The subtitle to the film Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, a documentary airing on HBO tonight (June 10, 9 p.m.), is accurate: Nadia Tolokonnikova, Masha Alyokhina, and Katya Samutsevich, who were arrested on Feb. 21, 2012, after performing for 40 seconds on the alter of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, do indeed embody many of the precepts of 1970s punk-rock culture. Although presenting themselves as a band, they view their work as performance art as much musical performance. A collective of unstated numbers of young women, Pussy Riot has found its most effective communication tool to be planned “spontaneous” musical performances that consist of rudimentary songs proclaiming their feminist, anti-authoritarian stance.
In the documentary, the members come off as tough-minded, resourceful, and wry: “It’s not too hard,” one of them says of their punk-band strategy: “Write a song and think of the place to perform.” Filmmakers Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin have footage of the group assembling at a protest site, divvying up the musical duties (“You play the guitar”), and diving headlong into a song or two before scramming.
Since the sacrilegious sin-crime and immediate arrest that made the group famous worldwide lasted a mere 40 seconds captured on what looks like a jittery cellphone, the bulk of A Punk Prayer is taken up by the show-trial of what I’d call the Pussy Riot Three. Placed behind a glass cage, the three women are allowed to make occasional statements, but their defense team comes off irritatingly smug and complacent – it’s as though the lawyers defending Pussy Riot lacked Pussy Riot’s own awareness of just how offended the combination of defying the Orthodox Church and Vladimir Putin’s leadership would be to the court system.
The trial exerts a sickening fascination. The film is warmed by the comments of some of the defendants’ parents. Soon after Nadia tells us that her father is “wonderful… so supportive,” he proves it. A thoughtful, baby-boomer generation man, he tells of being told by his daughter of Pussy Riot’s church-invasion plan as they rode the subway. He says he immediately tried to talk her out of it, but “after a few stops” on the subway ride, he realized she was determined to go through with her actions. His reaction? “I started helping out with the lyrics,” he says.
Unmentioned in the film is the debt Pussy Riot says it owes to the Russian poet Alexander Vvedensky (1904-1941), himself a government-suppressed poet of organized anarchy, and, like the Pussy Riot Three, a member of an art collective, OBERIU (Association of Real Art). During her group’s trial, Nadia specifically cited Vvedensky’s “principle of ‘poor rhyme’… He said, ‘Sometimes I think up two rhymes, a good and a poor one, and I pick the poor one, because it is the one that is right.”
A Vvedensky poem collected in the superb, recently published An Invitation for Me to Think (NYRB Poets) includes lines that could be a Pussy Riot lyric:
Will they cut or bite off their heads
It makes me want to puke.
All those about to die get cold feet.
They have activity of stomach,
Before death it lives as hard as it can.
But why are you afraid to burn up, man?
Nadia and Masha are serving two-year sentences in prison camps; Katya was released on appeal. One key moment in A Punk Prayer occurs during a break in the trial: When informed that Madonna had written the group’s name on her back to display it at one of the concerts, and had donned a balaclava onstage as a gesture of solidarity, the faces of Nadia, Masha, and Katia are intent, avid. They seem not to be thinking, “Cool! A big star likes us, maybe we’ll become famous, too, and be freed!” Instead, what their faces communicate is: “Oh, good. Maybe she gets it. Maybe some of her fans will now hear about us and get it. Our message still has a freedom on Madonna’s back, and in covering Madonna’s face. She’s not as good as we are at communicating this freedom, this audacity, but she’ll do until we get out.”
(After tonight’s premiere, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer will be repeated on June 13, 16, 18, and 22.)
On Memorial Day weekend -- and again on the anniversary of D-Day -- we take a solemn moment to remember our war heroes. In 1944, the man who would have been my father-in-law, had he lived long enough, landed on Omaha Beach, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and liberated a concentration camp. He also slugged an officer who made anti-Semitic taunts.
Some spend the day, or a portion of it, watching war movies, and you can see great ones about a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Burma, the brainwashing of GIs by Chinese militants during the Korean War, the plight of returning veterans having a tough time readjuisting to civilian life, the story of a Swedish industrialist whom the British blackmail into spying on Nazi industrial capacity not to mention do-or-die missions behind enemy lines in Europe; traumatized pilots returning to their base in Britain after one flight too many; escape attempts from German POW camps; the exploits of generals, the fate of battles, the derring-do of a charismatic hero; a mutiny on a US Navy destroyer-minesweeper that has seen better days; heroism on the home front with an alliterative heroine such as Greer Garson or Claudette Colbert.
My Triple Cain theory of Hollywood and War is based on a primal parable of guilt and violence, the story of Cain's slaying of his borther Abel. Hollywood movies are the invention of wandering Jews, and the moviemakers conceive themselves as marked men like Cain, protected by the vvery sign that sets him apart. This identification with Cain supports the view that violence is righteous and inevitable. There are three prominent movies in which the name Cain figures.
(b) The Caine Mutiny (1954) with Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray, and Jose Ferrer as the Jewish lawyer Barney Greengrass who gets the mutineers off the hook by exposing the captain, Bogart, as a paranoid playing with marbles he is destined to lose. Well, maybe Greengrass isn't his last name. It's Greenwald. But you know what I mean. I thnk especially of the spech he makes when he spills his champagne into Fred MacMurray's face, which he does not just because Fred's a hypocrite and a heel but somehow also in the name of the batty captain and similar incompetents who donate their bodies to the machinery of war, which is metaphorically identified with a US Navy destroyer on its last sea legs.
(c) The hero of High Noon (1952), willful Marshall Will Kane, played by tall stoic taciturn determined manly Gary Cooper, with goodness blonde gracious Grace Kelly as his Quaker (pacifist) bride, who shoots a man before the "real time" movie is through, and the just-married couple drives the carriage out of town with no fanfare except the lonesome Academy Award-winning song, "Do not forsake me, O my darling." Several "types of allegory" come into play, depending on whether the focus is on
ii) Grace Kelly
iii)) Frank Miller, who has vowed to kill him and is expected on the noon train,
iv) the townspeople, who are either
2) too young to do do anything but play cops and robbers,
(3) too old to do anything but offer a warm hand clasp
(4) Lloyd Bridges.
(d) Summatiom of thesis
1. Cain and Abel (Genesis) as a parable of Hollywood and the American War Machine
2) Digression on Michael Caine as a British variant of the American type
3) The special attractions of the prisoner-of-war camp as a site; digression on William Holden, Steve McQueen, and James Garner as three attractive North American models
4) Digression on East of Eden with James Dean (whose last name is a near anagram of Eden) as a version of Cain,
5) Presidential hopeful Herman Cain's moment of fame.
6) Comment from Susan Cain, author of the bestselling Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking. Cain's research tells her that "we watch people like Charlie Sheen BECAUSE they are narcissistic, not in spite of it." The obnioxious are "better liked" in college. "Not only that, but the type of narcissism that was most predictive of popularity was the most malignant kind."
7) Everything else.
