Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

In a certain sense, Kathryn Bigelow is perfectly right when she claims that “depiction is not endorsement,” that torture is “a part of the story we could not ignore.” Unfortunately, it’s not the story she told, but the story about the story she told. There is an urgent desire in Zero Dark Thirty, as Bigelow relates in her recent TIME interview, to tell a neutral story. But as she very well knows, the camera is never neutral. If a tracking shot is a moral judgment, as Godard remarked, then so is a close up; so is every frame of composition. The camera, contra Bazin, can never simply show reality as it is, but is always already an instrument of mediation.

Just as Robert Duncan chastised Denise Levertov (ultimately ending his friendship with her over the Vietnam War) by stating that the task of poetry is not to oppose evil, but imagine it, so Bigelow and her writer/co-producer Mark Boal are asking audiences to take their depiction of torture as part of the moral darkness of the war on terror – a necessary, if regrettable, part of it. Yet Zero Dark Thirty never shows us the personal cost of that darkness as its incurred by the professionals waging that war. Nor does it dwell on what it means for a putative democracy to operate as an empire. It never truly imagines evil. Instead it imagines the bureaucratic response to evil, which is a kind of evil itself -- understood not as a theological category, but in the sense Adorno means by the phrase "radical evil," which he uses to describe the totally administered society whose aim is to eradicate all traces of subjective freedom, right down to the very thoughts one thinks.

The problem, as David Bromwich details at The Huffington Post, is that in ZDT's naïve zeal for an “absolute” adherence to the facts, it erases or represses the enormous moral question that occupies the center of the hunt for Bin Laden, rendering a manhunt into a referendum on metaphysical values. Bigelow stresses how she wanted a “boots-on-the ground” feel to the movie, a kind of bracketing off of the more complex problems raised by how the CIA conducted its investigation in order to focus on the procedure itself. This places an enormous burden on the notion of factuality that is, finally, insupportable. “Boots on the ground” has become a code phrase for some kind of ungainsayable authenticity, perhaps akin to what Walter Benjamin called Erlebnesse—the immediate shock of experience. But since experience only becomes "experience" after its been processed (i.e. after it becomes "Erfahrung") this appeal to the authentic raises some thorny questions about how the authentic is determined. It also masks what those boots are doing on the ground in the first place, namely, carrying out national policy.

Bigelow and Boal’s approach produces an extraordinary sense of immediacy as it compresses the years-long search for Bin Laden into a harrowing and intense movie, but in the process of creating that intensity it also generates an appalling lack of perspective, an ethical vacuum. By refusing to take a position on American foreign policy, (in this, it follows The Hurt Locker, a film that had far less at stake, morally), ZDT’s procedural ethos is not the tribute to professionalism Bigelow and Boal imagine it to be, but a morally empty film that is, by default, complicit with the reckless and arrogant exercise of American geopolitical power.

The thing is – and this is what all the critics have missed – is that Bigelow has never been a filmmaker of ideas. She is concerned above all with moments of intensity and shock. This cinema of adrenaline and extremity (which I’ve addressed more sympathetically in my post on The Hurt Locker) runs through any number of her films, in particular Blue Steel, Point Break, The Hurt Locker and Strange Days. Indeed, this last film, I would argue, is still her most violently disturbing because of how she frames its extreme degree of self-reflexivity. (Its infamous rape scene invites comparison to ZDT’s raid on Bin Laden’s compound for its use of POV composition).

Zero Dark Thirty in other words is immersive cinema: it’s meant to engulf us, to take us completely into its world, the world of espionage and torture and dangerous dirty but necessary work whose participants seemingly never suffer from questions of self-doubt, much less stop to examine their mistakes at the procedural level. Developing a sophisticated moral point of view is simply not its concern. Case in point: the potent scene where Mark Strong tongue-lashes a roomful of cowed agents, including Maya, by screaming about how “we’re spending billions” and getting nowhere. The movie makes no room for a point of view that might question whether those billions were being improperly spent on things like the invasion of Iraq, rather than hunting down Bin Laden. The scene is important because the camera lingers over Maya’s reaction to this tirade: there’s no self-doubt, only a flicker of emotion that signals a resolve to recommit to the quest.

At the risk of mixing personal anecdote with textual analysis I’ll offer what seems to me a telling moment. When Mark Boal visited Amherst College two years ago, fresh off the triumph of The Hurt Locker, he gave an entertaining, if rather rambling, account of how he researched the film. (He also defensively parried smart questions about the film’s troubling politics). His most revealing remark about where his allegiances lay came when, pointedly addressing the faculty seated in the front row, he opined, apropos of no instigation whatsoever, that “the military was not going away, whatever you folks might think.” Plainly we Ivory Tower types lived in some kind of liberal fantasy land for him.

