Saturday, February 24, 2007

 

When I was 16 years old and mowing lawns after school around Berkeley to make a little money, there were two publications that I always saw to it that I read regularly. One was The Nation, which I’ve been reading almost uninterrupted ever since. The other was the short-lived West Coast daily edition of The New York Times. Even the day after John Kennedy was assassinated, that paper found room on page one to note the deaths of Aldous Huxley & Edith Piaf.

I stopped reading the Times on a regular basis when they canned that particular edition, tho occasionally I would buy the Sunday Times &, when I taught at UC San Diego for a term in 1982, I picked up the habit again pretty much on a daily basis, since San Diego’s local choices for a paper came to Dreadful and Worse. For awhile, The Washington Post had a weekly edition that recapped its more significant stories with a fairly deep dive into its Sunday books section and I read that, balanced by a steady stream of progressive weeklies or monthlies: In These Times, Mother Jones, the Progressive, The Texas Observer, The American Prospect. I still read the last of these – it was, I found, the most reliable publication in America after 9/11 and the regular presence of Hal Meyerson, the best political columnist in America, doesn’t hurt. He’s worth reading the Washington Post for as well.

All of this is a preface to a response to the few readers who have steadily complained when I’ve placed links to The New York Times in particular amidst the various items of news and notes that I sometimes run here. When The New York Times came online on a regular basis, I resumed my daily perusal of its articles, and for all of the paper’s many faults – which could warrant a lengthy blognote all its own – it continues to be the best English-language newspaper in the world. When The Times went to a subscription basis online, I had no hesitation about signing up. It’s one of two papers to which I pay subscriptions for online access, the other being The Wall Street Journal, a paper I will stop reading the minute I retire from the day job. But The Times is for life, even if I should forever make fun of the fact that it doesn’t need to have comics because it already has its startlingly dreadful Sunday Book Review section, craven little toy of advertisers that that supplement happens to be. It really doesn’t matter that Thomas Friedman only thinks he’s an expert on foreign affairs or that David Brooks is mostly a buffoon – even tho he’s officially declared my little niche of Chester County (from whence Brooks came) to be “Paradise” – if you missed Ayub Nuri’s op-ed piece Friday before last on internalizing the Iraq war you missed a wonderful, if terribly sad, piece of writing. And an important one. It really is the paper of record, for all of its sins.

An annual subscription to the New York Times online runs me $49.95 per year and gives me significant access to the Times archives as well. If I want to read any one of the 80 articles that mentioned Ezra Pound prior to 1930, I can do so. My subscription comes with the right to download 100 such articles each month. Thus I can come across an unsigned piece from July 2, 1911, entitled Literary Notes from England, that begins

You may care to know that a young American poet, Mr. Ezra Pound, is in this coronation London season in pleasant favor with the “intellectuals” of Mayfair and Belgravia.

$49.95 per year compares with the $273 I pay annually for the Philadelphia Inquirer to be delivered to my door, the $514.80 that New Yorkers pay for daily delivery of the paper hardcopy (which does, by the way, include online access) or the $644.80 it would cost me to have the Times delivered to this Chester County, Pennsylvania address. Most newspapers today still come for free online, something I do expect to change over the next five years. Would I pay for the Inky, as we locals call our rag, online? Maybe not, or if I did it would be because I was dropping the hard copy. Of the other papers I read online more or less on a daily basis – the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, the Guardian of London (formerly Manchester) – only the Post has a shot of getting my money if it starts to charge for online access.

This is not because I really need to know that an anonymous Times writer once thought, in a somewhat condescending fashion, that Ezra Pound had not written any suitable “coronation verse” to mark the ascension of George V, but rather because I choose – as I have always chosen – to engage with the world at large, a process for which the Times is one – among many – useful tool.