Details TK. -- DL
From the black-and-white postwar British movie Easy Money (1948), here is the Norwegian actress Greta Gynt singing "The Shady Lady Spiv" to fellow spiv (or cheap crook) Dennis Price at the London nightclub where she works. She and Price are conspiring to rip off the football lottery outfit that employs him. The plot is a sort of milquetoast toast to Barbara Stanwyck's partnership with insurance agent Fred MacMurrary to defraud his company and eliminate ehr husband in one swell foop in Double Indemnity..But listen to the song, and delight in "spiv," a piece of English slang that has not lost its strangeness, especially when coupled with "shady lady." The movie is available streaming from Netflix. -- DL
A couple of years ago, after reading some Eliot and watching some Jacques Tati, I thought it would be a smashing idea to write a parodic blend of the two and it started thus:
The Hulot Men
Mistah Hulot—lui mort.
We are the Hulot men
We are the French men
Smoking togetherPipe bowls filled with straw.
but it didn't get much further, thankfully. But another entanglement of poetry and Tati has come together in this image of Monsieur Hulot's brother-in-law's swanky new car in Mon Oncle:
for the cover of Heather Phillipson's new book is inspired by this vehicle. Regardez-vous:
and this cover has already had an article devoted to it in Art Review (one of the perks of being a practising artist as well as a poet).
The reason I mention all this is that last night was the London launch of Instant-flex 718 (Bloodaxe) at the Art Review Bar just off Old Street ('Silicone Roundabout' as almost nobody calls it) and the great and the good (although I prefer the term 'the out and the about') gathered to start up this gorgeously hued vehicle and drive it away.
The first words I heard out of Heather Phillipson's mouth, back in 2007, were:
The only men it's safe for me to love are dead –
O'Hara, Stevens, Berryman.
when I read with her at The Poetry Café in Covent Garden and I became a fan at that moment. These are the opening two lines from 'Devoted, Hopelessly', which appears in the book. By the way, the title refers to the type of glue used to bind the book. I could talk about how the title and some of the poems inside speak of the materiality of language as used by the poet. But I won't.
What I will say is that this debut collection contains many hilarious, touching, surprising, and intriguing poems with wonderful titles like 'German Phenomenology Makes Me Want to Strip and Run through North London', 'Red Slugs in Every Irrelevant Direction', You're an Architect and I Want to Make Dinner for You' and 'Actually I'm Simply Trying to Find My Dressing Gown Sash'.
I like a launch to be more of a party than a reading and Heather chose to read a single poem, pushing the needle of the 'launchometer' almost as far away from the 'reading' end of the 'party – reading' scale as it is possible to do. But she left us wanting more, which is always a good thing.
Another good thing is that four of us peeled off to eat fish and chips at Kennedy's on Whitecross Street, which is worth a visit if you're ever out East.
So. As Monsieur Hulot departs at the end of Mon Oncle to allow his nephew to bond with his formerly stuffy father, Monsieur Arpel, so must I depart at the end of my week as guest blogger. It's been a pleasure and there were many other things I wanted to write about, like how can we get people to stop saying "x won the Internet"? but perhaps I will continue with these over at Mo' Worse Blues.
Au revoir. I leave you with an apposite poem from Heather Phillipson.
The Distance between England and America
Much could begin like this: a large man,
tie slackened, voice buoyed up by altitude.
My mind's elsewhere –
the air-conditioning. It's cold.
Above the Atlantic he bellows long vowels to me,
and I'm cabined, window-seated, polite.
With my English tone, I'm inadvertantly provocative –
No more salted pretzels for me, thanks Jeff.
At the sound of Charles Darwin's bassoon,
earthworms, apparently, writhed.
Jeff booms: Pittsburgh, golf clubs, his search for a wife.
I twist in my seat – suggest something,
in my movement, of all evolution.
His blanket folds back like an invitation
to navy shadows and polyester.
Heat and anything could happen under there.
Oh, take your loafers off, Jeff –
throw them in the aisle.
Your gusto can conquer my boredom, our bed can be the sky.
It's warming up. We won't be sleeping.
For almost nine hours beneath United Airlines covers
we'll share everything but thought.
In the morning, white bread rolls and Columbus, Ohio.
Women distribute plastic cutlery in the night.
For more information on Heather, click here.
Yesterday was a Bank Holiday in the UK. This is a day we occasionally grant to our banks so that they can take a breather from refusing to lend to businesses, insisting on unnecessary payment protection schemes, finding ways to turn public bailout money into private bonuses, and so on. They need to replenish their batteries.
And the rest of us need to go have lunch in cafés attached to museums and galleries. For a freelancer, depending on one's success or commitment, either every day is a Bank Holiday or Bank Holidays remain something that only other people enjoy. I must confess, I bunked off and practised my F major scale.
I also had time to reflect on a recent event I organised for the BFI (British Film Institute). The BFI has a generous and welcoming attitude to poets and it enjoys exploring the links between poetry and cinema. Over the last few years I've been involved in their poetry/film crossover event 'O Dreamland', which invited poets to write about their digital archive (The Mediatheque); I launched my collaborative Hitchcock homage Psycho Poetica at the BFI in 2010; and last year Isobel Dixon, Chris McCabe and I premiered The Debris Field there.
This year I was asked to organise something for their recent epic Pasolini retrospective and I considered various approaches. I thought of poetically 're-staging' Theorem using six poets playing each of the main characters, and I also toyed with comparing the 'swinging Sixties' of Pasolini, Antonioni and Bertolucci.
But in the end I took my lead from Pier Paolo himself and his love of the literary portmanteau movie, so I suggested A New Decameron: ten films, ten poets, ten film clips, one evening of poetic and filmic enthusiasm.
I asked nine other poets and writers to join me: Jane Draycott, Charles Lambert, Glyn Maxwell, John McCullough, Valeria Melchioretto, Luca Paci, Cristina Viti, Stephen Watts and Chrissy Williams. We were also lucky enough to have Rosa Mucignat of King's College London reading some of Pasolini's poetry in the Friulian language, with translations by Cristina Viti.
The sold-out show was funny, moving and powerful by turns and I wanted to give you a little taster by posting Chrissy Williams's poem and a film clip here. Chrissy freely admits to being obsessed with Pasolini's clownish muse, the great Ninetto Davoli. I'm currently talking to the BFI and the poets about getting all the work online in the near future.
First a small sample of the irrepressible Davoli from Chrissy's chosen film The Canterbury Tales.
And now her poem.
for Davoli in The Canterbury Tales
"col tuo sorriso, fulmineo e buffo" — Pasolini
"My only enemy is time" — Chaplin
I step to the screen
with your face so big, a kiss
with my arms reached up
would wrap around me whole.
Slip tongue, slip lip to the camera.
I fell in love with a face once
until it swallowed me.
And all him loved that looked upon his face
That each him loved who looked upon his face
No length of time or death may this deface
Step, nod to the screen and wink the bride.
You, happy as a goldfish in a glade.
You, little tramp with laughter for a face.
The bride winks back, slips back into a stolen moment.
Slip tongue to the world and hope for many moments.
and your face is a song, fool
your eyes light a dance, fool
lip-tight on the laugh of language
on the laughter
Step hip to dance with shadows till it's time
and it's always time to dance with shadows.
We dance against the day the music slips.
We dance the laugh of lips in bandages.
Thy face is turned in a new array
Your face is mottled in a new array
No step is left behind,
just kicked in a new way.
Stories shift, dreamed high,
kicked about in an angel's face
which changes, because
everything is always changing
although it stays the same.
No story is left behind,
just slipped on in a new way.
and I'll see you here again and again.
