, which
was never seen before in such an assembly.
One word more, I beseech you. If you be not too
much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will
continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make
you merry with fair Katharine of France: where, for
any thing I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat,
unless already a’ be killed with your hard
opinions; for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is
not the man. My tongue is weary; when my legs are
too, I will bid you good night: and so kneel down
before you; but, indeed, to pray for the queen.

  1. Sir John Falstaff is Shakespeare’s greatest invention.
  2. Sir John Falstaff is great because his wit is as vast as his waist, and his prose is some of Shakespeare’s finest, which makes it also, some of the finest ever written.
  3. James Joyce is but an offspring of blustering Falstaff.
  4. Leopold Bloom is Falstaff recast as a tragic hero. Stephen Dedalus is Hal (Henry V).
  5. Leopold Bloom cannot compare to Falstaff. (Though Dedalus can to Hal.)
  6. People lament that Shakespeare was not born in the 20th century to make films.
  7. Shakespeare did however make films in the 20th century.
  8. His name was Orson Welles.
  9. Orson Welles’ greatest film may well be his last: Chimes at Midnight.
  10. It took Orson Welles many years to complete the film, owing to his Falstaff-like poverty, due to his Falstaff-like debts, and certainly unhelped by his Falstaff-like obesity. Welles would shoot scenes and edit privately, which has resulted in a masterpiece of a film that is not only hard to find, but at times difficult to watch. The sound is often distorted (sometimes only slightly). The picture can go wonky.
  11. Joe Weil once told me that to understand Hamlet you need only combine Hal and Falstaff into the same person.
  12. Harold Bloom has quoted Orson Welles as saying he was born a Hamlet in America, and retired in Europe as Falstaff.
  13. Chimes at Midnight is indeed hard to find on VHS or DVD.
  14. Chimes at Midnight can in fact be found on VHS and DVD, through Amazon.com, and other online websites.
  15. Chimes at Midnight can be watched in its entirety in decent quality on YouTube.
  16. If you have not seen Chimes at Midnight, you should go to YouTube and watch it.
  17. If you have already seen Chimes at Midnight, you should watch it again.
  18. There have been many Shakespeare film adaptations, some good, many mediocre, even more not worth watching.
  19. There have been many adaptations of Henry IV Parts 1 & 2—these include My Private Idaho, by Gus Van Sant (recommended), as well as scenes from Javier Marias (recommended).
  20. Javier Marias is as obsessed with Falstaff as any of us.
  21. Correction: Than most of us.
  22. The great moment to be understood and analyzed is the coronation of Henry V (formerly Hal) at the end of Henry IV Part 2. It is famously the rejection of Falstaff.
  23. In case you would like one, a quick summary: Hal is the son of the King of England, and spends his times in pubs and brothels with unsavory characters, petty thieves and womanizers, a rabble of men lead by one fat fat fat man named Falstaff.
  24. Falstaff is perhaps the greatest name for a comic character ever thought up.
  25. It was Oldcastle, based on a historical person, named Sir John Oldcastle—but Shakespeare had to change the name, and add a disclaimer in the form of an epilogue at the end of Henry IV Part 2 because Oldcastle had powerful heirs and descendants that threatened Shakespeare’s company and business.
  26. Just as well. Falstaff is pure Shakespeare. And Falstaff sounds better than Oldcastle.
  27. Don’t worry about The Merry Wives of Windsor, it’s a curiosity but it has nothing to do with the actual Falstaff. Some scholars believe in fact that Shakespeare wrote the play at the request of the Queen of England, who enjoyed Henry IV Parts 1 &  2 and wanted to see “Falstaff in Love.”
  28. Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 were in fact Shakespeare’s most famous plays, and demonstrated the maturity of his talents, both dramatical and poetical. They were performed often during his lifetime, and earned him great acclaim (in the middle 1590s).
  29. Why is Falstaff such a great character? Why is the play so entertaining to watch and read? Why is Chimes at Midnight such a great movie?
  30. I don’t know: you tell me. Read it. Watch it. Then you can be skeptical and argue.
  31. If you have any brains, or heart, or sensitivity to Language, or Cinema, you’ll probably agree.
  32. What I’m saying is not legendary or landmark.
  33. What I’m saying has been approved by Harold Bloom.
  34. How can I be wrong?
  35. Aside from many amazing moments in the two plays, and scenes in the Welles film, what it all comes down to finally is the coronation scene.