I have concluded that any reasonable person who can afford internet access plus maybe 3 CDs (or two nights out at the movies with a friend or partner) per year can afford the Times online. So I am not going to note when I link to a piece in the Times with a little “subscription required” addendum or whatever. If you link to a site you cannot access, you ought to register that irritation internally at least. It’s not a distinction I would make with the Wall Street Journal – I don’t run links to its articles¹ – and I admit that I too find myself irked by those moments of access when I find myself cut off from an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Economist or the counter-intuitively named Project Muse. I subscribed to the Chronicle when I was a college administrator, and would do so again if I worked in a school. And I find the idea of keeping intellectual discussion of contemporary (or other) literature behind lock & key at Project Muse all too clear a reason why debunking the idea that refereed journals and academic protocol have anything to do with poetry or poetics is a valid, even important project.

Would it be ideal if all content on the web were free? Yes, but it would be ideal too if all bookstores carried every book of poetry that is in print (maybe 40,000 titles in all), and if all poets had equal access to book publication. When that day comes, I’ll be the first in line singing The Internationale. But until then, it’s the real world I’m going to engage with, and I suggest you do too.

 

¹ There were articles in the WSJ over the past two weeks about the debate within Fisk University over whether to sell two paintings by Georgia O’Keefe & Marsden Hartley, a profile of the scholar who stands "at the summit of Auden scholarship" and a fun piece by Sharon Begley on baseball sabremetrics and received “wisdom.”

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Friday, February 23, 2007

 


Ray Winstone & Leonardo Di Caprio

Try and look at The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s masterful crime drama that’s up for the Best Picture Oscar this year – and which just might really be the best picture nominated – from the perspective of Wai Keung Lau and Siu Fai Mak, the directors of Infernal Affairs, the Hong Kong-based thriller on which Scorsese’s Boston drama is based. Infernal Affairs largely is patterned, lovingly so, after the work of Martin Scorsese & Quentin Taratino (never mind that Taratino himself has based his career on Scorsese). So the master comes along and pays you the ultimate compliment of making an adaptation of your film, adds 50 minutes to the length of it but comes out with something that feels far less padded than Infernal Affairs & clearly one of the three best films of Scorsese’s fabled career – other two being Mean Streets & take your pick from Taxi Driver, Raging Bull & Goodfellas. My pick would be Raging Bull, but it’s worth noting just how much The Sopranos has been living off Goodfellas, even its cast, for years. Taxi Driver might not be the paradigm shifter that Mean Streets was, but it’s probably the one where most people actually noticed the shift. “You talkin’ to me?” is still one of the iconic film sentences of all time. In The Departed, the master shows just how it’s done and it’s breath-taking just how well he does it. Having seen Infernal Affairs first only reinforces the difference, and Infernal Affairs is actually a pretty good movie.

What surprised me most when I finally got to see The Departed this past week was its tautness – compared with Infernal Affairs, it’s a master class on how pacing, editing & the presence of the right score (Scorsese’s with its almost gentle Rolling Stones undertones is by Lord of the Rings veteran Howard Shore) are what make a film tight, not length. The film also showcases the best acting Jack Nicholson has done in at least a decade & the best Leonardo Di Caprio has done since, say, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (for which Di Caprio rightfully was nominated for an Oscar). Di Caprio comes across as a completely different human being in this film, something Matt Damon couldn’t do if his life depended on it (Damon’s a decent enough thespian, tho with limited range), and something Nicholson hasn’t tried since Five Easy Pieces. The one Oscar nod for acting to come out of this film, for Mark Wahlberg’s good cop with a bad mouth, is bizarre given the degree to which Di Caprio & Nicholson offer master classes here. Marky Mark hardly has more to do in this film than his brother Robert, who plays an FBI agent. Also excellent in smaller roles are Vera Farmiga, as the police psychologist who always falls for the wrong guys, and British actor Ray Winstone, as one of Nicholson’s goons, Mr. French.

