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.

“Love It or Leave It” – Full Circle!

November 19, 2012

There has been a lot of discussion about the surprise, even shock, felt by ‘conservatives’ at the failure of Romney to win the presidency.  Some of it, such as this article in the NYTimes today, has focused on the discomfort of right-wingers with the ‘new’ America.

Well, during the Vietnam War protest era, there was a popular bumper sticker directed at those dissidents:  America-Love It or Leave It!  Now, what goes around has come around, and I say to those guys in Montana and Wyoming who just can’t see where they fit into the new multi-cultural, irreligious, liberal-welfare-state Democratic America:  Love it or leave it, and I’d prefer that you just get up and leave, period!

Those Enemies of the People

August 26, 2012

While in Iceland, I read Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy of the People.  I doubt he could have imagined what could come of that phrase.

I waited a long time to see Enemies of the People, and it just became available on Netflix. One man sets out to document the mass-killing that took place during his childhood.  He is very patient, meeting with people whom he knows were killers for days, weeks, months,  even years, before asking them to tell the truth.  In the case of Brother No. 2, shown above (Pol Pot was Brother No. 1), it did take years until he would admit anything, but the reason for the mass-murder remains elusive.  Was it all the fruit of a deluded paranoia about Vietnamese spies?  In Sideshow, William Shawcross takes the view that the Khmer Rouge, fanatics to begin with, were practically insane after years of enduring B-52 bombings in the jungle, so when they took over, all hell broke loose.

The image below is from a particularly shocking part in which a man demonstrates how he killed hundreds of peasants. (He was one himself.)  Their hands were tied behind their backs, and he put his foot on their back as they lay on the ground, pulling back their heads in a way that made if difficult for them to scream.

Before the reenactment, the ‘victim’ checks the knife and says, “Ah, good!  It’s plastic.”

Full Metal Jacket

September 25, 2011

Those who waste their time at this blog will not be surprised that I think there are film makers, and there are artists who make films, and Stanley Kubrick was one of the artists.  Full Metal Jacket (1987), is his second war film (after Paths of Glory) although war figures in many of his films, of course.

I remember when I first saw it thinking that it was very odd.  It’s actually almost two separate films:  the first part is about training to be a marine; and the second part is about the fighting during the Tet Offensive around the city of Hue, the one that famously had to be destroyed in order to be saved.  Watching the film again, I see better how they fit together.

Matthew Modine plays, Joker, a young recruit who undergoes the brutal, humiliating, and physically exhausting training of all marines.  We don’t know why he, or any of the others, wants to be a marine, and it’s hard sometimes to keep in mind that he’s only a young man, perhaps not even in his twenties.  What does he know about anything?  He seems to have inklings of deeper issues – he explains to a screaming officer that he wears a peace symbol on his body armor and has “Born to kill ” on his helmet because he “was thinking about the duality of man, Sir! the Jungian thing…Sir!”  He definitely seems more drawn to the killing side of man’s nature, however.

Kubrick was fascinated by machines, and the metaphorical process of rendering human beings into mechanical, de-humanized things.  The goal of marine boot camp, with all of its crushing physical labor, endless psychological assaults, and endless, machismo and obscenity, and seemingly pointless drill (invented as a training process during the 18th century, which knew a thing or two about mechanism – think of the battle scene in Barry Lyndon) is to break the man down to nothing and build him back up to a member of the unit.  A man who cannot conceive of himself as separate from the unit, and its mission, and who will obey orders, run towards danger, and fight to the end without flinching.  To make him a part of a fighting-killing machine.  The world outside of the marines ceases to be of importance or worthy of respect:  only the Corps, the unit, and the mission count.  Old norms are dumped: thus, the endless trash-talking about fucking your sister, or your mama, who’s even better

This is what prepares the men for combat in Vietnam, and how this warrior ethic and training play out in the ambiguous, corrupt and murky killing fields of Nam is what the second half shows.  It’s not a pretty picture.  This is no Greatest Generation fantasy that Tom Brokaw might spin into a best seller.  The enemy is not always clear.  Sometimes the enemy may be us.  After all, the first casualty in the film is Pyle, the witless, overweight private (Vincent D’Onofrio), who finally makes the grade, but at the cost of his mind.  Actually, he’s the second casualty:  he shoots his drill sergeant first.

