Saturday, March 17, 2007

 

First Screening:
bp Nichols’
computer poems
from 1984
in numerous formats
including Java

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A “new” poem by
William Carlos Williams

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Friday, March 16, 2007

 

The strangest film I’ve seen in some time is an experimental docu-drama from Thailand called Mysterious Object at Noon, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a Thai architect who has an MFA in film from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (which, when you think about it, is a great town for an architect to go to in order to study film). It’s not a docu-drama in the American sense of the word, but rather a film that documents a narrative, the tale of a home study teacher and her disabled student. How it does this is what is so unusual. Working for over three years with an all-volunteer cast & crew – which also means an ever-changing cast & crew – Weerasethakul employed the surrealist game of the Exquisite Corpse, which, as described by one web site devoted to this practice,

was played by several people, each of whom would write a phrase on a sheet of paper, fold the paper to conceal part of it, and pass it on to the next player for his contribution

Now imagine playing this same game with film, not only with the urban elites of Bangkok, but with villagers in Weerasethakul’s native north who have only limited experience with cinema and no real concept of fiction. The results are both primitive and startling. Filmed in black & white with the cheapest imaginable equipment and film stock, Mysterious Object is something akin to a surrealist version of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera set in the Thailand of the 1990s, which means everything from contemporary skyscrapers and freeway onramps to elephants wandering into the scene as some boys who’ve been playing a version of hacky sack try to improvise what might come next. One group of villagers act out their section, which includes music (some of it involving a mouth organ unlike anything I’ve ever seen before). Another woman, early on, simply tells her own story, which involves being sold by her father in return for bus fare. There is a long truck ride through Bangkok at the beginning that feels like an homage both to Vertov and to Tarkovsky’s Solaris until the driver and his partner start trying to sell tuna. During the course of the film, the teacher gives birth – tho that verb phrase doesn’t really do justice to what actually happens – to a young man who zips her unconscious body into a closet and ransacks the student’s home, World War 2 comes to a conclusion, the populace is admonished to buy American products, aliens invade, and the teacher gets a rash. The young boy is both much loved and abandoned by his parents. At one point, the boy to whom the teacher gives birth turns into a murderous giant. The one element that Weerasethakul uses to keep his various narrative threads from entirely spinning out of control is a small team of actors who periodically act out some of the threads narrated by different speakers.

This film works for many of the same reasons that any artwork that is actively trying to invent its own genre does – in this sense, Man with a Movie Camera, as well as books as diverse as Tristram Shandy, The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula, Moby Dick, Spring & All and Visions of Cody, are almost parallel projects. Each questions everything and makes no assumptions as to how to proceed. In this context, even a wrong decision (presuming of course we could define such) would be a fresh one. At the same time, Weerasethakul clearly understands this role as historical – there is a scene in which the film-maker and his colleagues are walking along & one comments “We should have had a script.” The film ends when & where it does because that’s where, literally, the film stock Weerasethakul had at his disposal ran out.

If you don’t care for experimental cinema, you can almost be certain that you’re going to hate this film. Even if you love the work of Stan Brakhage, Warren Sonbert & Abigail Child, you may find it hard to imagine that something like this can still be produced in the 21st century. Would it still hold its fascination if the film were in English about Oakland? Frankly, it might not – Steve Benson, who first turned me on Mysterious Object, calls Tropical Malady, Weerasethakul’s other film available through NetFlix, catastrophically disappointing” tho it won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2004. In any event, there is this film, which taken on its own is a dive into a culture – and into a perspective on cinema – that few of us will every have the opportunity to experience directly. As such, it’s a trip you should probably take.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

 

Venus, the film for which Peter O’Toole received his most recent Oscar nomination for acting, may be one of the first in a genre that I can safely predict we will be seeing a lot more of in the relatively near future – the senior date flick. It’s not the first – indeed not even the first by director Roger Michell, best known for Notting Hill, who also directed The Mother, a movie one could read as the feminine counterpart to Venus. In that earlier film, Anne Reid beds her daughter’s boyfriend, played by a pre-Bond Daniel Craig looking rather fuzzy in a beard. In Venus, O’Toole plays a randy old thespian who becomes enchanted with his friend’s niece’s daughter, Jessie, portrayed by relative newcomer Jodie Whittaker. The age difference here is not subtle – O’Toole starred in Lawrence of Arabia twenty years before Whittaker was born.

