Friday, February 23, 2007

Friday Poetry: John Berryman

Once again, heavy on the dead white males lately. In light of my previous post, that's a little ironic. But this one's been in my head, and next week I promise to break the pattern.

John Berryman
Dream Song 76: Henry's Confession

Nothin very bad happen to me lately.
How you explain that? —I explain that, Mr Bones,
terms o' your bafflin odd sobriety.
Sober as a man can get, no girls, no telephones,
what could happen bad to Mr Bones?
If life is a handkerchief sandwich,

in a modesty of death I join my father
who dared so long agone leave me.
A bullet on a concrete stoop
close by a smothering southern sea
spreadeagled on a island, by my knee.
—You is from hunger, Mr Bones,

I offers you this handkerchief, now set
your left foot by my right foot,
shoulder to shoulder, all that jazz,
arm in arm, by the beautiful sea,
hum a little, Mr Bones.
—I saw nobody coming, so I went instead.

Oscarblogging, Year the Second, Part the Fourth: Maaahhhchismo

I know, I know, I KNOW Hollywood's always been a boy's club. This year, for whatever reason, it's bugging me disproportionately.

The Departed is an excellent film. It really is. I'm by no means a Scorsese expert, but based on my viewing of this film alone I do hope he wins the Best Director Oscar, 'cause that's some bloody *masterful* work, keeping that level of depth, pace, development, visual engagement in a two-and-a-half-hour film. Matt Damon carried the whole thing off with concision and grace, I didn't quite realize Mark Wahlberg was Mark Wahlberg until the end of the film (that's a compliment), and I was quite impressed with Leonardo DiCaprio, a phrase that hasn't even entered my mind since What's Eating Gilbert Grape. (Nicholson was perfectly fine, but only in The Sopranos does the mob boss have anything really interesting or challenging to do.) I responded to the violence, which is to say, it was not nor was it intended to be desensitizing, which in a crime thriller is no small feat. Every killing mattered, had an impact on viewers (I speak as one of the most desensitized to film violence among the people I know) and characters, had both a moment of shock and a sense of inevitability to it. It's a tight script and mind-blowing editing. I like it, and I'm frustrated by how much I like it.

The only female character, using the word "character" to mean "someone in the film who actually does something in the film," is Vera Farmiga's Madolyn. Through her performance the character becomes a little bit more than the cherchez-la-femme figure, she can only push it so far. Matt Damon's character keeps his entire life from her, his social worker girlfriend-turned-wife; Leonardo DiCaprio's needs her as a nurturing, comforting resource, and that's all she's got. There are three other peripheral women—the mob boss's sexy lover, the sexy state police secretary in tight jeans, and the heavy working-class Irish aunt—but, as should be obvious from those descriptions, there's not much to them. It's a boy's club movie, a shining example of Margaret Atwood's frustrating statement, "You can have a men's novel with no women in it except possibly the landlady or the horse," a statement that one would hope had dated in the twenty years since its publication. Okay, yes, the crime and cop syndicates are men's worlds, and Scorsese is probably portraying them honestly—though in a contemporary context, might there not be a few more female players?—and I can't even pull out the truth-and-insight distinction here, as it's quite an insightful film, winding tightly and beautifully around itself and around us, its audience. But I can't shake the feeling that, no matter how much I like it, it's just another dick film. I don't like that thought any more than I like liking the movie.

The trouble, really, is of the four Best Picture nominees I've seen thus far, The Departed seems to me the most deserving of the award. As someone who admires artistry first, I want it to win; I don't want the false social consciousness that honored Crash to reward Babel, Little Miss Sunshine doesn't have the resonance it seems to think it does, and The Queen is more Mirren's virtuoso performance than anything else. (And Iwo Jima might give me even more trouble in the boys' club category.) But I don't want it to win, because I don't want to encourage the cheap imitations of it that are sure to follow (or, for that matter, that have preceded it); in the hands of a lesser director and lesser actors, it really would have just been a bunch of guys sitting around throwing testosterone at each other. Having considered this writing project a project of social criticism, this boys' club thought is certainly one I have to pursue, but I don't know if making a judgment based upon it is okay.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Friday Poetry: Robert Frost

Robert Frost
Acquainted with the Night

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Oscarblogging, Year the Second, Part the Third: Slightly Amiss

Today: Little Miss Sunshine.