The men have no clear notion of why they are there, and seem perplexed that the Vietnamese don’t appreciate the mayhem they bring. A few soliders, like the screaming officer who says that inside every gook there’s an American trying to get out have very naive, imperial notions.  Others, like the helicopter machine gunner who mows down peasants and water buffalo – Ain’t war hell?  Ha, ha, ha! – have gone over the edge into evil.  Joker observes, but what he thinks is not shown:  he does nothing to prevent it.

The film begins with shots of the new recruits being inducted as maggots by having their heads shaved:  say goodbye to civilian life!  While the drill sergeant is an equal opportunity abuser, disrespecting all races and creeds equally, the white on black, and west on Asian racism is thick, especially once the men are in combat.  In combat, all the men are equal and comrades, but when it comes to priority with whores, the only locals with whom the guys interact, they have to wait in line for whitey.  We leave these gentlemen warriors as the march away from a successful but bloody engagement with a female sniper heartily singing the Mickey Mouse anthem.  Joker’s voiceover tells us of his joy to be alive and short (his balls intact)

Coulddaa, Shoulddaa, Woulddaa…

May 2, 2005

Yesterday’s NYTimes Op-Ed page contained another salvo in the continuing war over the Vietnam War, which ended 30 years ago. Still trying to get it right…This piece was in the ‘revisionist’ mold, i.e. we could have won the war, we were winning the war, but we didn’t know it, and we lacked the resolve to win it. I’m not a scholar of the conflict, so I can only evaluate the piece in light of what I know from my study, and from my particular point of view. From this vantage point, it is a curious work of analysis.

Oddly, the article (“The War We Could Have Won”, by Stephen Morris) devotes nearly half of its space to discussing how the USSR viewed its fractious North Vietnamese allies – they didn’t get on well. The Soviets had contempt for them, and thought that they couldn’t and wouldn’t beat the United States. They fought with the North Vietnamese communists on all sorts of issues. So much for the threatening monolith of international communism, a major justification for our involvement. Dominoes anyone?

Strange that the author puts so much stock in the intelligence estimates of the Soviet Union. These are the same guys who later invaded Afghanistan to create their own Vietnam situation. Yet he claims that the US defeat in the war egged them on to fight that proxy war. Are they a reliable indicator of anything? He says that it is only because the USSR collapsed that Vietnam has changed so much from what it was…uh yeah? Some people knew the USSR would collapse (George Kennan, Senator Moynihan) and they opposed the war partly because they knew the overall rationale was bogus. Morris has a strange way of looking at history because it always supports his argument.

And what is his argument? Basically, it’s that the US could have prevailed militarily. That seems to be the common revisionist stance, but so what? Sure, if we had not “tied one hand behind our backs,” we could have bombed the north into the stone age, we could have risked a greater war with China, we could have, should have…The point is, why were we in a war when we were not willing to go all out? What about the old chestnut, “war is politics carried on by other means?” That is the real question, not whether we could have beaten the other side to a pulp if we had been willing to incur the consequences. Obviously we were not willing, and a good thing too, because it wasn’t worth it, so why were we there in the first place? This question is not hinted at by Morris.

The author also implies that Nixon’s polices were working, that the South Vietnamese government was reforming, etc. Perhaps there were land reforms – I don’t recall – but when? Too little, too late. President Thieu evacuated with a jet loaded with gold bullion – that was our gallant democratic ally. The predicted bloodbath never happened. Yes, Hanoi was a communist dictatorship, and now it is morphing into a Chinese-style dictorship cum economic engine, but the South was an impoverished realm ruled by an utterly corrupt and detached elite. Absent the supposed world push for communist domination, not very different from some of our best friends in the world.

Morris implies that the “air support” we gave the South was all that was needed to keep the North at bay indefinitely. How much support? B-52 runs ad infinitum? How long would that be necessary? I find it hard to square with the images I recall of the South Vietnamese army cutting and running before the marching North in 1975. The North didn’t have air support – why did the South collapse as soon as our planes were withdrawn?

Once again, the larger questions are never asked, and the opinion piece as it is appears to this reader to be an attempt to rewrite history by focusing on a very narrow topic that is irrelevant at this point.