Updike and Out!

November 27, 2012

I have just read what is considered one of John Updike’s best novels, Rabbit Redux, the second of four telling the story of Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom’s life.  I found it to border on revolting, almost claustrophobic in its ‘conservative’ resignation to…well, almost everything, misogynistic of course, smug and obtuse about race in America – I could go on.  Updike is obviously an extremely intelligent man, and he writes beautifully, but what is style without content?  What is intelligence without critical appreciation?  Writing a novel isn’t a practical matter, just laying it all out, like engineering!  If you really want a good take-down of the man’s work, you cannot do better than the Gore Vidal in this review of Updike’s memoir and (then) latest novel.

My first exposure to Updike was Roger’s Version, which seemed little more than trash to me, but I was assured by fans that it was the very worst of this prolific writer’s output.  I had read some of his literary reviews and found them sensitive and interesting:  I’d even liked a short story and poem or two that I’d run across.  Time to give him another chance I thought.  While Rabbit Redux is a world away from Roger’s Version, the themes and content are very similar, and I’m done with Mr. Updike.

I had to grit my teeth to finish Redux, it was so deeply boring.  Harry/Rabbit understands little, questions nothing, and acts on instinct, all the while claiming to feel guilt.  I think this is how Updike seeks to portray the beautiful ordinariness of peoples’ lives.  Harry also hits his wife and the eighteen-year old rich drug addict runaway whom he takes in after his wife leaves him.  He and a loony black radical, another house guest  the one pushing dope on the girl, use her as their sex slave while they read Frederick Douglas’ autobiography to one another.  Harry also has a kid who witnesses much of this, whom Harry give beer to drink, and before whom he swears profusely and smokes pot.  He also complains the world is going to hell and that hippies have no respect for their country – go figure.

It sounds melodramatic, and maybe even interesting, but it’s all so flat, so filled with descriptions of the material minutiae of the 1960s, and the people all seem on autopilot, that it is simply excruciating.  Updike is considered a giant of the realist tradition, but to me, none of it seems real: more like the fantasy of reality imagined by an overly literary and intellectual man who is for some reason preoccupied with religion and authority.  Consider:  Harry works as a linotype operator, and comes from a working class family.  His sister goes to Hollywood to become an actress but ends up as an expensive whore.  Everyone in the family seems fine with this:  not a peep about choices, lifestyle, disappointment, anger, whatever, when she breezes home for a few days.  She and Harry chat about fucking a lot.  Just like brothers and sisters everywhere, right?  Maybe I’m naïve…

I could go on a lot about everything in this book that I didn’t like, didn’t believe, or couldn’t fathom, it was so elaborately pointless – the extended descriptions of Harry’s masturbating for example.  The lame discussions of the politics of the Vietnam War.  The constant looming of sex as a instinctual drive that seems to give no one pleasure.  The fact that neither Harry nor anybody else seems to want to try to figure out a way to do something with their lives that satisfies them.  Harry’s love for his son that seems limited to his view of him as a biological extension of himself and that certainly does not involve any care for his welfare beyond asking the drug addicts he harbors not to shoot up in front of him.  And… oh, never mind.

He sure does write sentences well, though.


Rodriguez, Detroit Sugar Man

September 4, 2012

Before I left to go to the Detroit area for the Labor Day weekend, I read a review [tepid] of a new novel, Say Nice Things About Detroit.  Well, the city has one hell of a FREE jazz festival over the holiday weekend, and I heard some excellent music there.  The whole thing is presided over by the weird Minoru Yamasaki building (he designed the original WTC in NYC) seen in the background of the photo on the left, below.  This band, Papo Vazquez and his Pirates Troubadours was wild, with their Afro-Puerto Rican Modern Jazz blend.

Detroit Jazz Festival

The cultural high point of my stay was seeing the movie, Searching for Sugar Man.

