Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


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

Friday, June 16, 2023

Wonder, Pathos, and The Death of Monsters: On Douglas Trumbull and Ray Harryhausen

When Tom Hanks inducted Ray Harryhausen into the Academy of Motion Pictures with a lifetime achievement award in 1992, he declared, with perfect sincerity: “Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane. I say Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film ever made.” He was not wrong.

Perhaps it helps if you are of a certain age to appreciate the insouciant wit and insight of this outrageous remark. Does it reek of nostalgia? Of course. But it gets at the very heart of what makes movies a magical experience.

As a boy in South Bend, seeing it on a Saturday matinee TV program called “Creature Feature,” Jason enchanted me. Re-discovering Jason as an adult, though, has been a revelation. The first thing to say is that Bernard Hermann’s score ranks as one of his very best. Since some of his other legendary works include Citizen Kane, Vertigo, and Psycho, that’s saying a lot. Jason’s swelling brass and pounding drums conjure heroism incarnate: the music of the greatest boy’s own story ever told.

What I never cottoned to, though, as a wee lad is perfectly obvious now: the homosocial bonhomie that marks the Argonauts, in particular, the ephebe Hylas and Hercules, played by the great Nigel Greene, who also distinguished himself in Zulu as the calm, masterly Color Sergeant. Their friendship – and I call it a friendship, rather than a lover’s tale – is foundational to the spirit of the movie. Is it homoerotic? Almost certainly. The filmmakers seem to be winking their eye here. Yet like any pair of impetuous lads they get into a spot of bother on the Isle of Bronze. As if to allay or countermand any “tendencies,” once this adventure reaches its sorrowful conclusion the film is at pains to place us back on a firm heteronormative footing by having Jason rescue at sea the utterly beguiling Medea.

Played by popular bit actress Nancy Kovack, Medea is a stunner, as Dante Gabriel-Rossetti would put it. (She later guest starred in many TV series of the 60s, including Star Trek, usually cast as a seductress). What’s left out of the film – and properly so – is the wrath of Medea once she and Jason return to Greece How she slaughters her own children, according to Euripides, to take her vengeance on him for jilting her. Hell hath no fury. But such complex gender dynamics has no place in this happily simple YA tale.

Medea truly shines when the story arrives in her native Colchis, As high priestess to the goddess Hecate she and her maidens perform a dance in full Martha Graham mode: flowing robes, long dark tresses, the whole modernist Sapphic works. Hermann’s skirling woodwinds make for a vibrant paean. It’s stirring, majestic, and well, pretty damned sexy, too.

But I digress.

Before I get into special effects though, a few words about cinema in general. When critics talk about f/x they always mean specially processed shots designed to render the fantastic in a realistic way. Coleridge’s verisimilitude, in a word. What they so often forget, however, is that all cinema is a special effect.

In his famous essay “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” French film critic André Bazin lays out a powerful and deeply influential account of what sets film images apart from all previous instances of pictorial representation. “Only a photographic lens,” he writes, “can give us the kind of image of the object that is capable of satisfying the deep need man has to substitute for it something more than a mere approximation … the photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it.” Bazin’s conception of the film image is almost mystical.

Bazin envisions the power of the cinematic image as somehow impossibly liberated from the director’s framing, as though the lens itself were solely responsible for delivering us to the real. In our current era of blockbuster filmmaking, we’ve grown habituated to being bludgeoned by the gigantism of motion pictures. Outside a few rare practitioners, like Terence Malick or Steven Soderbergh, the image has shrunk to an impoverished thing. Instead we are assaulted by massive spectacles of destruction, or what Bazin calls elsewhere “the Nero complex” of film makers obsessed with visual bombast. The anti-cinema of CGI is used by most directors to obliterate perception, rather than tutoring the eye in how to see more deeply. But some of the greatest moments in the history of film derive their power from a certain withholding, a discretion of the camera, a holding back, or merely a sly bit of inference. At the same time it must be remembered that all filmmaking, even the most naturalistic (think Ford, Renoir, De Sica) is a form of special effect, and that the greatest special effect ever devised in the movies is still the close up. There’s something divine, beatific, mad, transfiguring in a close up.

OK. Now that I’ve got that out of my system.

There are only two special effects masters I can think of who might be ranked as actual auteurs, or co-auteurs, so profound is their impact on the visual look and sensibility of whatever film they work on. One of them is Douglas Trumbull, best known for the Stargate sequence in 2001, the mothership in Close Encounters, and Blade Runner’s infernal L.A. He also directed two intriguing but somewhat lackluster SF films: Silent Running and Brainstorm, which was Natalie Wood’s final movie.

In the spring of 2015 I invited Trumbull to visit my Science Fiction Cinema class at Amherst College. Instead, he invited us to his remarkable studio/farm redoubt in the southern Berkshires. After giving us a tour of his compound, which included a design shop/library, woodworking and metal shops, and a fully-equipped studio, with a green screen scrim and a crane, Trumbull demonstrated his state-of-the-art projection system. Dubbed MAGI, it’s a kind of super-duper 3-D, based on shooting at 120 fps and producing film of almost hallucinatory clarity (Peter Jackson and Ang Lee have employed this technique, with mixed results). The sample short he screened for my class was about the reality of UFOs and smacked a bit of crank conspiracy theory. Trumbull is a true believer. But like many true believers he has absolutely no sense of humor about the subject.

Trumbull is on a quest to eliminate “blur” from action sequences. Personally this has never bothered me. But it’s an idee fixe for some filmmakers. In the manner of some serious visionaries, he never once smiled during all this except when, while addressing the class, I called him “a master of the sublime.” In general he gave off the sullen air of a neglected, albeit immensely successful, genius – a man who has accomplished miracles in film yet is still rolling the stone uphill. I suppose many great filmmakers feel the same way. And it was a thrill to see the table top scale model of L.A. used for the opening shots of Blade Runner. About twenty feet long, each building or structure packed with thousands of LED lights.

Trumbull’s MAGI project is not really practical for wide-scale distribution. Built like a pod that can seat about 50, there is one currently at the Smithsonian.

