Thursday, December 11, 2014

Gone Girl: Some Comments

This is a thoughtful, well written piece. The problem for me is that while the movie is just ok, worthwhile in a stolid way, weighed down by Affleck's one note lugubriousness, as well as flawed by small inconsistencies, too glib dialogue at the outset, and a preposterous ending, most of what Rothfeld writes is overwrought. (I haven't read the novel.)
Here's an example of the latter:
...This is the patriarchy that Amy is up against: one in which men don’t have to care, or even respond to female caring, because they hold all the cards. One in which even the most accomplished and capable women are forced to mold themselves into the incarnations of male fantasy in order to matter, in which every heterosexual love story is a retelling of Pygmalion. One in which women are powerless to hold men accountable—in which female emotion is valued as a fundamentally worthless currency....
Some such notion of a shifted patriarchy may be evident in the novel but it's not organically present in the movie despite the one slapped on monologue about "cool girls." Amy, let's be clear is nuts, a psychopath whose acting out grows from faking a rape to trying to contrive elaborately a murder--getting Affleck executed, which he should be, critically, for his terrible acting and killing the screen--to committing a bizarre, bloody and horrible murder. 
Her psychosis is entangled with her central self- perceived failing--the painful distance between Amazing Amy and the all too human, real, deeply troubled Amy who writhes around in existential bad faith. The night of celebrating Amazing Amy's wedding is only salvaged for real Amy by Affleck's proposing to her. Real Amy is all external accomplishment and all inner failure evident in needing to fulfill herself in perfecting the intellectually inferior men she takes to herself: such as the first guy she falsely indicts for raping her when he starts to pull away from her relentless attempt to make him better; and such as Affleck who similarly pulls away from her to the point of an affair with his jejune student. Only Desi, who can't be improved by her and is, at a minimum, a match for her, it seems, in intellectual accomplishment, sophistication, and wealth, homicidally repulses her by his unstinting devotion to her. Affleck understands her psychotic need and plays on it in telling her what she insanely needs to hear in his interview in order to draw her out.
Rothfeld's abiding error throughout her piece is to use Amy's sickness as a basis for the weighty cultural pronouncements about the new patriarchy and the boundary pushing new femme fatale. But for Amy's crazy, literally crazy as in psychotic, idiosyncrasies, she needn't try to be a "cool girl;" she needn't saddle herself with mediocre men: she needn't seek to close the distance between the real and amazing her by creating an Amazing Nick. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, the saying goes: here a psychotic woman is just a psychotic woman, and Affleck is just another zhjlub, which shoots down entirely, I argue, Rothfeld's overwrought and misplaced cultural pronouncements about the new patriarchy, about the relation of this movie's femme fatale to the tradition of femme fatale in noir, and in her overall reading of the movie in these terms. 
One other example:
....The traditional femme fatale cannot be faulted for availing herself of the only weapon available to her—her sex appeal—but we cannot fully endorse her tactics either. Her beauty was too conventional, too much a realization and reinforcement of male fantasy—perhaps a means toward more radical transgressions, but surely no more than one step on the path toward greater, more destabilizing disruptions...
"Cannot be faulted," "cannot fully endorse": by whom, by what standards, based on what unargued for assumptions? There seems to me some ultimately unstated feminist ideal set of principles, values and ideals running through this piece and forming unstated bases for judgment. And that, in my judgment, both ties in to the overwrought notions of a new form of patriarchy and Rothfeld's general overthinking of this movie. 
One other note: aside from Affleck's leaden dolefulness, in small ways his character just doesn't add up. He picks Amy up by a lot of slick, smart talk, joking about a beer not belonging to a guy who looks like he's doing a thesis on Proust. He describes himself as a writer, and writes for a men's magazine. He's trying to write a novel. He teaches creative writing. Yet this is the guy who thinks quinoa is a fish, wants just to play board games with his sister, guzzle beer and watch reality TV. I don't think so. These jarring inconsistencies blend in with his incompetent acting to make him and his character wholly unsatisfactory.
No one is dismissing her as crazy. She's being recognized for what she is: namely, crazy. Really, the gender-inflected power dynamics of both the boardroom and the bedroom have little to do with anything in this movie.
Yes, I read the review. You're confused. That's evident in your positing a film based on a novel vitiates the literal, whether literal is or isn't in scare quotes. What's literal is what actually happens, the actual story. A film from a novel has nothing to do with it, or anything else really. They're separate and distinct works, with their own themes, genre specific techniques and either successes or failures. The more acute point is that to oerleap what actually happens and start airily talking about symbolism is an error, which error gets accentuated when what's posited as symbolic makes a hash of what actually happens. Then you're squarely in the realm of silliness. The facts of the story involve a woman who falsely indicted her first boy friend for rape and ruined his life thereby, who has with obsessive and phenomenal elaboration contrived to have her cheating husband murdered by a Missouri execution and then has in a scene of utter bloody horror brutally murders the wealthy, sophisticated guy obsessed with her and who takes her in at her desperate request. All without an ounce of remorse. All with cold, conscienceless calculation to get what she wants. I'm no diagnostician of mental illness, but it's patently wrong to understand this homicidal woman as anything but sick and evil. All of that knocks the shit out of any airy and nonsensical view a of "symbolic representation of the long-term effects of interpersonal gender dynamics." So, again, of course I read and understood the review. It's, as are you in endorsing its argument, wrong. Finally the literal, what actually happens in the film,, and even more so, I understand, in the novel, is light years away from men often calling their ex-wives crazy and dismissing them. I hope you can get it through your head that this woman is actually crazy in the world of the film.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Cass Sunstein On Richard Epstein On Constitutional Theory

Linked to below is a most interesting and accessible account by Cass Sunstein of Richard Epstein's constitutional thinking, which itself, that thinking, became a kind of Bible for the Tea Party's version of the U.S. Constitution.

Epstein has what he calls a classical liberal reading of the Constitution. His argument is that as the bare text itself cannot yield determinative answers to hard cases, what is needed is to understand and isolate the theory that animates the text.

(In that formulation, Epstein rejects out of hand Scalian Originalism, which, he contends, has nowhere ever been functional in constitutional interpretation.)

Epstein argues that that theory is classical Liberalism that limits government, vaunts private property, protection of individual rights, freedom of contract, and most fundamentally personal autonomy. Hard cases fall to be decided on principles that are consistent with and enhance that animating theory.

Sunstein's basic criticism of Epstein is that his, ultimately, is an arbitrary moral imposition of his own present preferred views, which views are not supported by an exhaustive historical demonstration of their informing the constitutional text. Others take different views of what underlies it.

My own thought as to what Sunstein argues is to wonder whether he agrees with Epstein's fundamental proposition that as the bare text yields no determinative answer what is needed is the theory that animates the text and by which hard cases fall to be decided.

If he doesn't agree, what is his principled account of the resolution of hard cases? If he does, what theory or theories does he postulate?

For as much as I enjoyed Sunstein's lucid and highly accessible review of Epstein's thinking and his book, the meal would have been even more satisfying had Sunstein touched on his own thinking on these issues.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Middlemarch, Chapter 61, Book 6: Has Eliot Mucked Something Up?

Middlemarch, Chapter 61, Book 6

Has Eliot mucked something up?

.....The spiritual kind of rescue was a genuine need with him. There may be coarse hypocrites, who consciously affect beliefs and emotions for the sake of gulling the world, but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs. If this be hypocrisy, it is a process which shows itself occasionally in us all, to whatever confession we belong, and whether we believe in the future perfection of our race or in the nearest date fixed for the end of the world; whether we regard the earth as a putrefying nidus for a saved remnant, including ourselves, or have a passionate belief in the solidarity of mankind.

The service he could do to the cause of religion had been through life the ground he alleged to himself for his choice of action: it had been the motive which he had poured out in his prayers. Who would use money and position better than he meant to use them....Also, profitable investments in trades where the power of the prince of this world showed its most active devices, became sanctified by a right application of the profits in the hands of God's servant.

This implicit reasoning is essentially no more peculiar to evangelical belief than the use of wide phrases for narrow motives is peculiar to Englishmen. There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men.....

