Saturday, August 10, 2019

Moby Dick Again

I have somehow transitioned to reading books on my devices. Much as I love the physical item, digital books offer advantages.  So, because Moby Dick is so readily at hand, I am reading it once more. I’ve read it enough times that I can read in dribs. I can enjoy it a chapter at a time because I need not race forward to see how the narrative resolves.

Narrative kinda bores me. So often, an author’s narrative intention produces misshapen exaggerations. An unneeded *about* hangs over such work.

I haven’t read Toni Morrison, for instance. This is not a willful choice, I just haven’t felt the gravitational pull. I wonder if she can surprise me, because popular novels tend not to. I do not offer these thoughts as reasonable criticism. I’m just wary of professional novels.

Melville tried to be professional. He’d had vivid, exotic experiences to work with. Those early novels were easy ventures. Moby Dick begins that way, but then Melville discovered unexpected depths, which he sounded. The book became, let us say, a spiritual commitment.

I have previously burbled about Truman Capote’s failed grand d’oeuvre. He signed a contract and just wished the venture well. I am not so I interested in that, and I suppose I should leave it there. Narrative is the least vital element of novels for me. I like the kicks of Language, and the awareness of the author. Virginia Woolf’s driven exercises, for instance. I will have to find my way into a Morrison novel, so I can cross over from conjecture. Right now, tho, The Whale.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

Answered Prayers by Truman Capote

As a reader, I have tried to read widely. That means a lot of the classics, and various genres. It also means whatever one might stumble on. Be open to whatever. Let’s call it an exercise in seeing what I can see. I guess I am making an excuse for having read this book

Seeing Truman Capote so often on tv in the day, made it hard to remember that he was a writer, and not just a celebrity. In Cold Blood made his name, and for good reason. It proved an early if not first example of non-fiction as fiction a la Tom Wolfe and scads of writers for The New Yorker. I read it long after it was published, long after the movie appeared. Long after, indeed, having read much of Tom Wolfe’s work. It is a seminal work.

Years ago, I happened upon Answered Prayers at the used bookstore. It was, I found, Capote's stated attempt to write a Grand d’Ouevre, a modern Remembrance of Things Past, no less. I can tell you, it failed by many counts. The effort and full conundrum of this failure fascinates and instructs.

First of all, someone named Marcel already wrote Remembrance. Done deal. What can Truman write? Already his effort has become something less than organic.

Surely the idea of Great American Novel entered his head. If something so definitive could exist, Herman Melville already wrote it. The idea of a Great American Novel sags under its own weight.

Capote had the problem of being at loose ends when he first contemplated the project. He’d had success with In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany's, and other works. That success became secondary to his celebrity, however. He was that guy with the distinctive voice who you often saw on talk shows. Those visits to Johnny Carson weren’t likely enough to finance a Studio 54 lifestyle. And they certainly contributed nothing to his sense of being a serious writer. He thus determined to write a masterpiece. He even received a comely advance. Actually two advances. He received substantially more money when he missed the deadline of the original contract, which is to say, throwing good money after bad. With celebrity comes opportunity, or why else would we have books by Nancy Reagan and Donald Trump?

Unfortunately when artists hope for a result in their work, they betray the nascent energy. They start directing the work toward a response. What will sell, what will impress, such questions only distract the artist from finding a path.

Capote chose to depict the jet set high society world that Capote ran after. The lumpen richness of one Babe Pauley, wife of the president of CBS, provided a central figure of Capote’s _roman a clef_ . She wasn’t aristocracy, she was like aristocracy. How do us plebes and proles relate? We don’t, really. Capote’s avidity to enter the world creates the mainstay of this contraption. Capote, however, doesn’t recognize his own fascination. He is too busy gossiping.

Jackie’s less interesting sister Lee Radziwill also shows up, I guess. She was a princess but that just means she married some jetsetting prince from somewhere. Capote doesn’t speak of the aristo structures of this One Percenter world. He is more into who slept with who, and used what drug,

Ostensibly, these were his friends. He sees them as a noble class, tho most readers would need some convincing to regard them as so. For someone intent on producing Proust redux, he doesn’t exactly dig deep. If you have ever seen photographs of the people who Proust modeled his characters on, you see black and white images of ordinary people. as characters, tho, you see the cunning richness of Proust's relentlesstness observation. By the time Proust actually wrote Remembrance, he was essentially out of that world. Capote on the other hand tried to write his tell-almost-all while still embedded.

