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Maelstrom

“The center cannot hold.”

This is a common saying these days from political commentators on TV or in op-ed pages. The assumption is that there is such a thing as the political center. It is an assumption that needs to be challenged.

We tend to lionize the political center, as if it were the place where sanity is found, battered on left and right by zealots and ideologues. But, in fact, there is no codified political theory that can be tagged with the label. It is, in fact, the bin for dumping the leftovers.

Those who hold genuine political thought fall down the steep slopes of the bell curve on both sides, toward conservatism and reaction on one side, and toward socialism on the other. Marx vs. Ayn Rand. Both sides hold their opinions with passionate intensity. What we call the middle is really just the no-man’s land between them where they battle it out, and with no clear victor, they fall, exhausted, between the two poles, and we have a stalemate. That is what we call the center.

In practice, this has actually worked out quite well for the rest of us, who are not card-carrying members of either side. It is as if two out-of-phase sine waves have cancelled each other out, and we live in relative peace. Politics, when done right, is the clash of interests, where no one interest prevails all the time, and compromises are reached to keep each side, not happy exactly, yet equally miffed, but just under the boiling point.

“The trick from my angle is to make my play strong enough to tie you up, but not make you mad enough to bump me off against your better judgment.”

This, then, is the center, where most of us, unafflicted by theoretical strait-jackets, try to live our lives spending the least possible time on policy and government. Government is something up with which we must put. To paraphrase Willie Loman, “Taxes must be paid.”

This doesn’t mean we don’t recognize the importance of social order, or a ruling forum that functions efficiently and cleanly, but more important than making rules about who gets to use which bathroom, are such things as the welfare of our children, our careers, the availability of food, and whether the Cubbies will ever again win the World Series. That a well-run government is necessary for some of those things is acknowledged, but just how much energy we put into politics is the issue. In ancient Athens, you were judged in part by whether or not you were politically aware and active. But for most of us in middle-class America, being politically active is rather more a badge of how misguided you are, how obsessed, how geeky.

We have, since 1789, run on the well-oiled principle that if we let the two sides fight it out, we can comfortably nestle in the hammock left in between them. There have been a few times, like the years from 1861 to 1865, when the center did not hold and the country erupted. We came close again in 1968, as those of us who lived through it remember. The pressure has been building up again. Both political parties found their basic premises threatened this election cycle. Republicans have discovered that the dissension, obstructionism and bigotry they have sowed for the purpose of maintaining power in Congress has come back to bite them. What they hold as true conservative values are shredded by the buzz words and palaver of Donald Trump, who seemingly holds no values whatsoever, outside of Donald Trump. Democrats found that a socialist roused a significant sector of their membership, driving their conventional candidate further to the left and away from the coveted “middle.”

That middle has become a vacuum as the polar sides pull apart and we suffer the pain.

The central problem is that, because the middle is not a platform, not a policy, not an ideology, it cannot clearly enunciate its principles, outside of a basic, “Don’t go nuts.” The Right and Left have manifestoes and position papers, arguing with faultless logic the rightness of their causes — albeit within the confines of the definitions they use and the axioms they leave unexamined. We in the middle have only a defensive “please go away” and “leave us in peace.”

Once in a while, however, we are called upon to slough off our natural passivity and take a stand. In the 1960s, we had to decide whether segregation was morally defensible, as a hundred years before, we had to pick a side on slavery. When we didn’t step in, as with the Know-Nothings of the 1840s, or the McCarthy era in the 1950s, the country went off the rails and the looneys took over. We face something of the same now, with Donald Trump, whose unfinished sentences pile cliche on cliche, Ossa on Pelion, and we are buried under a mountain of verbal garbage, un-thought-through, indefensible, and outright dangerous.

My great friend, the late Dimitri Drobatschewsky, grew up in pre-war Berlin. His family was forced to flee the Nazis, and his father eventually died at Auschwitz. He remembers as an adolescent hearing Adolf Hitler speaking live. “Everything he said was a banal platitude,” Dimitri recalled. “It was meaningless cliche piled on meaningless cliche. But he was such a persuasive and hypnotic speaker that I found myself, a Jew in Germany, that it was all I could do to keep my arm from raising in the Nazi salute.” Dimitri eventually left Germany for France, and after the fall of that country, joined the Free French forces under De Gaulle.