The other master is from an older generation: Ray Harryhausen. Where Trumbull excels at creating vistas of the technological sublime (see under David Nye and Fredric Jameson), Harryhausen specialized above all in the pathos of the death of monsters. In this he followed his mentor, the great Willis O’Brien, who made King Kong’s death a pathetic spectacle of the first order. Harryhausen stages monster death throes as though he were in the Globe Theatre:

“For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings”

Imbuing his otherworldly creatures with life and purpose, he then slowly, beautifully, majestically destroys them. Watch the death throes of the great green dragon in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. The way it thrashes about, a giant arrow imbedded in its fore-flank. Or the epic showdown between the dragon and the Cyclops. Or how Gwangi (an improbable Allosaurus from a “lost valley” somewhat on the order of Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World”), tormented by flames inside a grand Mexican cathedral, whips and yowls to its uncomprehending demise. The fall of the lost, confused Ymir in 20,000,000 Miles to Earth from the top of the Colosseum. The agony of the magnificent Rhedosaurus in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, a forerunner to Gwangi, as it, too, burns alive, trapped inside a Coney Island roller coaster. (Lee Van Cleef, be all your sins remembered).

The spectacle of the death of a monster is sublime for several reasons. It is staged on a gigantic scale, like the death of some elder god: larger than life, towering over the aghast human on-lookers, and laden with pathos. As they die, the emotional tone of these films shifts from terror to pity. What, a moment before, had been wreaking havoc and destruction, is suddenly invested with what Emerson called a certain alienated majesty. These creatures are lost geniuses of their inhuman realms: strangers in a strange land, in many ways undeserving of their fate at the hands of latter-day usurpers. Often the monster’s fate seems like an allegory for a world of mystery that is being destroyed by technology and thoughtless expansionist progress.

What these beasts tend to share in common is that they are often themselves removed from some original habitat, transported to the future as it were, or from another planet, to a place where they don’t belong. They are refugees from myth or prehistory.

Beyond distension or scale, though, what Harryhausen’s monsters express is their vulnerability, their common fate with us lesser mortals. We identify with the monster, only at its demise, since we undergo the same fate. Its colossal aggression and rage are suddenly tempered; in its death we perceive that its wild behavior had only enacted the primal revulsion we all feel at the thought of our own death. The monster is the mirror. They act less out of malevolence than instinct; melancholy exiles from lost worlds of ancient sovereignty, disrupted by technology and man’s fatal ambitions.

Harryhausen’s particular brand of magic peaked in the 60s. His final film, 1982’s disappointing Clash of the Titans, through no fault of his, is a slog, stifled by the pseudo-Shakespearean presence of so much august British acting royalty. The pacing is abominable and the monsters are never really given their proper moment in the spotlight.

But his earlier films have lost none of their weird power. What endows these doomed creatures with such fearsome charisma? It’s simple, really: they’re miniature clay models filmed using the painstaking process of stop-motion animation, an antiquated technique all but forgotten today (except for Wes Anderson’s twee films) but which possesses incredible charm. Stop-motion, with its slightly uneven contrivance, makes Harryhausen’s brutes seem both less real than real and more real. Their uncanny liveliness embodies the very stuff of childhood imagination. (When I was five, I underwent a tonsillectomy. I insisted on taking my shoebox full of plastic dinosaurs with me to the hospital. Playing with them gave me great comfort when I awoke the morning after. This sums up for me the Harryhausen aesthetic in a nutshell).

In the deaths of these hand-crafted monsters we witness a world stripped bare of the brides of enchantment – all their chthonic power usurped; the very complaint registered by Theodor Adorno and Max Weber. Myth is brought low, as D.H. Lawrence might put it. Man’s appetite for supremacy exacts its puny vengeance. It can only be satisfied by the throes of reptilian extinction. But who gave us permission to kill these fantastic gods? How dare we slay awe and terror? And what price for that deicide did we not reckon with?

The motion of Ray’s monsters is not jerky. When the cowboys are trying to lasso Gwangi, the snapping of the dinosaur’s jaws is astonishingly fluid and vivid. When Jason battles the Hydra the illusion of movement is more real than real. You believe in these monsters. They are fearsome, yet somehow never evil, however threateningly they may loom over their human antagonists, who have suddenly found themselves radically displaced in scale. And they far surpass the CGI-generated dinosaurs of the bloated Jurassic Park and its sequels.

In her book On Longing, Susan Stewart explores our fascination with both the miniature and the gigantic.

“The miniature offers us a transcendent vision which is known only through the visual. In approaching the miniature, our bodies erupt into a confusion of before-unrealized surfaces … [wheras] we are enveloped by the gigantic, surrounded by it, enclosed within its shadow … we find the miniature at the origin of private, individual history, but we find the gigantic at the origin of public and natural history.”

Harryhausen’s creatures dwell on the borderline between the miniature and the gigantic: they are gigantic to the film’s actors when superimposed via optical printing. But we get an extra thrill from knowing that they are also scale models, exactingly manipulated to create a believable yet still uncanny life-like appearance.

Harryhausen brought life to many monsters throughout his career, but it’s the downfall of the implacable metal giant Talos in Jason and the Argonauts that offers the most moving depiction of a monster’s demise in his output. When he drops his massive sword and clutches with both hands at his throat as the ichor gushes from his heel, we feel a strange pity for this frightening colossus. Harryhausen’s genius is to invest his creatures with genuine pathos as he brings his monster’s suffering to a fevered pitch. The pain Talos feels in his carefully choreographed death throes is grandly operatic. His tragedy in a way is inseparable from his muteness and self-opacity. He cannot know why he is dying, he can only undergo it. Ray Harryhausen’s extraordinary monsters kindle one of the most powerful sensations the movies can give us, a sensation that very little CGI can successfully deliver: wonder.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

The Unabomber


The author FC, now known to us as Theodore Kacyzinski, makes a by now familiar case against the putative evils of technology in his tendentious manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future.” Part reactionary Luddite jingoism, part half-baked psychological analysis, his essay is immediately notable on two counts: its complete lack of intellectual distinction, and its utter failure to delineate a specific and practicable method for the abolition of technology. FC’s Cassandra-like warnings of humanity’s imminent doom from technology we have been hearing since at least the time of Blake. His brand of pre-Industrial nostalgia is nothing new. What’s of interest in the document is the awkward, self-conscious motion of a deep and private pathology on full display. This is a conclusion, moreover, any intelligent reader can easily arrive at without knowing anything more of the violent pogrom Mr. Kacyzinski directed toward American technocrats.