Sixto Rodriguez was a folk-rock singer and songwriter in the late 1960s:  he put out two albums, but they were flops.  The people who knew him are in awe of his talent, and mystified as to why he never caught on.  But he did catch on in South Africa during its anti-apartheid period, and his records were wildly popular.  He never knew anything about it, and after his brush with the music industry, went back to ordinary life.

Rumor had it that he had died in spectacular fashion, an on-stage suicide.  Two South African fans decide to get the real story, and they find to their amazement, that he is alive and well, living in Detroit.  (Right near where I was that weekend, in fact.)  He is incredulous at their tales of his South African super-stardom, “You’re bigger than Elvis there!” but he agrees to go on tour.  He sells out stadiums.

This movie is weirdly enchanting in many ways: The tale of a man returning from the dead;  the fan-turned-detective’s thrill; a fairytale of  a man ignored finally getting recognition for his work; perhaps another sorry tale of the music industry stealing from an artist, but that’s not completely clear; and the man himself.  This last bit is what fascinated me the most.

Rodriguez is an very unusual man:  that come through clearly.  He is deeply non-materialistic.  When his fame falls upon him, he is totally uninterested in the perks, the limos, the hotel suites, the papparazzi.  He is unfazed by the cheering throngs, serenely responding with joy to their love of his music.  That’s what he’s about – his art, his poetry, his music.  He seems like a Buddha-type.  When the detective-fans finally meet him (they are in a daze of disbelief that this is happening) he is living in a completely rundown apartment in Detroit, making his living, as he has for years, working as an hourly interior demolition worker.  (He also earned a degree in Philosophy, and raised three daughters.) It reminded me of Alexander the Great finally meeting his hero, Diogenes, whom he found living in a tub.

His music is really good, though I prefer it more or less acoustic-solo, rather than with the string arrangements.  Why didn’t he make it?  He’s clearly not the type who would stress and strive to do the things one must do to make it in the business – that has to be part of the story.  He’s touring now, though.


Balmy and Clod

June 17, 2011

I remember in sixth grade after a vacation, sitting and listening while each classmate was asked what he or she did over the break.  Several girls responded in this fashion:  “On Monday, I saw Bonnie and ClydeOn Tuesday, I saw  Bonnie and Clyde again.  On Thursday, I saw…”  I saw it too, but only once.

Some people criticized the film for glorifying a couple of outlaws – the usual culture-war stuff in the 1960s and early 70s.  Watching it yesterday, it seemed to me that the bank robbers were portrayed as utterly pathetic losers, uneducated and ignorant, stifled by their small-town lives in an era of economic disaster.

Clyde announces his masculine deficiencies right off, at the very start of the film.  First, symbolically:  He declares to Bonnie that he cut off some toes to escape work detail in prison.  Secondly, after a small robbery and heady getaway, he rejects Bonnie’s frenzied sexual advances and declares, “I ain’t no  lover boy.”  He’s a great shot with a pistol, though.

I was prepared to not like this film – another over-rated artifact of the 1960s effervescence – but, in fact, it is very good.  Spare, and very dark.  The editing is so crisp, keeping the pace going, and commenting on the smallness of the characters and their foolish, clueless self-aggrandizement.  Of course, it all builds towards that concluding fusillade, that made the film such a favorite for my sexually precocious, or curious, female classmates.  Doomed lovers are always a popular theme.

Clyde is impotent, although he does manage to perform at last, near the end.  They drive towards the final ambush, eating fruit, dribbling juice down their faces.  (Reminded me of the pre-sex meal scene in Tom Jones.)  Of course, sex is not what’s coming, or is it?  Sex-Death, the eternal couple, dancing on display here.  Eros and Thanatos.  Bonnie, cheated of earthly ecstasy, seems to achieve it in death.  The stylistic and thematic debt to the too-little-known Gun Crazy is enormous.

And of course, there’s this!


Before the Revolution…there was the word.

March 6, 2010

It’s good to keep in mind that Bertolucci was in his early twenties when he made Before the Revolution, and that the protagonist, Fabrizio, is only twenty himself.  The film is bursting with ideas and cinematic effects like somebody besotted with the art, and his talent – it even satirizes the archetypal super serious cineaste in one scene!  There are times when it might even seem to some like a parody of the serious European avante-garde film – Woody Allen’s spoof was mentioned by my wife – but it is, in the end, a fabulous movie!