Boal’s macho militarism has made him something of a stooge for realpolitik. It certainly has played into Bigelow’s desire for a cinema of intensity. While this produced powerful results in The Hurt Locker, in ZDT the combination is ethically disastrous. The Hurt Locker was a film about shock that redeemed its depictions of violence by asking us to reflect on shock’s melancholy wages. It was also, like Strange Days, a film heavily invested in cinematic self-reflexivity. But it’s difficult to make the same claims for Zero Dark Thirty because its main character, Maya, is so opaque, almost a cipher, empty of all personal meaning, existing purely in the service of a cause. If there’s an ironic connection to be made between this subject position and that of her ideologically-driven opponents, the film never sees fit to even imply it. This moral vacuity, this utter lack of interiority, is far more troubling than the torture scenes, which merely show what results from such an emptiness.

This makes the final scene of the film difficult to read. It’s here that it wants to redeem everything it's depicted before. As tears slowly roll down Maya’s face, in medium close up, we’re not sure who or what it is she’s crying for: For herself? For her fallen comrades? For the 9/11 dead? From a kind of mortal exhaustion that carries with it a moral hazard? Are they the tears of redemptive release, suppressed for so long and now finally being shed in a moment of real feeling because the battle’s been won? Even her vulnerability poses questions about opacity. It invites us into the enigma of her personal agon. That this moment refuses to yield to a single reading gestures toward a moral complexity it hasn't really earned, though it does move in the direction of justifying the claims Bigelow makes for it.

Bigelow's immersive cinema of intensity makes her essentially a-political. This is her guiding ethos; her politics, inasmuch as she has one, is formalist. But it’s also why she’ll never be a truly great master, ala Ford or Kurosawa. For if intensity is not matched by an attempt to redeem suffering then all it can do is show us how things happen, without ever touching on what meanings we give them. By being so ruthlessly faithful to events, the film has made itself blind to history. Given this, it’s easy to see that ZDT’s raison d’etre is not the vindication of 9/11 or even its avenging heroine, but the extended sequence that is the raid on Abbottabad. This sequence is perhaps the finest thing Bigelow has ever done, absolutely gripping in its pacing and focus, and haunting to watch unfold.

Yet it’s hard not think of the sequence as a case of the tail wagging the dog. And it’s even harder to know how to feel about the murdered women and the dispossessed children in these scenes. It’s here that the film does succeed, I think, in spite of my earlier reservations, in depicting the moral cost of war. The viewer is implicated in the consequences of the raid in a way that the SEALS are not and cannot be. The cutting back and forth between the POV night-vision goggles and the more objective actual-light camera angles, though still highly subjective, enacts this reflexive dynamic. Are the survivors bad people? Innocent? Or simply bystanders? Perhaps this is one reason for Maya’s tears. This may be a generous reading of a troubling film. But I want it to be true.

All of this is difficult for me to write because of my personal connection to Bigelow, whom I worked for in the early 90s. I will always feel a stubborn devotion to her as a person and a deep loyalty to her profound gifts as a filmmaker. My gut on this is that ZDT will eventually come to be seen as a film that told some very real and very unpleasant truths about how the real world really works. God help us all.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Remembering Anselm Hollo, 1934-2013


i.m. Jack Clarke

Energy, the man said, equals
Eternal Delight. Does our return to it
mean shedding all that was our art?
Task of the Living: to ask questions
of The Dead. You did it well, you
Weird and Funny Dude! I thank you
and wish you a good Eternal Night
in Tunisia or wherever you’ve taken
The Show. “The winds on the moon
blow so cold, so cold” could be a refrain
but isn’t nor will this last line rhyme
with anything but tears then again why
should it be the last line and come to
think of it it couldn’t possibly be

Anselm Hollo

Anselm Hollo: The Raven at the End of the World

The Raven at the End of the World:

Anselm Hollo’s Dangerous Language

A Review of Corvus by Patrick Pritchett

N.B.: an earlier version of this review appeared in The Boulder Daily Camera and LA View.