One of the more curious features of the manifesto is its author’s focused rage against what he calls “the dangers of leftism.” Leftism, FC assures us, is one of “the most widespread manifestations of the craziness of our world” (6). (N.B. Because of Internet formatting numbers for quotes refer to paragraphs, not pages). Who are these leftists? None other than the “socialists, collectivists ... feminists, gay and disability activists, animal rights activists and the like” (7). Left out of this accounting are environmental activists, long and almost exclusively associated with the Left. For FC, though, they are part of his revolution against the industrial state. Leftism is subjected to a sophomoric psychoanalysis, its causes found not in the formation of the modern nation state (the French Revolution was a failure, we are told in passing), but in “feelings of inferiority” and “oversocialization.” This latter condition might best be described as going so far as to want to live with other people. The inferiority that mysteriously afflicts only members of the Left (or causes them to go Left, it’s not clear,) expresses itself through feelings of hatred for anything that is “strong, good or successful,” which basically includes all of “Western civilization” (15).

It would be tedious to outline the remainder of FC’s outlandish conceptions of history and culture. He castigates contemporary humanity for pursuing “surrogate activities” instead of real goals, but he never states what a real goal looks like (40-41). From his description of the surrogate goals, they look a lot like real ones. Interestingly, when he begins to expound on the nature of freedom, FC almost rises to the level of discourse analysis. His attack on the institutional practices of surveillance, the culture of the modern police state, etc., sound a Foucauldian note (95). And a little later on, we come on this cogent diagnosis of our ills: “Imagine a society that subjects people to conditions that make them terribly unhappy, then gives them drugs to take away their unhappiness.” Marx himself couldn’t have put it better. These are brief lapses into reason, though. Immediately, we are back on FC’s relentless hobbyhorse.

At the heart of “The Unabomber Manifesto” lies a deep terror, not of machines or technology per se, but of what can only be called ontological mutation. For FC, dogmatic essentialist that he is, human nature is a category of the real that has seemingly remained undisturbed for millennia. He correctly intuits that technology acts as a kind of self-reflexive mechanism capable of effecting qualitative psychological changes in human beings. And he is afraid that these changes will only lead to the increasing collectivization of humanity. There’s a sneaking compulsion to admit that he may, afterall, be right about technology, though for all the wrong reasons. FC’s answer to the terrible threat posed by technology, however, is expressed in an absurdly nostalgic longing for the past, for the primitive, and finally, for an order that is not any order at all. His revolutionary project, his vision, is a-utopic, in a sense, for he has no wish to replace the existing order with a new order, only to abolish it (182).

But FC’s paranoia about technology is really a fear of progress in general and it has ample precedent in American cultural history. Historian Richard Hofstadter has admirably outlined this strain of American paranoia in two of his books, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and The Paranoid Style in American Politics. William Carlos Williams has perhaps best summed up this reactionary Puritan fever in his poem, “To Elsie” (from Spring and All), where he writes, “the pure products of America go crazy.” Though he only hints in his manifesto at a form of violent resistance to the industrial state, FC’s modus operandi as the Unabomber is as American as apple pie, exemplifying what historian Richard Slotkin has called in The Fatal Environment and other works the central trope in the American Frontier Myth, namely, “regeneration through violence.” Briefly, “the structuring metaphor of the American experience,” the trope of regeneration through violence grew out of the colonists desire to reconstitute their personal lives and institutions, a desire that inevitably became linked to the violence used to attain it.

FC is the postmodern avatar par excellence of this peculiar strain of American “nativist,” Know-Nothing isolationism. This ideology, which he shares in common with the numerous militant groups now flourishing in the hinterlands, relies on a discourse of rugged individualism for its philosophical underpinnings. Its true psychic vector was located by D.H. Lawrence in Studies in Classic American Literature. Commenting on Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, Lawrence writes, “you have there the myth of the essential white America ... the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” The cult of the American pioneer derives more from Nineteenth-Century propaganda than from the actual historical record. The settlement of this country, as historians Donald Worster and Patricia Nelson Limerick have pointed out, was made possible by the very government and business interests FC decries for the accelerating decline of the quality of life.

Heidegger’s conclusion in “The Question Concerning Technology” that technology offers humans a deeper way into Being sheds some much needed light here. For Heidegger, the process of Enframing (which is accelerated by technology), whereby things, and through things the quiddity of Being itself, are reduced, singularized and homogenized, threatens to pauperize the human relation to Being. But it is precisely this danger which offers humans the opportunity to engage Being at a deeper level of cognition. He quotes Holderlin to illustrate his point: “But where danger is/There also is the saving power.” As Heidegger puts it, man’s solemn duty to watch over unconcealment (that is, truth, or the presencing of Being) is heightened by the danger technology poses. “It is precisely in this extreme danger that the innermost indestructible belongingness of man within granting may come to light, provided that we, for our part, begin to pay heed to the coming to presence of technology” (32). And it is precisely this kind of argument (its arcane rhetoric notwithstanding) for a deeply responsible engagement with technology -- with its awareness and acceptance of the full complexity of the issue -- that eludes the benighted FC. For in the final analysis, as Heidegger so wisely realizes, the problem of technology is first, last, and merely the continuing problem of how to be human.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Knowing, Alex Proyas (2009)

N.B. I wrote this review shortly after the film came out. Originally it was to be part of a longer piece on SF films whose central themes dealt with latent or hidden extra-solar codes that hold the secret meaning of human history. This theme is locatd at the juncture where teleology succumbs to the pathology of paranoia. Other films to be considered were "Prometheus" and "Stargate." The piece isn't quite finished. I offer it here FWIW. Having also directed "Dark City," "I, Robot," and others, Proyas, along with Andrew Niccol, is one of the most prominent among contemporary SF auteurs at work today.