The plot of the two movies is identical. Street kid gets noticed by local mob boss & sent to the police academy in order to give the boss a pair of ears on the inside; second police cadet gets picked for a deep undercover assignment & accordingly gets drummed out of the academy, given a rap sheet, and told to fend for himself as he infiltrates the mob boss’ organization. At which point both the undercover cop and the “rat” inside the police department spend much time trying to figure out just who the other one is, while also not getting caught themselves. The architecture of the plot, originally written by Siu with Felix Chong, is marvelously crafted & dazzlingly complex. It’s certainly conceivable that I found Scorsese’s telling “cleaner” because I’d already seen Infernal Affairs, but I don’t really think so. One of the layers of difficulty that Scorsese has added is the physical similarities of Di Caprio and Damon, which could (and I think this is intentional on the director’s part) confuse even fans of the two, especially during the first half hour of the film. That’s not in the Hong Kong film. Another is the presence of Boston accents all around. I felt, as I often do, say, when watching Shakespeare, that I could have used subtitles for the first ten or so minutes as my ears adjusted.

Scorsese has been one of America’s top directors now for over thirty years, which means that there are by now at least two additional generations of directors who’ve grown up admiring and imitating his work, Tarantino foremost among them. Thanks especially to the original script, this is Scorsese’s most Tarantino-esque film, with an ending that comes right out of Pulp Fiction. There are several important scenes in which Scorsese’s adeptness is put on high display. There is one key scene, fairly late in the film, in which one of the gangsters figures out, right at the point he’s dying, that Di Caprio is the undercover cop. In Infernal Affairs, this is played out around an auto accident, but Scorsese ups the stakes by setting the scene in a warehouse where Costello’s gang has gone after a bloody shoot-out with the police. With the other gangsters literally in the background Di Caprio has to convey the tension of the scene entirely in his eyes, the corners of his mouth & in a consciously restricted use of body language and does so brilliantly. When I saw Internal Affairs, I actually had to replay that scene to make sure that it meant what I thought it meant.

Indeed, there are very few scenes in Internal Affairs that are notably better than The Departed. The first (and perhaps most important) is the scene on the roof where the two protagonists finally confront one another – it’s a scene that, in Infernal Affairs, owes more to movies like Die Hard and Dirty Harry than it does to Scorsese, and Scorsese downplays the vista right where Infernal Affairs made it a major part of the scene. A second, perhaps for the same reasons, is the fall of the police official who has been running the undercover operation inside the gang. There is also an important difference in the set up to the funeral scene, as to just who decided to recommend the deceased for honors. Scorsese’s solution underscores the sliminess of a key character, where Infernal Affairs accentuated the role of the romance. I actually prefer Scorsese’s approach here, tho I think you could make an argument for either one.

The Departed is a more complex, more compelling film than either Babel or The Queen, even if it lacks the social importance of the former or the challenge of making a film where so little happens on the surface of things. Little Miss Sunshine is an American comedy, a genre I readily admit to despising. I found it better than, say, My Name is Earl, the best of the comedies on TV, but that’s not saying very much. And I haven’t seen either of Clint Eastwood’s two war films, tho I expect that eventually I shall. So when the Oscars are passed out next week, The Departed will be my dog in that hunt. And as for best director? Well, Scorsese has been that now pretty much for 35 years or so, even with his worst costume dramas. But a process which can give a “Best Picture” Oscar to the likes of Rocky, Out of Africa, Shakespeare in Love or Chicago obviously should not be trusted. Giving a statuette to Martin Scorsese will honor the Oscars far more than it will Scorsese.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

 

Tom Devaney
on
Charles Bernstein

§

A remembrance
of Emmett Williams

& an interview
with same

§

Merilene Murphy
dead at 51

§

Book sales are steady
but not in bookstores

§

Can Poetry mutter?

§

Who reads Auden?

§

“It’s been a long time
since I met
a young fanatic
for Pound or Zukofsky”

§

The PGW Bankruptcy Settlement

§

George Lewis
on the
Association for the Advancement
of Creative Musicians

§

A portrait
of John Ash

§

A portrait
of Rodney Jones

§

The Longfellow
bicentennial
gathers a little steam

§

Langdon Hammer
on
Paul Muldoon

§

Pinsky in Qatar

§

Viggo the poet,
Viggo the photographer

§

Spalding Gray’s
last work

§

Reading Frost
as a rugged individualist

§

Friedrich Nietzsche,
American idol

§

Tennessee Williams,
drama queen

§

James Michener,
writer or philanthropist

§

A conference on
the late Yemeni poet
Hussein Abu Baker Al-Mehdar

§

The center of the art world –
Liverpool

§

Art and race

§

When around paintings,
think $$$

I mean, seriously

§

But ICA Boston
has its way
with CultureGrrl

§

Dia begins to fill
some holes

§

War against
the Albright-Knox

§

Corporate funding
for the arts
declines

§

O Alberta!