I’ve never been that fond of O’Toole as an actor, but in Venus he is simply brilliant, conveying a difficult combination of lust & fatherly pride often with little more than his eyes or the corners of his mouth. Even as an over-the-top letch – one-part Henry Higgins, one-part Larry Flynt – O’Toole has to be a minimalist in his portrayal for this role to work, since Whittaker’s character is defined by sullen youth & a rural working-class inarticulateness. Once O’Toole’s character – and the audience – figure out why this woman, whom O’Toole insists on calling Venus, was sent away to the city, it becomes apparent that she has no intention ever of returning to the bog from whence she came, but she also has almost no job skills & only a modicum of curiosity. Her basic reaction to most comments on the part of others is to stare back at them wordlessly – a type that cinema has typically relegated to macho actors like Charles Bronson or Robert Mitchum. If a female is given these characteristics, it usually means that she’s a woman of mystery. But if Jessie is a mystery in Venus, it’s primarily to herself. That’s a difficult role to play – Whittaker is superb in it – but an even more difficult role to play off of, and this is where O’Toole’s mastery really takes command. There’s not a scene in this film – tho O’Toole’s appearance at the Oscars suggests that this might not be all acting – in which the actor’s body language doesn’t suggest some level of discomfort.

Michell livens the picture up by giving the audience more than a little of O’Toole’s character engaged with his buddies, portrayed by Leslie Phillips & recent Tony award winner Richard Giffiths, whose scenes are, for the most part, played as pure comedy. Another important story arc involves O’Toole’s character’s ex-wife, portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave.

It’s not unusual for Hanif Kureishi scripts – My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Intimacy & The Mother are others – to focus on characters more than plot and Venus is no exception. O’Toole’s Maurice tries hard to live large, but in many respects he’s a shell of the man he once may have been, still working well into his seventies, residing in a small flat behind a café while his ex-, one of several characters he helps out financially in this film, still lives in the big house with all the memorabilia from his glory days. There’s a scene in which Jessie/Venus wants some nice clothes so he takes her to a posh boutique to try on some little black dresses, knowing full well that he lacks the funds to pay for anything. From his perspective, it’s the process that counts, but she’s humiliated & furious.

Whittaker’s character also has to walk a fine line between her disgust at the age of this man who wants to lick her shoulder or put his hands on her bosom – it might become “vomitous” she suggests – while at the same time actually liking him. In general, she does a fine job. This would be an interesting film to see in a triple bill with the likes of Gods and Monsters or Mighty Aphrodite, pictures that portray older men (Ian McKellan & Woody Allen) attracted to young beauties (Brendan Fraser & Mira Sorvino). Venus is the only one of the three to suggest that a young person might be physically repulsed by such advances. Although, and this is where Michell’s subtlety as a director confronts its limit, O’Toole’s Maurice is the only one of the three older men to be wearing a catheter.

Part of what makes this a senior date flick – the average age of the audience at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute where I saw it last weekend appeared to be well into the sixties – is that it’s comfortably predictable. If you can’t tell where this film is going, it’s not that they haven’t painted a picture for you. Two of them, in fact, both quite literal. Similarly, an important detail between Maurice and his ex-wife – she describes herself only as his wife in the one scene where that’s a significant fact – is that he abandoned her with three children under the age of six. But there are scenes where the presence of children would seem essential, and these narrative kiddies (all grown up now we presume) are nowhere in sight. The repartee between the three male actors may be comic, but at points it descends into literal slapstick – there is one scene that could have appeared in a Three Stooges vehicle & another, when O’Toole is trying to spy on Jessie modeling for a life drawing class, & finds himself hanging from a door as it swings open & takes out an easel or two, which draws a cheap laugh until you realize just how cheap it was. Maurice also has an illness & you know just which part of the body is most directly affected.

Still, films in which seniors are taken as lead characters are themselves rare enough. Venus is an enjoyable diversion – more if you’re interested in watching how a great actor can carry one scene after another – but hopefully the aging of the film-going populace won’t restrict our choices going forward just to date flicks organized around the fantasies of impotent old men.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

 

Talking with Martín Espada

(An MP3 of a reading
at Fox Lane High School)

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Mary Ann Caws
on translation

§

Albert Mobilio
on interviewing as a process

§

Gabriel Garcia Márquez
versus
Mario Vargas Llosa

§

Jean Baudrillard’s Selected Writings
in PDF format

§

Remembering
a
Baghdad book dealer

§

The Supreme Court addresses
Bong Hits 4 Jesus,”
a major free speech case

§

The Poetry Foundation
strikes back
in the form of
a David Orr
attack on the poetics of
The New Yorker

in the Sunday
New York Times

(Now, about the poetics of
The New York Times…)

§

The Poetry Foundation
also chooses a site
for a permanent home

§

A review of
The Grand Piano,
Part 2

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Francine Prose
to lead PEN

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George McWhirter,
Vancouver’s first
poet laureate

§

Society for the History
of Authorship,
Reading & Publishing
is
S.H.A.R.P.