Like the comedy Ghost Town (2008), this 2009 film directed by Alex Proyas belongs to an emerging class of post-9/11 films that offer consolation by way of displaced representations or allegories of grief. It is also a film about the dangers of the risk society. More importantly, for this discussion, it exemplifies many of the features of the alien artifact film. The first two elements, it should be noted, are combined in the figure of the second of two ghosts who occupy and drive the film’s protagonist, John, namely, the figure of his wife, who, we learn via backstory, died in a hotel fire. The means of her death – by the failure of a building – seems designed to echo or point to the larger catastrophe of the World Trade Center’s structural collapse. Both events – the actual disaster and its pared down fictional counterpart – indicate the basic unreliability of modernity, the fact that structures and entire systems can overload or breakdown, often without warning.

[As an MIT astrophysicist, John is actually little more than a mouthpiece for the script’s metaphysical nostalgia. In an early classroom scene he expounds tritely on whether or not the universe functions by design or randomness, teleology or contingency. Later, he tells X that he thought he was supposed to feel it when his wife died, halfway around the world.]

The film’s prologue is set in a 1959 Lexington, MA elementary school named for William Dawes, a heroic Minuteman, invoking both the early alarms of the Revolutionary War, Cold War paranoia and the threat of total destruction, and a perverse boomer nostalgia for lost innocence. The installation of a time capsule (undertaken while a brass band badly plays the pastoral-triumphalist portion of Holst’s “Jupiter”) likewise signals both the onset of an alien knowledge that drives its child possessor Lucinda (the story’s main ghost) to dementia and eventual drug overdose. As we learn she is unwillingly subjected to transmissions from the alien archive of the future in the form of telepathic noise represented as overlapping whispers, which she is forced to translate into a series of seemingly meaningless numbers. The gleaming time capsule itself emblemizes Cold War anxieties with its burial of the now for some possible future retrieval, even after Armageddon. What its designers hope will stand as a message to the future becomes for that future a note from the angel of death.

[Brief note on time capsules: 1939 World’s Fair – to be opened in 6939. Implies an absurd faith in the future; it's meant to foster a hope in continuity, but becomes instead a message from our ruins to latter-day archaeologists and an acknowledgment of our fragility].

The film’s core theme – astrophysical theories of randomness versus determinism (a code word perhaps for intelligent design) – is explicated in an MIT lecture by the hero, John Koestler (the last name here rather needlessly alluding to Arthur Koestler and his book on the paranormal, The Roots of Coincidence). Still grieving the loss of his wife, J. appears consumed by the theory of randomness – “shit just happens” as he bitterly tells his class – there is no higher or larger meaning or design. Here the film plays up the binary of randomness/determinism all too reductively, as though the former were equivalent to nihilism and not some form of deeper complexity and emergent systems behavior that develops rhizomatically into decentralized self-organizing systems. "God," in this view, is not merely in the details; he is the details.

After his son Caleb, during a ceremony marking the opening of the time capsule, receives the mad scribblings of the girl from 1959 (Lucinda Embry–the name portentously suggests both illumination and embers) it becomes clear that her random strings of numbers depict a map of worldwide disasters. Some of these disasters are natural – earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis – and some are man-made: 9/11, the first one decoded; along with other plane crashes and massive infrastructure failures.

While this mix of registers proves fatal to the film’s logic, we might read these disasters as all man-made in the sense that the high death tolls they incur are the result of massive population clustering in narrow coastal and urban areas which lack adequate alarm and evacuation procedures. Cities, in other words, like buildings, or planes, or cars, are death traps, waiting for the right set of random circumstances to trigger their destruction. The conditions produced by the risk society greatly increase the likelihood of the traps’ chances to engulf its inhabitants.

John is able to decode the alien archive further and realizes that three events have not yet occurred. The first one (which leads to the decoding of the remaining set of unexplained numbers as lat/long coordinates) is a spectacular crash of a commercial airliner over I-90. This disaster revisits the trauma of 9/11 in a visible way, even if on a reduced scale. Improbably, as part of its fantasy of redemption, John staggers through the plan’s scatter path as EMT’s, who’ve arrived with miraculous alacrity, escort a few improbably surviving passengers away from the burning wreckage. He decodes, but is also unable to stop, the second of three remaining disasters on the list, this one involving a subway crash in NYC.

Both of these disasters are like compulsive re-enactments of both 9/11 and his wife’s death. His foreknowledge of them only makes him feel more impotent to stop them. He becomes a Cassandra-figure, isolated in his ability to make his warnings understood by the authorities, the classic position of the hero outlined by Sontag in her early, influential essay “The Imagination of the Disaster.”

Teleology here undergoes a shift from the dream of a completed totality, the fulfillment of history through universal emancipation, to a paranoid sign system in which all things, once understood as interconnected and legible, only signify total destruction and universal anarchy. The knowledge of all things is a zero-sum game. In a related sense, the knowledge of the beyond – of the future – which the alien archive transmits (thereby contaminating its readers with a kind of lucid dementia) is also a form of religious experience, a conversion from the placid containment of unbelief’s protective repression to belief’s holy terror.

What the alien archive finally represents is a theology of trauma – apocalypse, followed by survival of the chosen ones. The conversion experience John undergoes and later, if more reluctantly, Lucinda’s adult daughter, Diana, allows them to make sense of their pain and loss – which, finally, is the task of stories and art in general. The archive or code may not save them, but it does offer shelter for their children, thereby insuring a future for the human. [The SF Ark. The aliens have come to shepherd Earth’s children to a new planet, a rather sappy vision of the Wordsworthian sublime]

The logical link between man-made disasters and the planet-killing solar flare which strikes at random is never made by the film. The earthly disasters are produced by a risk society; they are the result either of the hazards of accelerated modernity or its corollary, the reactionary forces of political terrorism. The solar flare is a cosmic accident. It could be argued that it embodies the ultimate form of risk – that of living at the mercy of enormous and ungovernable stellar forces. But in the progression of disasters the film asks us to see that all disasters are somehow created equal: the only difference between the collapse of a bridge or a downed jet liner and the end of all life on earth is one of scale. This preposterous logic makes a hash of “Knowing’s” theological intervention, reducing it to a cynical ploy, an exploitation of the audience’s hopes for redemption.