A movie, but the texts have it!  A film about people obsessed with words and texts.  Who can take them seriously, especially if you’re an American, raised in a culture where politics is a corrupt circus for grasping old farts that means nothing to anyone?  Especially a generation (or two) after the revolution, or at least after the revolution that never was, the 1960s?  Who watching this film now can relate to Fabrizio’s intellectual predicament, his desire to be more radical than thou, while also being one with the people and hating his family background, while loving his aunt, Gina…?  What a mess!

Fabrizio is the son of a Parma family of bourgeoisie – the kind that lives in a creaky old palace filled with 19th century furniture and chandeliers.  It’s stuffy as hell, so he is taking lessons from a serious fellow with glasses, the local school teacher who also tutors young men in the ways of communism.  He’s smart, but tough – he tells Fabrizio that he “talks like a book,” but the student is only trying to be good, spouting the words of his tutor’s masters.  When Fabrizio brings Gina, his aunt and lover to meet the teacher, they all duel in quotations read from books on the shelves.  Who does Gina quote?  Oscar Wilde.  My favorite socialist.  ( How Oscar would have laughed at the pretentious statements by Fabrizio’s friend about the relative morality of this over that shot in cinema!)

Marxist texts, Proust, Wilde, and finally, Moby Dick, of all things.  Fabrizio buckles under to history and family, and decides to get with the bourgeois program:  He marries his very pretty, but supposedly dull, childhood sweetheart.  A perfect match.  As Fabrizio gets a wedding send off – he’s only seen from the back – and moves off into middleclass embalment, Gina furiously kisses his younger brother’s face and hair in an agony of displaced and frustrated love.  The teacher recites to his young students the speech of Captain Ahab in which he makes clear to his crew the nature of the absurd and furious quest to which they have signed on…  Is it Life?

Some scenes:

During an outing, Fabrizio and Gina visit an old friend of hers, Puck.  He is a dead-end aristocrat.  In an operatic speech, he bewails the destruction of the old order natural and social, as the camera soars over the landscape, soon to be bulldozed by progress

Fabrizio and his tutor check on the the People at the annual Festival of Unity.  They seem to be out of step with the masses.

The wedding seals Fabrizio’s fate, and Gina’s.

No revolution.  Not for Fabrizio.  Not for the schoolkids

Certainly not for Gina.


2001: A Space Odyssey

December 28, 2008

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Once or twice a year, I watch 2001, my favorite movie, although I don’t always watch it straight through.  I have seen it so many times!

2001:  A Space Odyssey is Kubrick’s masterpiece, and, I believe, one of the greatest movies of all time.  It is a poetic statement in movement and music, almost a ballet, of ideas and fantasies about the nature of man in the universe.

The brilliance of this movie is apparent in so many ways, but I will list a few of them that always strike me:

  • The special effects are stunning, imaginative, and convincing.  No other science-fiction film has produced imagined futures that continue to look so credible after forty years!  The technology he presents is not flashy, sometimes it even seems dull, but it always looks real.
  • There are several profound themes at play in this movie:  the nature and source of intelligence; man’s condition as a special sort of animal; man’s relation to his machines and the danger of dehumanization in technological society.
  • Kubrick has succeeded in distilling the poetic essence of the story that Arthur C. Clarke produced, and he has jettisoned the adolescent and simplistic element that Clarke’s writing always has.  [See my post.]  In much of sci-fi writing, a good idea is given a poor treatment.  Kubrick takes Clarke’s idea, and turns it into an epic meditation on human consciousness, and he avoids the literalness that torpedoes Clarke’s writing.  The story ends up ambiguous, provocative, puzzling, and engrossing the more you allow yourself to be teased by it.
  • The pacing of the film is wonderful – slow and stately, with minimal dialog.  The images and the music tell the story at a level below the consciousness of speech.