This odd, as in strange, narrative reflection goes on in Chapter 61, in which Bulstrode in the end tries to make all kinds of amends in offering to buy off Will.

Clearly, Bulstrode is a much more complex bad guy than Raffles, who's a straight up rogue with no tincture of doing good. But the argument here, save if Eliot's narrator, Eliot too, is being coy and subtly ironic, a possibility I lean against strongly, is that since Bulstrode isn't an out and out con man and fraudster, which he's not, he's less morally compromised in the result. His hypocrisy is of a piece with mankind's: "...the use of wide phrases for narrow motives...," that wherever we squander our good intentions by turning away from "fellow feeling" and seek our own narrow ends that we cover over with "wide phrases," we are in league with Bulstrode and he with us, and so he is less villainous and objectionable than a Raffles who is deviantly criminal.

I beg to differ.

I'd say, contrary to what Eliot *seems* to argue for, Bulstrode is more morally objectionable than Raffles, save for Raffles's sadistic streak, loving to torment others for his own pleasure, getting off on "effects." Raffles has no pretence about himself and he feeds off others' wrongdoing in his blackmail. This isn't of course to make a case for him, just to compare immoralities. Bulstrode has, not to put too fine a point on it, swindled others, caused the innocent loss at his gain.

While we can feel Bulstrode's pain, we pity him, it's hard not to, rather than sympathize with him. The substance he has made of his life, his actually doing some good, cannot expiate his blatant wrong doing. And his gradual fall into evil ways, rather than straight up, immediate criminal self seeking, does nothing to ameliorate his wrongs. It rather just instances another more of wrong doing slathered over by hypocrisy, such that some straight up clarity about what he was and did would be like a breath of fresh air. Consistent with that hypocrisy, my call is that what animates his urge to "protect" himself with penitential acts is the threat of being exposed and the scorn and opprobrium that will be heaped on him should Raffles go public.

We never so much grieve over our wrong doings and become penitent, seeking ways to ameliorate their consequences, as when we are in the midst of getting caught.

It takes Raffles's threat to expose Bulstrode to move him for the first time to try to make concrete amends for the loss his fraud on his first wife has caused to her rightful heirs, Will and his mother at his, Bulstrode's, own huge enrichment.

This, the imminence of the crashing down of reality on him, rather than substantive, uncalculating, truly motivated, genuine remorse, is what ultimately causes Bulstrode his agonizing, internally sick-making woe. That is made clear when Will refuses to be bought off with tainted money from the sleazy pawn brokering business, which thrived on dealing in stolen goods,which forces Bulstrode to comfort squarely the worst of himself without "wide phrased" defences, and when Bulstrode's own weeping for himself, his reality likely to be exploded, is somewhat staunched by his realization that Will "...was not likely to publish what had taken place that evening."

So Eliot in the narration I quoted seems untypically out of step with herself here, her grand theorizing here getting the better of her, given the novel she has written, specifically Bulstrode's own criminal wrong doing, and his subsequent insidious, continuous hypocrisy. And, I surmise, she has gotten lost, untypically, in the very complexity she accords to Bulstrode.


And by the way, Bulstrode in keeping the information about Will and his mother to himself and bribing Raffles to keep quiet when he'd undertaken to execute the search is criminal and is civilly actionable, just as his pawn brokering receipt of stolen goods was criminal. Eliot has Bulstrode denying he has no legal obligation to Will, just the compunctions of conscience. He's dead wrong. I think Eliot is as well as I read the narrator to suggest as much.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Middlemarch: A Note On Chapter 54, Book 6

Finally, and at last, sexual desire in Middlemarch.

If this isn't sexual desire, couched to be sure, layered into other needs and motives too to be sure, then I'm a monkey's uncle and I'll tell you where to send the bananas:

...Ch 54: ...The silent colloquy was perhaps only the more earnest because underneath and through it all there was always the deep longing which had really determined her to come to Lowick. The longing was to see Will Ladislaw. She did not know if any good would come of their meeting: she was helpless; her hands had been tied from making up to him for any unfairness in his lot. But her soul thirsted to see him....

But to dwell on the presence of sexual desire in Ch 54, even as it seems out in the more or less open--it is after all a Victorian novel-- for the first time in the novel, is to do Chapter 54 cheap.

I had wondered whether after Casaubon's death there would/could be anything as psychologically penetrating as Eliot's dissection of Casaubon and Dorothea and the terrible negative dynamics of their relationship.

No need to wonder.

In the meeting between her and Will Laidislaw, the complexity of the psychological and social forces working against their being straight with each other and professing their love for each other, or at least offering some understandable sign of it, is rendered with such complexity and power that my head is still spinning.

Would that I had the will and the energy to try to analyze more formally some of what's that's going on there. The dynamics and layers of meaning are inexhaustible.

Which, on a different point, screams out against the move to theory in academic English, crowding out close reading and appreciation of the text, theory seemingly being concerned with everything but what is in the text on the text's terms, which is to say, on literature's terms.

Middlemarch: A Note On Coming To The End Of Chapter 52, Book 5


I just finished Ch 52, and am roaring like a tortoise toward the end of Book 5. The heights of the novel remain for me, so far, matters Casaubonian and his Mrs., though of necessity that particular focus has changed. He's dead.

I wonder if there will be a falling off of psychological intensity with that shift in focus.

I'm still struck by all the explicit asexuality, and wonder about sexuality's implicit place in the novel. I look forward to reading Rebecca Mead's book about reading and rereading Mm as she grows older and as her relation to the world accordingly changes. Apparently, I've only read the Kindle sample portion of it, she argues for plenty of implicit sex in the novel. I don't want to read any more of her book, natch, till I finish Mm myself. I'm sensing peripheral intimations of sexuality, like Dodo's horse back riding, which she finds so *invigorating,* but they're way more incidental than purposeful, it seems.

I'm keeping in mind a professor friend's comment about Mm extolling the Christian virtues like self sacrifice for good, forgiveness and such as its strong theme. I'm not seeing that and am seeing, rather, the need for a balance between doing good, rather than do gooding, and a healthy portion of self interest.

So even when Farebrother self-effacingly pleads Fred Vincy's case to Mary Garth, a wonderful, penetratingly intelligent and moving scene rooted in laudable self sacrifice, there's a measure of self interest in their exchange, I'd argue, which saves it from irritating piety and conforms more to Eliot's thematic ideal of balance as opposed to inhuman, life denying self sacrifice.

At least so far in my reading it does.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Middlemarch: A Brief Note on Chapter 42

Just finished Book 4 and am galloping like a tortoise into Book 5.

I keep being struck by how whenever the narrative spotlight shines on Dorothea and Casaubon, Chapter 42, for instance, Eliot authorially combusts, especially in her poetical and psychological penetration into Casuabon and his immiserated relationship with his wife. For examples of both from Ch 42:

....And Mr. Casaubon's immediate desire was not for divine communion and light divested of earthly conditions; his passionate longings (me, he has just gotten Lydgate's prognosis on the possible anytime suddenness of his death), poor man, clung low and mist-like in very shady places...

....But she hesitated, fearing to offend him by obtruding herself; for her ardour continually repulsed, served with her intense memory, to heighten her dread, as thwarted energy subsides into a shudder; and she wandered slowly round the nearer clump of trees until she saw him advancing. Then she went toward him, and might have represented a heaven-sent angel coming with a promise that the short remaining hours should yet be filled with that faithful love which clings the closest to a comprehended grief. His glance in reply to her was so chill that she felt her timidity increased; yet she turned and passed her arm through his.

Mr. Casaubon kept his hands behind him and allowed her pliant arm to cling with difficulty against his rigid arm.

There was something horrible to Dorothea in the sensation which this unresponsive hardness inflicted on her...

In his rejection of her, and she has as ardently giving and compassionately sympathetic nature that is starved for just a morsel of reciprocity in feeling as exists in literature, Dorothea is moved to her greatest resentful anger at Casaubon, his Lilliputian vindictiveness slaughtering her ardent compassion, and finally waits for him to go to bed, after they have both been alone, she in her boudoir too upset to take dinner, him in his library continuing his burrowing work, so she can tell him how angry and ill treated she feels.