Knowing them as he did, he could gossip about them thru a thin veil. That thin veil included Capote as the protagonist, P. B. Jones. He is mostly an observer of these grand people, with more than a touch of self-aggrandizement. People saw thru the veil. Capote may have thought his subjects would be pleased by his portraits, just as God must’ve been pleased that Michelangelo painted Him up there on that ceiling. When the first installment of _Answered Prayers_ appeared in magazine form, however, a chill wind arose. Capote was ostracized (I don’t know if Michelangelo was). That must have felt like an arrow thru Truman's heart.

I read an essay by Capote about writing. He dramatizes the difficulties of the art, right down to the dire exercise of, as he wrote, paragraphing. Well yeah, it’s hard to do anything well, and commas don’t just place themselves, you know. He was, one can tell, a painstaking writer. One doesn’t see him producing a high daily word count. As his lifestyle became more commanding, writing became more difficult. The real hard part was being Truman Capote at swish Hollywood parties and dribbling talk shows, and cocaine in the medicine chest.

Capote’s hope for Answered Prayers hit the rocks. The swank people turned from him and he couldn’t seem to write, despite contracts and deadlines, His snide comment about Kerouac’s work, that it wasn’t writing but typing, could be thrown back at Capote. Capote just talked to an amanuensis. I don’t mean that’s wrong, John Milton and Henry James did likewise. But if you are going to boil things down, keep the valuable stuff, not the dross.

So Answered Prayers recounts the leering affairs of the rich and uninteresting. I get it, Madame Verdurin wasn’t essentially beguiling either except that Proust proved so dedicated and exacting about seeing her, and that world. Capote just shares something over the fence, because he got to walk around in Hollywood muck.

Answered Prayers ended up an average-sized book, not the three-volume tome that he planned. The book was published posthumously, tho portions saw magazine publication. I seem to have read it as a doctoral thesis on how artists fail. Weed it and reap. I mean, one needs distance from the work. Hopes and aims only distract from the endeavour.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Solo, as in Han

Erin couldn’t believe that Solo was as bad as reported, so we went to see it yesterday. I don’t know if Solo has been evicted from cineplexes but it was playing at the neighbourhood theatre in Lexington. A small venue but decently filled. None of your fancy electrified lounge chairs but okay primitive theatre seats work. There were no previews.

It started murkily with Han and girlfriend racing around in dystopia until he escapes but she does not. Years later he’s on a battlefield, which resembles WWI, and falls in with scurvy thieves.  Han joins them in a caper to steal ________. They attack the train carrying the stuff as it bolts thru what appears to be The Alps.

The leader of the group is played by Woody Harrelson. My aversion to him doesn’t scale to how I feel about Tom Cruise or Bruce Willis but I did flinch at times, even tho he was acceptable. One of the gang was a 6-limbed ape and a lively character. It felt muy Guardians of the Galaxy. The caper failed however.

The survivors get to visit the bad guy. Hollywood has produced gangs of heartless psychopathic villains but this guy rates right up there. Simultaneously obsequiously polite and ruthlessly villainous, he will never really be your friend.

A second caper kinda reflects the actions in the first set of Star Wars, but without the thrills. The formula is pretty familiar. And don’t forget betrayals.

The person who played Han eventually won me over. He’s somewhat faceless, could’ve traded places with the guy in Guardians, but he looked comfortable in the role. The guy who played Lando Calrissian was great. The person who played the female lead did her job. Yes, the whole thing followed the dots. The story was less fuzzy than Rogue One. As one who never yearned for more after the initial trilogy, I am not the target audience. Scaled as the franchise is, the movies should be more than IKEA pictographs. Tho a good enough movie, too much was perfunctory.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Lincoln: the Movie, the Guy, and Stuff

Just watched Spielberg’s Lincoln. It’s a movie of reverence, message, and potato salad. It shows the effort of someone trailed by Hollywood’s self importance. The movie points to important things but its inadvertancies are more striking. It doesn't take long to figure out which moustache or chin whisker denotes the bad guy. Every black face is solemn and nearly speechless.