For over thirty years, Anselm Hollo has been brilliantly weaving together the pioneering sensibilities of a high-modernist European with a postmodern American vernacular to produce a poetry of extraordinary grace, wit, and power.  In his latest work, Corvus, he surpasses himself — it’s more beautiful and assured than anything he’s yet written.  These new poems ripple with an elegant clarity while offering a delightfully subversive edge. Hollo’s poetry performs the seemingly impossible, delivering the ancient satisfactions of sheer pleasure within a radical form that challenges the reader to think differently about what “literature” might be.  A master at leaping effortlessly between the high note and the low, between sonorous, elegiac rhythms and the slyly comic mordant aside, he can swerve from these lines, in “West is Left on the Map”:
                        a puff of dust where the lampshade bloom’d
                        Marlene forever young

                        like Marx or Helen’s ankles
                        at the gates of dusk

to the deadpan observation of:
                        many thoughts return marked insufficient

For sheer dexterity, he has few equals. There’s a protean suppleness at work throughout this book, which by turns is bracingly skeptical, ruefully laconic, and flat out wondrously enheartening.
In Hollo’s poems, the sublime and ridiculous are more than just strange bedfellows, but markers for the circulating energies of an endless play of perpetually reconstituted meanings. The deeper we read Corvus the more we come to see that these polar nodes are tropes for generating a mysteriously liberating force, and that if we are quick enough to glimpse it, we might be endowed with a saving sense of beautiful absurdity. 
            hand me my spear      my little secret book
            desperately singing in harm’s way
            yes yes that does describe your arbitrary foci
            dream of big live teddy bear that “wants” “you”

Like another great original, the French Surrealist Robert Desnos, Hollo sees his poems forming “one continuous poem.”  Viewed in this light, it might be tempting to cast Hollo’s corpus as an epic, say, along the lines of Pound’s Cantos or Olson’s Maximus Poems.  Nothing could be more misleading. Hollo eschews the grandiose and the macroscopic in favor of the intimate and the local. For the special genius of his work is the way it articulates a kind of anti-epic, a discrete series of poems — linked by the tonal and thematic concerns of a wry, deft sensibility — that focus on the marvels and inanities of the quotidian, on friends, the literary world, the procedures of art and science (to name but a few of the amazingly diverse range of topics he addresses), and the exasperating and often hilarious ironies attendant on all of these.  The possibility for “epic” contained in the notion of  “one continuous poem” is realized, if one may call it that, in the puncturing of the ambitions and pretensions of the epic. Instead, we are given the most rewarding and humane alternative — a conversation.
Much of the tone in Corvus is retrospective.  It is a book of looking back, taking stock, summing up.  In many ways, it is book of elegies, and among those recalled are the poet’s sister, Irina, whom he memorializes in the austere and haunting “1991,” as well as the cosmopolitan poet Piero Heliczer, and American poets Joe Cardarelli and Ted Berrigan.  The exuberant Berrigan figures prominently in Corvus.  The section entitled “Lines From Ted: An Ars Poetica” is a transcription, Hollo writes in his fascinating Notes (an appended sub-book that is as rich in detail as the main text), of talks given by Berrigan at Naropa in 1982.  The result is a remarkable posthumous “collaboration” that outlines what might be called “the way of the poem.”
                        You have to make your work at your own pace
                        It is made of words
                                                                        One word after another
                        Some people do it in phrases
                        Others are beautiful writers of sentences
                        & some are beautiful writers
                                    of one word at a time

                                    +  +  +  +

                        But what I think happens when a poem works is
                        That it rises into the air of its own powers
                        And in doing so it has formed a circle
                        And it becomes something like the sun or a star
                        Or a planet
                                    Or whatever
I like the idea of it being up in the air
            To have no idea is a good idea
            If it helps you to make a poem
                        I have to go now
                        I have to go and think about this for a thousand years

And a thousand years would only be a start.  “Lines From Ted” magnificently performs not just what poetry can bring us — its enigmatic news from beyond, its invigorating power of play — but what poetry is.  As warm and fresh as a talk with a dear, old friend, it also shrewdly meditates on the materialist character of the poem, a thing made out of that most recalcitrant and unyielding of substances, words, that nevertheless transcends its origin to achieve a wild, emotive life all its own.
            Hollo is undoubtedly one of our most erudite poets, but while Corvus bristles with a wealth of allusions, it  never feels top-heavy, nor is the music ever impeded by the learning.  Indeed, one of this poet’s greatest accomplishments is the way he weds acute intelligence to the rhythmic demands of song.  His praxis is deceptively simple, as he notes in “The Word Thing”: 
                        method is effortless:
                        translation of autonomous objects
                        from adept to zygote
                        in rhapsodic rises & falls

Particularly striking is the sonnet sequence “Not a Form at All But a State of Mind” (the title comes from William Carlos Williams), which offers a sharp rebuttal to criticism that experimental work can’t also be formally rigorous. Hollo’s startling verbal agility and quicksilver emotional registers transform the sonnet from a threadbare object of nostalgia and poetic propriety into a dazzling display of intellection and pathos.
            underground trees       slow darkness
            and fear has lien upon the heart of me
            magpie steals silver spoon     it is gone forever
            like the eyeglasses of the less fortunate

            in a terrifying gray light from the future
            the carnival continues                a place where a sad horde
            of such as love and whom love tortures
            point to the moon and break it

