Saturday, January 31, 2004
Bianchi replies to Curtis Faville’s comments on
Read the post on your
Blog about Chicago from your friend Curtis and some of the things that were
stated were I think a little unfair and untrue. To say that Downtown
Chicago Died is not only unfair but untrue, in fact
apart from Midtown Manhattan downtown
comment about the police and
Regarding Oak Park, where I live, it has a great collection of Wright houses and the wonderful Home and Studio which has one of the greatest children's rooms ever constructed. Chicago has allot of problems and it is a raw place, like Nelson Algren said loving Chicago is like loving a woman with a broken nose, but at least we are not a fake city of faux urbanism at least you know where you are in Chicago.
Friday, January 30, 2004
This is your "Dhalgren" scriptwriter again. Just
read with pleasure your last blog about information, expectation, cities, film,
and poetry. Having recently come back from
As a screenwriter and teacher of screenwriting (and a self-proclaimed "structure junky"), I enjoyed your remarks on mainstream film structure. I was particularly taken with this:
"In more formulaic
· Chaotic introduction of detail that gradually sorts into elements of plot, character, genre, etc.
· Machinery moving the plot from point A to point B
· A car chase or similar FX-heavy conclusion Almost all the pleasure for me occurs in the first of these three movements."
You’ll be pleased to hear that in the film industry, this
three-act structure you discern is known as… "three-act
structure". It’s the basic template for essentially every film out
An important additional element of the template is that what drives the narrative from Act One into Act Two, and from Act Two into Act Three, is a binary, either / or decision on the part of the protagonist. The Act One decision is the "complicating" decision (and in the most conservative films, it’s a morally "bad" decision, a moral error), and the Act Two decision is the "resolving" decision (conservative version: the "redemptive" decision) to undo the complications that followed from the Act One decision. Act Three plays out the consequences of the Act Two decision, for good or ill.
With my students I like to use "The Matrix" as a textbook example of 3-Act structure. (But any Keanu Reeves film will do – as well as any Tom Cruise film, or any film showcasing a Youthful Young (Male) Character’s Coming Of Age.) 30 minutes into the film, the character Morpheus presents the protagonist Neo with the choice of whether to eat "the blue pill or the red pill" – one of which will allow Neo to forget the existence of the Matrix, the other to commit to the destruction of the Matrix. At the point in the film where Morpheus presented those pills, I was the only person in the theater to burst out laughing. You couldn’t have a more obvious representation of the binary Act One decision than that! And, as inevitably as "shave-and-a-haircut" is followed by "two bits", 60 minutes later Neo decides to be honest and admit that he has been told by a reliable source that he is not the savior everyone thinks he is – which turns out to be the redemptive decision. And the last half-hour of the film – Act Three – plays out the consequences of that decision.
Probably the single most crippling aspect of three-act structure is that once the protagonist makes his or her Act Two decision, there is no more internal conflict. The tension of Act Three is purely external: will the protagonist succeed in resolving the crisis or not? That’s the reason both for the "car chase or... F-X-heavy" aspect of conclusions to mainstream films, and for the fact that they almost never dramatically work: all conflict has been displaced onto the external landscape, so there are no questions left for the audience to ask, particularly questions involving emotional identification.
I believe something similar goes on at the end of Act One, when the protagonist makes his or her first big decision. It’s at that moment that all the other aspects of the film that are in play – all that "data" coming at the viewer so stimulatingly in the first act – are decisively put into the service of character decision and action. And at that point, for me as well as you, most films become a lot less interesting. In particular, they become a lot less visual; in terms of the amount of informational weight being carried by the visual part of the film after Act One, you might as well be reading a book.
However, over the last ten years or so there has been a
welcome trend in commercial film (even if it’s coded as "alternative"
cinema) toward the acceptance of ambiguity and structural complication as a
legitimate element of "entertainment". My guess is that the main
instigator of this trend (and remember I’m talking about mainstream American
film, not the avant-garde or non-US commercial films that have been doing this
forever) was Quentin Tarantino’s "Pulp Fiction" – which played
brilliantly with structure – as well as Tarantino’s oft-quoted accompanying
critical observation: "I’ve got nothing against linear narrative. I’m just
saying it isn’t the only game in town." This was a great remark, as it uses
the kind of macho language
Thursday, January 29, 2004
Wright's Robie House was the first important example of the so-called "Prairie Style", though historically there were at least three other architects working in the Mid-West at that time who were associated with design of this kind, albeit much less talented (and self-aggrandizing) than FLW. Wright's houses typically cost 5-10 times more than traditional houses, often had "unbuildable" components, the roofs leaked, the floors sank, the doors stuck, etc., and each required the seduction of a "special" client with bottomless pockets and a flair for the unconventional. Most of FLW's important works were built for just such clients. The interiors were both stimulating and revolutionary, but ultimately proved uncomfortable for their occupants. One by one, the houses have passed into private or public trusts, run as institutional showcases or tourist destinations, which function they appear to serve admirably.