But Dimitri reminded me that Hitler didn’t usually come right out and say specific things. He let his minions do that. Hitler spoke of vague ideas, such as “Germany for the Germans,” and “Make Germany great again,” which are hardly controversial on the surface, but underneath was an unspoken agenda, heard by his followers as clear as a gong. One after another the meaningless platitudes piled up until an entire nation found themselves committing atrocities their grandchildren are still ashamed of.

One doesn’t want to pull out the Nazi trump card to easily. One gets tired of calling any opponent a “Hitler.” It too often trivializes the insult. But there is the parallel, too easily overlooked, especially by his followers. If we don’t want to discover in four or five years that we were “good Germans,” we had better decide now that even if we are not enthusiastic about the choice we have to make in November, we had better not give in to apathy, we had better make the effort to go to the polls, else we could wind up somewhere very dark, very violent, very shameful.

The New York Times runs a feature in its book section called “By the Book,” where famous authors are asked a set of questions. The Times will never get around to me, so I decided I needed to ask myself these standard questions.

Gulag 2

Question: What books are currently on your nightstand?

Aleksandr_Solzhenitsyn_1974Answer: I am about 70 pages into the second volume of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. There are three volumes; I fear my nightstand may collapse. Not only for the weight of the books — they are real doorstops — but for the sagging heaviness of its content. For some reason, I have an unquenchable thirst for validation of my pessimism, for a dim view of humankind’s inhumanity to humankind, and likewise a depressing recognition of the tiny flame of idealism that refuses to be extinguished. I wish I could get rid of it. It always breaks my heart.

Q: That’s fine for your nightstand, but what book are you currently reading?

DublinersCaught me. Yes, I’m 70 pages in to Vol. 2 of the Solzhenitsyn, but it was so depressing, I needed to take a short break. So, I am now finishing up James Joyce’s Dubliners. Turns out it’s nearly as depressing. I’ll be getting back to the Russian as soon as I’m done with the Irishman.

Q: What was the last great book you read?

A: That’s a tough question to answer, because you have to decide where to set the bar. Does the Solzhenitsyn count, even though I’m not finished? Before that, Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands. But that is for content, not for style (nothing wrong with his prose, but that’s not the reason for picking up that depressing book). Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid is one of the best translations I have ever read. I just finished rereading it (again). I read all three of John Updike’s Bech books and reread Saul Bellow’s Herzog, which I first read in high school when it first came out. But if you mean really great, like Moby Dick or Proust, then I will up the ante, if you want great, the greatest book I have ever read is Homer’s Iliad. How can it be that the first book in our culture is also the greatest? I reread it once a year.

Q: What book did you hate reading as a child?

A: Hands down: I was required in 8th grade to read Oliver Twist. I hated it. I hated, hated, hated it. The teacher had picked out a book she thought each student would most enjoy and I got saddled with Dickens. I don’t know what she saw in me that thought I would enjoy reading a Victorian novel, but it has ruined me for life, not just for Dickens, who I still cannot bear, but for all Victorian literature. The fault is not in the books, but in myself. I grant that. But I feel like I’m chewing an old mattress when I try once more.

Q: Disappointed, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like but didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

ogden nashA: We are all inclined to favor certain styles and epochs and to fail to appreciate others. I have never been able to stand Virgil’s Aeneid. It feels completely stiff and academic to me, too literary, too contrived, artificial. I have tried to read many different translations, hoping to find one I could stomach, but so far … no. As for not finishing, I came across a used set of the complete works of Ogden Nash. I so looked forward to wallowing in his wit. Lightweight, yes, but clever. At least, so I thought. Turns out, all the great bits he wrote are already anthologized to death and the stuff that you don’t already know — it turns out there’s a reason you don’t know it. Pedestrian, dull, dated, trying too hard, puerile, or contorted beyond enjoyment. I couldn’t finish it. I’ll keep to the good verses I already know.

