30.6.10

Into The Wild

Greeted unenthusiastically by a lot of critics when it came out, which is why I never bothered to see it. But it is a friend of mine's favourite film, in part inspiring his own Alaskan adventure. Which just goes to show that the film is not a failure. Its Malik-style epic meandering can work aesthetically and emotionally. It is important to acknowledge this point.

That point noted, I confess I'm no outdoorsy type (surprised?). By my reckoning Sean Penn's debut as a director is no masterpiece. Like many biopics, Into The Wild is just waaaay to reverential towards its subject. There are subtle discordant notes. Chris makes his family suffer (although that is partly excused by the way his actions moralize them). More importantly, at the end of the film, he realizes that solitude does not lead to happiness. But I needed more on this. The film needed to say that running away is not an adequate response to the world's problems. Flight is actually easier than confrontation, struggle, compromise. You could say that Chris is almost being selfish by not engaging. He could have used his genius and his energy to try to change the world, but he didn't.

Instead of going there, the film largely treats him as some kind of prophet converting people on his travels. For me, this just makes him less human, less flawed, and less interesting. Of particular note here is the fact that Chris has no romantic impulse. Penn's film is an incredibly male fim. I swear Kristen Stewart has about four actual lines of dialogue. Chris discusses philosophy and his plans only with men, the ladies just swoon in his (admittedly hunky) presence. And it is only the ladies who swoon, Chris seems to be above such trifling concerns. Why would he care about Kristen Stewart's age if he thinks society is stupid? The excuse doesn't wash. It strikes me that there is something about romance (and women?) that is beneath Chris. He is a pure virginal prophet. Relationships, on the other hand, are messy, difficult, human.

There is just one hint at some deeper explanation. In a conversation with Rainey about his marriage (his wife is busy cavorting with the waves in the distance), Chris comes out with the idea that some people feel they do not deserve love. The film suggests this is an insight into Rainey's character, although it is much more interesting as an insight into Chris himself. Why does he run away from everything? Is it because, underneath the cheery exterior, he harbours an inferiority complex? He feels he does not deserve love? He is not strong enough to deal with the world?

But no. The film prefers to give us his sister's voiceover fawning over Chris's extraordinary self-sacrifice. Call me crazy, but I almost wish the film was about that sister -- that instead of being a passive observer of her brother doing 'great works', she was the active one, the brave one, in staying behind and dealing with her car-crash family situation. That, for me, would have been a beautiful and moving piece of cinema.

29.6.10

Tintern Abbey

We might see the poetry readings two posts back develop into a regular feature. I say this with the full awareness of how many of my promised regular features have indeed become so (the Almodóvar season WILL continue... someday). But now that literature is definitely going to become a pastime, I want to impose some discipline on myself so that it doesn't fall by the wayside. This is the second half of William Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey. Comments follow underneath.

—I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite: a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, or any interest
Unborrowed from the eye.— That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed, for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompence. For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye and ear,— both what they half-create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.

Nor, perchance,
If I were not thus taught, should I the more
Suffer my genial spirits to decay:
For thou art with me, here, upon the banks
Of this fair river; thou, my dearest friend,
My dear, dear friend, and in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart, and read
My former pleasures in the shooting lights
Of thy wild eyes. Oh! yet a little while
May I behold in thee what I was once,
My dear, dear sister! And this prayer I make,
Knowing that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; 'tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e'er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith that all which we behold
Is full of blessings. Therefore let the moon
Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;
And let the misty mountain winds be free
To blow against thee: and in after years,
When these wild ecstasies shall be matured
Into a sober pleasure, when thy mind
Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,
Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies; Oh! then,
If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations! Nor, perchance —
If I should be, where I no more can hear
Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams
Of past existence— wilt thou then forget
That on the banks of this delightful stream
We stood together; and that I, so long
A worshipper of Nature, hither came,
Unwearied in that service: rather say
With warmer love— oh! with far deeper zeal
Of holier love. Nor wilt thou then forget,
That after many wanderings, many years
Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake!