And yet, and yet:

...'Dorothea!' he said, with a gentle surprise in his tone. ' We're you waiting for me?'

'Yes, I did not like to disturb you.'

'Come, my dear, come. You are young, and need not extend your life by watching.'

When the quiet melancholy of that speech fell on Dorothea's ears, she felt something like the thankfulness that might well up in us if narrowly escaped hurting a lamed creature. She put her hand into her husband's, and they went along the broad corridor together...

And there it is: what must be one of the most moving, sad making in fact and subtly complex scenes in what is is one of the greatest works of world literature.

Words cannot tell how deeply this concluding scene of Book 4 resonates with me.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Note On Ozick On Stach On Kafka

A conceptually troubled but basically illuminating review by Cynthia Ozick on V 1 of a massive biography of Kafka, and then my comment on it:

.....I find that Ozick's initial hyperventilated prose is of a piece with her hyperventilated and confused initially stated thesis: that after all the oceans of ink spilled over Kafka, biography and her review of biography--"secondary exhalation"--are justified by the need to rescue Kafka from twin vulgarities of "Kafkaesque" and "transcendent: the first a gross distortion of his work at one with the degeneration of the imagination of anyone saying it; the second a thin and abstract attenuation of the concrete reality and hard particulars of Kafka's life, times, and his specific being.

Her complaint about "Kafkaesque" is too precious by half. The word has simply entered the culture as a free standing descriptor suggesting something like "having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality and the denatured, impossible tangle of bureaucratic mazes." (There's a whole funny riff on Jesse's using it without understanding it in Breaking Bad.) That descriptor clearly has roots in Kalfka's fictional worlds and isn't a bad *very general* approximation of them. But, really, what person reading, Kafka and thinking and writing seriously about him will resort to, or be imprisoned by, "Kafkaesque?" Why, nobody, I'd argue, which measures the precious silliness of Ozick's complaint on this score. Simply put, she makes no case for the descriptor's "...reductiveness posing as revelation."

In Ozick's second complaint, "transcendence," equally exaggerated, Ozick confuses art and life. She wants to disabuse us, for example, and as an example she uses, of Updike's interpretive argument from transcendence. She quotes him:

....Kafka, however unmistakable the ethnic source of his ‘liveliness’ and alienation, avoided Jewish parochialism, and his allegories of pained awareness take upon themselves the entire European—that is to say, predominantly Christian—malaise....

And herein precisely lies her massive category error: Updike is talking about Kafka's fiction, "his *allegories* of pained awareness." (My asterisks) Ozick is talking about Kafka's life. Just as the descriptor "Kafkasesque" is of no use or interest to anyone seriously reading, thinking about, writing about Kafka, so to that same person, there is, I'm confident, no confusion about the allegoric and nightmarish fantastical nature of Kafka's fictional worlds, surreal, disembodied, and the specifics of his own, life times and being. Reinforcing her error is her own thankfulness and acknowledgement that Stach isn't a literary critic. He's faithful to wanting to mine accurately and deeply from the depths of Kafka's lived life and his times.

For Ozick to be consistent with her thesis, and in opposition to her complaint about, for example, Updike here, she would have needed to make case how all those specifics figure concretely and thematically in his work. Mission impossible, I'd think. And she doesn't touch that.

But here's a huge saving grace, IMO: once she gets into offering her reviewer's synopsizing reprise of Stach's first volume and leaves her ponderous, overheated and wrongheaded theorizing behind, her prose settles down becomes plainer and richer in its eloquent and accessible concreteness. That part of her review, the travel through Kafka's life, is illuminatingly excellent. 

Last note: the thread comments complaining that Ozick's writing need in some measure approximate the quality and entertainment of Kafka's own writing are absurd. And, as noted, once Ozick settles into the meat of her review, her prose needs no defending. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

A Note On Chapter 29, Book 3 Of Middlemarch

Chapter 29 of Middlemarch is another really high point in the psychological dissection of Casaubon as a shrivelled up, insecure, highly self conscious egoist, his self consciousness of his abiding failures feeding his shrinking-of-self insecurity and in the dissection of his marriage to Dorothea and in the contrasting presentation of her increasingly expansive sympathetic nature.

In that it's a complement to the magnificent Chapter 20.

It seems to me Eliot comes most novelistically alive so far in depicting Casaubon in his marriage to Dorothea.

The narrator's phrasing about him soars in its aphoristic brilliance, such as for example;

...his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: it was too languid to thrill out of self consciousness into passionate delight; it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying...

This is narrative telling, not showing, though there's showing aplenty too, and the telling, not showing, works brilliantly well, making a cliche out of the admonition to writers "Show don't tell."

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Note On Chapter 20, Book 2 Of Middlemarch

I had read the first few brilliant pages of the magnificent Chapter Twenty, near to the end of Book 2 of Middlemarch, when a friend asked me: that when she (Dorothea) realizes what he (Casaubon) is? Or he does? Or both?...

I answered:

....No, it's when they're on their "honeymoon" and reality displaces her imaginings during the courtship, when she's left alone a lot, when she feels everything closing in on her rather than her life opening up, when her sobbing is a function of just a dimly realized understanding of how bleak their married life is, not yet fully knowing what he's like. That is amazing in its rendering as is how Rome is past and present and its impact on her as a provincial girl uneducated and unprepared for it, unable to receive it, too deep of sensibility to be unaffected by it. All enriched by the narrator's own explanations and idiosyncratic comments.

It's something baby...

Having read all of Chapter 20, I wrote him an amending note:

....I wrote the below email to this one only after reading the first few stunning pages of Chapter 20.

I just finished it and have to amend my answer. She does, it's shown in second two thirds of the Chapter, begin to understand, not fully yet, Casaubon's desiccation and his defensive rejection of her as her passionate emotional fullness and capacity to give of herself show him up to himself, a suspicion he tries to suppress, of what a hollowed out man of the scholastic margins he is, a man of utter marginalia. As the Chapter moves on, our inclination to revile him for so cruelly and coldly rejecting all her imprecations to be part of his "great labour," which she now begins to harbour doubts about, with more realization than she cares to admit to herself, moves to pity as we see how pitiable his pedantic lifelessness is and how he harbours a deeply conflicted consciousness of it. Her passion scares him into himself; he is his own isolated castle the moat of which is broad and deep to fend off the charging forward army of her doubts about him. If there's a greater literary account of the complex and terrible psychology of trouble in paradise stemming from youthful idealistic passion, ardency in a word, showing up a dithering lifeless, polite lack of it, of people having such mistaken conceptions of each other in these ways, I'd be surprised. I've never read anything like it.

A few other things:

It would be worthwhile to write some literary criticism on this Chapter. It deserves some loving treatment.

A subtext, a kind of subtextual elephant in its room, I'd think, is that they're presumably fucking.

It's fascinating to compare the callow, impulsive, opinionated Miss Brooke, Dodo if you will, irritatingly self righteous, somewhat intolerantly so, with the chastened Mrs. Casaubon, or Dorothea as he formally calls her, and work out all the differences in her as battered by the stifling reality of him and being trapped in marriage to him and the simultaneous impact on her of the grandeur and falling off from it that is Rome.

Suffice it to say, IMO, within the mountain range of this great novel, Chapter 20 is an early Everest like peak....

Thoughts On Thoughts On Leonard Cohen

Some thoughts on thoughts on Leonard Cohen followed by an my amazing unlocking the mystery of his "Famous Blue Raincoat:

Cohen in his relatively youthful---30ish---persona of sensitive, suffering, alienated, truth telling artist as seer was a mixture of straight up bullshit, itself inextricable from his complicated real belief in it, and of calculated poseur as a means of commercially making it as that kind of artist. (The present day Cohen is too worldly and wis/ze(ned) to touch that self congratulation.) 

