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.