I'll love you here again again.
I'll fall and catch my heart in your constant face.
I fell in love with a clown once,
with a fool. Now I am the new clown
of no good, who falls with a cane
as time rearranges the stories of your face.
Is the face enough?
Is any one face ever enough?
In all his face there was no drop of blood
With his face pale and with a heavy cheer
Now list you down with face all pale of hue
I fell in love with your face once,
with the face I found, and I will follow it,
love, through all our familiar stories.
More about Chrissy Williams here.
The work of criticism is always, let’s say, ephemeral; Saint-Beuve’s name survives only because Proust was against him. Even more fleeting are the reactions of the mere reviewer. “No serious critic can devote himself, frequently, exclusively, and indefinitely, to reviewing works most of which inevitably cannot bear, would even be misrepresented by, review in depth,” sniffs Renata Adler in her screed against Pauline Kael.
So the outpouring of emotion in the wake of Roger Ebert’s death might seem a transitory thing; already, the passing of the Iron Lady (of whom more later) has moved him off the screens. The rise of Siskel and Ebert neatly paralleled in time the switch from the decade-long Prague Spring of New Hollywood to the blockbuster-driven economy still churning its way through the Marvel and DC lineups. Even if Ebert’s courage and openness in the face of his disfiguring illness and his resolute identity as a newspaper journalist in the twilight of that industry render him heroic, he and his partner might still seem like emblems in a narrative of cultural decline, banally and profitably celebrating the culture industry’s assembly line, whatever caveats they might have about individual products.
But I want to offer a different view. Sneak Previews and its successors enjoyed an astounding success, given how unpromising the show’s basic structure might have seemed: two untelegenic, middle-aged white guys bickering about movie clips. The show operated on the premise that arguing about culture could draw a mass audience. And it did. “Thumbs up or down” may have been the takeaway message, but both critics made clear that those decisions were made for reasons, and reasons that each would emphatically try to make the other acknowledge.
Maybe those arguments weren’t always the most sophisticated. And maybe the very act of treating Weekend at Bernie’s 2 as worthy of detailed consideration was as much a con as it was a tribute to critical open-mindedness. But in their humble way, Siskel and Ebert offered a model of rationality, one on which thinking wasn’t a matter of following an algorithm or asserting a purely subjective preference. In other words, it was a humanistic kind of education.
And it strikes me that poetry criticism, that much-lamented field, could do with more of a dose of At the Movies-style debate. We have our dramatic flareups, as with the fascinating byplay between Marjorie Perloff and Matvei Yankelevich last year. But too often, even when critical disagreements break out, they either proceed at an austere level of abstraction or wind up with people talking past one another. I’d love to see a pair of writers devote themselves to detailed and contentious consideration of recent books or poems of note. There are some excellent examples approximating this: Al Filreis’s Poem Talk, for instance, or the byplay between Christian Wiman and Don Share on the Poetry podcast, but I think there’s room for a similar effort that's neither tied to a particular publication nor emphasizing a scholarly conversation.
The use of thumbs in the poetic context, though, might have its risks:
What a thrill—
My thumb instead of an onion.
The top quite gone
Except for a sort of hinge
A flap like a hat,
Then that red plush.
(Sylvia Plath, "Cut")
David finally convinced me to see Zero Dark Thirty, a movie I avoided because in general I have a low tolerance for violent movies (insomnia, nightmares). Now, having seen it, I have a theory of why there were so many complaints and objections.
Some critics claim the film is an inaccurate depiction of how the CIA, by using torture, got crucial evidence in the hunt for Usama Bin Laden. The complainers say that the CIA did not gain this intelligence as a result of using torture. Therefore, any depiction of waterboarding would mislead viewers. Does the movie raise a means-and-ends question, with torture the questionable means toward a justified ends? It’s an arguable point, but condemning the film for this reason implies a standard of political correctness by which a great many movies people cherish would fall to the wayside. Moreover, that’s not really what fuss is about.
Here’s my theory and I’m curious to know what others think: Complaints against ZDT are coded misogyny – a protest against the idea that a woman might be a CIA agent, doing a manly man’s job, with a soldier’s stoicism and fortitude in a movie directed by a woman. Maya happens to be beautiful – it’s a movie, after all – but the work she and colleagues do is as far removed as can be from the activities of acceptable feminist models, such as virtuous moms who oppose drunk driving, brainy attorneys who put up with philandering husbands, and courageous whistle blowers. Furthermore, war movies are the provenance of male directors. One such movie (Hurt Locker) is fine, but two? It’s time to go home Ms. Bigelow and make Something’s Gotta Give.
Some have gone so far as to say that Zero Dark Thirty is an advertisement for the use of torture. As proof, they point to the demeanor of Maya, the CIA agent responsible for piecing together the evidence that led to Bin Laden’s hiding place. She is, say the critics, not sufficiently undone by the scenes of torture. Did I see a different movie? Maya is repelled by what she sees. She flinches, backs away, crosses her arms in front of her body, and after one session runs to the bathroom to collect herself. What would it take for the audience to believe that she is discomfited by the torture? I know! She should have become hysterical. That is the expected reaction of a woman who is upset. Instead, she behaves like the trained CIA professional she is and uses her will to maintain her composure.
In time Maya appears to grow comfortable with “enhanced interrogation” techniques. Yet Katherine Bigelow is careful to show the psychic consequences for the interrogators. Maya’s senior colleague grows weary and has to quit to “do something normal.” But people who think this is story about torture miss the boat.
Zero Dark Thirty is a serious, gripping, and masterly telling of the long and difficult quest for a mass murderer in hiding. There is violence, but I’ve seen much worse. The only violence that I found disturbing happens at the very beginning of the movie, when over a dark screen we hear the panicked 911 calls of the people trapped in the World Trade Center on 9/11. They still haunt me.
I like it when someone doesn't like a movie (a novel, a painting, a poem). I like it so much more than anyone's bland acceptance, like the word "good," when presented with a manmade creation. A friend's passionate aversion to a work of art conjures my defense of it. Sometimes it changes my mind. It pushes me beyond sitting silently with only my unformed experience of the book (the play, the album).
(I guess a disclaimer is needed here: I'm not referring to personal attacks or opinions based on ignorance, which are really the worst. I am also not referring to comment trolls. I compulsively read comments; it's a curse, really, on my internet life. I have discovered people will have comment wars over anything, including a recipe for borscht or a YouTube video with instructions for replacing an oven door. I don't like that. The sort of critique I'm getting at is rarer.)
Needless to say, a friend, a party-mate, a colleague liking something with zeal is most welcome, too, but only if the approval is articulated to the same degree as the intense aversion (somehow people find the words more easily when they dislike). Tell me what was good about it.
Often people don't like to disagree on a work of art; they will back away from the conversation, as if disagreeing about a movie were a form of aggression or the argument were personal. As if aesthetics were on the list of topics to avoid at social occasions, along with politics, religion and sex: but then, what else is there? Please invite me to a party where the talk is mostly along the lines of politics, religion, sex and aesthetics!
The saying goes that critics are failed artists. Because they cannot do anything, they critique others, spewing envy and frustration. I go back and forth with a friend who thinks that if you're not making something, you're not entitled to pronounce your own snippy thoughts, because making something--for example, directing even a crappy Hollywood movie--is hard. You haven't directed a movie, who are you to say it was crappy? To this, I say, Is there no room for the thinking viewer? We're being asked to give our attention, our time. Are we then supposed to withhold any thoughts it inspires, or offer only the favorable ones?