A problem with this well written engaging extract is that it buys into the silliness of Cohen as seer, of any artist as prophet:

....But Cohen was no longer there. He was in his small white house in the Greek island of Hydra, playing his guitar outside his favorite taverna, dreaming up a new way to tell his stories, training to become a prophet...

On that ground, the romanticization of the artist, Cohen's, and Leibowitz's---channeling him rather than putting in some critical distance---account of A.M. Klein's progression to his break down is altogether too pat and is patronizing:

...A.M. Klein, a brilliant poet who, squeezed by necessity, had become a speechwriter for Samuel Bronfman—the omnipotently wealthy owner of the Seagram Distillery—before suffering a breakdown, attempting to take his own life, and retreating to his home, never to resurface...

....he (Klein) spoke with too much responsibility, he was too much a champion of the cause, too much the theorist of the Jewish party line. … And sometimes his nostalgia for a warm, rich past becomes more than nostalgia, becomes, rather, an impossible longing, an absolute and ruthless longing for the presence of the divine, for the evidence of holiness. Then he is alone and I believe him. Then there is no room for the ‘we’ and if I want to join him, if, even, I want to greet him, I must make my own loneliness."...

....Klein, he continued....fell victim to a Jewish community where honor had migrated “from the scholar to the manufacturer where it hardened into arrogant self defense. Bronze plaques bearing names like Bronfman and Beutel were fastened to modern buildings, replacing humbler buildings established by men who loved books in which there were no plaques at all...

When Cohen says he must "make his own loneliness," he's saying he must create his own holiness. When he says this he continues the confounding mix in him of poseur and some measure of belief in his own bullshit, (with the confoundment perhaps resolved by the nonsense of the notion of Cohen questing after his own holiness.) This silliness informs the simplistic account of Klein driven to breakdown and attempted suicide due to his forsaking the holiness/loneliness of the prophet for his community sustaining role as priest. Why anyone, especially the brilliant, tormented Klein, public man, lawyer, artist, breaks down, attempts suicide, becomes a recluse, will self evidently defy such jejune characterization.

In line with that romantic reductiveness are, at least, two other things that Leibowitz uncritically adopts from Cohen: one,  the utter dismissal of the mainstream Jewish community of the time as a conventional mediocrity hiding in its religion cowardly to evade hard, biting truth:

...The chase, then, is a lonely sport, and the community, observing the prophet, becomes suspicious. Most people would rather visit lifeless and antiquated things in air-conditioned museums than seek thrills in steaming swamps, running the risk of getting bitten by something wild...;

and Cohen's view of himself as aborning seer, ready to be a lonely, holy truth teller bringing biting prophecy to the shirking, shrinking away masses:

....To do it properly, he noted, he would have to go into exile. He would also have to stay stoic as his fellow Jews labeled him a traitor for daring to think up other possibilities for spiritual life—possibilities, like love and sex and drugs and song, for which there was little room in the synagogue. He was ready....

Really though, what Cohen, who was and is nothing more than a very smart, good writer, was ready for was fame, fortune and celebrity, with his pose buoying and blowing up his not inconsiderable talent.

Take, finally, as a microcosm of one big aspect of all this--real talent in combination with errant silliness--his great and haunting song Famous Blue Raincoat:

...And Jane came by with a lock of your hair 
She said that you gave it to her 
That night that you planned to go clear 
Did you ever go clear?...

Going clear refers to Scientology, one of our abiding absurdities, and the question ending the quatrain presupposes the possibility of going clear and therefore a belief in that possibility. And voila holiness a la that younger Leonard Cohen that Leibowtiz here writes about. 

Now as to mystery solved:

It all comes down to one word in answer to: why is the blue rain coat famous?

It all comes down to this one word: DANDRUFF--(capitalized for emphasis.)

Consider the textual evidence:

"... and Jane came by with a *lock of your hair*

She said you gave it to her

That night you planned to go *clear*... (i.e. no dandruff)

And you treated my woman to a *flake* of your life..."

Clearly, any number of years of higher education in English Literature have not gone to waste.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Why Read Literature, The Best Way To

A piece on why read literature and the best way to, followed by my comment.

Actually, the tease is in the area of the wiggly argument here, as I read that argument, but not right on the money. One piece of it, covered by the tease, is that the cliche that we are made better persons by reading, better as in morally better, is, in the tease's language, "blather." But that point seems to fade away along the way after getting some concrete attention:

....But a serious, non-circular opposition case has been made, if not against reading, then against the idea that the western canon is morally improving or good for the soul....the debate was finally settled in the public sphere, where the cultural warriors, keen to alter reputations and revise the agenda, were greeted with indifference or derision....

Myself, I hold we're not bettered by reading but we're better off for it, enriched rather than improved.

The main argument concerns itself more fully with the best way to read. Two different approaches contrast. One is the dreariness of reading out of some sense of obligation or career necessity, coupled with seeing it, rationalizing it?, as more enhanced than lived life itself:

....Carey confesses to feeling guilty that as an undergraduate he could read all day, while “out in the real world” (there it is again) people were “slogging away.” But it doesn’t seem all that different from his life in the non-real world: “I secured a copy from Hammersmith Public Library … and slogged through all sixteen thousand lines of it. It was unspeakably boring” (Layamon’s Brut). “I slogged through it of course, because my aim was to learn, not to have fun” (Johnson’s Lives of the Poets)....

...... Carey notes that people like him often prefer reading things to seeing them—typically, his example comes not from his own life but from a poem by Wordsworth—and reflects: “So living your truest life in books may deaden the real world for you as well as enliven it.” But how, judging by this account, does reading enliven things?....

The other approach is, simply stated, as a "...first hand mode of experience..." in which reading is an "unhermetic" facet of exuberant, wanted, lively experience:

....The library had been a place for studying,” Mead writes, of her rather jollier time at Oxford, “but it had also been a place for everything else; seeing friends, watching strangers, flirting and falling in love. Life happened in the library.”...

That's nice and is instanced by Rebecca Mead's book "The Road To Middlemarch," in which her spaced apart rereadings of the novel are so integral to her evolving sense of her own life. I get that in relation to the two approaches to reading. As a sophomore, reading Middlemarch was a labour of labour, dutiful necessity and a terrible slog. Now, inspired by a broadcast conversation with Mead and two others,  (, I'm rereading it just as a matter purely wanting to, for my own pleasure and contemplation, slowly, thinking about various parts, marvelling at Eliot's powerful intelligence, psychological acuity and mature vision all as carried forward by her poetic,  trenchant prose, trying to work out its meaning as I go. For example:

....“Rosamond played admirably. Her master at Mrs. Lemon's school ...was one of those excellent musicians here and there to be found in our provinces, worthy to compare with many a noted Kapellmeister ... Rosamond, with the executant's instinct, had seized his manner of playing, and gave forth his large rendering of noble music with the precision of an echo.”....( Chapter 16)

"...with the precision of an echo": what an evocative metaphor fused with psychological insight!