The two dashes we start with bracket Wordsworth describing the experience of nature as sensation without meditation. So here it is fitting to study the sensation the words of the poem create. For me, the long vowel sounds of "the deep and gloomy wood" come up against the stacatto sharpness of "An appetite". The young Wordsworth is skimming the surface of the natural world, like a stone skipping over the surface of a lake.

Now that "thoughtless youth" is gone, "other gifts / Have followed". These have their root in "The still, sad music of humanity". People, civilization, the city, add a new intensity to the experience of nature. Now Wordsworth feels "A presence that disturbs me with the joy / Of elevated thoughts". The word "disturbs" suggests not discomfort but disruption, an imposition from outside the self. A slew of s-sounds follow: "sense sublime", "something", "interfused", "setting suns", conveying the zing of the otherworldly. The four "ands" in the next two lines stack different images one upon another, and build connections between them. "Ands" then give way to "alls", six in five lines. A sense of completeness is reached -- of the All.

But then that "eye" and "ear", and that dash, shrink everything down. How much of the All is perceived, and how much is created? Wordsworth sees the two as the same thing: nature and the senses anchor his soul and feed his creative powers. The sense of the All is his "nurse", "guide" and "guardian".

Even if that sense is lost, Wordsworth says in the next stanza, he has another teacher to turn to. His sister still retains that delight in nature as sensation without meditation. He prays that this ability is not eroded by "evil tongues" and "selfish men", as it has with him. "The dreary intercourse of daily life" can "disturb / Our cheerful faith". Here "disturb" does suggest discomfort. The two "disturbs" set up two opposed impositions on the self: one from nature and one from civilization. One to be embraced, the other spurned.

Wordsworth is able to revive his "past existence" from his sister's "wild eyes", and so remain a "worshipper of Nature", one whose devotion only deepens with time. At the end of the poem, he says he wishes to return the favour. He hopes that his "exhortations" (poems) will provide the same "healing thoughts" whenever his sister experiences "solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief". The creative energy his sister gives him will be put in her service, as well as in the service of Nature.

23.6.10

Why Are You Doing This?

Bit by the Jason bug a little, and got this one out of the library. Animal faces all round, but still the same clinically framed Love vs. Violence drama, clipped sentences and stark visuals in place. Once again, you have to admire the style of the thing. Jason's storytelling is even more beautiful in colour. And once again, what's missing is character, and what's aggravating is Jason's ladies.

I've been trying to read The Second Sex of late (emphasis on the 'try'), which helped nail down Jason's problem. The basic argument of Simone De Beauvoir's classic is that men have defined what being human is throughout history, and everything that is either more or less than human has been projected onto the most convenient 'Other' available -- women. A point very nicely illustrated by Jason's main female character in this book. Geraldine intuitively recognizes the hero's innocence and selflessly helps him out. When asked "why are you doing this?" she responds "isn't this what people do?". No it isn't, it's what they SHOULD do. Geraldine is not a real person, she is an ideal. And one whose main function is to cook the hero's meals and assist him on his quest. She may be perfect, but she is also perfectly submissive. The man is the one who actually does stuff.

The (male) villain is similarly one-dimensional. When asked "why are you doing this?" he doesn't respond, but the follow up gives us our answer: "you've never loved anyone, have you?". Love and violence are two opposing poles, where a lack of one means the other. The hero is the guy in the middle, suffering the assaults of both, and ultimately being destroyed by them. Clever enough, but turning characters into ideas, and then gendering those ideas, strikes me as extremely reductive.

Why are you doing this, Jason? Sort it out. My advice? How about quitting these simplistic fables and dealing with real life.

22.6.10

Two Sonnets

I was set a little test by University College London as part of my application to do their 'Shakespeare through history' masters course, and I remain strangely proud of what I came up with. I found out today that I didn't meet the conditions for getting my place, so I thought I'd post what I wrote for the challenge as a farewell to one possible future me that will no longer exist. For better or worse. Hopefully better...