Daniel Day-Lewis gets a tour-de-force to work with. Anyone who has applied the whiskers to chin has had an iconography to deal with. By main effort (tho it doesn't show) Lewis keeps the character lively and alive. Lincoln himself, of course, was richly eloquent and succinct, but also given to jokes and silliness. Doris Kearns-Goodwin's book from which the movie derives shows the wise and thoughtful approach to compromise that Lincoln used. It is an approach completely obliterated by the self-serving wheeler dealer in the current White House, whose binary thought processes center on schism. The greengrab of our cabinet is horrendous, if you haven't noticed.

I found the opening awkward. A couple of black Union soldiers are having a confab with the president. Trump would treat such an occasion strictly as photo op (paper towels to the victims in Puerto Rico) but Lincoln knew how to speak to human beings. One of the soldiers speaks piquantly about the racial situation. Lincoln sits in a circle of light, looking like the Lincoln Memorial. Ease up, Steven. The soldier leaves reciting the Gettysburg Address, which just comes across as overly buffed up.

The plot of Lincoln focuses strictly on the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment. Government in action, and pretty touchy. Heaven knows that compromise doesn't always work. Blacks as partial people, as the Constitution tries to have it, is just a capitulation to the venal horde. Likewise the Missouri Compromise. Neither answer could possibly work in this given machine. The polarities that Trump blithely and crudely plays with cannot keep balance. The result can only be spit and fire. Lincoln, the movie, reminds us of this. Government by schism is not government.

Spielberg from his lofty perch can load the cast with all the best sports, and first class facial hair. Day-Lewis' performance is captivating albeit highly conscious. The liveliness of James Spader in his role surprised me. Crusty Tommy Lee Jones simmers and glares in the face of anything.

Other actors fare less well. Sally Field played the Strong Female Role. The writing and direction gave her no chance to make Mary Todd other than a spokesperson. The movie wanted a tortured presence but one that made human sense, but that balance is a little too many for slouching Hollywood. I don't blame Fields. Spielberg can't help himself.

He did at least keep Ford Theatre offscreen. Little Tad the president's son attends a play when someone rushes onstage to announce the president has been shot. Oh the temnse drama Spielberg could have made of Booth and the derringer and all those juicy elements.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Infinity Wars

Erin’s birthday weekend finishes with a viewing of the latest Avengers morsel. Packed with spectacle, it brings forth the reasonable question why comix are so enamoured with apocalypse. I got nothing.

The movie is a congery of plotlines. The effect is as of an anthology, switching from one group of characters to another. It felt slapdash, with a strong of marketing at base.

Bad guy Thanos had the most lines in the movie and the most closeups. He looks like a cross between the Hulk and The Thing (Ben Grimm), only scaled larger. The rest of the cast were more like cameos. Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy had the best lines, with Drax the champ at forthright obliviousness. The effect was of five movies twined together then snipped by Reader’s Digest’s editor corps.

I did not immediately recognize either Thor or Captain America, their beards throwing me off. Thanos busied himself collecting Infinity Stones and laying waste. He offers a theory that there are too many creatures so he destroys many so that the rest may abide. The dummy doesn’t realize that’s a natural process and will continue without his help.

Several times characters must go to some wasted spectacular setting to carry the plot on. And then battles arise in which heroes punch Thanos to no effect so they punch him again.

The plot brings many to Watanka, homeland of Black Panther. Here is the final battle, as if such could exist in comix land. Blurry battling occurs against warg-like creatures. With much drama and little surprise Thanos remains undefeated and a hearty expectation of sequels galore looks likely. Go forth and discuss.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Captain America, Civil War

I watched this over the past two days, in prep for seeing The Avengers tomorrow. I’m a bit wore out with these movies but it was largely pretty good. The Marvel Universe is worth examining and deconstructing.

The character of Captain America intrigues, what with him being lost in time. Fighting Axis originally then into the future to fight whatever in the name of justice. Obviously he verges on zealot with his enthusiasm as one man army. In the movies he’s so earnest. Chris Evans is pretty much perfect in the role. He's not flouncing around with the pain of his circs. He just goes forth against the angry tide.

Civil War takes the unusual step for Hollywood of contemplating (however superficially) the idea of collateral damage. Think of Independence Day where so many are killed and so much damaged and it is yay! when the aliens lose. Dum-de-dum-dum, we won. Superheroes just let everything go when it’s clobbering time. Here, tho, the King of an African nation dies during a Super Battle and lo, the idea of registering your superhero arises.