  36. In it, Hal—now Henry V—is King of England. Falstaff of course is hoping for recognition, a title, power, some money, but most importantly—he wants to be recognized by his friend, whom he calls sweet wag, his honey Lord, and other such names that are among the most earnest interjections spoken by a character in the play.
  37. The irony: the great conman, charlatan, huxster Falstaff is an earnest man. He loves Hal, though he also loves life, and money, and pleasure, and the easiness of self-interest, and the boast of self-privilege, and the fluid swelling at all times of his own voice in witty procession.
  38. The irony: Hal is a much more complicated character than we have yet considered.
  39. On the one hand: He is your typical adolescent badboy antihero; his father is King of England, he spends his time in bars and driving late at night, doing drugs and fooling around with women, and his grades can’t be too impressive.
  40. On the other hand: He is heroic and noble, and never unaware of the power he will yet assume. There are many cues throughout the Henry plays and the film that let us know—he is not mindlessly wandering in his devious peregrinations. He is biding his time. He is trying to avoid what he is also restless to assume: Power.
  41. It is the nature of power to be both indulgent and arbitrary, to be selfless and self-absorbed.
  42. It is the privilege of power to do what it wants, when it wants.
  43. When the time comes for battle, Hal fights and defeats Hotspur, surprising and honoring his father’s wishes.
  44. But Hal has two fathers—one of the political world, and the court, which is Bolingbroke, a usurper himself of the English throne, and another, Falstaff, the master of revellers in a court no less full of intrigue and ritual. That court is a boarding house, that intrigue is picking people’s pockets, the ritual is getting drunk and staying drunk.
  45. Welles’ genius is to distinguish between these social worlds and their pressures by the type of actors he casts in his great film.
  46. On the one hand, there is John Gielgud, arguably one of the greatest British actors and interpreters of Shakespeare ever.
  47. Gielgud, in the true English style, was known for his beautiful speaking of verse, a high stentorian, enunciated, articulated, masterfully subtle and with feeling and richness of tone.
  48. Alec Guiness likened his voice to a “silver trumpet muffled in silk.”
  49. Alec Guiness was right.
  50. I am stealing some of my information from Wikipedia.
  51. Wikipedia, much maligned, is as good a place as any to steal things from.
  52. Often.
  53. Okay, well sometimes.
  54. Nevermind all that.
  55. So Welles chose Gielgud for the part of Hal’s father, Henry IV. It gives an air of authority and royalty and regalty to that role, and the persons of the court.
  56. Welles chose himself in the part of Falstaff, an American vaudvillean actor, who began in shows and plays, did Shakespeare in Harlem, did Radio Operas and Sagas, and contributed more to American cinema than anyone except Charlie Chaplin.
  57. The tension in high and low, between kings and hustlers, is showed in the contrasting styles of acting.
  58. It is not a matter of better or worse.
  59. It may be a deliberate matter of superbly refined and superbly vulgar showmanship.
  60. It is also a matter of America and England.
  61. Theater is an English thing, really.
  62. Film is an American thing, really.
  63. We produce actors who are celebrities, matinee idols.
  64. The Brits produce actors who are thesbians, masters of the stage.
  65. Both are necessary.
  66. Both in the same production are rare.
  67. Chimes at Midnight has both.
  68. Hal speaks like an American, acts like an American.
  69. When he becomes Henry IV, he pronounces and declaims like an English actor.
  70. It’s a marvelous change and directorial decision.
  71. Now to that Rejection.
  72. What’s it all about?
  73. Well the King of England can’t really spent his time rioting in a tavern.
  74. And Falstaff, smacking of the people but really just oafishly and splendidly himself, comes from that world and represents that world.
  75. Part of the play is a symbolic allegory about power and politics—are politicians may start like us, but they are not allowed to continue like us, because we want kings and presidents and leaders to be like gods.
  76. Gods are supposed to be inhuman and all-powerful.
  77. That is, power is inhuman.
  78. The more you have, the less like a person you become.
  79. Rhetorically, Shakespeare had his own stylization for these differences: he may not have had film vs. theater, American vs. British, but he certainly had a better tool.
  80. That is, language.
  81. In the Falstaff scenes, you hear a lot of prose.
  82. Amazing prose.
  83. In the courtroom scenes, you hear a lot of blank verse.
  84. Immaculate, gorgeous blank verse.
  85. For Falstaff scenes: Think Joyce. But better than Joyce.