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A national
Poetry Reading
bee?

§

A summer poetry workshop
in Scotland
that counts
Thomas A. Clark,
Susan Tichy,
&
Ken Cockburn
among the faculty
& includes trips to
Little Sparta
& the studio of
Andy Goldsworthy

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The Scottish Poetry Library

§

The flurry of
”How to Read” books
get a close reading

§

Kaz Maslanka
explores
torque & Robert Creeley
complete with diagrams

§

Do Republicans write fiction
outside of the White House?

§

Troy Jollimore
is “stunned
to receive
The National Book Critics Circle
Award

Jollimore,
who teaches philosophy
at Chico State,
may be the first
occasional blogger
to win such an award

His collection of
John Berryman imitations
was originally
selected for publication
by Billy Collins

§

The future of libraries

§

On Auerbach’s Dante

§

Patti Smith
on being inducted
into the Rock ‘n’ Roll
Hall of Fame

§

A poem only
Jack Gilbert
could have written

§

Mark Doty
gone to the dogs

§

A profile
of Rod Smith

§

Wystan on the subway

§

Translating Emily
into other media

§

Scroll down
here
to vote for
The Oddest Book Title of the Year

§

Pretty Lessons in Verse
for Good Children

& the woman
who wrote them

§

Of the New Zealand poet
C.K. Stead

§

Talking with Eavan Boland

§

Linda Myers
will retire
as executive director of
The Loft

§

Poet of the Pogues

§

The School of Quietude
goes to
the City University of New York

§

Sylvia
down under

§

Talking with
the Poet Laureate
of Connecticut

§

“The avant-garde was always
just the people
with the most energy”

§

Of critics
seeking bribes

§

“the length of time
that an average museum-goer
spends looking at a work of art –
nine seconds

§

Rauschenberg’s transfer drawings
from the 1960s

§

Bruce Nauman
at the
University Art Museum
in
Berkeley

§

Saatchi, Stuart
& new Chinese artists

§

Mark Spoelstra,
the best 12-string guitarist
I ever heard,
has passed on

§

Noam Chomsky
on Bush & Iran

§

The state of journalism

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

 

It’s worth noting that the continual appearance of new books of John Ashbery’s short poems has not resulted in the same complaints that “he’s not doing anything new” or “he’s simply repeating past triumphs in comfortable forms” that used to greet the somewhat similar short books published by Robert Creeley toward the end of his life. My counter-argument here has been that it makes no sense to complain that somebody who has changed the world of poetry forever – something I believe both Ashbery & Creeley have done – doesn’t continue to forge such changes ad infinitum. Each wrote the poems he personally needed to have written & when the world of verse shifted to accommodate this new thing, each kept on writing the poems he personally needed.

One reason for the variance between the reception Creeley’s books got and the one that Ashbery is continuing to receive today, however, has little to do with either author directly, but rather is a register of their somewhat different audiences. Although John Ashbery has been a relentlessly innovative author, he has also long been a favorite of Quietist critics (and to some degree of Quietist poets), especially championed by Harold Bloom, the great white whale of the academy. These more conservative readers value Ashbery, but they don’t especially value the new. In this way, they actually avoid the little trap that post-avants sometimes fell into with regards to Creeley, but their own position is as contradictory as any, a problematic that was crowned when Ashbery was given all the Official Verse Culture awards in 1975 for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, a work that can only be described as a vicious satire of the very people who celebrated it. So the question remains: what is it you value in reading John Ashbery, if in fact you don’t value the new?

That’s a thought that has been haunting my reading of Ashbery’s latest book, the beautiful but slender A Worldly Country, just out from Ecco, reduced these days into being an imprint of HarperCollins. Just 76 pages of poetry with a detail from a Jane Freilicher painting for its cover, A Worldly Country could hardly be more beautiful, nor the poetry it contains more accomplished. John Ashbery may turn 80 this year, but there is no sign that he’s lost any of his inventiveness or wit, or that the ear has gone flat or any of the other possible maladies that can – and too often do – beset older poets.