The next time you
visit Chi, you should bop over to
Not only was Wright
not a particularly practical designer, he was a horrible teacher, as evidenced
by the fact that no one of any note ever attended his Taliesin
If you have the
time, you should read a good biography of FLW. His life had as many turnings and abrupt crises as
any artist in history, with great tragedies and triumphs all along the way. His
second wife Mamah Borthwick
was murdered, along with several others, by an ax-wielding
servant one fateful night in 1914. Perhaps it was God's way of
punishing Wright, who had carried on an ignominious affair with Mamah while still living with and married to wife number
one and their several children in the
Truly a fascinating man, but not one to hire to build your house.
is a deeply divided city, with the notorious ghettos on the South
Side as ingrown and regressive as they were 75 years ago. Police still
routinely pick up black teenagers wandering north across
are two Wright projects in which I’ve spent a serious amount of time over the
years. One is the Guggenheim & the other is his final project,
completed after his death, the Marin Civic Center. Designed to harmonize with
the surrounding hills, the structure inside is a
serious comment on how architecture communicates values. It consists of two
long buildings that connect at a central rounded dome. On the top floor under
the dome is – or was, when I worked in
Wednesday, January 28, 2004
about expectation & perception in
pictures, novels, even poems – especially longer ones – any time-based art
form, something to the same process applies. Often in a motion picture –
regardless of quality – there is a period in which the details feel quite
chaotic to the viewer as he or she sorts out basic elements (e.g., who is the
main character here?). In more formulaic
· Chaotic introduction of detail that gradually sorts into elements of plot, character, genre, etc.
· Machinery moving the plot from point A to point B
· A car chase or similar FX-heavy conclusion
Almost all the pleasure for me occurs in the first of these three movements. Indeed, I would argue that the works I like best are those that do the best job extending & propelling that first stage to the greatest degree possible. When I think of the list I gave January 7 of the novels that have most held my interest written over the past fifty years – Gravity’s Rainbow, V, Satanic Verses, Visions of Cody, Naked Lunch, Underworld, Dhalgren, Islands in the Net – which I characterized at the time as “almost all narratives that ‘go nowhere,’ & which would be unrepresentable in film”** – a major feature is that each lengthens this first movement & to some degree seems predicated on stretching it out as far as can be imagined.
The same dynamics apply in poetry of course. A poem in quatrains tells you an enormous amount about itself even before you’ve absorbed the first word – an entire series of expectations are set & framed. These can be met or confounded – either approach has its pleasures – but it’s significantly different from a poem that leaves the reader unsettled, off-balance, not certain quite what to expect. The latter seeks to preserve the experience of newness formally precisely by denying the reader predetermined landmarks. In some sense, I think this was the way in which a good deal of what came to be known as language poetry was first received in the 1970s. People were – and to some degree still are – unsure of whether or not to take Lyn Hejinian’s My Life as a poem or a novel. Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps won a Pushcart Prize for fiction in 1979, even tho the work has no characters, no plot & nothing fictive in its text – it was, however, in a paragraph, In 1979, a hard right margin was all it took for the Pushcart editors to not only decide something was fiction, but award-winning fiction at that.
One problem that any serious post-avant writing confronts is that, over time, readers come to understand the landmarks to any new terrain. What was comically misidentified in the 1970s becomes instantly recognizable just 25 years later. In order to keep it new, the writer (me or you or whomever) must go beyond the exoskeletal components of structure to create a sense of liveliness internally – through word choices, sentence juxtapositions, the underlying logic. I obviously have a serious bias towards building in devices – like the “new sentence” – that block or at least slow the integration of the text, the point at which it moves from the first of my three mock stages into the moving machinery one. Even as a reader, I am more apt than not to avoid reading the title until the very end of the poem & oftentimes not even then. I’ve gone through entire books without taking note of a title. I simply find them too confining. And I guess that my own titles have a tendency to point anywhere but the text.
behind all this isn’t newness for the sake of novelty, some sort of attention
deficit approach to contemporary meaning, but rather to maximize the reader’s
(& my own) attentiveness to detail. That’s what gets lost when a reader
gets too comfortable with the landmarks of the poem – why, for example, it’s so
very hard to write a good haiku – just as it’s what gets lost when you get too
familiar with a landscape or city. Slushing around
* Indeed, in
some circumstances I could literally do it. Having grown up in a MacGregor
** I subsequently heard from someone who has written a screenplay for Dhalgren.
Tuesday, January 27, 2004
I got home too late Sunday to see & hear Thomas Pynchon on The Simpsons. Fortunately, Amy’s Robot has both screen captures & an MP3 of Pynchon & Tom Clancy speaking their lines.