§

A new ABCs
for the arts

§

The scandal
o’er
scrotum

§

The case of the
plagiarized pianist

§

As languages dwindle

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

 



Michael Benedikt, John Perrault, Vito Acconci, John Giorno, Hannah Weiner, Summer ‘69


Michael Benedikt

1935 – 2007

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

 

You would think that living in New York for roughly the past 20 years would stamp Elaine Equi as a certifiable New York poet, but something about Equi keeps me identifying her with her Midwestern roots, not unlike the way Bill Berkson strikes me as forever involved with the New York School. So what if he’s resided in the Bay Area for 35 years? In Equi’s case, it must be partly the fact that as long as she’s lived east of the Hudson River, she’s been published by the dynamo of the Twin Cities, Coffee House Press, which is about to release its fifth collection of her poetry, Ripple Effect: New and Selected Poems. I first associated Equi, back when Little Caesar published Shrewcrazy in 1981, with that sudden burst of creativity that rose up out of Chicago right when Ted Berrigan taught there in the 1970s. She was too young, I take it, to have been included in the 1976 Yellow Press anthology, 15 Chicago Poets, but she, her husband Jerome Sala & Connie Deanovich all seemed to show up relatively soon thereafter, channeling something of that same spirit going forward.

Perhaps it’s the way in which Equi is capable of making complex philosophical observations & arguments in a manner that appears so offhand you don’t realize their depths until well after the hard stop of the final period. Viz “Men in Camisoles”:

All writing is a form
of transvestism.

Men in camisoles.
Women drinking port
and smoking thin cigars.

Think of Flaubert, Proust,
Mallarmé in drag.

Or a woman (any woman)
trying on a man’s power:
”Now I clothe myself
in your blood, your wars.”

Like getting dressed
in a warm room
on a cold day

the sly smile
of the self
as it goes to sleep.

Everything contained within.
You read Rilke
and you become Rilke.

Nothing can stop this
endless, transformative
flow of selves
into other, opposite,
even objects and animals.

In a dream I took my
blue pentagram shirt
to the cleaners

and they said
it would take
three whole months
to get the werewolf out!

Writing seriously without seeming serious is almost the archetypal New York School move, one at which such poets as Berrigan, Berkson & Frank O’Hara are all masters. Or her willingness to let the poem be in control even when it seems ready to rocket off in all directions, like the way she permits the second stanza of “Sometimes I Get Distracted,” a poem dedicated to Phil Whalen, to manifest that distraction, then pulls it back together with an absolute elegance:

Throwing a ball

like a bridge
over an old wound

like a cape
thrown chivalrously
over incoherent muck.


Catching it
is easy.

”Now toss it back,”

says the Zen monk
standing in his garden
centuries away.

like a bridge / over an old wound is a marvelous metaphor precisely because of the way the “wrong” phrase recasts the figure/ground relationship of the metaphoric structure. Nor is it an accident that the only four-syllable words in this poem both occur in the next stanza, as tho the author were having to struggle to get the poem back in control, something accomplished so decisively with the arrival of the word muck. Which term also sets up the terminal k sounds for the lines ending with back and monk, this last very nearly a pure rhyme.

With roughly 250 pages of poetry, Ripple Effect is a rich, fat book, with an unusual organizational structure: first the new work, then selections from each of her four previous Coffee House books in chronological order, then finally a shorter selection of poems from her “pre-Coffee House” days, mostly I take it the early & mid 1980s. It’s an order that discounts the hidden narrative of any selected poems, that of the poet’s progress. In fact, Equi’s early work and her most recent writings can sound so similar that it can be hard to tell the difference. Consider “To Do,” dedicated to Joe Brainard:

Never finish everything
on your to do list.

It will look as if you have nothing
better to do.