I do think it's a different story when the critic represents a greater authority, like the notorious Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times Book Review. I can understand a novelist objecting to the fact that the king-maker, the executioner, has never struggled through writing a book herself.... But official critics shouldn't be rejected wholesale. They often account for the only culture coverage we get in the mass media, and they can help bring attention to worthy projects. They can serve the same function to your own thinking as a friend liking or not liking something. You just have to feel the courage as a nobody-reader to disagree with all of them, too, if necessary.
I don't mean that I would like to see everyone start a blog featuring their Very Important Opinions about what to read or watch. But wouldn't it be grand if a forum where people were expressing their thoughts and preferences, say, a Facebook feed, yielded more strong opinions about movies (books, etc.) and fewer photos of what is being eaten? I can appreciate a picture of a decadent meal in the way I can appreciate a funny picture of a cat. But sometimes it feels like the picture of the food has taken the place that an experience of art used to occupy. It confers the eater with a sense of having accomplished something, said something, of having acquired the creative spark used to create the food. Except that with the food, unlike a performance, what that person will be doing with it, basically, is putting it in his face and saying, "Mmmm." ...The question is whether people are afraid to speak strong opinions (fear of fewer thumbs-up "likes", fear of seeming unlikable), or whether we've lost the patience to find the language to express the opinion.
Finding the words gets you on the path to pursuing your own sensibility, to go beyond passive consumption. That sounds like work, but is actually a thrill. It means going beyond categorizing books as good or bad, or art as high-brow or low-brow, or music as hip or lame (because some critic said so); it means being able to find what nourishes your thinking life, your sense of beauty, your cares, your sensibility in particular.
If you happen to make poems, drawings, those sorts of things, a strong reaction to a work is also a clue to your own aesthetics. You may not like something because it's the opposite of what you want to be doing with your own work. That is valuable information in a time when there's such a bewildering explosion of varying criteria for what constitutes art.
Thanks to Best American Poetry Blog folk, Stacey Harwood and David Lehman, for having me back this week!
I'm not an Academy member and I don't have a vote, but if I did I would cast it unhesitatingly for "Zero Dark Thirty" for the best picture award. And I lament that Kathryn Bigelow, who directed the film, did not get nominated.
While I enjoyed "Argo," the other best-picture nominee depicting covert ops), it is, in the end, a formula movie, spiced up by Hollywood's valentine to itself in the form of a move within a movie, a farceur's look at Farsi life, with the jovial irreverence of Alan Arkin and John Goodman. It has a poitically correct framing device concluding with a Jimmy Carter voiceover that reminded me of the mock-editorial that may have cost an enterprising Times or Globe man his job: "More Mush from the Wimp." The movie also has a conventional narrative arc, ending in a crescendo of suspense. The joke signaled by the title ("Argo fuck yourself") goes a long way toward neutralizing one's reservations.
"Zero Dark Thirty" is a more complicated, darker, less conventional movie. The arc is there but is ambiguous: the main character, a CIA agent played by Jessica Chastain (left), achieves her aims but is last seen crying in an airplane in which she is the only passenger. The killing of Bin Laden does not override all the losses she (and the nation) have endured along the way.
The movie meticulously shows how intelligence works. It is highly dangerous and anything but glamorous. There are false scents, blind alleys, red herrings, b;atant lies, and the intelligence agent has no choice but to follow these even if, as may happen, a calamity may result. The hoodwinking of a sympathetic CIA agent, a friend of our heroine, leads to her murder and that of several of her colleagues.
The movie has been the victim of a smear campaign. Early on it shows scenes of waterboarding. The movie does not endorse this method of interrogation; it simply depicts it. Objections to the film's violence are also overblown. The violence pales next to the torture tactics used by the French in Algeria and shown graphically in more than one affecting movie. The conclusion of the movie, with Bin Laden finally located and killed, is managed without sensationalism. There are no celebrations and parades. The movie is as somber as the subject and it is dedicated quite eloquently to the victims of 9/11 in NY, of 7/11 in London, of other terrroist attacks across the globe (Pakistan, Afghanistan) and to the heroic sacrifices made by first responders.
Do not let the organized campaign against this extraordinarily intelligent and well-made movie deter you from seeing it. -- DL
A pretty girl is better than an ugly one.
A leg is better than an arm.
A bedroom is better than a living room.
An arrival is better than a departure.
A birth is better than a death.
A chase is better than a chat.
A dog is better than a landscape.
A kitten is better than a dog.
A baby is better than a kitten.
A kiss is better than a baby.
A pratfall is better than anything.
-- Preston Sturges
Max Steiner composed some exciting suspense music for The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks’s 1946 movie of Raymond Chandler’s novel. It is very effective, and so, in its way, is the swinging number Lauren Bacall and band perform at the casino run by racketeer Eddie Mars: And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine (music Stan Kenton and Charles Lawrence, lyrics Joe Greene). The lyric locates us in noir central: “She’s a real sad tomato, she’s a busted valentine.” But my favorite musical moment in The Big Sleep is subtle enough that you might not notice it the first time around. Bacall (as one of the notorious Sternwood sisters) and co-star Humphrey Bogart (as detective Philip Marlowe) are bantering in a restaurant. In the background, a piano player is playing two great jazz standards: I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan (music Arthur Schwartz, lyrics Howard Dietz) and Blue Room (music Richard Rodgers, lyrics Lorenz Hart). At first you might think that what you’re hearing is just tremendously appealing café music. Only later do you realize that the two songs themselves have captured, in a whimsical fashion, the structural meaning of the scene.
The Big Sleep will culminate in the image of two lighted cigarettes in an ashtray as the words THE END appear on the screen. It’s a fitting image for the romance of Bogart and Bacall, who like to smoke and drink and make witty repartee in a roadhouse café. The by-play between the two romantic leads is utterly charming, but it is also, for much of the picture, utterly incongruous because incompatible with the story-line. The movie needs them to be lovers, the audience expects them to flirt, to link, and to clinch, and this duly happens, but at considerable violence to the logic of the plot, which puts their characters on the opposite sides of a quarrel.
Though this duality may threaten the coherence of the picture, it makes the scenes between Bogart and Bacall doubly entertaining. The dialogue is full of double meanings and playful digressions. In the restaurant scene with the piano soundtrack, the two are nursing their drinks. They employ an extended racetrack metaphor to communicate their sexual interest. She: “Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first, see if they're front-runners or come from behind, find out what their hole-card is. What makes them run.” He invites her to take a stab at summing him up. “I’d say you don't like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.” He: “You don't like to be rated yourself.” She: “I haven't met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?” He: “Well, I can't tell till I've seen you over a distance of ground. You've got a touch of class, but I don't know how far you can go.” She: “A lot depends on who's in the saddle.”