  86. For Henry IV scenes: Think Marlowe. But better than Marlowe.
  87. Hal operates in both worlds for a time.
  88. For a time, Hal is Falstaff’s father. Hal, which is almost like Fal(staff).
  89. Then he becomes Henry V. Which is very like Henry IV.
  90. The friendship between Hal and Falstaff depicting in Chimes at Midnight, is romantic, but not in any sexual sense. Rather, it’s the essence of all friendship and comedy—two personalities that require each other to function. Falstaff performs, Hal commentates. Falstaff sins, Hal chastizes. Falstaff jests and boasts, Hal satirizes and mocks. They are seen drinking and walking, running and laughing, acting and plotting. They relate and complete one another, comically.
  91. This is what life promises.
  92. But power promises an elevation at the expense of all that. Especially, most sadly, friendship. Friendship is equivalent, and power is shared, mutual, reciprocated, given and taken. Royalty is absolute, and singular. Whenever there is one, there is violence.
  93. Or as Shakespeare says in Henry IV Act 3, Scene 1: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
  94. Shakespeare was obsessed with the nature of selfhood—was it public, or private? How did the nature of performing effect everything we do, with others, and how we see ourselves? Shakespeare’s greatest consciousnesses tend to be actors in their own plays, able to shape their destinies, create or resolve dramatic climax, see into the motives of others as well as self-consciously write their own lines. Hegel said something smarter and more eloquent, which captures this, about them being free-masons of their own selves. Something like that. Hal is such a character. He keeps talking about his true self, his old self, his new self. Who is he? He wears a crown, he dresses in a robe, he carries a scepter, and his part has changed. His verse alters. His tone is solemn. He does not want to joke. He does not want to riot and have sport. He rebukes Falstaff. He rebukes anyone who was as he was once. He becomes what he hated and loathed, and the lesson can’t simply be he’s a horrible friend. Is this just a case of absolute power corrupts absolutely? What is the corruption? Falstaff is a braggart, a cheat, a thief, a drunkard, and insolvent.
  95. In all of our lives, we’ve had these moments. People we’ve known have attained things, and gone places, received honors, and been privileged. And always, no matter what, like Falstaff (except without his crimes, without his generosity, without his genius, his mirth, his irreverence), we EXPECT to share in that, to be entitled, to remain equals. It is not just a matter of greed and ambition. It is a matter of love.
  96. Friendship is based in a love of two people for two people. Love is always between two people.
  97. Power, political and earthly power, is the reality of an individual representing everyone.
  98. But who cares?
  99. Haven’t you ever been expecting, on bended knee, a friend, a lover, someone, anyone, to acknowledge you? To honor their love? To privilege that bond? Shakespeare may have set out to write a political drama, a history play, appropriate to courts and battles, fighting and chanting speeches, which he does astonishingly so in Henry V, but in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, he writes something greater. Plays about history are plays about fate. Henry IV and Chimes at Midnight is about personalities—and the personality that is about foremost is Falstaff: the width of what it is to be human. Most of the play deviates from that law of genre, and takes to somewhere much more entertaining—two people who exist to know each other, share their mind, and enjoy nothing more than each other’s company. But the play has to end; Henry IV’s son has to become Henry V. And personalities like Falstaff’s (there are no others!) are too large a scope, too wide a berth. Fate and power and politics and monologues are vertical; personalities and dialogues and horizontal. Shakespeare may have been honoring a convention, finally, and rushing to a close, hastily, but he also left an audience (and a Queen) who loved this English buffoon aware of a sober truth. Our friendships like our love are commodities, accessories, ways in which we waste our mental and physical time. To those who are called to “serve,” to lead, there is no leisure to live life. (Ironically, Shakespeare had to please the Crown to promise to bring Falstaff back, the very Crown he depicted by dismissing that great man.) Henry V promises to give Falstaff advancement (a promotion of power). A few lines later Shakespeare puns on this word, as Falstaff is speaking of the advancement he owes Master Shallow. Earlier in the play, Falstaff jests: “Banish Falstaff and banish all the world!” But who would ever want to banish the world?
  100. But Shakespeare and Welles show us that for the chance of control we do.