The film’s dramatic ending, with a fleet of spaceships leaving Earth to deliver the children to a new world, can actually be read as a fantasy projection of the protagonist, somewhat in the vein of The Sixth Sense. John’s research has already revealed to him the threat the sun poses to the earth. The occult code of numbers, the menacing, black clad strangers (the Whisper People) who appear to be threatening his son only to transform into rescuing angels, all this is simply a delusion he has concocted to shelter him from his own knowing of the inevitable apocalypse. These angels are not rescuers, though; they are angels of death, and the new Eden we are shown at the end is merely John’s fantasy of a Heaven which does not exist. This becomes clear when we consider how this scene is cross-cut with John’s reconciliation with his minister father.

The rescue of the children and their transportation off-world to a new Edenic home, complete with a heraldic white tree, brims with Christian sentimentality; a sugar-coated denouement to the apocalypse. The trench-coated aliens transform into glowing angelic beings and the staging of the earth’s death takes on the trappings of the sublime. John, “left behind,” makes peace with his estranged father, a Christian minister, who assures him that death is not the end. This is a science fiction version of the Rapture.

How, then, to read the role of the alien archive in this compelling, but finally cloying, drama of trauma and redemption? The chain of numbers delivers random occurrence into the emplotment of knowing, that is, of pre-determined meanings which, properly decoded, spell salvation. Yet the connection between human catastrophes and the planet-killing solar flare is made tenuously, at best. The archive does not provide answers to this; only further obfuscations. The smaller disasters of history, according to the film, are to be understood as teleologically-driven, preludes leading up to the final disaster, which is itself a leap outside the logic of history, randomly driven, but responded to providentially.

The antithesis to knowing, of course, is believing. All of John’s knowledge of both science and the future don’t give him the power to alter the course of events. Only by returning home again, like the prodigal son, is he able to reinvest himself with the comforts supplied by faith.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

My David Bowie

The first time I heard David Bowie was my freshman year in college: San Francisco State, Fall 1975. My new best friend, W., occupied a handsome suite in the 14-storey Verdugo Hall, much nicer than my cramped shabby room in Font Hall. We’d hang out, skipping classes and getting high all day, occasionally making films with the 8mm camera he had on loan from the film department. We shot on the roof of Verdugo (illegal) and in the fields of Marin County, where Christo’s miraculous Running Fence snaked across grassy ridgelines. Once, we shot a sword fight in the Japanese Gardens in Golden Gate Park. No one thought twice about it. One of W’s film major buddies was sleeping with his female professor. That’s just how it was in those days. I could walk down Market St. openly smoking a joint.

We listened incessantly to “The Man Who Sold The World” and “Ziggy Stardust.” At one point, I feel quite sure I thought the latter was the greatest album I’d ever heard. The Sgt. Pepper of the 70s, as one pal put it, probably quoting a line from Rolling Stone. We got stoned and watched “Star Trek” re-runs and argued about Sartre. We were all idiots. But god, what a great time we had in our sprawling decadent ignorance.

I began wearing beautiful suits I’d found at thrift shops, complete with cufflinks. In imitation of Bogart in “Casablanca,” I sported a tan trench coat and a fedora. I grew obsessed with Garbo and Dietrich because in San Francisco at that time it was just part of the larger gay cultural atmosphere. The newly re-opened Castro Theater, a fabulous art deco movie palace whose program featured Warner Bros. gangster films and MGM musicals, became a second home to me. I smoked cigarettes and affected a pretentious cosmopolitan air, complete with faux British accent. As fate would have it, my first real girlfriend, N., also a massive movie and Bowie fan (we saw “Children of Paradise” several times together at the Surf Theater) had been raised a 7th Day Adventist and refused to go all the way. There followed what seemed like endless nights of dry humping in an apartment I shared with a pot dealer, J., on Guerrero and 24th, on the edge of the Mission District, which in those days was still a bit sketchy.

When I moved back to Huntington Beach in 1977, these guises and interests faded away. Our little group of culture fanatics was immersed in Bowie, but also Roxy Music (a natural extension), Eno, and the burgeoning punk scene. Bowie’s romanticism still exerted a powerful aura, though. The heady, naked yearning of “Word on a Wing” or “Wild is the Wind” was like a drug. “Wild is the Wind” especially carried an extraordinary power. An aria of sheer longing, it stripped you bare, reduced to pure trembling emotion. It offered kenosis and embodiment at the same time. Erotic longing as decreation? Bowie wasn’t just a sensuous rocker; he was our Sinatra and Elvis, combined. Of course, Sinatra was our Sinatra, too. Bowie led quite readily to “In The Wee Small Hours of the Night” and the rest of the Chairman’s catalog.

With Bowie’s departure a significant chunk – not of my youth, which is long gone – but of what it meant to be young is in no way lessened but magnified. Till his death, I had no idea how much he meant to me. He was just there – a kind of structure of feeling for feeling. When Lennon was murdered, I was devastated. I remember finding out about it by picking up the LA Times on the way to work that morning. The bus ride, the whole day in the office, passed in a daze. But I didn’t grow up with Lennon or The Beatles in the same way I grew up with Bowie. He made it safe to be, not dramatic, exactly, but passionate and lyrical and free to revel in artifice. Life was theater, his songs said, but that theater was real – more real than anything, because it made reality bearable – and without that theater, without the power of artifice, the whole thing was a brutal joke and a lie. Bowie’s theater made it possible to re-imagine your own life. He was the great champion of the weird and the different.

Oh you pretty things
Don’t you know you’re driving
your fathers and mothers insane?
Let me make it plain.
Gotta make way for the homo superior.

The allusion to the X-Men and mutants says it all. He told us we could invest our lives with glamour, even if it was a borrowed glamour. That it was OK, even cool, to be different.

But Bowie’s appeal went beyond even that. There was something gnostic about his many personae and his dangerous songs poised on the edge of nothing, as Simon Critchley so smartly characterizes them. Gnosticism in rock is not nihilism nor hedonism. It’s the recognition of alienation in a world made by an alien god. Bowie was the poet laureate of gnostic rock – of otherness, difference, weirdness. His music’s power came not from about singing about loss, which the blues and rock have always sung about, but a more fundamental metaphysical predicament having to do with being adrift in being, with the flux of identity, the fluidity of the self and the power of music to conjure multiple avatars out of a desire for belonging, even while realizing that heimlich will always be unheimlich.