Q: What do you read for fun?

brian lambA: My wife makes fun of me by calling me “the man who can’t have fun.” She means I’m always in some serious book of history, or the classics. She means that on weekends, I watch C-Span. (There are some very few beings in this world whose utter humanity and service to humankind recommends them for sainthood and among them I place the Dalai Lama, David Attenborough and Brian Lamb). My wife wants me to go see some popular movie or wear a funny hat for a costume party, and I just cannot get any pleasure from such things. I dread state fairs and Renaissance festivals. Shoot me if you ever see me at a karaoke bar. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have fun. It’s just that my definition of fun is different from hers. I get the greatest pleasure from listening to Bach or Schoenberg, reading John Milton, viewing films by Tarkovsky and rereading Ovid one more time. I can’t help it. I’m not pretending, or trying to make myself sound more brainy; these are the things I genuinely enjoy. I do them for pleasure. Utter pleasure.

Q: All the time? Really?

A: Well, my wife and I share an enjoyment watching British detective series on TV. American cop shows are too violent for our tastes, and the crimes are always by serial killers, drug kingpins or terrorists. The British series tend to focus on the more mundane crimes we are all more likely to encounter in life, crimes of jealousy, greed, anger. And the British series  often bypass the actual murder, joining the story as the body is found. We love them all, from the wimpiest to the grittiest. Unfortunately, between the two of us, we have defused too many of these mysteries by discovering the most successful trick in fingering the guilty party, and it has nothing to do with clues. It is a metalogic method: Just look for what we call “the unnecessary character,” the supererogatory person in the story — an extra sister not otherwise needed, a solicitor outside the main story, an ex-boyfriend or a retired cop, dragged into the story for reasons not otherwise clear. The unnecessary person rarely fails us.

Q: But this is about books. Do you read mysteries, too?

Bruno CremerA: Sort of. I’m addicted to Maigret books. Whenever I have to decompress from reading more about genocide in Eastern Europe, I pop open another Maigret. But properly speaking, they aren’t mysteries. We often know who the culprit is early in the book. Instead, they are novels about crime, and Georges Simenon fills the pages with vivid characters, drawn in three dimensions. There is little of the piling up of clues and gathering people together at the end to ferret out the killer. Instead, the same books could probably have been written without the crime at all, as perhaps love stories or travel books. I love Simenon as a writer. By the way, we have the DVDs of all the Bruno Cremer Maigret episodes and the British version with Michael Gambon. Watched them all multiple times.

Q: What books give you the most pleasure in the reading?

A: And the re-reading. There are a handful of books I can read over and over and always give me pleasure, not so much in the storytelling — since I already know how it comes out — but in the words. The words, words, words. Certain writers just make my mouth water with the words they use, the metaphorical and playful use they make of them. If I were to make a list of, say, the top five books that give me utter, ecstatic pleasure, they would be: 1. Tristram Shandy; 2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; 3. Paradise Lost; 4. Joyce’s Ulysses; and 5. The Iliad. I cannot get enough of all of them. Oh, and I have to add Chaucer; can’t leave him off. And Moby Dick. Jeez, I love that book. I cannot limit it to five. How could I leave off Ovid’s Metamorphoses?

Q: What books most influenced you as a writer?

Herman MelvilleA: So many people were influenced by Hemingway. I was not. Instead, I loved the long, baroque sentences and richly figurative language of Herman Melville and Henry David Thoreau, image piled on image with a profuse fertility, leaving me, as a reader, feeling like I was being pulled one way and then another by breakers at the beach. Oddly, I often read secondary works before moving on to the main course. I read all of Melville’s short stories, including Benito Cereno and Billy Budd, before I ever finished Moby Dick. Perhaps because I loved the opening chapter of Moby Dick so much, every time I put the book down and picked it up again, I started from the beginning. I must have read “Loomings” a hundred times before finally moving on to the rest. The other great influence was Henry Miller, not for the obscenity, but for the torrent of words, the forward motion of the narration in such books as Plexus, Tropic of Capricorn and Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. I’ve since left Miller behind, but he was a great ignition flame.

Q: Which writers writing today — novelists, poets, playwrights, journalists, critics — do you admire most?

A: I am not being disingenuous when I say my favorite living poet is my wife, Carole Steele, whose book, Rust Sings, is full of life and great lines. And I always open my New Yorker to its final pages looking for Anthony Lane.

Q:  What author, living or dead, would you most like to meet, and what would you like to know?