I don't know why I've written all this. Just felt like it, I guess.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Ozick On Malamud

Wonderful words: from a review essay by Cynthia Ozick on collected works of the wonderful Bernard Malamud:

....When the ambient culture changes, having moved toward the brittleness of wisecrack and indifference, and the living writer is no longer present, it can happen that a veil of forgetfulness falls over the work. And then comes a literary crisis: the recognition that a matchless civilizational note has been muffled. A new generation, mostly unacquainted with the risks of uncompromising and hard-edged compassion, deserves Malamud even more than the one that made up his contemporary readership. The idea of a writer who is intent on judging the world — hotly but quietly, and aslant, and through the subversions of tragic paradox — is nowadays generally absent: who is daring enough not to be cold-eyed?...
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Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Note On Book 1 Of Middlemarch

Principally for my own later referring back, I'm going to record, as they strike me, a few thoughts on Middlemarch.
A friend asked me whether I thought Dorothea Brookes's impulse to self sacrifice is "misguided or has she chosen the wrong object?"
I answered as follows, now being three quarters of the way through Book 1:
....From what I so far understand from the novel your distinction seems without a difference: her impulse seems misguided and due to that she has chosen the wrong object, if by object you mean her husband and service to him. Her impulses are misguided due to defects, imbalances, in her nature and character.
She seems to me to be foolishly and irritatingly self suppressing in being so fanatically self sacrificing. She is shown to be "ardently submissive." Her 18 year old piety has her repressing her sexuality at every juncture, even feeling conscience bound to forgo riding horses, which she has sensually enjoyed.
She is absurdly "theoretic." She is too "abstract," so abstract she can not see what is in plain sight before her. Her sister, less intellectual and more conventional, at least so far, is more sensible, common sensical and clear seeing. So, in one sense, are all those, everone really, who think her choice of a husband is nuts, against nature and bad for her.
Her annoying self sacrificing piety is actually, it seems to me, an argument in favour of the strength of the common sense of conventionality as evident in her uncle, in Chettam, in her sister and in Mrs, Cadwallader, even while Dorothea appears to be set apart from most by her apparent spirited vivacity, radiance, intelligence and moral seriousness, and even as Eliot makes the limits of conventionality, bound by the constraints of "provincial life," apparent.
So, thematically, Eliot seems nothing so far if not dialectical, everything having divergent qualities in tension with each other, qualifying each other, and complicating apparent meaning.
If the virtues of mercy and self sacrifice are what Eliot means primarily to extol, that has not yet presented itself to me...

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Few Thoughts On The Finale Of True Detective

There's no arguing the (in)adequacy of the finale. Adequacy lies in the eyes of the beholder. But there is arguing the focus and meaning of the series. And, in that contention, there is a tendency to be too binary: crime drama vs psychological drama centred on the detectives' relationship. It seems obvious to say it is profoundly both, which accords with the split in finale focus between getting the killer followed by the last quarter of the episode dealing just with Hart and Cohle.

The bridge between these foci is their interrelation, the former the ground for the latter, the latter dynamically affecting the former. The point here is that how we characterize the focus and meaning of the series informs our response to its finale.

For me, the finale worked for among the reasons Chotiner (see link below) argues. But a few points:

My take is that Hart's wife remarried. She lives in a big house. At the hospital, with what had been a family all together, she wears a wedding ring. This is all to me the husk of family, shaped by irreducible but permanently fractured bonds, with the ineffable sadness of irretrievable loss conveyed in Hart's tears.

In Cohle's descent into and ascent from the heart of darkness, from his experience of aborning death, he confronts the very limits of his brittle, soul destroying and defensive nihilistic cynicism, parading as a superior apprehension of the nature of things. That argument from both futility and his own sense of superiority was always in tension with his inexorable drive, his obsession, to do right and discharge his self-perceived debt, as evident in needing compulsively to solve the series's crime. It's on that moral basis, the need to set right and complete the episode 5 concocted faux resolution, that Cohle is able finally to convince Hart to join him in episode 7.

So there is for me a thematic closing of a circle as relationship finds ground for itself in crime solution, the unspeakable magnitude of the crime bracketing and defining the detectives' own imperfections, albeit haunting their lives, but giving truth and content to the idea of bad guys with their own darkness guarding against and warding off much darker and much worse than them. 

The last two episodes as procedurals show the detectives in their ascending relationship fulfilling their moral lives and their competencies in being true detectives.

Final note: the disappointment over unresolved details, clues, and mysterious significances is to me beside the point. All is not well. All the unresolved aspects of the murderous cult whose tentacles spread beyond these true detectives' ken and capacity, all the tantalizing clues and false positives slung throughout the series, they are all of a piece with the vast territory of the darkness the detectives understand they cannot surmount. They must be content with one of Auden's points of light that sets off and gets a measure of human purchase on the darkness.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Contemporary Meaning Of Masada

I've been thinking about the contemporary meaning of Masada for Israeli Jews while reading Ari Shavit's book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.

Masada, in brief, involved a sect of Jewish rebels who, after their fighting their way into Masada, ultimately and finally chose mass suicide, men, women and children, rather than face inevitable Roman conquest.

Jewish history is replete with attempts to destroy as many Jews as possible, culminating in Holocaust genocide, the meaning of which continues in the modern ongoing existential threat posed to Israel by her neighbouring enemies.

Given the Holocaust as a culmination of Jewish history carried forward by the continuing concrete and real danger of national extinction, Masada, I argue, finds its contemporary meaning in Israel seeking to protect itself existentially with its nuclear arsenal.

So Ari Shavit writes, "But the debate was neither moral nor ethical. In the Israeli siege-republic of the 1950s and 1960s, the memory of the Holocaust felt very close, as did the existential threat. Both of these factors underpinned the general agreed-upon moral justification regarding the right to acquire a nuclear option."

Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Few Brief Notes On 12 Years A Slave

With some reluctance I just saw 12 Years A Slave.

I have strongly mixed feelings about it.

One problem was, I saw it at a neighbourhood type theatre and the sound was muffled in places so that I was distracted by missing some of the spoken lines. And the screen wasn't high quality so that I missed such brilliant filmed clarity as there is. I think the poor screen quality blunted some of the scenes' impact.

I have to cop to finding the movie tedious generally and at times irritatingly so. I kept glancing at my watch, not wishing the movie was over but wishing it could pick up its pace some.

Which isn't to say it isn't strongly affecting. Clearly it is.

But other than the poor screen quality, I don't know why I wasn't fully feeling it. There is for me something detached and distance-making in the film making. I couldn't get inside it emotionally though for sure individual scenes shocked and horrified me.

A few points among the many that could be made:

I didn't feel like twelve years had gone by. There was something static and staged in the movement of the story, like the movie was more a series of staged scenes that were united by subject matter but lacked being part of a dynamically moving story.

I think Ejiofor was inert in his acting. But I have a two sided reaction to it. I think in his acting and as he was directed, he and McQueen were trying to convey his sheer powerlessness. And there was something intensely anti heroic in his needing to whip Patsey and in his inability to stop Fassbender from doing it. Every internalized Hollywood instinct made me wish for some last minute save of her by Northrup, that he might turn the whip on Fassbender in some Django Unchained revenge fantasy. But of course he couldn't; and the directorial restraint in Northrup needing to cow-tow to Fassbender and do some of the whipping, however half heartedly, is shattering. So I could appreciate the quietude in Ejiofor's acting. But the suppressed rage, the internalized fury of his frustration, his longing for his family, all that kind of emotion eluded me. So I found his acting paradoxical.

Myself, I find  a clue to the-for-me inert, staged quality of the movie in what is effectively a jarring set piece of liberal piety in Brad Pitt's speech. It was so heavy handedly didactic and so at odds with brutal, unsparing and effective realism of the slavery shown throughout the movie. I have to wonder what McQueen was thinking.

A final note: I noted on FB that I saw Broken Circle Breakdown. I was so moved by it that I didn't feel like carping about the odd this and that. I feel no such compunction about 12 Years.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Analysis Of Seamus Heaney's North


So here we see Heaney, as voice of the poem, alone it seems, retuned to a lonely “ long strand” of Atlantic shoreline, hammered into a specific geographic shape in, I think, a blacksmithing image—“hammered shod.” He stands before the immensity of what he beholds, the alone quality and the immensity captured by “…found only the secular/Powers of the Atlantic thundering.” There seems a combination of blunt awareness—“found only”—and some complex intellectuality—“secular/Powers”—and the poetic registering of what he beholds in imagery—“long strand,” hammered shod” and “Atlantic thundering.” The central contrast that I read in the first quatrain is between the sole figure of “I’ and the vast, ageless power of what he finds, the mighty Atlantic working its natural will, so to speak, on the land.

There is some continuity in his state of mind into the second quatrain suggested by “unmagical” as what he “found only” in the first quatrain is implicit in what he now confronts—“I faced”.  I’m sorely lacking in what I know of Irish history so no doubt I’m missing a lot but Heaney is unmoved and uninspired by whatever Iceland beckons and even more so by the “…pathetic colonies/of Greenland…” But the last word of the second quatrain, “suddenly,” signifies the explosion in mind. Now, moving to the third and fourth quatrains, his imagination is fired by the contrasting images, the “fabulous” laid low, it seems to me, by the ignominy and ultimate futility of their fates: “These fabulous raiders/those lying in Orkney and Dublin”, Measured against/their long swords rusting,” (and I wonder if there’s a suggestion of poetic measure in “Measured against”). Their doomed fates get specific prominence in the fourth quatrain.