Perhaps Bowie’s most gnostic turn came in the Nicholas Roeg film, The Man Who Fell to Earth, based on the novel by Walter Tevis. The story is one of an alien’s attempt to rescue the remnants of his race from their dying planet by bringing them to Earth. But his introduction to earthly culture leads him to become an alcoholic (in fact, the novel is a brilliant account of alcoholism as a kind of gnostic amnesia, along the lines of “The Hymn of the Pearl”) and he forgets his mission, succumbing to apathy, amnesia, and despair – trapped in the world of gross matter. The gnostic turn becomes an elegy for a fallen race.

So many of Bowie’s songs are suffused with a sense of elegy. From “Memory of a Free Festival” to “Blackstar,” he gave us a sense of the pleasures and sadness of the fleeting, the mortal. Bowie recognized, as no rock star before him had, that we are always double, always split, always sliced in two by the mirror. Rather than try to heal that split, he owned it, exploited it, claimed it as the heritage it was. His songs proclaimed that we are multiple rather than singular, and that that was a good way to be.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Annals of LA: Remembering Dutton's Books

Davis Dutton, known only and always as Dave, ran Dutton’s Books in North Hollywood for something like 30 years. His father founded the store around 1960 and after a career in journalism, which included a successful stint as editor of Westways, back when it was a real magazine, Dave took over when he retired. Situated on Laurel Canyon near the corner of Magnolia, it was a large, ramshackle structure, parts of which, judging by the layout, might once have belonged to a residence, with tiny alcoves resembling long gone closets or bathrooms, and other parts wide open shop spaces with wall-to-wall bookcases running three sides of the room and free standing shelves and tables in the middle, no higher than five feet, which gave the place, for all its overcrowding, a free and easy feel. The front faced west, onto Laurel Canyon, and was glass from about two feet up to the ceiling. It was, in the classic used bookstore cliché, a glorious, disheveled mess, a true blue fire trap. And for a brief time, about two years (1988-1990) it was my home away from home.

Dave was an utterly sanguine type. I never saw him get flustered or out of sorts. There was a deep kindness to the man, a total refusal to sit in judgment even when it was so obviously called for. He kept the radio dialed to the local classical station, KUSC, which is how I first came to hear Vaughn Williams. The 5th Symphony and the Fantasia for Thomas Tallis were on constant rotation back then and they entranced me.

Dave and I grew quite close in a short time. I was just starting to find my way as a poet. It was at Dutton’s in 1989 that I discovered Michael Palmer's "Notes for Echo Lake" and Susan Howe's "The Europe of Trusts" -- books that changed everything I thought I knew about poetry. Dave out me in charge of the poetry section and it was at Dutton's that I launched my short-lived poetry journal, Antiphony. Short-lived as in it enjoyed all of one issue. Funding was the problem. But that first issue was rather sweet, if amateurish. Four of us book clerks were poets: myself, Eve Gardner, Elena Phleger, and Herman Fong, who was the closest among us to being a real poet, someone with actual publications, and boasting an MFA from UMass-Amherst where he’d studied with Jim Tate. It was rounded out by contributions from three old college friends: Michael Forrest, Steve Tracey, and Fuschia.

Dave had purchased Will and Ariel Durant’s library and had stored it offsite. Not, perhaps, the best site for persevering it. But as I learned, the secret of his thriving empire lay in shrewd real estate investments. He owned many homes across the Valley, which he rented out, and this income helped to subsidize the stores. He had three of them when I worked there: the main one, on Laurel; the Burbank store; and a downtown location in the lower level of the ARCO tower, which was home to major law firms like Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher.

The Durant library was his pride and joy. I often wonder what became of it. Did he sell it off? Donate it? Once he cracked open a box and dug out a red Loeb Library edition of some Roman author -- it might have been Seneca, but I can’t remember now. The book was heavily annotated in Durant’s fine, spidery hand. Written in the margin of one page, he’d exclaimed, “Utter rubbish!” This was fine stuff.

Another time we were retrieving books from one of his garage depots to fetch back to the store in his rickety two-tone VW van, a vehicle which itself served as a mobile book depot and was so overloaded with boxes I was in constant anxiety when I drove it. Would it even shift out of first gear? (Dave also owned a classic white T-bird from the 50s). Dave hauled up the garage door. We were on a non-descript cul de sac of dull ranch-style houses – the Valley is full of them. A black widow spider hung in its messy web about waist high, in a tangle of shelves and boxes. Another person, quite blamelessly, wouldn’t have thought twice about casually swatting it out of existence, say the way Detective Randall does when he and Marlowe explore Jessie Florian’s garage in “Farewell, My Lovely.” Dave chose a different approach. Tenderly, with a rolled up newspaper, he coaxed and cajoled a very reluctant spider out of its nest and harm’s way so he could get at the box he needed. I think at one point I made some exasperated interjection. I simply could not fathom the patience he took to spare this dangerous animal. He quite calmly batted my objections aside. And I stood there, humbled, in awe of what could only be called a quality of grace.

Another book mission, in the rattle trap van, took us up a long narrow winding lane in the hills, somewhere above Sherman Oaks. It was quintessential LA. Spanish tile roofs. Palm trees. Mercedes on the curb. The good life. Dave pointed at a tree. “When I was a boy I saw an angel in that tree,” he said mildly. I saw no reason to question or even wonder at it. I believed him implicitly. Like Blake and Thoreau, Dave Dutton enjoyed a very direct rapport with the world that most of us are barred from.

The bookstore itself housed some 350,000 volumes, new and used. Dave was always buying, always scouring estate sales and the like. Some authentic old school book scouts brought him rare finds. The kind of vanishing type best described in the Cliff Janeway detective series by John Dunning, like “Booked to Die,” and “The Bookman’s Wake.” Grizzled unkempt eccentrics who looked like they’d just washed up to shore but who possessed deep fonts of expertise in the book trade and rare and first editions – a kind of hard won knowledge not to be found on the internet. Dave, who knew his stuff, and who was the great champion of the downtrodden and the underdog, relished shooting the breeze with these guys when they drifted in with some odd, precious cargo.