Laurence_Sterne_by_Sir_Joshua_ReynoldsA: First, it would have to be an author in English. I can’t speak ancient Greek. There are some that come to mind, but I’m not sure I really want to know them: Nabokov is too waspish; Faulkner too inebriated; Gibbon too erudite. I go through a list and realize most authors I would rather read than meet. But there is one I would love to spend a lazy afternoon with, talking and making jokes and maybe commiserating a bit — Laurence Sterne. We could share a beer easily. What would I want to know? Not a thing; let’s just talk.

Q: What is your favorite word?

A: We’ve made a pivot (Bernard) in this Q&A, haven’t we. What’s the loveliest word in the English language, officer? In the sound it makes in the mouth? In the shape it makes in the page? Not “elbow,” not for me, though it is a fine word. No, I like “smudge,” or perhaps “caliper,” which on the page has both an ascender and a descender, which makes it a good word to compare typefaces with. Really, I can’t pick one word. How does a mother choose among her children? Not possible.

Q: What is your favorite curse word?

A: I rarely curse, which makes it more effective when I do.

Q: If a movie were to be made from your life, who should play you?

michel simon 1A: Ideally, Jean Gabin, but more realistically, Michel Simon.

Q: What sound or noise do you love?

The squall of thousands of Canada geese in a pond and flying overhead. A noise most people find excruciating, but in me, it brings forth the swelling of my chest and the tears one sheds faced with ultimate beauty.

Q: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

A: “Don’t unpack, we’re sending you back for another round.”

purple rose 2

Most people, when they go to the movies, go to see aliens blow up the world, or they go to see the lovers win out over odds, or to see the superheroes beat out the supervillains.

end of ricoThat is not much different from why they went to see the movies 80 years ago, except then they might have gone to see the chorus girl become a star, Fred and Ginger glide over the dance floor, or the end of Rico.

In other words, the initial satisfaction of moviegoing is the story, setting up characters and then seeing what happens next. And next after that. We think of them as having happy endings, but such endings are not necessary; some movies end in tragedy.

One is reminded of director Sam Fuller, when asked “what makes a good movie?”

sam fuller“A story,” he said.

“And what makes a good story?”

“A story!”

There is, however, another level of satisfaction that comes from watching a film, and that is an awareness of how the film is made. Not everyone understands the process by which the story is told, and not everyone cares. If a story is well-told, it is enough that the story is appreciated.

But there is a separate class of film buff who are moment-by-moment aware of how the pieces of film are put together to tell that story. They are aware of the lighting, the editing, the camera angles, the camera movement, the point of view — and are aware of how all these things are used to manipulate the story and the emotions of the filmgoer. An entire critical apparatus is brought to bear on a film, and especially if it is a film made by a director known to be innovative or astute at using these elements of film. For these people, watching a film is always a dual-track affair, as if they were reading a book in translation, seeing not only the story, but how it has been constructed at the same time.stagecoach

One can look at the studio films of Hollywood’s golden age and dissect them and notice how well made they are, and one can catalog the special habits of some of the better movie directors of the time — William Wellman’s overlapping dialog, Hitchcock’s time distortion, John Ford’s landscapes — and, indeed, whole books have been written (to say nothing about doctoral dissertations, and worse: books made from doctoral dissertations) about what makes Woody Van Dyke different from Gregory La Cava, but this is film-school subculture grist. The people who paid their pennies and dimes to watch those films in the grand movie palaces of the 1930s seldom considered the problems of reverse shots in editing dialog. They just wanted to know what happens next.

citizen kane low angleNowadays, one can hardly turn over a stone and not find someone spotting the use of camera angle in Citizen Kane or yanking our lapels to point out the amazing tracking shot that begins A Touch of Evil.

There is a subset of this sensibility that brings to bear the whole history of cinema — especially genre film — when viewing a film. I call this the Tarantino effect; it is that if we want to truly appreciate what is going on in, say, Kill Bill, one needs to know who Sonny Chiba is, what are the differences between Hong Kong martial arts films and those made in mainland China, and what is more, individual scenes from individual movies that are quoted or referenced in Tarantino’s opus.sonny chiba

This is the foundation of the current bumper crop of superhero movies, too. Fans know the backstory of each character, and the full weight of the “Marvel universe,” or the “DC universe.” The fact that all comic-book superhero movies are basically the same hardly matters if fans argue minutia of the worlds inhabited by these cliches.