The ostensible purpose of the encounter is for Bacall to pay Bogart off – to pay him for the work he has done and get him to drop the case. Thus: I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan. Once this plot requirement is out of the way, Bacall and Bogart get down to the real cinematic purpose of their being there: to tease and flirt and advance their budding romance. And now the piano player plays Blue Room, which idealizes the successful outcome of such a romance. Lorenz Hart’s lyric stars you and me and the prospect of our betrothal and a subsequent time ever after when “every day’s a holiday, because you’re married to me.” It’s a song second perhaps only to Tea for Two (music Vincent Youmans, words Irving Caesar) as an idealized fantasy of marriage so beautifully innocent it almost brings tears to your eyes.
The Big Sleep needs the two songs in the background, and not simply because they are in exact counterpoint to the course of the conversation between Bogart and Bacall. A soundtrack of popular songs by Rodgers and Hart, Schwartz and Dietz, Irving Berlin, and the other great masters of the thirty-two bar song is as necessary in noir movies of the 1940s as the city streets, the silhouette in the window, the Mickey disguised as a highball, and the night spots the characters frequent, from Rick’s Café Americain in Casablanca (1942) to Eddie Mars’s casino in The Big Sleep, where beautiful costumed girls check Bogart’s coat, offer to sell him cigarettes, and vie for the privilege of delivering him a message.
Nor do the songs suffer from being relegated to background music, shorn of lyrics. The solo piano renditions of I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan and Blue Room insinuate themselves in your consciousness. If you don’t recognize them, fine; if you know them, so much the better. When you listen to an instrumental version of a song whose lyrics you know and like, what you’re hearing is a metonymy of the song: a part standing for the whole. The text is not altogether absent if you the listener can supply it. (When the septuagenarian Frank Sinatra went up on the lines of The Second Time Around the audience helpfully sang them). But to make my point about the interdependence of Hollywood films and popular songs, let me offer this montage:
-- -- What better way to convey the faithful consistency of “iron man” Lou Gehrig, the Yankee first baseman who long held the record for most consecutive games played, than with Irving Berlin’s song Always? In Pride of the Yankees (1942), the song does double duty as the musical affirmation of Gehrig’s loving fidelity to his wife, Eleanor, played by Teresa Wright.
-- Johnny Mercer’s lyric for Tangerine (music Victor Schertzinger) extols the charms of a vain and fickle Latin beauty. To the strains of this song, Barbara Stanwyck plays the ultimate femme fatale in Double Indemnity (1944), who conspires with insurance man Fred McMurray to eliminate her husband. In a flashback in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), the same song plays on the car radio when Stanwyck, playing a neurotic heiress this time, flaunts her father’s wealth to betray a friend and seduce Burt Lancaster. The great Jimmy Dorsey big band version of this song features Bob Eberle’s romantic solo followed by Helen O’Connell’s brassy satirical retort.
-- As David Raksin’s theme for Laura (1944) plays in the background, the homicide detective played by Dana Andrews becomes obsessed with the murder victim, a beautiful dame (Gene Tierney), whose picture hangs on the wall. Laura obligingly returns to life -- the corpse in the kitchen belonged to somebody else – and whenever in future we need to summon her up, we need only hum Raksin’s theme. Johnny Mercer added his lyric to the music months after the movie was released.-- To Have and Have Not (1944) is notable for being the first movie pairing Bogart and Bacall. It’s the one in which the foxy young actress seduces the hardened skeptic by teaching him how to whistle: “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” The song she “sings” in the movie’s nightclub scene is How Little We Know (music Hoagy Carmichael, lyrics Johnny Mercer). There are three things to keep in mind about the scene. 1) It is the composer who is playing the piano. 2) The song is an under-appreciated gem in the Carmichael – Mercer canon; I like it almost as much as Skylark. 3) It is said that the young Andy Williams enhanced the voice coming out of the throat of Lauren Bacall. (4) Jacqueline Bouvier loved the song, and during her junior year in Paris, she wrote out the bridge in English and in her own French translation for the benefit of one of her French hosts.
-- In The Clock (1945) office worker Judy Garland meets soldier Robert Walker on a two-day leave in New York City. At the moment they realize they are falling in love, the piano player in the restaurant is playing If I Had You (music Ted Shapiro, lyrics James Campbell and Reginald Connolly).
-- Somebody puts a coin in the jukebox in the diner and out comes I Can’t Believe that You’re in Love with Me (music Jimmy McHugh, words Clarence Gaskill), triggering the recollected psychodrama in Edgar Ullmer’s strange reverie of an unreliable (unbelievable) narrator in Detour (1945). The movie is a paranoid masterpiece, and the very title of the song goes to the heart of its mystery. The viewer “can’t believe” the events he or she is witnessing, because the narrator is either delusional or a liar or both in some blend. The same song punctuates The Caine Mutiny, where it has a more conventional signification.
-- A drunken Fredric March still in uniform and his game wife Myrna Loy dance to Among My Souvenirs (music Horatio Nicholls, lyrics Edgar Leslie) on his first night back from the war in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Hoagy Carmichael tickles the ivories at the gin joint where the reunited couple have gone with their daughter (Teresa Wright) and returning airman Dana Andrews.
-- Rita Hayworth invites the American male in the form of tightlipped Glenn Ford to Put the Blame on Mame (music Doris Fisher, lyrics Alan Roberts) in Gilda (1946). In The Lady from Shanghai (1947), the same red-haired enchantress seduces Orson Welles and coyly sings Please Don’t Kiss Me (same songwriters), a phrase that says one thing and means its opposite. Given the way Hollywood films wink at one another, it’s no surprise that we hear an instrumental version of Put the Blame on Mame in the background when tough-guy Glenn Ford sets out to foil the killers in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953).
-- The radio reliably pours out love songs in keeping with the plot twists in Delmer Daves’s Dark Passage (1947). Humphrey Bogart plays an escaped convict with a new face who will escape to South America with Lauren Bacall if he can figure out who killed his pal and framed him for the murder. During the course of the movie we hear instrumentals of I Gotta a Right to Sing the Blues (music Harold Arlen, lyrics Ted Koehler), I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan (music Arthur Schwartz, lyrics Howard Dietz)\, and Someone to Watch Over Me (music George Gershwin, lyrics Ira Gershwin). “You like swing, I see,” says Bogart. “Yes, legitimate swing,” Bacall counters. When Dark Passage gets serious about the love story, we see a record spinning on Bacall’s record player and the golden voice of Jo Stafford sings Too Marvelous for Words (music Richard Whiting, lyrics Johnny Mercer) and legitimates the romance.
-- In Key Largo (1948), the fourth Bogart-Bacall movie on this list, Claire Trevor plays a washed-up night-club singer and full-time lush in the entourage of gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson). Trevor sings Moanin’ Low (music Ralph Rainger, lyrics Howard Dietz) a capella, her voice faltering, and when she finishes the torch song, says, “Can I have that drink now, Johnny?”
-- Manipulative Anne Baxter supplants Bette Davis as queen of the stage in All About Eve (1951), and the romantic Broadway ambiance of New York City is communicated in background instrumentals of all-star songs by Rodgers and Hart (Thou Swell, My Heart Stood Still), Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler (Stormy Weather), Arlen and Johnny Mercer (That Old Black Magic), and Ralph Freed and Burton Lane (How About You?).The last named begins, “I like New York in June.”