Armond White comments on the decline of film criticism:

Journalistic standards have changed so drastically that, when I took the podium at the film circle’s dinner and quoted Pauline Kael’s 1974 alarm, “Criticism is all that stands between the public and advertising,” the gala’s audience responded with an audible hush—not applause.

Over recent years, film journalism has—perhaps unconsciously—been considered a part of the film industry and expected to be a partner in Hollywood’s commercial system. Look at the increased prevalence of on-television reviewing dedicated to dispensing consumer advice, and of magazine and newspaper features linked only to current releases, or to the Oscar campaign, as if Hollywood’s business was everybody’s business. Critics are no longer respected as individual thinkers, only as adjuncts to advertising. We are not. And we should not be. Criticism needs to be reassessed with this clear understanding: We judge movies because we know movies, and our knowledge is based on learning and experience.

“Truth is the first casualty of war,” runs an old axiom of journalism. In the current war between print and electronic media, in which the Internet has given way to Babel-like chaos, the critical profession has been led toward self-doubt. Individual critics worry about their job security while editors and publishers, afraid of losing advertisers and customers, subject their readers to hype, gossip, and reformulated press releases—but not criticism. Besieged by fear, critics become the victim of commercial design—a conceit whereby the market predetermines content. Journalism illogically becomes oriented to youth, who no longer read.

Commerce, based on fashion and seeming novelty, always prioritizes the idea of newness as a way of favoring the next product and flattering the innocence of eager consumers who, reliably, lack the proverbial skepticism. (“Let the buyer be gullible.”) In this war between traditional journalistic standards and the new acquiescence, the first casualty is expertise.

By offering an alternative deluge of fans’ notes, angry sniping, half-baked impressions, and clubhouse amateurism, the Internet’s free-for-all has helped to further derange the concept of film criticism performed by writers who have studied cinema as well as related forms of history, science, and philosophy. This also differs from the venerable concept of the “gentleman amateur” whose gracious enthusiasms for art forms he himself didn’t practice expressed a valuable civility and sophistication, a means of social uplift. Internet criticism has, instead, unleashed a torrent of deceptive knowledge—a form of idiot savantry—usually based in the unquantifiable “love of movies” (thus corrupting the French academic’s notion of cinephilia).

He continues by deriding the blogosphere:

This is the source of the witty riposte or sarcastic put-down’s being considered the acme of critical language. The Algonquin Round Table’s legacy of high-caliber critical exchange has turned into the viral graffiti on aggregate websites such as Rotten Tomatoes that corral numerous reviews. These sites offer consensus as a substitute for assessment. Rotten Tomatoes readers then post (surprisingly vicious, often bullying) sniper responses to the reviews. These mostly juvenile remarks further shortcut the critical process by jumping straight to the so-called witticism. This isn’t erudition; as film critic Molly Haskell recently observed, “The Internet is democracy’s revenge on democracy.”

Yikes. This isn’t the first time White’s burned all his bridges:

[Pauline] Kael’s cutting remark cuts to the root of criticism’s problem today. Ebert’s way of talking about movies as disconnected from social and moral issues, simply as entertainment, seemed to normalize film discourse—you didn’t have to strive toward it, any Average Joe American could do it. But criticism actually dumbed down. Ebert also made his method a road to celebrity—which destroyed any possibility for a heroic era of film criticism.

At the Movies helped criticism become a way to be famous in the age of TV and exploding media, a dilemma that writer George W. S. Trow distilled in his apercu “The Aesthetic of the Hit”: “To the person growing up in the power of demography, it was clear that history had to do not with the powerful actions of certain men but with the processes of choice and preference.” It was Ebert’s career choice and preference to reduce film discussion to the fumbling of thumbs, pointing out gaffes or withholding “spoilers”—as if a viewer needed only to like or dislike a movie, according to an arbitrary set of specious rules, trends and habits. Not thought. Not feeling. Not experience. Not education. Just reviewing movies the way boys argued about a baseball game.