The mainstream press has a tendency to conflate quirkiness with a lack of sentimentality, and they're not at all mutually exclusive, as the movie is definitely both. I'm not surprised at its success, the way most people seem to be: it offers a very cushy family-oriented message while still maintaining its weirdness, which combination is designed to please many different kinds of audiences, in a manner that feels to me a little bit cheap and a little bit disingenuous.

But hey, it works. I liked the movie much better than the above paragraph makes it sound, mostly because of the very fine performances upon which it depends. Abigail Breslin, who I remember as being nightmarishly, cloyingly cute in Signs, has really come into her own here: she delivers a centered, honest performance on which the movie completely hinges. Her character, Olive, just is who she is—obviously the real theme of the film—and there's nothing else to her, no cuteness or falsity or presentation. Breslin (who's really eleven rather than seven, but hey, while you got it as a child actor, use it) is the movie's anchor. You understand perfectly why her family members love her, you understand how her complex influences are made manifest in her without overwhelming her. She's just a kid, an honest kid with honest, kidlike desires, and it makes sense that people want to accomodate them as best they can.

Greg Kinnear isn't very interesting to me. He's perfectly functional, but I can't recall ever being either blown away or really interested in him—though I'd welcome a contradiction there as long as it's not Fast Food Nation. In this, he's neither quite funny nor upsetting. He doesn't take on his extremes and embody them with enough power, and as such the character just came off as a little bit pointless, though the idea of his journey was interesting. Toni Collette, on the other hand, impresses me, because she tends to be cast in roles somewhat poorly scripted, or at least underdeveloped in writing, and always creates a full, complex, compelling character to fill that space. In the hands of a lesser actor her role would have been stereotypical and pointless, a character interesting only in the fact that she'd ever chosen to marry this stupid, boring, pointless jerk. But damn. And we gotta love the Paul Dano and Alan Arkin, the latter of whom I've probably failed to recognize on TV or in film on at least a dozen occasions, he's so omnipresent and such a chameleon.

Steve Carell proved his chops to me as an actor, an actor about whom I don't have to make distinctions like "comic actor," in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, but I know for a lot of people, this was the revelation. And reasonably so; he's pretty bloody impressive. The relationship between Frank and his nephew Dwayne is touching, even though it's supposed to be, and as with several of the other actors, the gentle naturalism he displays in a film that tries to pimp its quirks is no mean feat. As Annie said, "I'm glad he got out of the Will Ferrell trap"; what this film does represent is Carell just being an actor, not compelled to push one particular skill or quirk. I'm looking forward to more.

The make-or-break, though, is Ms. Breslin, and I'm really bloody pleased about her Oscar nomination; I hope she wins, though I know she won't. If you didn't trust this kid, if you didn't see her simple pleasure and dedication in her pageant dance routine and her honest love for dirty granddaddy Alan Arkin, the quirky-treacly ending of the movie wouldn't work. I guess it still doesn't exactly, lacking as it does certain tenets of the real world outside the family bus—as I believe a Times reviewer pointed out (I can't remember which one, though I think it was A.O. Scott), it's not likely that a child like Olive would have come even as far as she did on the JonBenet circuit, and honestly that's only the beginning of the reality violations in place when we hit the pageant—but because I as an audience member felt as the other characters did about the child, I could accept its failings. Little Miss Sunshine is not as good as everybody says—it's not the underdog indie that should OBVIOUSLY win—but it's worth my time and I'm glad I saw it.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Friday Poetry: John Ashbery

John Ashbery
Paradoxes and Oxymorons

This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don't have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.

The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot be.
What's a plain level? It is that and other things,
Bringing a system of them into play. Play?
Well, actually, yes, but I consider play to be

A deeper outside thing, a dreamed role-pattern,
As in the division of grace these long August days
Without proof. Open-ended. And before you know it
It gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters.