The use of Among My Souvenirs in The Best Years of Our Lives is exemplary. Edgar Leslie’s 1927 lyric communicates regret at the passing of time. Trinkets and tokens diligently collected and treasured offer some consolation but do nothing to stop the flow of tears. In the movie, when the U. S. army sergeant played by March comes home he brings souvenirs of the Pacific war as gifts for his teenage son. But like the knife in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Crusoe in England,” when it has become a souvenir on the shelf after Crusoe returns home from his island, the mementos of the global conflict have lost their meaning. They seem vaguely unreal, lifeless. In contrast, the photograph of his wife that a hung-over March looks at the next morning – another sort of souvenir – has all the meaning in the world for him. And Among My Souvenirs – played on the piano by Hoagy Carmichael, hummed in the shower by a drunken March, and heard as background music -- unifies the whole sequence and endows it with the rich pathos that make the song so durable a jazz standard. I recommend that you listen to Art Tatum play it on the piano or, if you can get your mitts on it, a recording of Sinatra and Crosby doing it as a duet on television in the 1950s.
-- A version of this essay appears in Boulevard, ed. Richard Burgin.
"Gentleman's Agreement" (1947), one of the great underrated black-and-white films from the idealistic late1940s, is now available streaming from Netflix, and I urge everyone to resist the temptation of watching all of "House of Cards" all at once and choose instead to spread the pleasure over the course of a week and to interrupt the flow by taking in this well-written, well-acted film, a monument to liberalism when it had its moment as the L word of choice. Gregory Peck stars as a journalist who comes up with a new angle on exposing anti-Semitism in America. The anti-Semitism critiqued is, to use a distinction Ezra Pound would have appreciated, the "suburban" rather than the extermination kind -- the separate but almost equal approach: country clubs and hotels restricted to gentiles; anti-Semitic hiring policies so ingrained that even in New York a well-qualified person named Cohen or Finkelstein would be wise to change her or his name when applying for a job; the assumption that a smart Jew would have figured out a way to avoid combat in World War II ("were you in public relations, Mr. Green?); even Jewish anti-Semitism -- the way a Jew will cringe in the presence of a stereotypically "kikey" (i.e. loud, vulgar, pushy) member of the faith. Elia Kazan directed the picture. The sterling supporting cast includes Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, Celeste Holm, June Havoc, Anne Revere, Albert Dekker, Dean Stockwell, Sam Jaffe, and Jane Wyatt.
This is from the period when the script could make or break a Hollywood film. Moss Hart wrote this one and copped an Academy Award nominaation. The movie garnered eight other nominations and won thre, including the best picture Oscar. Eliza Kazan won for best director, and Celeste Holm deservedly took Holm an Oscar as best supportng actress (beating out the equally wonderful Anne Revere, who plays the journalist's mother). The lead was offered first to Cary Grant, who turned it down. But they got the the right star In Gregory Peck, who is to principled liberalism what Cary Grant is to suave urbanity. Peck took the role despite his agent's objections. I know he's supposed to be a wooden actor but I have always thought this an unfair characterization and if you see this movie (and "Twelve O'Clock High") I think you'll see my point.
You'll get no spoliers from me. The film is full of surprises, even if the most crucial one is given away in just about anything written about it. But here are some things you might like to know: (1) It's adapted from the best-selling novel of the same title by Laura Z. Hobson, which I read when I was fifteen and thought it was pretty good. (2) Darryl Zanuck, a gentile, who produced the movie for Twentieth Century Fox, decided to make it when he was turned down for membership in the "restricted" Los Angeles Country Club, whose management was under the mistaken belief that Zaniuck was Jewish. (3) More than a few facts about the making of the movie supports its central thesis. Samuel Goldwyn was among the Jewish movie moguls who feared that the making of the film would only stir up trouble -- that Jews would be wise not to call attention to themselves. (4) The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), associating Communism with Jew-lovers, called Zanuck, Kazan, John Garfield (real name: Julius Garfinkel), and Anne Revere to come to Washington and endure the committeee's contempt. Garfield, who refused to name names, suffered on the blacklist for a year and died of a heart attack shortly before being asked to testify a second time. He was only 39. (5) The movie's success was toasted at Los Angeles's Biltmore Hotel on December 12, 1948 with speeches and testimonials followed by an entertainment extravaganza in the hallowed Hollywood tradition. The night was capped off by the Hollywood debut of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. They were a hit. -- DL
Well, really it started with snapshots. There was the truck, but there was also Wyoming. In Wyoming, a young Hayward watched red ants bring beads up from deep within the earth—from old burial sites. It was how the earth fused past and present, he noted. Then there was fourth grade art class. Hayward smushed a paintbrush onto paper, watched the bristles splay out, rapt at the potential that lay before him. A humorless art teacher snapped him back to reality— “You’re going to ruin that brush!”
Hayward doesn’t operate in a world where the tools of art—pieces of art themselves—are subject to ruin. After all “to ruin” suggests someone is there to impose on these instruments, to do the alleged ruining. When Hayward creates, he steps aside. Hayward sets the world in motion like the deist god who winds the clock, but where it will go from there is anyone’s guess. Stepping out of the way, however, may be the most challenging artistic task of all.
* * *
Last week Hayward appeared at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in Soho with Laura Isaacman, editor of The Coffin Factory magazine, to discuss his full-length film Asphalt, Muscle and Bone. Isaacman’s interest in Hayward’s work was sparked by a collaboration she witnessed between Hayward and the writer Justin Taylor. Isaacman then began “stalking” the eccentric Hayward—who humored her inquiries—hanging around his studio and digging through old suitcases, looking for anything that might lend some insight into the enigmatic artist and that nagging question of inspiration.
Isaacman, perhaps naively, wanted a linear tale of inspiration, a trajectory from “then” to “now,” but from there things only got less lucid.
After living in 17 states with his older, snake-wrangling sister, who instilled in him a sense of adventure and a hunger for possibility, Hayward got his start in photographic portraiture. As Hayward took the conventional, staid position of photographer behind the lens, enacting his vision on the subject, he felt something was incredibly wrong; he couldn’t get something Kierkegaard once said out of his head.
“He said the advent of photography would make everyone look the same,” explains Hayward. “I decided it was time to mess around, to disrupt.” He began slicing up and rearranging faces—the effect was a cubistic uncanny valley, equal parts creepy and beautiful (the resulting images managed a certain uneasy symmetry, which we are unconsciously conditioned as viewers to believe denotes the utmost beauty).
It also occurred to Hayward that around this time there had been a “gross imbalance of testosterone” in the world for the past three- to four-thousand years. He became fixated on dance, believing dance emphasized the female figure in a position of power, one contrary to the traditional view of women.
“Throw out everything you’re comfortable with,” he adds. “Give yourself permission.”
Hayward made it his mission to reinvent portraiture, to transform it from something unfulfilling and subjugating to a process of the “collaborative self.” (At least this is his explanation for those who demand a narrative, who cannot wrap their minds around the disjointedness of inspiration and creation as they infiltrate our lives, only to abandon us just as quickly as the canvas has been primed.)
Hayward would bring in his “subjects“ for a conversation and together they’d wait for something, anything. That “something” was removed from judgment and from planning. It was full of risk. It usually took about 15 minutes to get the ball rolling, to strip away the inhibitions of daily life and proper conduct.