Don’t misconstrue this as an attack on the still-convalescent Ebert. I wish him nothing but health. But I am trying to clarify where film criticism went bad. Despite Ebert’s recent celebration in both Time magazine and The New York Times as “a great critic,” neither encomium could credit him with a single critical idea, notable literary style or cultural contribution. Each paean resorted to personal, logrolling appreciations. A.O. Scott hit bottom when he corroborated Ebert’s advice, “When writing you should avoid cliché, but on television you should embrace it.” That kind of thinking made Scott’s TV appearances a zero.

While White regularly gets pegged as an intelligent troll, my personal take is that he usually hits the critical nail on the head, even if he comes across as disproportionately strident. On the other hand, his rage is perfectly understandable when you consider that Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris are allowed to fall into the same categories as most “critics” today.

In other news, my very smart and artistically talented friend, Gene Tanta, has started his own blog about…well, it looks like everything so far.

Sometimes when I happy get
I turn on my television set [click to continue…]

With the creation of one of the high achievements of mankind, Twin Peaks, David Lynch made a world so ecstatic it demanded its own reality. I’ve been really thinking about Julee Cruise and Twin Peaks SO MUCH lately. What makes it so good? Where did this music come from? Who is Julee Cruise *really*!? Why is this music so appropriate after dark?

Lynch obviously takes a lot of cues from Kenneth Anger, particularly Anger’s bike films Scorpio Rising and Kustom Kar Kommandos. With these, Kenneth Anger added simple bubble gum pop songs over ritual cruelty and raw sexuality, (not only inventing music videos,) but also exposing basic desires as a violent, cold thing.

David Lynch uses Julee Cruise in his work the same way, but also in a new way. Lynch and Badalamenti wrote the songs that she recorded for the soundtrack, which are pretty much 60′s pop songs with a lot of 80′s dream-synth-wash. They use this heavy dream-style kitsch to provide emotional information outside of the acting and dialogue. Isn’t that what every soundtrack does? Ok, yes.

BUT It’s no secret that Twin Peaks is a world that is not our own. Most TV shows succeed by mirroring reality enough that we look for our own lives in them. Twin Peaks is the opposite. From the music, to James Hurley’s face, the black and white zig zag floor, the Twin Peaks feeling is so deep and uncanny, that when something happens in our day-to-day world that resonates with David Lynch’s world, well…I guess you make of it what you have to. Here’s all of this really densely in Blue Velvet:

So what happens in a world, our world, when we’ve gone through the looking glass, and come out and still wanted to say something true to our human concerns, but, like, to actually get up a do something serious as an “artist” is kind of a joke, (this is, after all, 50 years after Scorpio Rising, 30 yearrs since Ian Curtis died, and 20 Nirvana got signed to a major) ?

Maybe the people who are getting it right are the ones who don’t seem timeless at all is what I’ve come to understand. Maybe to deliver the absolute truth (don’t quibble) you have to go around a million galaxies (or so it appears) to get at the “real talk” of it. Ryan Trecartin comes to mind. His work is poetry-times-a-million.

I recently saw on TV that one of the farthest flung objects in outer space is a satellite containing almost a hundred languages detailing the instructions of our world to extraterrestrials. It gave me a good visual image of what I was kind of feeling. I guess sometimes you have to go that incomprehensibly out of this world to get an explanation for what the hell is going on, and how the hell we are actually feeling in 2010:

I really love this book.

In their second conversation, Mark Halliday and Allen Grossman attempt to answer the question “Where are we now in the history of poetry?”

I figured I’d highlight a few of the most interesting takes on poets of the last hundred years. I want to then use it as the basis of a discussion on the relation of past poetry (and other art) and its relation to the present situation of poetry. Overall, there is a rather nice arc that Grossman paints…

On the “high moderns” (Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and I think he later includes Crane):

[They] used up the idea of greatness or implicated that idea in complex ways with aspects of civilization…that produced the Second World War….Poetry was not helping us learn how to live because the High Moderns…set poetry against life. They seemed to have established the outcome of poetic enterprise outside of life in unreachable transcendentalisms which no longer made any sense at all [to poets coming after World War 2]. The immediate response to the High Moderns was to conserve them academically and therefore neutralize them, and then to retrench upon the world not of transcendental reality but of what, loosely speaking, can be called an immanent counter-reality.