And “Then I Became the Weathergirl”:

The air is full of secrets.
Just by breathing,
you become my accomplice.

I’m not going to tell you which predates the other by perhaps 20 years – you’re going to have to buy Ripple Effect when it’s published to find out – but it’s worth noting here that the vision in these two works of what a poem is and can be, the importance of concision, the valuing of wit, have been consistent with Elaine Equi since day one. It’s great to have this big collection in hand all at once.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

 

I’m obviously a sucker for Mongolian movies. One of my favorite films ever is Urga, which was distributed in the United States under the hokey & inappropriate title of Close to Eden.¹ Nikita Makalkov’s 1991 film tells the tale of a Russian truck driver whose vehicle breaks down in Mongolia and who is half-rescued, half-adopted by a nomadic Mongolian family that is on something of an epic quest. If you ask the women, the quest is for birth control in the form of condoms so that they won’t have such difficult lives, but if you ask the men the quest is for a TV set. By film’s end, the women have what they want and the men have rigged up a makeshift antenna that allows them to watch Rambo and the press conferences of George H.W. Bush. One of the many amazing scenes in this film comes when the group finally reaches a city, presumably Ulan Bator, and they find their way to a Mongolian rock-&-roll club.

Genghis Blues is the 1999 documentary of a San Francisco street musician, the late Paul Peña, who manages not only to learn Tuvan throat singing, the deep music in which the singer literally sings two notes at once, but gets invited to Tuva, the Russian province immediately north of Mongolia, for a bi-annual throat-singing festival & contest, where he actually wins an award. To make this improbable but true story even stranger, a key figure in all of this is the late physicist Richard Feynman, who as one of the world’s leading scientists parlayed a childhood interest in stamps – he had one from Tuva back during the brief period when it was an independent nation prior to Soviet consolidation of its indigenous peoples that showed a race between hot air balloons and camels – into an exploration of a country that had disappeared. His foundation to this day sponsors cultural exchange activities between the U.S. and Tuva. One result: Genghis Blues has some of the best music ever put on film.

cao di is a 2005 film by the Chinese director Ning Hao that tells the tale of three boys, roughly age 7, who live with a nomadic group which is starting to show signs of setting down roots, building yurts out of brick & attempting (with no success) to construct a windmill. Krishna found this gem at Blockbuster where it’s being distributed under the title of Mongolian Ping Pong. At least, unlike what happened to Close to Eden, the English title has some relation to the film itself.

The three boys, Bilike, Dawa & Erguotou, discover a ping pong ball floating down the little spaghetti-thin curlicue of a river that runs by their clan’s settlement. Although these erstwhile nomads are far more modernized and westernized than the group in Urga – they have TV, t-shirts, Dawa wears a baseball cap while Erguotou zooms around the steppes on a small scooter, plus there are bottles & jars visible in the background in their yurts – the boys have no clue what this round object might be. Much prodding, holding it up against the light of the sky and licking it convinces them that it can’t be an egg, so that it must be a glowing pearl. They consult with a local lama, but since he’s only ten, he doesn’t have much more in the way of worldly experience. Later, the trio learn almost by accident that it is a ping pong ball – they don’t know what that means exactly & their informant says simply that it’s the “national game” – which leaves them with a further mystery. They have, they believe, “the national ball,” which they deduce must be a treasure. So it must be returned.

Interestingly, given that Mongolia is a sovereign nation, the boys decide that “the capital” to which they must return the ball is Beijing.² A good portion of the rest of the movie consists of their trek, literally attempting to cross the Gobi Desert with nothing more than two horses & a scooter, some stolen moon cake & a couple of bottles of water. No matter that the Gobi Desert is in the wrong direction in the first place.

There are other plots surrounding this central tale – the father’s attempt to modernize their living quarters (his mother’s complaint about the brick yurt is that it’s “square and uncomfortable”), an oldest daughter’s desire to join an ethnic dancing troupe that would require her to move to the unnamed city (it appears to be far too small to be Ulan Bator). By the time the film is over the children have been rescued, the father has traded the TV for a pair of goats, the girl is heading into the city to join her troupe and Bilike accompanies her in order to attend school. In the city, he sees things he never imagined, about which I cannot say more here.