The seeming ignition of “magical” marked by “suddenly” and fabulous, the fifth tercet suggests, are voices of historical/poetic imagining initially drowned out by the ageless and unthinking thundering of the Atlantic, as the evolving poetic imagination works off what “I” beholds: “…ocean-deafened voices/Warning me…” The warning voices have returned to him, the “I” of the poem,  “lifted again,” just as “I returned” to the long stretch of wild shoreline. His historical/poetic casting back, consciousness drawing and imposing meaning on what is beheld, is filled with “epiphany and violence”, the phrase linked to “suddenly” and the following images culminating in “those hacked and glinting”.

The sixth and seventh quatrains, I think, following the pattern of subsequent images laying the “fabulous raiders” low, start with promise. The first two lines of the sixth quatrain seem to turn on a hopeful, meaningful, note of optimistic possibility. There seemed promise in “The longship’s swimming tongue,” was in “I’s” mind “buoyant with hindsight—“ (I don’t fully understand the meaning of “buoyant with hindsight.” But “buoyant” suggests an uplifting exuberance that fits nicely with the image of the ship moving through the Ocean waters, as if in looking back at the Norse ships heading out there is optimism in the outset of poetic/historic recollection.)

The memory of that buoyancy as imaged by the tongue of the longship speaks to “I.” the buoyancy of hindsight informs the content of what is imagined said. So Thor, a hammer wielding God associated with lightning and storms and thunder and like explosions of nature, is the original “secular Powers” of the Atlantic, raw and “unmagical”, now imagined as myth, the secularism of the  bay as “hammered shod”, now ,in myth, “…Thor’s hammer swung/To geography and trade,” still “buoyant with hindsight”, but giving way to dumb coupling and revenge, and then progressing worse to “The hatreds and behindbacks/of the althing…,” recalling “the unmagical/ Invitations of Iceland”. So now what was originally one step after the blunt registering of what’s originally seen, the mind beginning to do its apprehending and reconstructing work, has come back round to the more fully imagined deceitful corruption of “althing”.

I question the meaning of the phrase “Exhaustions nominated peace,” which I can’t confidently answer. Does it suggest that “Exhaustions” as a personified subject have nominated peace; does it suggest that “Exhaustions nominated” is an adjectival phrase modifying “peace; or does it suggest both at once? I like the latter suggestion. But, in any event, we have moved far within a few poetic lines from the buoyant hindsight to a peace born of bloodletting exhaustion, “nominated” suggesting a temporary contingent choice while historical memory as a national proposition, in contrast with “I’s” singular poetic/historical imaginings, hatches and keeps alive, “incubating”, “the spilled blood”, that image linking back to the imagery of carnage laying low “Those fabulous raiders”.

The “longship’s swimming tongue” continues to speak—“It said”—beginning the third last quatrain, what it says going to the thrust of your comments.  Interesting that now for the first time the spoken words take quotations marks, suggesting a virtual person to person talking to “I”, a clear direct communication. I’m not so sure about, as you say, the limits of words, or at least I think that that good idea needs some refinement.

I sense that the advice/instruction to “’Lie down’” picks p thematically the “Exhaustions” of the “nominated peace”, suggesting that the in the poem’s terms “the political is the personal.” “Rest from the depredations you have imagined in recollection,” the ocean voices seem to be saying to “I”. “Go, poet, inside your head to the store of language you have saved--‘word-hoard’--and strain to dig deep there as you hunker down and in,--burrow’”. “Concentrate, draw your mind in concentration, so what shines can be let out“…coil and gleam/Of your furrowed brain.”

That furrowed intensity finds verbal repose in “Compose” that starts the second last quatrain. What is to be expected isn’t a pervasive sheen of light, an illuminated overall answer, but rather flashes of insight lighting up in instants the darkness, in what will be a “long foray”, which is an odd phrase since “long”, which complements the fullness of “compose”,  is tense adjacent to the notion of “foray” as a sharp, brief, military-like advance. So, it seems, the theory of poetic composition may be conceived as a series of energetic lightning-like thrusts,  “aurora borealis”, into and against the pervading darkness, itself the culmination of historical/poetic recollection arising from the poetic mind, alone, facing and envisioning “the Atlantic thundering.”

Finally, in the last quatrain, the swimming tongue’s advice, against the largeness of horrible imaginings thrusting “I” into consuming darkness, becomes home spun and to hand and immediately physical. “I’s” eye is to be kept clear, as clear as an icicle’s blister, and is to trust, against the recollected litany of horrible, the remembered feel of the most prosaic things, “nubbed treasure/Your hands have known.”

Here is a theory of how poetry builds out the most immediate, the most elementally physical , into an aesthetic and human answer to the raw and awesome continent-shaping power of great natural forces and to the what the terrible things men do to each other from  the venal to the tragically mortal. These humble constituents of this answer gets captured in language, as poetry builds out of “bleb” and icicle” and “nubbed” and “hands” and as “I” transmutes the voices his mind brings to sound over the thundering Atlantic into the project of I's poetry.

Admittedly this went on longer than I meant it to. But I kinda got into it. I don’t know how much of it anyone will have the patience to read or agree with. But it will be well served if it stimulates some good talk about this beautiful poem and plays some part in contributing to an understanding and appreciation of it.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Spoiler Alert: The Broken Circle Breakdown

SPOILER ALERT The Broken Circle Breakdown

I thought it a wonderful movie. My view of it is that thematically it put a coldly materialist view of the world--Didier--against a softer, spiritually yearning view of the world--Elise--in the face of a most wrenching imaginable tragedy, the terminal illness of a beautiful young child and then her death.

The movie's music, a couple of hundred years of peoples' responses to the terrible vagaries of life, its terrible fatedness, is full with songs about death and dying and grotesque human conduct, with the promise of heaven waiting. Take Go To Sleep Little Baby, a lullaby draped in death and cold loneliness. It was sung in Brother Where Art Thou too.

Didier is quite block headed, IMO, about his atheism. So even when his cancer stricken daughter projects her child's terrifying anxiety onto the bird that kills itself flying into the glass "terranda" he can barely bring himself to affirm her longing for some beneficent meaning in the "birdie's" death. After Maybelle's death, Didier can't bring himself to soften his insistent rationalism to allow Elise to find some comfort in spiritual signs, hopes and beliefs. His block headedness, almost fanaticism, about his view of the world reaches a minor high point when he argues against warning birds with signs not to fly into the glass on the basis that will slow down evolutionary progress in them towards a biological answer evolving in them over time.

In my view, maybe idiosyncratic, he can't really understand the music he plays and sings, which is so full with religion's answer to life's deepest mysteries. Happiness can exist kind of easily and thoughtlessly when things go well and right, but the existential rubber meets the meaningless road when tragedy strikes.

So, more profoundly, he finally drives, Elise, now Alabama, away from him and to her own death by his uncontrollable stridency and aggressiveness about what has befallen Maybelle. Even his uncontrollable outburst at the final performance shows his need for meaning beyond brittle rationalism to accommodate his deep grief. Had he been more sensitive, more yielding, more comforting, he might have saved his love with Elise, of even as Monroe and  Alabama, with the American type promise of a fresh start. At the end finally he succumbs much too late, two deaths too late,when he whispers to his dead wife to greet his daughter for him in heaven.

I didn't talk about some of things in the movie I felt contrived, like the final music at Elise's bedside, because right now I'm not in the mood to puncture the hold the movie has on me with criticisms of it.

Your thoughts on any of this?

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Broken Circle Breakdown

I've been wanting to see the Belgian movie The Broken Circle Breakdown. Not because it's got a nod for best foreign film for the academies. But because one of its main themes and its musical backbone is bluegrass, music I love. It was playing, as they say, at a theatre near me. But my plans to see it kept getting thwarted. Maybe unconsciously because its basic story line has a little girl of six with cancer, a subject that puts me away.