Half The Avengers, working the self-guilt, acquiesce to this bureaucratic demand. The rest believe vigilantism is a good thing because they do it and they are good. Captain America is particularly believable in that way. And don’t forget Hawkeye, who wants to go back to his home and family, and perhaps a paying job, but evil exists and he must fight.

I never saw Winter Warrior, the previous Cap flick. In it, Cap's former sidekick, Bucky, who played Robin to Cap's Batman, appears in the present as Dark Side Captain America. Civil War begins with evil Bucky. He's a bad guy for a while until I don't know how, Cap brings him back to the Good side. Also there's a guy seeking vengeance for the death of his family, who died in that ridiculous Ultron-induced floating city disaster. The physics of which...

The son of the dead king shows up as Black Panther. He seeks revenge on the perps of his father's death, caused by a wayward levitation by Scarlet Witch that destroys a building. Revenge, thou art an excuse for sequels. From there to the end we see a lot of intramural sparring. Spider-Man and Antman show up. More like cameos, they supply some antics and further twine the various strings of Marvel Universe Inc.

I think we're on the third cinematic Spidey. I didn't think improvements were needed on the first but I have to say, offering him up as a nerdy but enthusiastic teen hit the right chord, at least in this small dose.

Civil War comes down, and I mean down, to Cap and Bucky battling Iron Man. The question arises: why do these people all fight hand to hand? No one gets hurt, if you're knocked down you get up. It seems like Iron Man's armoury would have something that would turn Captain America and Bucky into smoke but in the end Cap wins. The near impossibility of injury takes a big bite out all all this rough house stuff. It's some nice sound and fury but drama is left to a soft simmer.

We can surely turn to Shakespeare for myriad examples of the twisting power of revenge. Our superheroes tend to boil that down to an outsized incompatibility with life issues. Only the simple expedients of crashing, banging, exploding and so on shall soothe their souls. There, my friends, is the nature of contemporary politics, the unexamined ache of anger. I do not hold Marvel responsible but that's the abiding business plan.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Hampton Beach in the Actual Sun

Erin and I went up to Hampton Beach today. Beth had grown up work to do. I dunno why Hampton Beach, a vacation spot on NH’s minimal coast, except that it’s close enough. It’s a small scale New Jersey boardwalk.

We just wanted to greet the ocean, it is one of the largest oceans in the world (the Atlantic). The day, the day was entirely cloudless. The machinations of commerce were at about half speed this early but the place was quite lively. Families spread out across the wide embrace of sand.

We just hung out, talking, absorbing. There were a lot of horses ridden on the beach, I mean 15-20, with children rushing eagerly towards them. A few people even entered the water.

It was lunchtime but I had no interest in the greasy options in the busy beach area. I’m not above greasy food but the goal of exciting crap increasingly becomes anathema to me. I don’t want to over invest in crappy pizza.

Near the beach was the water slide of the gods. It is an adrenalin machine. My aim is to lower my adrenalin output, so I shall avoid such pranks, but enjoy what you enjoy.

A kite on the beach served me well. I couldn’t see who commanded it. The wind brought it towards us, rather than lifted high. It fluttered with bird-like movements and held my attention.

We drove around a bit in this maelstrom of distraction, then sought food elsewhere. Trying to elude the temporary bliss of grease. 

Outside the gross plea of the shoreline grab, we peeked at a brunchy place that we have been to before but it looked full. Erin pulled into a parking lot to consult the god Google. A full 200 feet away was a well-reviewed establishment. Google’s genius led shortly down the road then turn back to arrive at where we were. A place called Victoria’s Kitchen. A caterer but open to dine in.

The modest appearance from the outside was belied by the friendly space within. A large selection of items for breakfast and lunch. Erin and I both went for Angus bacon and blue cheese burgers. They were cooked perfectly, ensconced on home made English muffins, with home made potato chips (food of the gods).

Northbound we listened to Silly Wizard, traditional sad Scottish. Homeward, The Darkness, sort of AC/DC with an exotic falsetto. I brought home beach stones for Beth, those are pretty real.

“It’s the same old man sitting by the mill

Mill turns around of its own free will.”