The store also functioned as a kind of waystation for those of us who worked there. The assistant manager was a classic book nerd type, whose dry wit and stoic demeanor belied a real sweetness: Steve Daly. David Abbott was an actor on the make, incredibly good looking and charismatic. He wrote and starred in a one man show about Van Gogh that was truly brilliant. And then there was the mysterious Amy Albany. Petite, with large blue eyes, platinum blonde hair, and always clad in vintage dresses – I’m pretty sure we all had aching crushes on her. She was sweet, haunted, wounded and not a woman to suffer fools gladly, Her father was the great jazz pianist, Joe Albany, who’d been a sideman for Bird. She gave me cassette tapes of his work which were thrilling. He’d become a junkie and died from his addiction and it visibly haunted Amy. She went on to write a book about him and produce a moving film, “Low Down,” as a tribute to his genius.

Then there was the great Rushdie dust up. When “The Satanic Verses” came out in 1989, the Ayotollah, as is well known, put out a contract on Rushdie, or declared a fatwah. Rushdie was forced to go into hiding, assume an incognito, and keep his head below the parapet for a few years. Bookstores which carried his novel were said to be in the crosshairs too. But Dave refused to knuckle under. We proudly displayed “Verses” in the storefront windows. The LA Times did a story on us and carried a picture of the crew, looking stoic and heroic. I never really thought we’d be the target of a terrorist attack. But it was all bit a heady and unnerving and the entire incident only served to deepen my admiration for Dave. He didn’t make a big show of it. It was more like a low key, “hell, no.” Thoreau, again.

One of the great things about working at Dutton’s was the actors who came in. I engaged in energetic conversations with JT Walsh and Williams Daniels about Dickens and other show folks. Molly Ringwald's family home stood on a side street off Laurel. Her father Bob was blind and sang in a first rate barbershop quartet. I remember helping her finds some obscure titles on jazz. The store had a great film section. It’s where I first bought “I Lost It at The Movies,” and “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1928-1969.” And there was a nice sideline to be had in renting out leather-bound books to studios for set dressing. When Steve Haft, the producer of “Dead Poets Society,” ordered so many linear feet of books, we delivered. Somehow, someone in the store, got me a copy of the script. After reading it I had the temerity to write Mr. Haft with some recommendations about the choice of poems the script featured. Instead of using Vachel Lindsay’s racist and obnoxious “Congo,” why not go with Whitman? I was pretty obnoxious. But then, I never thought much of the movie.

I’m pretty sure I got this script by way of a Dutton’s regular, a classic gentleman of the old school by the name of John Myhers. He was a jobbing actor whose chief claim to fame was, I suppose, his role in the film version of “How To Succeed in Business without Really Trying.” He was effortlessly gracious and charming – a total ham and a wonderful racounteur. He was in the store nearly every day -- just came to shoot the shit with Dave. I felt a bit sorry for him. But he was a generous man. One day he took me aside and said, look here, you ought to be reading screenplays! And he put me in touch with his agent, a woman named Shirley Mann, who maybe was once married to the celebrated director Daniel Mann. Or was it Delbert? Who knows? It was entrée to a whole other world.

Shirley had a nice little office on Sunset Blvd. But not the really nice part. It was just shy of, that is to say, east of Crescent Heights. It was Crescent Heights adjacent, one might say. But I was too naïve to note the distinction then. My interview was brief. She just assumed I knew what to do. I only read two or three scripts for her, for peanuts, as I recall – maybe $40 each? They all had to do with werewolves. One of them was pretty good. Her method was unique and quite efficient. I was to come into the office and type out my report on a large double-sided index card, back and front. Front for synopsis, back for analysis. Like I said, efficient. It was really all these B-movie scripts deserved.

From there I branched out: ITC, Viacom, Lightstorm, Kathryn Bigelow, HBO – everything else. But that’s another story.

Dave hated doing book signings and I much later came to know why. They’re a lot of bother and trouble and very few copies get sold. Having given many readings myself now, I can say that book signings are transitory tributes to an author’s vanity. His younger brother Doug, who ran the fancy, upscale Dutton’s Brentwood on San Vincente over on the west side, excelled at signings. The likes of Margaret Atwood would drop by to shill her wares. But Dave wanted nothing to do with them. The one exception I can recall him making was for his old pal Larry McMurtry. Larry was himself, besides being a Major Author, a bookseller of no small repute. When he came to town, Dave closed the store so that Larry could roam the shelves unhindered by the public, while a few of us stood respectfully in the wings should the Great Man need anything. It was all a bit theatrical and somewhat out of keeping for Dave. But he was just helping out his old buddy.

No account of Dutton’s can be made without the luminous presence of his wife, Judy, who I am convinced was the secret genius of the place. Judy had a kind of swoony zaftig grace and a razor sharp wit and oh yeah, she also kept the books. I’m quite sure the place would have floundered without her capable guiding hand. Every year, she would re-read “Pride and Prejudice.”

Dave Dutton was like a second father to me. I don’t know why he brought me under his wing but I will always be grateful for it. He died a few years ago -- Alzheimers -- up on Whidbey Island. His niece, whom I've never met, wrote me to let me know. I guess I was on some list of people he wanted notified. Even in death, he was still reaching out.

Friday, October 7, 2022

On First Coming to Harvard

One of the first things I told myself when I arrived at Harvard in the fall of 2006 as a Lecturer in History and Literature was, “don’t get colonized.” This was a bit like saying, right you before jump into a swimming pool, “don’t get wet.” Resistance to the swamp that is Harvard was futile, and reader, after eight years there I was good and soaked.

Nevertheless, my initial efforts to stay grounded and maintain a sense of balance amid the intimidating glamour of the Harvard aura proved moderately effective, at least at first. I was no damned historicist, no sir; I stuck to my theory guns and secretly poo-pooed all the vulgar American Studies types I found myself working with.