Lowell came along to take on the mantle of “immanence”:

Life Studies (1959) [was his attempt] to effect a disencumbrance of mediations, to obtain a direct relationship to the life of his own consciousness unmediated by the vast structural impositions of the greatest predecessors, of whom Yeats is the example that most often comes to my mind….I think that the sentiment which surrounded Lowell’s massive and persevering effort to obtain a poetry which was more fully immanent to the world of his consciousness, and less fundamentally characterized by the self-reference of poetry to its own history, represents a response to that predicament which I was speaking of in our first conversation. It represents an effort to obtain a poetry which is in harmony with the life of sentiment; that is to say, the life of human immediacy rather than, as in Yeats, a poetry which demanded of what he called “the intellect of man” that it choose between a perfection of the life, for which he had little talent, and that perfection of the art for which he was so massively gifted.

Grossman is careful to note that Lowell’s search “did not indeed constitute a disavowal of greatness, a disavowal of universal stature.” That is, Lowell did not disavow transcendence in favor of immanence, which Grossman defines as follows: “initially a theological word,…it means indwelling; and that inness always implies an internality to the human world.”

On “immanent” confessionalists:

There is the mortal family and the immortal family. The immanent confessional poets, who announced the world in which you began writing, turn from the transcendental family to the mortal family, attempt to construct a poetry internal to that mortal family, a poetry founded in the notion that the language adequate to produce the picture of the person as precious is consistent with the language of ordinary life.

About Ginsberg:

…in Howl, [he] undertook “to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose” on the basis of immediate relationship between persons. The enormous opening sentence of Howl constitutes an effort to extricate a single relationship from the predation of transcendence upon the fragile scene of human love. In Ginsberg’s poem, the whole world of drugs in indistinguishable from the central culture of decadence, and the angelic transcendence of a prior metaphysicalism embedded in the Beat jargon which he practiced, hardly distinguishable from the Moloch which he calls contemporary society.

Grossman points out that an important shift happened in 1950s America: “the national symbol, always a resource for the grounding of poetic authority, was discredited….The discrediting of the national symbol—“America” for the American poet—continued relentlessly through the sixties and early seventies…and disempowered one great basis for legitimation of the self—the nation.” He goes on to say that “the absence of a world that is organized by authority…[is] enormously disabling, and yet at the same time, enabling in a fashion so open it lacks the magnanimity of direction.”

On Ammons:

…situates his poetry on the fundamentally romantic problem of epistemology, the problem which focuses the business of personhood upon the question as to how the way in which we know the world affects the way in which the world is experienced.

Ashbery:

…[writes] in virtually autistic isolation…a poet whose creative power, particularly whose capacity to conceive of ways of entering into discourse inconceivable to me until he showed the way…seems to search the resources of discourse without ever allowing them to complete themselves….Ashbery is an epistemological genius whose world has arrayed itself around him as a world in which it’s possible for a man to live on condition that he reserves his passion for totality, as it were for another life. His world is a separate world in which it is impossible to meet another soul….Ashbery is not so much an epistemological writer as a writer about ontological orientation.

(Halliday described Ashbery as “melting together…syntactical fragments that could have been quite at home in a poem from an earlier age.” For a fuller explanation of this, I recommend Chris Robinson’s opus on how Ashbery composes poetry.)

OK! Flurry of quotes done. Since this conversation happened in 1981, it seems appropriate to try and update this arc. Admittedly, I left out a few other poets that Grossman had fascinating takes on, mostly for the sake of space and forwarding my rather tidy narrative of poetic fragmentation.

I would be very interested in hearing your reactions to Grossman’s characterizations as well as your own thoughts on the state of current poetry. What follows is mine.

I confess that there seems to me to be a crisis in current poetry. There is so much free space to carve out, nobody knows where to begin, and everyone seems to be waiting for the next great someone to do something that wows. Stephen Ross talks about this in the Oxnian Review, the trend in recent poetry to be hybrids only:

Hybrid poets have also breathed new life into the use of caesura, a break or a sense pause in verse often marked by white space between the words. In this regard, they have been inspired in equal parts by sources ranging from Beowulf to John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Sometimes, they break their lines into a kind of staggered ladder, a la William Carlos Williams. Other times they just write in prose. All of it flows from the postmodern horn of plenty.