One possible suggestion towards an answer comes, it would seem, from Ashbery himself, in a poem that occurs late in A Worldly Country, entitled “So Long, Santa”:

You were good to us,
but we’ve got to think these things
out for ourselves, check in with you
later – why did I say that?
Not everything has to be
as big and full as earth.

After he found a million dollars in a slot
the boy persisted, dying without uncovering a lot.
It’s good to be painful
because it will come round again
and we won’t be ready:
Barbara Allen’s cruelty, the night wind
biting at scarves, pedestrians hurrying along.

And if I so longed for you as
to make the original millennial blush go away,
us back to our pets, things we had
to learn at school,
I’d be ashamed of my distance
from you, for being indispensable
at times and cures –
just getting the right thing right, for once.

After finishing everything up
I pay a formal call to the broker.
Sherry is drunk
and it will soon be time to think of the next set of circumstances.
Oh hell everything is that way,
this way, that way, twisted in the sun
of endurance –
the back way in then,
the assertion of formality without
a celebration next time.
That’s all any of us gets,
why I am happy with you, alone, just us.

Even here, there’s not a lot of form to this “assertion of formality,” the mere echo of a failed rhyme from circumstances to endurance (and before either, distance), the deliberate clumsiness of slot and lot. It’s good to be painful / because it will come around again / and we won’t be ready may be as good a rationale as any for the reiteration at the heart of structure, but it is worth noting what is being characterized here as formal: a call to the broker. The “real” world, it would seem, is just the opposite: everything is that way, / this way, that way, twisted in the sun / of endurance.

Contrast this with the book’s one moment of high form, the title poem literally on page 1:

Not the smoothness, not the insane clocks on the square,
the scent of manure in the municipal parterre,
not the fabrics, the sullen mockery of Tweety Bird,
not the fresh troops that needed freshening up. If it occurred
in real time, it was OK, and if it was time in a novel
that was OK too. From palace and hovel
the great parade flooded avenue and byway
and turnip fields became just another highway.
Leftover bonbons were thrown to the chickens
and geese, who squawked like the very dickens.
There was no peace in the bathroom, none in the china closet
or the banks, where no one came to make a deposit.
In short all hell broke loose that wide afternoon.
By evening all was calm again. A crescent moon
hung in the sky like a parrot on its perch.
Departing guests smiled and called, "See you in church!"
For night, as usual, knew what it was doing,
providing sleep to offset the great ungluing
that tomorrow again would surely bring.
As I gazed at the quiet rubble, one thing
puzzled me: What had happened, and why?
One minute we were up to our necks in rebelliousness,
and the next, peace had subdued the ranks of hellishness.

So often it happens that the time we turn around in
soon becomes the shoal our pathetic skiff will run aground in.
And just as waves are anchored to the bottom of the sea
we must reach the shallows before God cuts us free.

On the one hand, that of “So Long, Santa,” we see the formalism of the Quiet world proposed as a mode of solace, an ointment against pain. But in the title poem, the sullen mockery of Tweety Bird shows up right before a reference to U.S. troops, an almost sadistic view of the human slaughter our president thinks of as “spreading democracy” – the scent of manure indeed!

The cyclical imbalance between the forces posed in the book’s title poem is on target: Ashbery has benefited from keeping readers off balance & on guard in this manner for half a century. It’s the bad cop (here in the form of Tweety Bird) that makes his good cop seem so very sweet, yet without this malevolent twin, it might all be enough to cause some sort of insulin shock, or at least the nausea a child could get from licking all the frosting from a cake. The little parody of the departure scene at the end of “The Game of Chess” in The Waste Land is hardly accidental. And here also we see the cyclical (night, as usual) proposed as a balm to soothe the great ungluing of day.

The final four lines here are worth noting, first for the way the calculatedly bad grammar of the first couplet reinforces just how pathetic our skiff really is. Secondly for the dire pessimism that it all must all end in the shallows.

I’ll leave it to the more clinically minded as to whether or not Ashbery is intentional in his associations of form itself with depression, at least in its reiterative Quietest conception, tho that certainly is one possible reading. My own interest is in how well – and for how many decades now – John Ashbery has been able to manage this balancing act between two universes of readers who come to him with very different interests and needs.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

 

In 2004, Berkeley-born Ryan Fleck won awards at the Aspen Shortfest, the Boston Independent Film Festival & the Sundance Film Festival for a short film entitled Gowanus, Brooklyn. It was his third short film & the second to star Karen Chilton, a New York playwright & actress better known as the co-author of Gloria Lynne’s memoir, I Wish You Love. In the tradition of a lot of award-winning short films, Fleck used the positive attention to pull together backing for a feature-length version of the same tale, which included Chilton playing the mother once again to Shareeka Epps, the Binghamton, NY, high-school senior who has gone on to win numerous awards for her role as the 13-year old Drey who develops a relationship with her charismatic, crack-addicted history teacher & basketball coach, portrayed this time around by former Mousketeer Ryan Gosling¹. The film of course is Half Nelson, for which Gosling earned an Oscar nomination. Both Gosling & Epps won Independent Spirit Awards for best lead, male & female. They deserved it too.