Using an Oulipian word algorithm, Hollo repeats — or better still, replays — certain key phrases at differing junctures throughout the twelve sonnet sequence so that the overall effect of reading them straight through is like hearing an extended sonata, with motifs like “landing a B-52 in a desk drawer,” or “I have woven my heart into this net of branches” reappearing with an unexpected sharpness and power.
But the chief pleasure of Corvus is its deeply human music.  From the recondite “The Word Thing,” to the playful farce of “Why There Is A Cat Curfew In Our House,” to his earthy translations from the Greek Anthology, or the intimate, lyrical benediction of “And,” a poem that, among others things, praises the work of his wife, the artist Jane Dalrymple-Hollo, he strikes an expansive and ennobling panoply of notes. 
friends die before their time
& that is a matter of grief
but she dreams she is swimming
in her studio
her paintings on its walls
make his head swim
into spaces as free of words
as die Musik    when it pulls away
into angelic telepathy
shuts up the ape ever scheming
heavy with greed & war
lights him up
so light he becomes
invisible to himself
in a vortex of notes
audible only to the soul

Whatever we ask of poetry — and what more could we ask of it than this? — is to be found here: that it lift us like this, requiring nothing more (which is everything) but that we sit still, and listen. 
Each poem in Corvus is never less than itself, integral and complete. There are no poses here, no sleights-of-hand, except for the verbal kind that continually surprises, or else those the poet delights in exposing with a wink, a nudge, and an exquisitely formed bon mot.   Over the entire book is stamped the Chinese ideogram for sincerity, which Ezra Pound translates as “the sun’s lance coming to rest on the precise spot verbally.”  Sinceritas, Hollo amply shows, is not a quality to be associated with some sort of simple-minded naiveté, but rather is the product of the fully engaged moral imagination of the poet as he casts an alternately ironic and tender eye on the folly and clumsiness of mortal doings.  For beneath all the bright, bristling wit, the marvelous, impish wordplay, the impeccable sense of rhythm, the sharp pitch and stress of diction, another note can be sometimes heard: the sound of twilight drawing its raven wing over the edge of the sky.
think about each word and why it is where it is
moon splashes borrowed light on the wall

across the street of distant galaxies
slowly turning their tails to point to the first letter
Which is also always the beginning again of language.  The unceasingness of poetry, as Keats notes, will continue beyond us.  That seems straightforward enough. But Hollo sees the underside as well, the way in which language is twisted by the professional class of liars, the politicians and those others who use it as a tool for power over others, rather than as an instrument of liberation. Hence the sublime directness of  the modest poem, “Proposal,” as barbed as anything in Swift or Juvenal:
                        For war memorial
to end all war memorials:

plain granite slab
                        David Jones style lettering
text by Ted Berrigan:

                                    THE WAR GOES ON
                                    AND WAR IS SHIT

Hollo enjoins us to “always treat language like a dangerous toy.”  In his poems, as perhaps nowhere else, what delights can endanger — and what endangers can delight.  And beyond the much needed political critiques, beauty itself, Hollo recognizes, may be the most potent form of subversion available to us, since it is generated by and occupies an interior space outside the reach of the State, the Church, and all other enslaving institutions. All of which is only to say — caution: these poems may produce thoughts not sanctioned by the Authorities!
In his introductory note, Hollo tells us that corvus is Latin for raven, which is what his own surname signifies in Finnish.  This is appropriate, since one of the mythic roles played by the raven was that of psychopomp, or guide of souls to the Underworld, a function which poets, as purveyors of news from afar, have been playing for the species since Orpheus made his descent to Hades.  The title seems triply appropriate, then — or is that quadruply? — for the way in which Hollo pays homage to his dead, not by stiffly memorializing them, but by continuing the conversation. This bit of association also brings to mind Hollo’s own translation of the great Finnish poet Paavo Haavikko:
                        And I asked him,
                        The bird
                        Who is identical with myself,
                        I asked him for the road, and he said:
                        It is best to leave early.

Anselm Hollo has always been leaving early, “ahead of all departure,” as Rilke puts it, checking out the bends in the meandering psychic road ahead of us and relaying back the information with subtle precision and enormous panache.  In a time when so many poets tread timidly about the poem, afraid of disturbing its marmoreal slumber, or else exhaust their energies in endless debates about theory, the unflaggingly abundant inventiveness of his poetry seems all the rarer, all the greater a gift for those of us fortunate enough to be alive to read it.