Take a look…

At the “dawn of man,” a mysterious slab appears and excites the ape pre-men.  They act as if they worship it.  What would you expect them to do in such a situation?  Is this the nature of religion?  What is this slab?  We never know, except that it is clearly sent by a superior intelligence.  This idea, fundamentally absurd, was seriously believed by Clarke, and is championed today by Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.  What was the origin of that life, I wonder? Kubrick isn’t fazed – he grabs the essential weirdness of the idea, the feel of wonder about how we got here that is at the center of it.

Contact with the slab sets off a spark in the ape’s mind.  The notion of a tool is born.  Tools to hunt with, to get meat, to make the group stronger.  The entire clan must know of them.  And tools for defense, or offense against rival clans!

Ape men excited      Hmm..tool.  Good idea.   Visions of meat!

1-ape-meets-slab 2-what-is-tool 4-images-of-food

Power!  Culture…teach the kids  Power for life or death!

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The ape roars and throws his bone tool in the air – it rises, rises, falls, rises and falls into the most breathtaking cut in history, leaping across four million years into the Space Age.  It’s such an outrageous edit, it demands that we accept it as artifice (Imagine a caption…”Four million years later…”) yet it astonishes and delights.

Exaltation: the power of life, and the power to bring death!

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A space shuttle and an orbiting station dance to the Blue Danube’s waltz.  A man dozes, alone in the passenger cabin while a pedestrian romance plays on the screen in front of him.  Of course, it’s a man and a woman in a car – a machine had to be there!  The shuttle lands on the station in a choreographed rotation, the first of many images of penetration acted out by machines. [A Kubrick trope:  Recall the opening refueling sequence in Dr. Strangelove.]  Machines that have human traits, humans that seem devoid of human traits, machines pulsating with sexual imagery – it’s a strange Kubrick world.

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Leaving the space station, a pod takes the traveler to the moon base.  The seed-like capsule is accepted into the interior of the moon through an enormous set of mechanical petals.  The interior is bathed in red light evoking the womb.

11-docking 12-entering

After a briefing, the traveler flies with his colleagues to a secret excavation on the moon where the slab has been uncovered.  The men eat sandwiches and drink coffee, seemingly uncaring or incapable of absorbing the enormity of what they have found – clear and irrefutable evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.  They know nothing of the slab, except “that it was deliberately buried two million years ago.”

“Hmm…deliberately buried…Well, you fellas have certainly found something.”  “More coffee?”

At the site, the men pose for a group photo, as would any tourist.  Once again, Kubrick captures the cliche and the mundane, and puts it to work.  While they pose, the slab emits a piercing signal directed at Jupiter.

12-some-coffee 12-photo-op

A mysterious space mission to Jupiter is launched to get to the root of all this slab nonsense – the Odyssey begins.  Odyssey, a mythic, epic journey.  Also, let us not forget, a homecoming.  Odysseus was going home to his wife and son – is the crew going home to Jupiter, returning to the origin of their intelligence?

The ship looks like a giant phallus, or a mechanical sperm.  The all seeing eye of the on-board computer, HAL9000 is everywhere.  He speaks with a casual, flat, almost cloying warmth.  His ‘eye’ looks to me like an egg or a growth in a petrie dish – biologico/mechanico.

12-male-principle 13-hal9000

Hal has his problems.  Only he knows what the mission is about, and he’s not sure that the men, i.e., the non-machines are up to it.  It seems to go to his head, and he makes an erroneous prediction that a component is going to fail.  Or was it all a clever stratagem to get the crew off the ship together?  Frank and Dave realize that HAL is kaput, so they retreat to secluded spot to plan their next move.  HAL, however, can follow their conversation by watching their mouths move.  Some say we will know we have developed intelligent machines not when they can speak, but when they can read our lips.