I sort of avoided this movie when it first came out to rave reviews last year. Being an indie made that easy as us ex-urbanite Chester County types have to go some distance to see independent films under the best of circumstances. But the subject matter sounded so terribly sad – and the end result, either a death or an arrest, seemed so predictable, that I just shied away. It wasn’t until I caught a rerun of the Ebert & Roeper show on television in which Kevin Smith, a director I generally like, declared Half Nelson one of the ten best films of the past decade that I reconsidered. Then last weekend, a friend slipped me their Blockbuster copy while we were standing around in the lobby waiting for the high school musical to get under way.

So I was surprised to discover that neither of the predictable end results is what happens here, surprised and frankly pleased. In large part, this is because this film intersects with the story already in progress & leaves it well before it reaches either of those logical conclusions. It can do this because it’s not about that story, but rather about the relationship between the two key characters, a charismatic, committed, very likeable history teacher who can’t get away from freebasing crack, and a troubled 13-year-old student who catches him blasted one day in the locker room &, for reasons that have everything to do with her history, decides not to tell anyone.

An awful lot of this film really is about nothing other than the complexity of these two individuals, only tiny portions of which come out in dialog. There are scenes early on, such as when Gosling’s Dan Dunne sees his ex-girlfriend, through rehab & engaged to be married, before she sees him, where the viewer can recognize, just in Gosling’s body language and facial expression, the degree to which the character struggles with his fight-or-flight response. There are several moments when Epps’ Drey glares her way through a scene – Epps is easily the most intense “child actor” I’ve ever seen on screen. She doesn’t need language to articulate the anger she feels at the loss of her brother, who is in prison, or the devastation she senses as a latch-key kid to an emergency medical technician single parent. When the local crack dealer, intelligently played by Anthony Mackie, attempts to recruit her to handle the final exchange of product for cash – she’s the one taking the risk of being busted for dealing – her diffidence & hesitancies as she tests out this path says an enormous amount about her tentative sense of self & self-worth.

Much of this film is about emotional clumsiness. By refusing to adhere to the school’s approved curriculum – he’s showing his students videos of Mario Savio, the Attica massacre, the murder of Harvey Milk, the U.S. role in the coup in Chile, trying to teach dialectics to middle-school kids – the teacher is practically screaming to be fired. Both of the film’s two sex scenes – one of them an attempted rape – are about vulnerability, not eros. When the teacher shows up at school with a stitch on his lip, he covers it with an American flag Band-Aid. A meal at home with his parents is excruciating – the only person he can talk to is his brother’s new girlfriend, whom he’s never met before. When, after the dope dealer has warned Drey to stay clear of the “basehead” teacher, the two older men in her life confront one another, the result is not Fort Apache, Brooklyn, but almost in the manner of two uncles attempting to watch out for the orphan niece. Even the film’s climactic & concluding scenes are all about clumsiness, vulnerability &, at least on one level, acceptance. This film is a choreographer’s dream of emotional missteps, which is what I think Kevin Smith was responding to with his (somewhat overly) generous assessment.

I’ve had the opportunity, if that’s the right word, to see what freebasing can do to a professional, even a single a parent, and I know that the spiral that this teacher is in can – and almost inevitably will – get a whole lot worse, far, far uglier. It would have been easy to have made that movie, it’s one we’ve seen a dozen times, but the result wouldn’t have been one-tenth as solid as Half Nelson.

 

¹ Gosling was part of the Mickey Mouse Club cast during the fabled 1993-94 period, the end of that show’s third incarnation, that also included Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears & Justin Timberlake. Gosling, a Canadian, lived with Timberlake’s family during filming. While the other three got into bubblegum music, Gosling stuck to acting & subsequently has been in a lot of the dog movies & TV series aimed at teens, such as Young Hercules, but in the process has become a tremendously subtle actor. It’s like watching the next Johnny Depp emerge, tho Gosling lacks Depp’s phenomenally feminine good looks.

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

 

It’s here!

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