I glanced at a few reviews: most reviewers said seeing it was hard going.

I couldn't find anyone who was able to or wanted to go with me: "Belgian bluegrass musicians, a little kid with cancer? I don't think so."

Anyway this morning, 2, 1, 14, I drove myself through a growing snow storm to the other side of the city to a funky little independent movie house for a noon showing, The Kingsway, where the cashier was nice enough, or oblivious enough, to think I was under sixty. I told her the bitter truth and went upstairs to "Screening Room E," about the size of my basement, where a small six of us watched it on an undersized dull screen, the film quality just a cut above home movies.

I fell apart watching it, crying through a lot of it. I almost never cry, not being set up that way. The sadness is as rending as the music is glorious. The acting is wonderfully natural. And the movie visits the most profound questions about life and death and how we try to deal with shattering loss. It shows bluegrass in one way as an art of the attempt at getting a calming and comforting grip.

I was dying to talk to one of my six fellow watchers about it all after but that didn't come about.

I don't want to say much more, give any more away, or put any knocks against the film. It should be seen, I think, not knowing all that much about what happens. But I'd love to kick it around with someone.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Itzik Basman v. David Thomson On Inside Llewyn Davis

I just saw this movie yesterday and thought it was great so I'm belatedly adding my few two cents though Jake's comment pretty well says it all.

I'm unlike Thomson not bothered at all by "Inside" in the title. Of course the plain reference is to Davis's album, which he thought had been sent to Grossman, a folk impresario with a firm grasp on the prices of things but not so much on their value. But past that obvious reference are other meanings intended by the Coens, surely among the most cerebral, artistically driven and self conscious of film makers. What marks and enlivens Davis, amongst all his haplessness, bad luck, carelessness, passivity and the ongoing unstable shambles of his life, is his integrity-making commitment to the purity of his art.

His singing is beautiful, as Jake notes, haunting too, and evokes what is beautifully soulful and timeless in the songs he sings. (Thomson may find his singing boring but if he does he's missing wide swathes of what this movie is about.) That inner directed commitment is what is inside about him and is pervasively evident. It's evident when he sings. It's evident in his song selection when he sings so affectingly before Grossman and it's evident in his rejection of Grossman's offer that he change himself up some and possibly fit in with a trio.

Thomson misses too the the ideas of externality and insideness that the Coens drive through the movie from beginning to end as emerge from the contrast between the mess of Davis's day to day life and the singularity of his commitment to his art. A lot of what all that mess goes to is his relative indifference to most conventional things and to his intense desire to be uncompromisingly successful doing his art. So that desire and his trying to act on it, going to Chicago, seeking out Grossman, singing for him all give form to what is inside Llewyn Davis. In missing this, Thomson misapplies what the Coens mean by "Inside," and wrongly complains that they, despite the movie's title, don't render adequately Davis's interiority.

I'd argue the same conceptual problem affects Thomson's complaint that the "interest in life," by which I think he means vitality or √©lan, and which he finds, for example, in Lebowski, emerging from its weird and crackingly great ensemble energy, is missing in this movie, which is flawed by Davis's apparent lack of sufficient inner life, the inner life an artist needs to "make it," asThomson has it. That for Thomson makes the  movie without interest and obstructs any desire we might have to get inside Davis.

I say, "All all the contrary." Understanding and appreciating the shining beauty of his singing, when inner light and outer light are heightened, and his commitment to it are to be inside him. What we are distant from, outside of, are the absurd stupidity of Jim's song Please Mr. Kennedy, the faux authenticity of the well scrubbed Irish singers with their "nice sweaters," and the pathetic folk singer from Arkansas playing her pathetic auto harp--both among the worst manifestations of the folk song revival of the fifties and sixties, the former its antiseptic, commercial sanitizing, the latter its dreary attempt at atavism. If Thomson doesn't get that beauty, so central to the movie's meaning, he can't get the movie.

Too, Thomson misses in fact how hard Davis struggles, the lengths he goes to, in order to "make it." He dismisses Davis's belief in his own artistic possibilities; he says they're ill thought through; and he says Davis doesn't believe he either will, or deserves to, "make it." But Davis has been set back and is deeply affected by Mikey's suicide. He has a deep belief in the meaning of his own professionalism and thus rightly takes offence at his professor friend's bugging him literally "to sing for his supper." He keeps at his incompetent agent whether there's been any response to his record from Grossman, which it turns the agent, Mel, never even forwarded.  His entire freezing, hard, long trip to Chicago to see Grossman is his belief in himself in action.

Thomson confuses entirely inside and outside in his criticism here, mashing them up. All the outside of Davis, the entire messy shambles of his life, his hapless hard times, are not, as Thomson argues, the measure of his lack of commitment and lack of pursuit of his artistry. He fails, it seems, but decidedly not from want of trying on his own terms or want of self-belief. In a word, the proof of Davis's insideness is in the hearing of his singing.

The criticism that Oscar Isaac "seems disinclined to command the film, as if he felt Llewyn lacked the chops or charm to do that" while in my view misconceived harbours a good insight into the movie. Isaac plays his role exactly perfectly, evoking by his every reaction his laconic nature, his personal quietness, except the one time he gets drunk and obnoxiously mouthy. Davis's underlying truth, his inside, is the unadorned beauty of the resonantly meaningful songs he sings so  beautifully. They are quiet, slow moving songs--and contrary to Thomson, the songs tell their stories, moving from beginning to middle to their end. But his lack of personal charisma, the lack of a compelling personal presence, the straight forward assertion of his art all form the Coens' exploration of artistic success, the need for that thing that makes the Grossmans amongst us see the money in it.

There is thus a large theme implicit in Davis's lack of success, a variant of "mute and inglorious Miltons," resident in how many gifted talents who don't "make it" for any number of reasons, including artistic integrity, a theme encompassing the strange arbitrariness and caprice of the bitch goddess of commercial success and what counts to get it.

One last note: somehow because the Carey Mulligan character seems to Thomson to be on the brink of some apocalyptic end, this marks what is deficient as missing cinematically in Davis and hence the movie

....As it is, her character seems closer to the kind of despair we might expect to find inside Llewyn himself. The singer makes no progress, but he never really seems in danger or agony. Whereas the girl is on the edge of checking out...

What prescriptive maxim about film has it that Davis needs to be experiencing life threatening despair, must be driven to his screaming emotional limits. Thomson's is really a dumb observation. Why can't Thomson be satisfied that Davis is who he prosaically is, that quiet prosaism contrasting so vividly with the "poetry," so to speak, of his singing, a contrast of a piece with the movie's fundamental and paradoxical meaning. Under that meaning, no reason exists for Davis's danger or loud agony--his quiet agony is apparent and effective enough. (And as post script, both I and my fellow movie goer thought Mulligan's acting was bad. We didn't believe in her anger towards Davis. And we appreciated his quiet, prosaic calm about her, mildly suggestion that "It takes two to tango."

(Sorry that my two cents became four cents.)


Friday, January 10, 2014

Note On Michael Ignatieff's Isaiah Berlin: A Life

Just finally finished Michael Ignatieff's excellent biography of Isaiah Berlin. When I read the extensive discussion of many of Berlin's views, I felt often that he says exactly what I think in how I see the world. But one thing different is Berlin's fascination with religious content even though he was a skeptical atheist. The virtue of that content for him was at least two fold: abstracted atheism for him was way too far from the way people actually live and in that was thin intellectual gruel; and even more importantly that content and the pervasive fixity of religious belief formed an important reminder of the limits of reason. The failure to see those limits, the seed of positive liberty, was the cause of the great horrors of the twentieth century, Fascism and Communism. I don't agree with that analysis and would argue that you can reject religion and still hold to reason as it gets practiced in liberal democracies without falling into a moral abyss. In a word, the rejection of religion need not engender totalitarian horrors. I took some offense at Berlin's fascination with the story of Isaac as revealing something awesome and magnificent in that blind and unwavering display of faith, the same thing that delivered Kierkegaard from his fear and trembling. I have always deeply reviled that story and the idea of such a God who so tests Abraham's faith. I'm with Leonard Cohen on that one--his Story of Isaac.