People tore off their clothing, dipped their hands in paint and stood there, exposed, dripping onto canvases. If it sounds less than earth-shattering to you, wait until you see Hayward’s shots. The man behind the camera disappears, the image yanks you in—it demands your unwavering complicity. You feel as though you’ve just witnessed a crime of passion you yourself perhaps committed. I feel like a traitor calling them “Hayward’s shots” at all, as though I’ve gravely missed the point.
When it was Willem Dafoe’s turn, he created a series of large, oversized, crudely-drawn mother figures. In Hayward’s photos, Dafoe cowers below them, as though being birthed from the pages. “Oedipal” springs to mind.
Don’t ask Hayward what he’s trying to accomplish. He quotes Francis Bacon: “If I knew what I was doing, why would I do it?” He says Asphalt, Muscle and Bone encapsulates “risk-taking and how women have been written off” as well as the “impossibility of love” as he flips through projected film stills, he knows he only wants to see things he’s never seen, but that’s about all he knows.
Members of the audience shift in their seats, they seem uneasy about this “impossibility of love” notion. Hayward feels under no pressure to address the crowd for long, quiet stretches. A man breaks the silence: “Can you expand on the impossibility of love?”
The way we’re introduced to love is completely erroneous, offers Hayward. We have to break it down before we can build it up.
“All of these may or may not be in the film,” Hayward explains cryptically as he shows us film stills of mythical places like the Fat River Hotel and the conceptual Museum of Emotions. You cannot physically enter into Hayward’s museum or his hotel, all the rooms are made up, but you can purchase postcards, postcards which look as though they were pulled from the very ancient burial grounds themselves. And in order to reach these places, you must first yourself get lost.
In his presentation, as in his work, Hayward appears to withdraw into a strange, removed place within himself only to reemerge and confront us with the unseen, the whimsically gritty and eerie. Is this work erotic? Nudes reappear in the stills on several occasions, in hotel rooms, often in compromising poses, seemingly torturing each other or wrapping their teeth around strings of pearls. We almost feel guilty asking ourselves. What is eroticism anymore? Would it offend Hayward if we were to ask? No one does; they’re hung up on the love question. They’re still obsessed by the idea of inspiration.
Hayward says it took a long process of elimination to get to where he is now, artistically-speaking—a lifetime of risk-taking. His life parallels the canvas he describes—a “blank” canvas is not truly a blank canvas, it’s a series of cliches which must be painstakingly scraped away.
Throughout the process, Hayward always felt that push of something being wrong though. It was the impetus to move forward, the force that kept him going. “I feel at ease now,” he says.
In the art of the world around him, Hayward will settle for no less than the standards to which he holds himself. “You can’t short-circuit experience,” he says. Art cannot and should not be commodified. “You won’t find yourself online, on Instagram.” The crowd titters, guiltily. “You won’t find Paris in Disneyland.”
Alissa Fleck is a freelance writer whose work has been featured in the Huffington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, Our Town Downtown, on Narrative.ly and more. She cares deeply about LGBT issues and has a piece on the subject forthcoming on Truthout.org.
(Ed note: This is the second part of a two-part essay by Laurence Goldstein. Goldstein is Professor of English at the University of Michigan and Editor Emeritus of Michigan Quarterly Review (1977-2009). His most recent book is a volume of poems, A Room in California (Northwestern University Press, 2005). A book of literary criticism, Poetry Los Angeles: Reading the City’s Essential Poems, is forthcoming from University of Michigan Press. Find the first part of this essay here. )
I argued in my first mini-essay that encounter poems originate in the emotion of awe and strangeness that overtakes the speaker—almost always a recognizable portrait of the author—upon coming into contact with a figure who shocks him or her into a new state of being or mind. In this sense the encounter poem may be said to enact the rhetorical function of all lyric poetry. As I indicated previously, the stranger must be of higher or lower social status in order for the poet to make the mental adjustments that constitute the exchange of insight between poem and reader. Occasionally the mysterious figure encountered in a strange place turns out to be a double of the speaker, arguably an exact equivalent, and his or her recognition of that fact engenders the surprise, even the shock, of the poem. Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting” is the purest example I know of that dramatic situation. In the subterranean graveyards of battle, differences of social status, national citizenship, and ethnic definition are revealed as fundamental illusions.
History has placed women in the same privileged positions as men for smelling out the false consciousness that follows upon deference to undeserving authority. I would endorse claims that women have always responded as sensitively as men both to fraudulent oppressors and authentic figures of redemption, whether of high or low position on the social register. And not just social station. Those who occupy existential situations as seemingly forlorn as the Leech Gatherer or “Aunt Jemima,” carry what Wordsworth calls “a more than human weight,” as if they had traveled across the furthest border of mortal possibility to confront the merely social station of the speaker. In Hayden’s poem, I argued, the mysterious stranger usurps the customary male role by speaking almost the entirety of the poem, pronouncing the moral in the final lines, a privilege almost always reserved for the poet or his surrogate.
I think of “Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves” as a poem that hands off the baton of male authority to a rising generation of women who assert their rights by means of the poetics of correction: “Don’t you take no wooden nickels, hear?” By contrast, no stranger is going to correct the speaker of “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” He holds his axe aloft and the needy wood-choppers recede back into the “mud” whence they came.
So let’s test my rules and regulations on an encounter poem that never fails to stir my students to profitable contention: Ana Castillo’s “Seduced by Nastassia Kinski,” from her volume of 2001, I Ask the Impossible. Encounter poems often share conventions with other genres, and this one belongs equally to the genre of the “movie star homage poem,” about which I have written in my book The American Poet at the Movies: A Critical History. This genre is like and unlike the genre in which poets encounter other poets. That is, they are fan’s notes, often laced with envy and resentment but are almost always fantasies of encounter, not real meetings. Robert Frost made himself available to poets like Robert Lowell and Donald Hall, and would not have been surprised to hear that they included his conversation in poems; but we know at once that Ana Castillo is not reporting a gaudy night with the famous star that actually happened. The poem, with its title like a tabloid headline and its lurid narrative of coercion derived from the template of Alec D’Urberville and Tess in Kinski’s most famous role, is all dreamwork in keeping with the agreed-upon conventions of star-fucking poems.
Castillo presents the nubile Kinski as the embodiment of sexual desire:
dance, I avoid her gaze.
I am trying every possible way to escape eyes,
mouth, smile, determination, scarf pulling me
closer, cheap wine, strobe light, dinner invitation.
“Come home with me. It’s all for fun,” she says.
The speaker offers some futile resistance before succumbing:
. . . she
finds me at a table in the dark.
“What do you want, my money?” I ask. She reminds, cockily,
that she has more money than I do. I am a poet, everybody
does. And when we dance, I am a strawberry, ripened and
bursting, devoured, and she has won.
They retire to Kinski’s place and consummate their lust; we understand the sex as a one-night-stand, not as the inception of a continuing relationship. That is the convention of the male encounter poem. But we would be wrong to do so. The next day, a Sunday, the couple goes out for dinner and over champagne “Nastassia wants me forever.” The star-power overwhelms the dazzled speaker, who whispers, “te llevaré conmigo” [I’ll take you with me.]. “As if I ever had a choice,” the speaker laments in the rosy aftermath of their impulsive coupling. What choice or chance does any fan have when encountering the sex object of his or her dreams? Glamour of this wattage is irresistible.