It has been played once more. I think you exist only
To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren't there
Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem
Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


I just finished Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, as I may be writing the book for a musical adaptation of the piece fairly soon. Ten years ago I read Austen's Emma, and found it such rough and rewardless going that I refused to touch Austen's work again, in spite of the praises several friends heaped upon her, until this opportunity arose.

Sense and Sensibility, while perhaps not superseding any of my established favorite books, was definitely a pleasant surprise. I always expect nineteenth-century novels to have ridiculously dense and inaccessible prose; I certainly didn't find that here. Everything moved along economically, every paragraph and description seemed relevant to the story and characters at hand. The Dashwood family was vivid and comprehensible to me, each character distinctly drawn and somebody I wanted to hear a story about. I wanted to sit down to the book, wanted to spend time in this story, and was surprised to see the measure of independence women were granted in the world Austen portrayed, even as I saw the obvious restrictions.

Most interesting to me, though, was Austen's treatment of compassion, and looking at it in comparison with contemporary, and even modern, novels. In Sense and Sensibility, it's an accepted reality that your feelings about or for others can effect genuine change in you. Contemporary novels, in my experience, assume a level of selfish motivation—assuming that when a character cares about another, it's always driven by a concrete, explicable self-interest. Elinor's feelings for Marianne, Marianne's for Elinor, Elinor's for Colonel Brandon or even for Willoughby, change those characters' behavior and as such the course of the story. It's accepted that Elinor's concern for Marianne can change her not because Elinor thinks it will alter her own self-interested objectives but because Elinor and Marianne have that significance to one another. This is a simple tenet of Austen's world, and I mourn that loss in contemporary arts and their influence on contemporary society. We think we act only out of self-concern, and that our self is contained to survivalist mode. I'm going to attribute that to Freud's influence, to a certain degree—in part I'm doing that out of my ignorance, but if he did not invent the concept of egocentricity he certainly propagated it and had a—perhaps disproportionate, though I'm not sure—influence on the arts. And as I see it, it's just this side of unnatural to ignore that influence.

I know that I myself have argued against the existence of altruism, and I believe I still mean it and that those two positions are not contradictory. So let's look at that.

In college I was for a period fixated on the phrase "she means a lot to me," dissecting what its literal significance, and signifier, was. That question hinged on what "a lot" was, and the conclusion I eventually reached was that the answer was "myself," as in "she means a lot of myself to me." Which is to say that in loving someone we to a certain degree take them into ourselves. Under that assumption, acting out of love for another, being effected by certain events because of your love for another, would be self-interest as well. That sounds both reductive and sophistric (is that actually a word?), but I also think it's true. Our investment in other people changes us, and those changes, those people, become part of us. Love becomes something shared in this manner. It doesn't lessen love to think that, or I don't believe so. In that sense perhaps I am influenced by the Freudian, in terms of believing in the existence and importance of self-interest, but that's pre-Freudian as well; that plays a role in Austen's work. Elinor fights to suppress her self-interest in loving Edward when she learns of his engagement to Lucy, but she can't help but allow it some control. Marianne, of course, indulges her needs too much, but nevertheless is able, when finally learning of Edward's engagement to Lucy, to feel for Elinor, perhaps to feel with Elinor, as Elinor felt with/for her upon Willoughby's betrayal. We mourn when a friendship ends or when someone we love dies, because we have lost our self-knowledge through that person, and our knowledge of that person's self, and the love that comes with knowing someone. Love is, in businessy terms, mutual investment.

Altruism as it's conventionally defined doesn't spring from love; it's impossible for it to do so, because it's too (ostensibly) far-reaching and not specific. It's ostentatious (shared root of "ostensible" and "ostentatious"? Little help?); it's a demonstration of emotions that haven't been fully felt. As in, I don't think something becomes altruistic unless you say it is, which is what makes altruism contradictory. Something is altruistic because you need to feel altruistic, which is a paradox—hence, alfalsism. (You knew I was going to bring that back someday.) The word "compassion" comes from com-, with, and pati, to suffer. If I suffer with you, I'm suffering too. It, whatever is making us suffer, has an effect on both of us. Altruism, doing something solely for somebody else, implies that that thing does not have an effect on you.