Monday, January 6, 2014

On Donnie Brasco And Comparing It To Goodfellas

Donnie Brasco

In my brief exchange with a friend, in part about some ways in which Goodfellas bothers me, which he nicely encapsulated by the phrase "amoral narrative," I mentioned Donnie Brasco as an example of a mob movie that doesn't in any way glamorize or make seem appealing or treat as funny thug life.

I just watched Donnie Brasco again.

Newell treats that life with all the grey and somber disrespect it deserves. He shows consistently what stupid, low life slugs the gangsters are, how sickeningly violent they are, what scum they are, without Scorsese's bizarre morally qualifying touches of sardonic humor as when he shows corpses in various aspects, sitting shot in a car, floating to the surface in a huge heap of trash, hanging frozen in a truck on a meathook among frozen carcasses of meat, all in reposes more humorous than horrifying, as a result of Jimmy the Gent's murderous paranoia and just plain greed. That Scorsese makes these corpses look funny in death is, I'd argue, as morally numbing as it is baffling. What's the point of these macabre humorous touches, of thuggery as a kind of hi jinx in death?

Donnie Brasco, mind you, is anything but a a moralizing tract or a one dimensional portrayal of its hoods. It tells both Lefty's and Joe Pistone's fully human stories, painting a portrayal of them as individuals and their relationship as deep and subtle as are Pacino's and Depp's great acting.

(Someone once commented that Goodfellas suffers from how consistently loud it is, though Robert De Niro is never loud. But compare Joey Pesci, Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco, who all bring the word "shrill" to mind, and who I wish would just hush up some, to the relentlessly understated, almost whispery, beat up quality of Pacino's acting and speaking and to Johnny Depp's intelligently modulated expression of emotions, which houses occasional and vividly contrasting kinetic outbursts of temper and frayed nerves.)

So, unlike Goodfellas, which presents no discernible character development or moral dilemmas, only its thugs trying consistently to get by and get over, Pistone roils in his personal life as he increasingly becomes Donnie Brasco and as his relationship with Lefty becomes real, deep and enduring. It survives his knowledge of Lefty's twenty six hits, of his unqualified immersion in "the life" and, most intensely, his execution before Depp's eyes of Bruno Kirby.

In that, Lefty murders the man who's been his close friend and associate for over twenty years, just like that. That killing fires up Depp's outspoken disbelief at its ease such that he demands, to the point of shouting, that Lefty say his murdered friend's name as the slightest token of some humanity and decency, as the slightest token of recognition of, of owning if only a little, what he has just murderously done.

There are scenes in Donnie Brasco of powerful and unerring human reality, so vivid in their depiction of complex emotions and frustration. I'm thinking, for example, of our first view of Pistone at home in the midst of his deep undercover having evolved from a scheduled two weeks to two years. He takes out his frustration and marked psychological disturbance from dangling between the identities of Pistone and Brasco on his wife, Anne Heche. Remarkable too is his being overtaken slowly but surely and subtly by the Brasco identity. Powerful is his explosion of anger in the motel room in Florida dealing with his Mormon FBI boss and with some taped conversation being ruined. And what can surpass the beautifully acted, quietly elegiac manner Pacino goes to his certain death after the final, inevitable "sent for" phone call on Donnie Brasco, who he vouched for, being exposed as Pistone?

There's something profound in that elegiac penultimate scene. For just as Pistone feels deep, irreducible friendship for Lefty, loves him really, as Lefty loves him, right to the end, despite Lefty's murderous criminality, so do we as audience feel the sadness of it. That paradox, compassionate, sympathetic feelings for such a homicidal thug, is, I'd argue, the rich and complex ambiguity of highly affecting art. It's that same mixture of moral horror and sympathetic attraction that, in a different way to be sure, marks the genius of The Sopranos. My contention is that that ambiguity contrasts positively with what I find to be the confusing ambivalence of Goodfellas.

And what of the subtlety in the contrast between Depp's inner experience and tormented love--as--friendship for Lefty and the FBI's treatment of the entire matter as just another operation to be worked, albeit a significant one? So Newell shows the pro forma honouring of Depp, the FBI official getting Pistone's name wrong after stumbling over it, awarding him a medal and a paltry $500.00 bonus, its pathetic minginess a measure of its utter hollowness for Pistone. That $500.00 contrasts with the $300,000.00 Pistone accumulated undercover, and unless I missed it, has no intention of returning. (And that $300,00.00 is late seventies early eighties money. Consider what it would amount to now.)

The point, I think, is that the $500.00 measures meaninglessness while the $300,000.00, apart from being a great deal of money, measures the depth of Depp's undercover immersion to the point of becoming what he was pretending to be and measures how meaningful it all was and is to him. The depth of that, too, shows in Depp's dazed, hollowed out and robotic going through the motions of that FBI honouring ceremony. He, in the end, Lefty surely dead, rejoins his wife and kids in what might seem a resolutionary way. But, in my view of the movie at least, he's a changed, haunted tormented man, indelibly marked by his experiences with Lefty and Lefty's fate as a result of Depp doing his job.

Another powerful instance of contrast, by the way, is the FBI putting the final stamp on Lefty's death warrant by showing an incredulous Sonny Black, Michael Masden, the pictures of Donnie Brasco as Pistone, hoping to flip him and others, maybe score some guilty pleas. The FBI in its indifference to Lefty's resulting fate can't be blamed, I suppose. It's just doing its crime fighting job. But this indifference is so opposite to Depp eating himself alive with torment and anxiety over what the consequences of just doing his job hold for Lefty.

What I want to say is that Goodfellas has none of this subtlety, human torment, agonized friendship, moral dilemma or psychological depth. For me, despite its broader canvas, its greater vivacity, and seeming bravura performances, Goodfellas is noisier, morally ambivalent, less affecting--really without any poignancy or humanity--and, generally, simply a lesser movie than Donnie Brasco.

Friday, January 3, 2014

A Note On Ambiguity And Ambivalence In Scorsese's Goodfellas

I don't credit Scorsese with ambiguity as a rich means of complexity in theme and vision, which makes for great art, in Goodfellas, but, rather, an ambivalence between wanting to show the many sidedness of gangsters and gangster life that, I'd argue, reduces itself to an overarching vaunting of them and that life, reducing their homicidal, preying, blood sucking thuggery to their putative attractiveness--money, getting whatever you want, doing whatever you want, high life, women, fraternity--as the movie has it.

So Ray Liotta is only nostalgic, nothing else, no remorse, no insight into what's so horrible and blood sucking about it, for that life as he has to leave it behind to get into Witness Protection. There's, for me, a disturbing element of moral idiocy in that. As somebody put it, "the filmic affirmation of scum."

I don't judge art insofar as it confirms my biases. I'm neither philistine nor self righteous prude. But that said, I distinguish, as noted, between ambiguity and ambivalence in art, the former a virtue, the latter a sign the artist didn't achieve a coherent work, that the work's tensions weren't under control, that its contrary impulses worked against each other incoherently.

A good example of that is The Merchant of Venice where Shylock is both so vile and so majestic and the surrounding Venetian society, meant to be such a contrast to him, is empty and itself cruel,, making the ending and final treatment of Shylock so emotionally unsatisfying.

Too there can be coherent works richly created with themes and portrayals that are nevertheless repugnant by most people's lights. I'm thinking as an example of The Olympiade.

My approach to art is essentially to want to grant the artist his vision and subject and see what he's done with it. But Goodfellas increasingly emerges on my re-seeing it as a well made and compellingly entertaining movie that doesn't ultimately know what it's about. David Denby caught what l feel about Goodfellas well in his piece on The Wolf of Wall Street. He says the exultancy in the depicting of so much vibrancy in the excesses the movie wants to expose and take on makes Scorsese trip over himself. His film becomes one with what he wants to take down. In a word, Denby's criticism is, for me, apt for Goodfellas.