The same-sex character of this seduction, and its ethnic component, provide my students with more grounds for discussion of taboo violations. Hook-ups between strangers may or may not unsettle the Millennial Generation. They know, or learn in survey courses, that the erotic “gaze” and ensuing sexual consummation between women has a literary genealogy at least as far back as Coleridge’s “Christabel,” not to mention Sappho. The formerly masculine-only prerogative of selecting and persuading a bed partner of the opposite sex, and sometimes of differing ethnic identity, was always a cultural myth inviting the potent counter-myth of the openly aggressive female, white or non-white. This charismatic stranger reveals to the speaker new depths to her personality, not without some regret. And, as always, readers learn from texts of transgression something new about the allure of the formerly off-limits Other.
The beginning of a feminist sensibility, we were told decades ago, is marked by an increased fascination with the female body, one’s own and the other’s. The mutual adoration of speaker and stranger, and their erotic union, is a fulfillment that breaks one form of chains derived from the male tradition. It is no backhanded compliment to say that Castillo’s poem still shakes us with the strength of an edgy movie, in which forbidden things challenge and change us.
If I choose to stay on the topic of encounters with movie stars a few paragraphs longer it’s because the ubiquity of references to film actors in contemporary poetry is one of the most noteworthy ekphrastic modes of our time. Yes, the overwhelming and inescapable impact of visual media in our culture is the chief cause of this new feature in our poetics. But I hazard the thought that the voluminous surge of significant writings by women poets beginning in the 1960s has something to do with it as well. One impulse of this new writing was to explore the possibilities largely left open by male poets who seemed not to realize precisely how women understood themselves and the universe around them. Female poets found it useful to shake up the forms, including the encounter poem, by which male poets coded and dramatized information about human relationships. From grammar school to graduate school, from Edith Hamilton’s Mythology to M. Esther Harding’s Woman’s Mysteries, Ancient and Modern, I was astonished by the legends women claimed as their inheritance, legends they felt free to subvert or recreate in contemporary idioms with modern, or postmodern, figures of magic and transformation.
Movie stars make themselves available for such appropriation; indeed, that’s their function in our lives. Male poets paid homage from a distance, acting as high priests of the new religion of cinema. Vachel Lindsay wrote a hymn to Mae Marsh, Delmore Schwartz to Marilyn Monroe, Frank O’Hara to James Dean. But how different their forms of praise are from Anne Carson’s extensive use of stars like Catherine Deneuve and Monica Vitti to help her articulate lyric desire, lyric shame, lyric rapture, lyric degradation. (See the extended prose poem “Irony Is Not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve” in Men in the Off Hours and the sequence of poems on Vitti in Decreation.) Carson does not construct a traditional meeting with these stars; she absorbs them into her identity, her imagination of feminine nature and female destiny that bonds her with the European performers. Dialogue tends to disappear in these poems—certainly dialogue between figures as discrete as her actual self and the Romantic other.
In Decreation the encounters are placed in cinematic or theatrical formats. “Lots of Guns” is my favorite adaptation of movie conventions. The opening scene of what she calls an “oratorio” is a parody of some strange meeting somewhere between two people unlikely to meet again:
Why are you here?
To take your life and stuff it in a box.
You have no right.
My gun gives me the right.
I veto your gun.
Your veto is unreasonable.
Your reason is a mystery.
Your mystery is a way of lying.
This concept is no longer in use.
You mean lying?
The concept of lying, yes, is no longer in use.
What do you do when you want to avoid telling the truth?
I use a microwave oven.
How does that work?
Has 600 watts and 5 power levels.
Isn’t it hard on your gun?
I never put my gun in the microwave—there is no need. Guns do not lie.
The Marx Brothers come to mind as a seminal influence here rather than Greek tragedy or Greek comedy. I read the exchange as between male and female, though I’d be cautious about identifying which voice is which. As with poems about Nastassia Kinski and Catherine Deneuve, the discourse is hard-edge and resists recognizable gender roles. The “poem” makes sense whether the one who wields the gun is a femme fatale or the gunsel of noir romance, acting tough but easily brutalized by his/her opposite number.
As long as I am extending the conventions of the encounter poem I’ll make reference to another intriguing experiment with dramatic structure by a contemporary. Denise Duhamel’s “How It Will End” appeared in Best American Poetry 2009 and according to the author’s note it derives, like “Resolution and Independence” and “Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves,” from the serendipity of an actual walk in a picturesque location and the resultant encounter with figures worth writing about. The innovation in this text is that the speaker and her husband do not pass words with the distant objects of their attention, a lifeguard and his girlfriend who are quarreling and generally making a spectacle of themselves. The two would-be eavesdroppers cannot hear the dialogue being exchanged but they do become involved in what they imagine to be the source of contention. “It is as good as a movie,” she says, a silent movie, and then she and her husband proceed to undergo a surrogate encounter as they disappear into the roles of “lifeguard” and “waitress” they endow upon the actors they watch from a bench on the boardwalk.
Duhamel now must complicate the cliché of life as a movie in which we are all bit players and/or eager voyeurs. There is plenty of exposition in the long line free verse, in which most of the syntactical units are fitted to the full line so that the story element is not unduly interrupted by line breaks calling attention to the poem’s status as artifact. Gradually the observing couple begin to bicker among themselves as each takes the part of the corresponding gender figure down by the lifeguard station:
even give the guy a chance and you’re always nagging,
so how can he tell the real issues from the nitpicking?”
and I say, “She doesn’t nitpick!” and he says, “Oh really?
Maybe he should start recording her tirades,” and I say
“Maybe he should help out more,” and he says
“Maybe she should be more supportive,” and I say
“Do you mean supportive or do you mean support him?”
The misunderstanding between these two is so profound, and so banal, that we sense that they are encountering each other for the first time, struggling to articulate the nature of their own relationship in the guise of perplexed viewers making sense of a movie.
In the more familiar kind of encounter poem the boardwalk couple would continue their walk and speak with the beach couple, or, more daring, the beach couple would spot the spectators and walk up to confront them. But the poem ends like the romantic idyll it is. [Spoiler alert] Suddenly the beach couple is making up:
She has her
arms around his neck and is crying into his shoulder.
He whisks her up into his hut. We look around, but no one is watching us.
Well, not quite. The reader is watching them, and listening to them, and finally that is the encounter that matters. The poem acts on us like cinema, first involving us in a lovers quarrel and then releasing us with a happy ending. Or is it happy? “No one is watching us.” The boardwalk couple is left with hurt feelings of which the poem is the guilty witness. One rises from reading the poem needing an embrace and looks around for one’s beloved.
Is “How It Will End” a gendered or genderless poem? Alicia Ostriker argued in her groundbreaking study of feminist poetics, Stealing the Language, that all poetry is gendered, and especially those poems that chronicle “expressions of rage at entrapment in gender-polarized relationships” by offering “retaliatory poems which dismantle the myth of the male as lover, hero, father, and God.” The speaker’s immediate suspicion of the lifeguard, whose profession is the very embodiment of the heroic, and her first statement in the poem, “He deserves whatever’s coming to him,” are clear expressions of sexual politics. The encounter on the beach is the occasion for an upsurge of discovery, and self-discovery. Though “How It Will End” is in certain ways a “woman’s poem” it adds to all poets’ repertory of strange meetings another timely model worthy of close study.
Find more about Bill Hayward on this blog here.
Visit Bill's website here.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.