Compare and contrast these two poems by Shakespeare. You should spend no longer than one hour on this exercise.

These are the poems:

As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put besides his part;
Or some fierce thing, replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s right,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharged with burden of mine own love’s might:
O let my books be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more expressed:
O learn to read what silent love hath writ!
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

If thou survive my well-contented day,
When that churl death my bones with dust shall cover,
And shalt by fortune once more re-survey
These poor rude lines of thy deceased lover:
Compare them with the bett’ring of the time,
And though they be outstripped by every pen,
Reserve them for my love, not for their rhyme,
Exceeded by the height of happier men.
O then vouchsafe me but this loving thought:
‘Had my friend’s Muse grown with this growing age,
A dearer birth than this his love had brought,
To march in ranks of better equipage:
But since he died and poets better prove,
Theirs for their style I’ll read, his for his love.’

And this is my commentary:

The first sonnet begins with two similes: an actor with stage-fright and a 'fierce thing' who has a heart attack. The next four lines relate these two images to the poet's experience. He cannot articulate his feelings with the 'perfect ceremony' they deserve. With no outlet, those feelings oppress and depress him.

The safety vent is writing. Books can be eloquent where tongues are not. To underline the point, the twelfth line is jumbled by an unnecessary 'more', and its final word 'expressed' rhymes imperfectly with line ten's 'breast'.

But the closing couplet seems (to me) to push the solution further than just writing. The poet yearns for his love to 'hear with eyes' -- to listen to what his 'speaking breast' is saying directly. Words capture emotions only imperfectly, and love is bigger than that. Love's fine wit -- its purest expression -- is non-verbal. True lovers do not NEED words.

The second sonnet shares the first's preoccupation with the limits of writing. In a 'happier' future, the value ('dearer') and style ('equipage') of literature will be greater and better than the poet's 'poor rude lines'. But the substance underlying the poet's offerings will remain, at least for the person they are offered to.

The trick in the first sonnet is employed again -- the rhyme on the final couplet ('prove' and 'love') is imperfect, and the final line's flow is broken by a comma. The sonnet is decomposing before us. It will decay, like the poet's corpse, with time. But its fading beauty can serve as a memento for the love it commemorates. Again, words capture emotions imperfectly. But this sonnet goes on to say that words -- all artistry/art -- can serve as a symbol for what we have experienced. Art can endure longer than our physical selves, but even it, eventually, proves mortal.

15.6.10

Irreplaceable

Yeah OK, 'Crazy In Love' is great. The driving horns pump you up high, the bump and grind bring you down low. Repeat with increasing returns. Jay-Z's rap makes the beat even funkier, and the brass goes positively shoegaze at the end. BUT. There's something about the chorus that is a bit... uncrazy. It's kinda docile. There is no big ridiculous diva moment where the vocal overloads the track -- where personality asserts itself. The closest we get to that is the bridge ("baby you're MA-AKING a fool of me!") and it's just not enough for me. I need more Beyoncé.

Hence, 'Irreplaceable'. At first listen a much simpler song -- clever drum pattern, strummed guitar. But its genius is that lyrically it is an enormously inflated and egotistical kiss-off anthem, while musically it is a break-up ballad. Beyoncé isn't shouting, she's crooning. This isn't an argument, it's an internal monologue. She's putting on a front. She's taunting, cruel, invincible -- her next lover will be here in a minute! But her voice is quivering, semi-hysterical. She's falling apart. There is a deadening finality in her resolution to "be NOTHING", and the final jab: "replacing you is so easy" just sounds petty and feeble.

But this is not where the story ends. The second round of "To the left! To the left!" heralds an almost imperceptable shift in tone. There is a build. The chorus sounds bigger. It's like there is more conviction behind it. Beyoncé starts believing that, actually, she IS invincible. There is no hesitation to "you can pack all your bags, we're finished / You made your bed now lay in it". This IS an argument. The song goes from doubt to certainty, weakness to strength. It ends with a beautifully composed melismatic vocal line. Beyoncé finds serenity. She starts to believe the lies she is telling herself, until eventually, the lies become true.