HAL kills Frank, and Dave goes out to get his body.  On returning, HAL refuses to acknowledge the command, “Open the pod bay, HAL.”  An awkward conversation ensues across empty space; HAL on the giant ship, Dave in the pod.  The mechanico-genital imagery is in evidence.  HAL tells Dave the obvious – “This conversation can no longer serve any purpose.”

14-lets-chat 16a-open-the-door 15-conversation-over

I offer the image below – Dave cradling Frank’s body with the mechanical arms of the pod – as an example of the only scientific “error” I have noticed in the film.  The lamps of the space pods and of the lights around the excavation on the moon are always shown with a corona glare – there is no such thing in space where there is no atmosphere to diffuse the light rays.  Was this an accident or poetic license?  (Kubrick never gives us sounds in deep space, unless we are meant to understand that they are heard by humans inside their suits or vehicles.)

14a-hazy-error

Here we have it, the epic struggle.  Man vs. his monstrous antagonist.  Man vs. machine.  Man vs. himself, his own creations?  Dave, in his haste to retrieve his comrade, Frank, left the Mother Ship without his space helmet.  He resolves to re-enter the ship through the emergency airlock, something that HAL cooly observes “will be rather difficult without your helmet, Dave.”

Dave is, however, our Odysseus, and Odysseus was always called “The wily Odysseus.”  He is clever, and never at a loss for an idea.  The essence of man the tool-maker triumphs over his own super-computer.  Dave blasts himself into the vacuum of space inside the airlock in the climactic moment of the struggle, and manages to activate the mechanism to close the door.  The abrupt transition from dead silence to the defeaning roar of life-giving air rushing into the sealed lock signals his sucess.

Dave moves resolutely to wreak havoc on the brain of the one-eyed cyclops, HAL, disconnecting his “higher functions” while the repentant computer pleads piteously with him to stop.  Are not these higher functions, the same ones that sent man on his trajectory to meat eating and war?

HAL reaches his second childhood and asks if Dave wants to hear him sing a song.  “Yes, HAL, sing it,” replies Dave.  Dave, too, will get to his second childhood.

17-the-hard-way 18-sing-it-hal

With HAL shut down, the rest of the crew killed by the computer while in their coma-cacoons, Dave learns from an auto-activated recording the purpose of the mission, and sets off in his pod to Jupiter, led on by the slab that mysteriously appears  in front of him.  In a tour-de-force of special effects beloved of potheads and acid-freaks everywhere, Dave goes to “Jupiter and beyond the infinite.”  What that means, we don’t know exactly, but we don’t care.  Dazzling sights, weird sounds, and frightening stop-action imagery, derange our sense of time and space as we join Dave for his, and humanity’s last voyage.

19-off-we-go 20-flying 21-stop-action

29-jupiter

The cold, airless, and lifeless reaches of interstellar space reveal themselves as strangely organic in yet another metaphoric transformation by Kubrick.  The mineral shall be made flesh – is that not what we ourselves are, living, thinking matter, all of a piece with the elements of the universe?  We are mostly hydrogen and oxygen, i.e. water…

There is a hint of the birth to come in an image that resembles the star child at the end, and the purpose of Dave’s journey is made clear in the interstellar spermatazoa shown at the lower right below.  He is the seed.

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The mind-bending sequence that follows goes way beyond surrealism.  It succeeds in totally disorienting the viewer in his conceptions of narrative, time, space, and location, without resorting to easy avante garde tricks.  The music by Georgy Ligeti is wonderful.

Where am I?  Where is where?  When am I?  Where am I going?

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Why am I here?  What was that noise?  Oh, there I am.  On my deathbed.

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The slab returns once more.  Dave knows what he must do, he must touch it.

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Something new is born.

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A pair of pictures related to this final image:  Christmas & Christmas

The enigmatic blogger, Pancime, commented in an exchange begun  on the esteemed blogger Jahsonic’s pages (He thought 2001 was boring!) that he thought the story of  David Bowie’s  Man Who Fell to Earth might be the tale of what happened to 2001′s starchild once he actually landed back “home.”  An excellent observation, as that film is clearly influenced by and a comment on 2001.

 


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