Austen writes about compassion, and writes about it as a natural consequence and part of love, any form of love, from the friendship Elinor feels for Colonel Brandon to Willoughby and Marianne's shared preferences in the arts to Elinor and Marianne's sororal intimacy. Compassion has gotten somewhat lost in the contemporary roar of individualism, and reading Austen made me realize how much I missed it.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Oscarblogging, Year the Second, Part the Second: Royal Pain

I'm in love with Helen Mirren.

Let's just get that out there right away. She's ridiculously talented; she's as stunningly sexy at sixty-one as she (reportedly) was at thirty; in the course of her erstwhile career she's both taken tremendous theatrical risks and honestly inspired social change by means of her television acting. She's so poised, and works so hard, and is so successful at it, and one of her major accomplishments in The Queen is that the sexiness that seems so natural in most of her work disappears almost entirely.

The Queen was, for me, a puzzling movie. The combination of Peter Morgan's script and Ms. Mirren's performance were about as good as everybody's said, and I knew it and even found myself moved to tears on one occasion, but I could not for the life of me understand why or how it was happening. I blame that on the fact that I'm American (though my viewing companion would disagree): I genuinely found it difficult to understand, to access, that degree of tradition, restraint, necessity. The movie follows the English government, both royal family and elected officials, in the wake of Princess Diana's 1997 death, regarding the decisions it has to make to represent the populace of a modernized nation driven both by tradition and media. The straightforward flaw of Morgan's script is that his exposition and explication of the royal family are often heavyhanded, veering at the beginning towards parody and at the end towards the fear that an audience might not understand his Point, but such moments are saved by Michael Sheen, Roger Allam, and Helen Mirren.

Mirren, as I mentioned, does a careful, beautiful job. The "careful" applies to how she portrays the character, not the portrayal itself: she goes fully into a character who is not permitted to go fully into herself. It is this contradiction that propels the film, the fact that among the royals, and the Queen in particular, inward action simply *is*, must be, composed of outward inaction, and Mirren skillfully shows a woman living, embodying, this contradiction because she doesn't know or approve of any other way.

I surprised myself at the point where I nearly wept, and as an American viewer, that surprise connected me to the movie out of confusion. Which is to say, I found it difficult to accept that this odd, small reaction to such an odd, small moment did indeed constitute being moved. It's that strange subtle intensity that Sofia Coppola was aiming for, and just missed, in Lost in Translation years ago. Queen Elizabeth doesn't get to show or share her thoughts, as little with Prince Philip as with anybody else; we're really required to take actions and reaction shots as evidence of her thoughts, deduce them for ourselves. To a certain degree every good movie should be, and is, like that, but even the plot itself contains no real surprises; the "historical" events in question took place only ten years ago, and none of them aside from Diana's death seem monumental in themselves.

I'm very curious about what the reaction has been in England, if such political figures as Queen Elizabeth herself and Tony Blair have the time or the inclination to see it and consider it. Given the movie, I'd be shocked if any of them made public statements about their reactions, but I wonder what the movie is like in the country where this experience is something every citizen, and individual leader, owns.

My uneducated prediction would be that this movie does not win the Best Picture Oscar (though I'll be *shocked* if Mirren does not win Best Actress), but I have to say, whatever my feelings, I'd be peculiarly impressed with the Academy if it did. It's such a blatantly non-American movie—lacking even a token American character, showing only a cursory sign of interest in American reactions and happenings ten years ago, and made with a restraint and dignity impossible to find even in (my experience of) the best American films. It's worth seeing, even if you're not in love with Helen Mirren, for the profound sense of cultural alienation you'll experience upon leaving.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Friday Poetry: Donna Brook

Donna Brook
Poem Found on Parents' Night

for Kate Mellon

I said

This is an age
where you need to allow her more
more risk-taking
or you might create
an unnecessary struggle.

Her mother replied

I had a dream
where Kenya told me
she was moving to France
and I said
You can't move to France.
You're only nine years old.
But she did
and I followed her.
When I got there
she was already all set up.
She'd gotten some French parents
to adopt her
and she'd changed her name
to Mozambique.