'Irreplaceable' is about transforming yourself. Being confronted with how small and insignificant (how replaceable) you are will cripple you. The only way to deal with that is to convince yourself that you ARE, in fact, irrepaceable, despite the evidence. The final twist in the drama is that for Beyoncé to feel this way, she must first begin by denying others the right to feel this way. The lies that establish your self-confidence are about how others are worse than you are. The 'truth' the song reaches is fragile. If psychological serenity is built on destroying someone else's, the cycle will continue. Beyoncé will just have her heart broken again. Buried within the triumph at the end of the song is a dark secret -- humanity's unwavering impulse towards hierarchy, and the impossibility of true love.

The New York Four

Being a Brian Wood / Ryan Kelly collab about a girl adjusting to college life in New York City. The sheltered teen learning to socialize plot should appeal to me of all people, and yet... it is just a little... flat. Something is not quite... there. I'm left feeling a bit... bored.

Demo leaves me with the same unfulfilled feeling, season two even more than season one. Northlanders, on the other hand, does not. Neither does DMZ. And Supermarket -- Wood's team-up with the incomparable Kristian Donaldson -- just blew me away.

All very intriguing. Wagwan Brian?

The New York Four helped me figure out the reason behind these reactions. Although the comic tries to evoke a (very rosy) sense of the Big City, it mostly remains a straight-up soap. The stress is on character, not world-building. And Wood's characters feel a bit run-of-the-mill. They are a lot less interesting than they appear. They LOOK like they SHOULD dazzle, but they don't. I think the source of my ennui probably comes down to Wood's complete aversion to humour. There is no ENERGY in the dialogue. The lack of wit makes everyone seem remarkably straight-laced, despite all the personal problems they are dealing with. The unremitting earnestness just ends up feeling dry. There is no BLOOD in the melodrama.

Wood's background (according to his wiki) is in illustration and design, and I think it shows. He gets phenomenal work out of his artists. You are never going to find an ugly Brian Wood comic. And when those comics are about the world the characters live in (Northlanders, DMZ, Supermarket), it works. You are seeing something new, and the rush can feel incredible. But when there is no world to hide behind, Wood's characters emerge as rather anemic and unexiting. He should focus on the political rather than the personal. If he wants to keep ME happy, that is. Everyone else seems to like what he's doing just fine...

[Admin note: oh blogger, you just get more and more beautiful!]

10.6.10

A Room Of One's Own

You fall in love with Virginia Woolf as you read this -- so funny, so wise, so humane. The argument is a simple one: only when women can afford a room of their own will they be able to write good fiction. What interests me particularly is Woolf's idea of what good fiction is. She thinks patriarchy disfigures the writing of women of talent -- the bitterness it provokes makes the author impose herself on her work. The novel becomes a piece of 'self-expression' rather than art. And what makes fiction art? The ability Shakespeare and Jane Austen had, of removing themselves from their work, and letting their characters speak for themselves.

This poses a problem for me. My two favourite novelists are James Joyce and George Eliot, and what I like about them is precisely that they put so much of themselves into the stories they write. In terms of graphic novels too, what I have most responded to is autobiographical work: Blankets, Fun Home, Maus (although I wouldn't really want to read the latter again). I'm sure that if I ever do write any kind of fiction, I would naturally gravitate towards this kind of brutally honest, redemptively embarrasing stuff. Would it be bad art as a result? For me, it is the kind of art that moves me most.

7.6.10

How I love Virginia Woolf...

"Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size" -- A Room of One's Own

6.6.10

Love, Lovesickness, Envy, Voyeurism

Love means finding someone you think is more awesome than you are.