I could have
been excoriated, but I wasn’t. Although I was teased ever so gently over the
weekend for my “poor
“So what do you
That openness –
the absence of any BS factor or visible ego games – was indeed palpable, and
something I noted when I did respond to that question. But I wonder, at least
in part, if that is a feature specific to
I was in town for only a little over 36 hours (which included two nights’
sleep), I managed to see & do a fair amount – not only the reading & a
party at the loft of Mary Margaret Sloan & Larry Casalino,
but a trip to Seminary Co-op Bookstore where I spent a bundle, a tour of the Art
Institute in the very able hands of John Tipton & time to hang
post-reading at a tavern called Kasey’s. I met many people who had only been
names in print or email to me before – Tipton for one, Suzie Timmons, Peter
This visit also
reminded me of two events that taught me a good deal about the disorientation
of expectations. The first occurred in 1964, when I traveled across the country
in search literally for adventure & thus set foot into the Art Institute –
it may have been only the second or third museum I’d ever been inside, museums
not being something my family ever did. When I first came upon George Seurat’s A Sunday on
La Grande Jatte, a painting I knew only from
books & the “art postcards” I would buy near the
The second such
event was how I first met Mary Margaret Sloan, which was through her husband
Larry. Larry joined the West Coast editorial collective of the Socialist Review
back when I was its editor in the late 1980s and the collective had decided to
hold one of its editorial meetings at his house. I hadn’t known Larry
beforehand, but his credentials (M.D., Ph.D., experience
with the United Farm Workers) were impeccable, so I was pleased to have someone
with both theoretical & practical knowledge about the health industry on
the collective. The meeting gathered in Larry’s livingroom on the north side of
One could make a
cautionary tale out of this, but that’s not my interest here. What I want to
note is how expectation frames perception. Even though I’ve been to
* A Pollock in the National Gallery & Delacroix’s Lady Liberty in the Louvre.
Monday, January 26, 2004
Two radically different books that are, at some level, both involved in the process of coming to terms with a major poet are Michael Rothenberg’s Unhurried Vision, his journal for the year 1999, when he was working with Philip Whalen, and Ezra Pound’s The Saló Cantos, edited by Kimberly Filbee, a poet & critic whom I believe does not exist.
20 or so miles from
Filbee, whom I take to be the project of one or more
post-avant poets, wants to confront the problem of Pound, the idea that the
“father” of American modernism was himself as close to pure evil as one might
imagine. Yet he is also The Father. The book’s production is almost an apotheosis
of these competing visions. The volume itself is tiny – just six centimeters
wide, 7.5 high (roughly two by three inches). The main body of type is just two
points high – one-fifth the size of the type here. Quotations & footnotes
are even smaller – one-point type. With the type photo-offset, it’s hard going
unless you have your magnifying glass from the compact edition of OED handy. Yet the book is also
meticulous – it has both front & back jacket pockets, one containing the
opening of Canto 72 in the original,
the other containing all of Canto 73 (short
enough to have been printed on a single page in two columns). Each flap also
has a photo of Pound giving the fascist salute in 1958 upon his return to
is a painful little project & Pound’s own writing doesn’t improve it –
these are easily the most turgid sections of The Cantos, which is saying something when you consider all the Van
Buren ones. In fact, reading them, I am even more amazed at the transformation
that makes the Pisan Cantos possible.
Surrender, in the most literal sense, has serious psychic value. But Pound in
the cage was a different creature than the survivor who returned to
If The Saló Cantos have
the feel of an exorcism, however incomplete,
But Rothenberg's journal does much more than that & does so almost without seeming to try. Rothenberg, like more than a couple of other poets who've found themselves in Whalen's orbit over the years, adopts & adapts Whalen's own notational literary style. Although Whalen himself appears not to have written in many years (the latest journal Rothenberg finds is dated from1987), it's as if he's found a method of channeling his poetry through others. And, indeed, these are very pleasurable poems very much in the same way that Phil Whalen's poems are pleasurable: attentive to detail, just a little cryptic in places, seldom piling multiple meanings onto a single word or phrase, showing a wry wit, quite generous & yet full of irony.
Part of the pleasure, no doubt, is voyeuristic, getting to glimpse the old master with his guard down, imagining his lone kin
a sister in
smoking cigarettes in front of TV
as frail as he is
or seeing just who shows up for his birthday party, or the cranky comments of a man irritated by modern medicine. Parts too are sad, not so much the frailty of an elder, but seeing Whalen misunderstood literally (referred to as a language poet, by the New York Times no less) as if his poetry doesn’t stand just fine on its own two feet.
Unlike the effaced critic Kimberly Filbee, Rothenberg doesn't try to erase himself in this project, but it's hard to know exactly where Whalen ends & he begins (& vice versa). The project itself suggests that this need not really matter.