Hybrid poets are by-and-large adept, though sometimes shallow, name-droppers from the western and eastern intellectual traditions. In American Hybrid alone, one finds direct references to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone Weil, the pre-socratics, Cornel West, Paul Celan, Hsuan Tsang (a possibly fictitious Buddhist monk), Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ezra Pound, Sophocles, Maimonides, Alfred North Whitehead, Wallace Stevens, J.M. Coetzee, and Hegel. Thomas Aquinas and scholasticism also appear surprisingly often; indeed, the hybrids have a kind of neo-scholastic penchant for (often inane) logic-chopping and for communicating in breathtakingly precise terms.

My sense of crisis lies with this question: Are we so poetically promiscuous out of a sense of freedom or because we don’t know what else to do? Ironically, modern poets name drop as much as Pound and Eliot, but for completely different reasons. For the High Moderns, there was a sense that they could realistically “shore these fragments against [their] ruin.” Today we shore them because we’re garbage collectors of the dump of the past. Less-educated poets often have no idea who they’re channeling. More-educated poets sometimes channel so much it’s suffocating. Moreover, the channeling is less about inspiration, using the poetic past as a way forward.

This brings me to another crisis in current poetry, that of publishing (ironically, I am speaking from the platform of a brand-new poetry blog, self-powered by WordPress). Many of you might have read David Alpaugh’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The New Math of Poetry” in which he repeats the oft-heard lament that the current world of poetry is so large and unwieldy that it is completely impenetrable:

Every now and then someone asks me, “Who are the best poets writing today?” My answer? “I have no idea.” Nor do I believe that anyone else does. I do have an uneasy feeling that a Blake and a Dickinson may be buried in the overgrowth, and I fear that neither current nor future readers may get to enjoy their art.

We recent poets have two great tools at our disposal: freedom of poetic license, and freedom of publishing. Generally, we can say whatever we want, and get a significant number of people to hear what we have to say. The question is whether this freedom has led to better poetry or degeneration. Perhaps that’s not the best way to put it. The question should be, even if somebody is doing something amazing and new in poetry, would we even see it? Will we travel all this way to find that we really did need the gatekeepers of poetry??

What should our attitude be toward the “postmodern horn of plenty” that has affected both poetic license and publishing? Film also seems to be facing a similar crisis with the question of digital vs. film. I found an interview with one of my favorite film critics, Armond White, in which he addresses this question.

Steve Boone: What it suggests to me is that radical visions from people who would otherwise not have been bothered because of the mountain you’d have to climb to get a film completed, the translators you’d have to employ, would no longer be an issue, and you’d take camera in hand. Super 8, Pixelvision, Hi-8—all that stuff was nice, but it was low-resolution and if you put them up against a 35mm projection, audience prejudices would discount these other media. Now we have these new cameras that, if you know how to light and compose and expose, your image is going to be free of those subliminal triggers that provoke an audience to dismiss a film as “not film.” All that stuff goes away.

Armond White: Well, you say “audience prejudice.” I say “audience preference,” because the screen is not a level playing field. And Americans are very fortunate to have had Hollywood, to have experienced–to know– how great photography can be. So don’t give me no bullshit. I know what great photography is. I don’t want to see somebody scrambling with their camera and trying to do things modestly. I’ve seen Joseph August and Gordon Willis. I don’t want anything less.

Two last points:

1. All this reminds me of the indie trend of a few years ago (a trend I think is dead, as indie has largely gone mainstream, right?). Everyone was obsessed with finding/naming the “greatest lost track of all time” (as Wilco put it). Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great “indie” rock—but there’s also a lot of trash.

2. Why do I always feel like I’m complaining in my blog posts? I will say something nice in my next post, or say nothing at all.

3. OK, one more point: Who are the greatest poets writing today?

PROFESSOR: Mary Ann, would you mind reading your poem aloud so that we can hear it in your own voice?

MARY ANN: Absolutely.  Ahem.

Who’s the black private dick
That’s a sex machine to all the chicks?
SHAFT!
Ya damn right!

Who is the man that would risk his neck
For his brother man?
SHAFT!
Can you dig it?

Who’s the cat that won’t cop out
When there’s danger all about?
SHAFT!
Right On!

They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother
SHUT YOUR MOUTH!
I’m talkin’ ’bout Shaft.
THEN WE CAN DIG IT!

He’s a complicated man
But no one understands him but his woman
JOHN SHAFT!