Lovesickness means feeling unworthy -- when you consider attaching yourself to your beloved to be an act of selfishness, because you may be depriving them of someone better than you.

Envy means being confronted by your own weaknesses, and projecting that negativity onto those who do not have your weaknesses.

Voyeurism means not being brave enough to inflict your weaknesses on someone else.

4.6.10

What Would I Want? Sky

It is sunny right now in London, a perfect time to get acquainted with this song good and proper. I realize the entire blogosphere has covered this ground already, but oh wow Animal Collective! You boys sure do spoil us.

'My Girls' was all shimmering anxiety building to triumphant resolve. 'What Would I Want? Sky' is more obviously a song of two parts. It starts with a claustrophobic cacophony -- bruising drums and echoed ululations. You're fighting ghosts underwater, ghosts chanting what sounds like "blue jeans" at you. Freaky. You want to get out. And then the song surfaces, and becomes all shiny and new. And then the sample kicks in. And the beat. And the verse. And it gets difficult again. You cannot get a grasp on the groove, even though you want to: "the point of horizon is hiding from you". The song is reaching for transcendence -- to fit the pieces together into a glorious whole. And it just about manages it when the vocal and the sample join together at the end, but only for a few exquisite seconds. Then the vocal is gone, and the sample cuts out unfinished. What would I want...

The actual lyrics suggest this is about the band living in the city, and wanting to escape it, geographically and spiritually. What I find interesting is the use of the sample (from the Grateful Dead, a big influence apparently). I can't help getting a little Harold Bloom on that detail -- perhaps the song is also about trying to capture, and match, the music that has influenced the band. The eternity it seeks is (on a more mundane level) an artistic one.

But all of that is just pointless intellectual diversion. You should be floating, not weighed down by thinking. If you have ever yearned for anything, throw on this song and ride that cresting wave.

2.6.10

Juno

Not a film about teenage pregnancy, doofus. Those tripping that it is all quirk and no reality, listen up -- the film works as fable. No srsly, listen! Mark and Vanessa are avatars for Juno's warring natures. The film is about growing up, which is defined as figuring out what you want. Everything else is comedy.

Point underlined by the look of the thing. Note the cartoony opening credits sequence, and the fact that the film radiates colour. Even its bleakest scene looks warm. And speaking of, that extreme long shot of Juno pulling her van back onto the motorway, a train moving slowly on one side, a river flowing on the other. What a frame! A visual symbol, surely, of Juno being wrecked by the pull of opposing forces: passion, reason; innocence, experience; Mark, Vanessa. May we have some applause for Mr. Jason Reitman, please?

And isn't Diablo Cody amazing as well? Let's look at the name she picks for her heroine: Juno, the Roman queen goddess. Beautiful, mean, and envious of her husband's infidelities. Juno lives up to her namesake in her attack on Bleeker for asking the much ridiculed Katrina De Voort to the prom. For me, this layering signals that we need to read the film as myth. Stop it, listen! The dance between Vanessa, Mark, Juno and Bleeker serves to furnish the audience with a timeless moral -- the importance of understanding who you are, and who other people are. At the beginning of the film, Juno cannot see herself clearly. She doesn't know what kind of girl she is, she tells her parents, although she acts like she does. Mark has the same problem. Vanessa and Blinker don't have that problem, they know exactly what they want. But Vanessa cannot see her significant other clearly. Bleeker can, and loves Juno anyway. He's the constant. The three other characters have their respective fantasies (of perfect families or Rolling Stone careers) dismantled. They have to face up to reality, in all its wonderful imperfections. That's what being a grown up is about.

That make sense? No? To me it does. I should say, there's nothing of the above in the commentary on the DVD, although Cody did stay pretty quiet. My reading is influenced by the attempt to pick out connections with Cody's second film, Jennifer's Body (worshipped over here). But it all serves to stress that Diablo Cody isn't just some poser with a knack for slangy dialogue. There is a sharp intelligence here, and it'll be fascinating to see where and how it next manifests.