Two things for me really made this film fascinating. First is just watching how much this version of nomadic life had modernized from the Russian portrayal of 14 years earlier – one can sense the slow encroachment of globalization at the deepest level of people’s lives, such as the sister’s application of lipstick for her audition with the troupe.

The other was the photography by Du Jie. This is the most static motion picture I have ever seen – the camera, with surprisingly few exceptions, takes a position and if the action wanders off-screen, it doesn’t move to follow it. Scenes at night are shot with no illumination. Often the characters are at a middle distance with the panorama of the Mongolian steppes or grass fields & barren tundra of the Gobi stretching out behind them. Scene after scene opens out onto breath-taking vistas with no comment whatsoever from the characters. Only one actually feels gratuitous, a late scene that captures the whole of a rainbow. Visually, this is one of the most beautiful motion pictures I’ve ever seen. But what’s most interesting is how the static nature of the camera work insinuates a cognitive, even narrative frame around the story itself. Looking deliberately primitive & implying a lack of sophistication without ever saying as much, the film suggests an inner landscape for the clan. At the same time, the film reverses some (western?) sexual stereotypes: the father is supportive of his daughter’s wish to join the troupe, and it’s the mothers here who are presented as brutal & cruel.

All three of these motion pictures are filmed by outsiders – tho there has been Mongolian cinema since the 1930s, the one true Mongolian-made film I’ve ever seen is The Story of the Weeping Camel – and it’s easy to see both in Urga and cao di a wish to portray Mongolians as some variant of “noble savages.” But what separates both of these films from simply racist fare like The Gods Must Be Crazy is that the confrontation with the modern world, which in some form or other sets the action going in each, is framed precisely in terms of what impacts the outer world is having on the nomadic group. The clan isn’t running away from technology – it’s Bilike’s father who wants someone to build him his dream of a windmill – but it’s skeptical in what it appropriates. When they stop getting decent reception from their TV, it has less value than two goats.

 

¹ Urga literally is the original name of the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator.

² This is consistent with thinking of ping pong as the “national” game, which it may be in China, while the most popular sport in Mongolia proper is wrestling.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

 

THE GRAND PIANO, PART 2

An Experiment in Collective Autobiography, San Francisco, 1975-1980, by Barrett Watten, Ted Pearson, Rae Armantrout, Steve Benson, Kit Robinson, Tom Mandel, Ron Silliman, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, and Bob Perelman.

Since the 1970s no literary group has made a more articulate contribution to thinking and practicing its groupness than the Language writers. Rejecting the vertical organization of the Poundian or Bretonian circle – with its singular genius issuing directives from its center –­ they instead developed a horizontal structure in which new terms, tones, and intertexts (and new versions of the group's history itself) can emerge from, and be engaged by, any member.

— Lytle Shaw

THE GRAND PIANO is an on-going experiment in collective autobiography by ten writers identified with Language Poetry in San Francisco. It takes its name from a coffeehouse at 1607 Haight Street, where from 1976-79 the authors took part in a reading and performance series. The writing project was undertaken as an online collaboration, first via an interactive web site and later through a listserv. When completed, THE GRAND PIANO will comprise ten parts, in each of which the ten authors will appear in a difference sequence.

Parts 1 and 2 are $12.95 each or $20.00 for both. Serial publication began in November 2006; subsequent volumes to appear at three-month intervals. Subscription to the entire series of ten volumes is now available for $90 directly from Lyn Hejinian, 2639 Russell Street, Berkeley, CA 94705. Order forms can be printed in color or black and white.

Designed and published by Barrett Watten, Mode A/This Press (Detroit), 6885 Cathedral Drive, Bloomfield Twp., MI 48301. Distributed (individual orders and trade) by Small Press Distribution, Inc., 1341 Seventh Street, Berkeley, CA 94710-1408. ISBN 978-0-9790198-0-7 (part 1, 80 pp.), 978-0-9790198-1-4 (part 2, 96 pp.), wrappers.

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