The problem with all this is that it becomes a form of in-joke, or worse, a shibboleth separating those who “get it,” from those who don’t. And in this eddy of thought, the references become the subject of the film and the plot becomes incidental. One of the results is that it fosters cliche, with a wink and a nod, and negates original ideas, or at least glibly assumes that original thought is no longer possible. In this it buys into the Postmodern mentality, wherein it is held everything worth saying has been said, and now our job is just to rearrange the game pieces in clever ways. This conveniently forgets the fact that it has always been hard to be original, even for Raphael or Goya.

So, in our film culture now we have two strata of movie appreciation. There are still those who go the movie theater to enjoy a good story, but there is another class that blogs endlessly about the subtext, meta-theory and the film-school techniques of their favorite movies.

However there is a third level to be considered when assessing a film.  If most films don’t aspire to more than story and technique, in the greatest films both story and technique are just tools for for a further end: Expressing something real about life. These are films made by people who have something important to say, something to tell us. They are films that investigate our humanity.

Stories alone can be entertaining, and the meta-view can be engrossing to those whose minds are attuned to “what’s really happening underneath,” but when I make a list of the best movies ever made, it is neither of these levels I care about. Or rather, I assume them as given. No, what I look for is whether the movies have something to say about human existence, that I can weigh against my experience and decide if it is true or not, whether it has something to say about the experience of being alive.

battle of algiers

That is why my Top 10 list does not feature The Dark Knight or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Such films may be diverting, but they don’t say much about the real world. Instead, my list contains films such as Rules of the Game, The Battle of Algiers, and La Dolce Vita. I learn more about love and sex from My Night at Maud’s than from all the Wedding Crashers and Knocked Ups combined. It is this third dimension that is missing from most popular movies. Content to be clever or scary or thrilling, they forget to be human.

Such films put me in touch with the deepest well of my being, remind me that such depth is shared by all of humanity, and that all our lives are complex and what is most important to us is not our jobs or our automobiles, but the emotional connection we have with the earth. One leaves such films profoundly moved and deeply shaken.

uma pulp fiction

Pulp Fiction, to take one example, is certainly a cleverly told story, beautifully written and just scrambled enough to keep us attentive. Yet, unlike Tarantino’s more recent films, it has a third dimension. In Pulp Fiction, death has human meaning and aftermath. There are consequences. When Mia overdoses and Vincent rushes her to Lance’s house for an antidote, her immanent death is something felt by the audience and when Marvin is blown away in the back seat of the car, there is blood everywhere. Yes, it’s a joke, but it’s also very real. In Pulp Fiction, each of the characters is a believable human being. Compare those episodes with the fight scene in Kill Bill where a comic-book Uma Thurman slices and dices her way through “The Crazy 88.” Nowhere is anyone mourning the death of a father or brother. They are tin ducks in a shooting gallery.

Most truly great films have these three dimensions. I don’t want to denigrate a good story, and surely a badly made film won’t move us, no matter how profound the content. But of these three levels, the only one that can elevate a film to classic status is its humanity. Stories and film technique create patterns we recognize and respond to, but what we really need from patterns is more than mere recognition; what we need is meaning.

Of course, it isn’t only in film we need meaning, but in all of art. And so, we search paintings or poetry not just for pretty pictures or clever rhymes, but for what answers that need in us to understand, to find or create meaning.

cassattNone of this is to deny you the pleasure you may get from Captain America or from paintings of pretty flowers. There’s room for that, too. Such things are fine on days when your ambition is cooling out, but the real satisfactions of art come when you are challenged by something more substantive, where you find your life reflected back at you, and you are forced to confront moral dilemmas, the inevitability of death and loss, the complexities of ideas, and the ultimate interconnectedness of all life on the planet. More ambition is good.

So, when we look to justify art in a world increasingly dominated by technology and STEM disciplines on one hand, and an increasing reaction into superstition and tribalism on the other (nativism, fundamentalism, bigotry and its retinue), it is important to make a case for looking inward with a piercing eye to find what is there, at the bottom of the human well.