PROFESSOR: Thank you, Mary Ann.  Ok, class, let’s start with the things we like.  Then we’ll move on to the things we think could be improved.

[Long pause.]

AMERICAN STUDIES MAJOR [pensively]: I really appreciate how the poem argues with itself, even contradicts itself—“If I contradict myself,” it seems to echo Whitman, “I contradict myself.”  In fact, I find a lot of parallels between the chief persona in this poem and the Whitman/ Emerson/ Thoreau American Transcendentalist milieu, if you will.  This man, this John Shaft, I think we can all agree, would not exist without Emerson’s tenets so formidably outlined in “Self-Reliance,” am I right?  Am I right?  [Flashes a toothy white smile toward Romanticist.]

ROMANTICIST: [giggles]

[Modernist glares at Romanticist.]

SWAG (Studies in Women and Gender) MAJOR: I disagree.  I think the most provoking contradiction in this piece is when the speaker asserts that Shaft is a ‘bad mother.’  This bends all our preconceptions of male/female roles in a domestic space.  That is the main dialectic at work here, not the juxtaposition of popularity versus existential alienation.

MODERNIST: Really?  So you’re saying that one gender-bending line overshadows the obvious post-modern Prufrockian slant in the entire piece?  I mean, I think it’s pretty clear that when the speaker asserts that no one understands Shaft but his woman, the speaker is being ironic, using indirect discourse to suggest that this is what Shaft has to tell his woman to assuage her concerns regarding her insecurities as a lover.

ROMANTICIST: [gasps, incredulous]

[Modernist glares at her.]

SWAG MAJOR: Um…well, considering where the line comes in the piece…

ROMANTICIST: Well, I for one don’t think [air quotes] His Woman [air quotes] is [air quotes] insecure [air quotes] about her abilities as a [air quotes] lover [air quotes] at all!  I mean, Mary Ann says—

PROFESSOR: The speaker says….

ROMANTICIST: [air quotes] The speaker says [air quotes] that John is a bad mother—can’t we consider what this means in terms of what kind of man John really is?  Mother…mother-love…lover…bad mother/bad lover…bad mother lover…bad mother-fuc…

SWAG MAJOR [continuing]: …the line is clearly the poem’s volta—yes, I would say this is the crux of the entire poem.  And I think it’s unfair to assume that Shaft is the most secure lover just because he’s male.  I mean, if that were the case, why all the verbal overcompensation in the poem?

ROMANTICIST: Exactly.  That’s what I was [air quotes] saying [air quotes].

SYSTEMS ENGINEERING MAJOR [louder than necessary]: See, I read that line, line 13 differently; it seems to be street slang that is then cut off by the secondary voice—or voices—that bring the refrain in each quatrain, those responsible for the majusculated expostulation, “SHAFT!” and the like.  I feel quite strongly, given the way Mary Ann read her piece, that “mother” is part of a longer phrase that undergoes interruption by the voices of the refrain.  This is why it is absolutely imperative that this issue of punctuation be fixed, and the problem can be remedied quite easily by “mother” being followed by an em-dash.

CLASSICS MAJOR: I mean, I think we can all agree that it’s pretty obvious that the secondary voices interacting with the primary lyricist compose the chorus of the piece, yes?  I think Mary Ann need be praised for reinventing this age-old tradition in an entirely fresh way.

MARY ANN: Thank you.

PROFESSOR: Ok, before we move on, any last comments?

ROMANTICIST: Well, I just want to praise the quite visceral interjection we get in the end—[air quotes] “John!” [air quotes] Mary Ann—excuse me—[air quotes] the speaker [air quotes]—cries out.  [air quotes] “John Shaft!” [air quotes], as though, before, we the readers, as well as the populace of the poem, did not know this impervious persona—never really knew him—until this ultimate line, coming after the penultimate, which is also incredibly moving.  Who can possibly understand this [air quotes] “complicated man?” [air quotes]  [air quotes] “No one understands him but his woman.”  [air quotes] [Looks imploringly at Modernist.  Trembles.] No one!  [air quotes] [Weeps.]  [Flees classroom.]

[Long pause]

SLOW IRONIC HIPSTER GUY [to no one in particular]: Hey, ya know what?  I think I’ve—yeah, I’ve definitely heard this somewhere before….