Still, a doubt nagged at me. Not only were they all better dressed than I; they seemed to speak a private language, an idiom of their own that they’d absorbed from their famous professors in Am Civ or History or even English. I was an outsider. A guy from the hinterland, who’d earned his doctorate at the University of Colorado at Boulder and worked on that most unfashionable of subjects, poetry. What did I have in common with scholars who worked on race relations during the Cold War, or the history of the NEA?

Defensive and unsure of myself, I sought to fend off this invasion of Harvardization, which I took to be a creeping mental poison, a slow spiritual death that led by degrees to an ever-more inflated sense of self-importance, entirely irrespective of one’s actual accomplishments or one’s dubious position on the greasy pole of academic hierarchy. When I heard a graduate student ask, in all innocence, and with more than a bit of disdain, “what is cultural studies anyway?” at a cocktail party I nearly flipped. How could these people be so naïve about the state of our field?

(Reader. she later became a dear friend – because, you know, Russians are the best.)

But the desire to fit in, to belong, is strong. And after a while, as I learned, historicizing adds a new dimension to literary studies which I soon began applying to my own work, even if, as a formalist, I remained skeptical of its claim to serve as an all-explaining matrix. My succumbing to the Harvard way happened in stages and really, I can only plead self-defense, an urge to camouflage myself, chameleon-like. First, I cut my usually long, unkempt hair a bit shorter. Second, I invested in a couple of good, all-purpose sport coats and dumped my stone-washed jeans for some higher quality denim from The Gap and Banana Republic. I credit my girlfriend at the time with invaluable fashion advice. Realy, it was all could afford at the time!

And while I was still an easy going guy with an open Midwestern manner among friends, in public, when strolling across the green square of Harvard Yard, or through the echoing marble spaces of Barker Center, I adopted a glacial stare of relaxed indifference or even mild contempt. My beard was a natural aid in this effort, lending me an air of gravitas while I kept my gaze fixed dead ahead on some point just beyond the rabble passing by, even if one of them was Stephen Greenblatt who, when not whispering secretively into his cell phone, wore a look of wry bemusement – his own protective armor?

I learned my technique from the master, Greenblatt’s colleague, Luke Menand, for whom I T-A-ed one semester. Menand had a way of gliding by almost invisibly; he walked with the air of someone determined not to get impeded (shanghaied) by some passer-by. An animated exchange with him was a slight nod or maybe some raised eyebrows and the ghostly suggestion of a nascent smile.

It was Menand who, one day when we happened to fall in together on our way to campus (he appeared, as if out of thin air, treading the narrow walkway through the old churchyard back of First Church, expertly picking his way – a path I had taken many times myself) and we actually had a chat. It was then he clued me in on one of the key mysteries of the Harvard way.

After discussing how much we still enjoyed Kerouac (on the syllabus that week) and how impoverished today’s students seemed for want of actual unplanned experience, he mentioned how no one at Harvard escapes the inexorable pressure to do more. He asked if I'd ever been on the campus of Johns Hopkins, No, never, Well it's the most intimatedinf place you'll ever see, he said. Even Luke Menand, winner of the Pulitzer, felt it. The pressure to produce was tremendous and bore down on everyone, it seemed. No wonder this bastion of liberal thought gave off such an air of desperation and anxiety. Harvard made everyone feel small and inadequate, only as good as your last essay or book. The massive marmoreal weight of its history and prestige oppressed us all, beginning scholars or accomplished geniuses.

But there were other things about Harvard that while they initially bewildered me, eventually became rather commonplace, even blasé. I found a way to inoculate myself against their contagion, a malaise driven by class-status and the kind of uber-organizational determination students brought with them straight out of elite prep schools. That’s not to say I didn’t have some truly wonderful and special students who somehow rose above all the bullshit. But I’ll never forget my first real “Harvard-type” student, the delightful and maddening R.

R. was a petite blonde, impeccably put together, unnaturally self-possessed; a terrifyingly sunny young woman who seemed determined to bowl me over at our first tutorial meeting in the Barker Center Café, which was flooded with sunlight but felt like a black hole. She had just finished “The Bostonians” and thought it “just” the very most brilliant thing, though of course perhaps not as good as “Portrait”, but then what is? What, indeed, I shrugged, suddenly needing something stronger than coffee. It was like being accosted by Tracy Lord in “Philadelphia Story.” Did all Harvard students carry on this way? I felt caught in some infernal Jamesian scenario myself, unable to parry, much less respond to this hyper-articulate display of sophistication.

I was soon to learn that it was all a sham. R. was a great talker of texts, a true champion, but when it came to actually writing coherent, persuasive essays about them, she was a mess. She procrastinated on a weekly basis, failed to turn in work on time and when she did, her essays were riddled with typos, wretched grammar, and weak, if not non-existent, arguments. Her idea of an essay was a glorified book report. I’ll never quite forgive her for making me suffer through Maugham’s ghastly melodrama, “Of Human Bondage,” which she chose to write her final paper on.

A snippet from my two-page report on her essay (the paperwork in H&L was horrendous): “You rely too much on terms like Dickensian, Victorian, and Bildungsroman, employing them as if their meanings were stable and transparent, rather than multiple and contested. Simply asserting a term in place of actually working through its implications and hidden conflicts does not an argument make. This tendency lends itself to a clumsy series of repetitions throughout the essay, the chief of which is the overworked term unconventional.”

Yet, unsurprisingly, she went on after graduation to not only publish a novel about her freshman year at Harvard, but to take up an assistant editorship at a major fashion magazine. And really all was forgiven by weekly by-line in the Crimson on student fashion which was so smartly observant and so funny -- well, it was impossible not love R.

Despite all my cavils and bitching, Harvard was, in the end, enriching. The dinners with Jorie Graham, Peter Sacks, Tim Bahti, Lyn Hejinian, Ann Lauterbach, and Michael Palmer were wonderful. Sitting across from Stanley Cavell at the Faculty Club. Meeting Jane Gallop and Virginia Jackson and Crisanne Miller at the English Institute. Hanging out with Fanny Howe and Christina Davis. So many more …

Then there was the time I went to the bar at the Faculty Club (a place that resembles nothing so much as a funeral home) and ordered a Negroni. The result was undrinkable.

And then there was that latter day Colossus, Bill Corbett, who held court every Monday around 5 during the semester in a designated back booth at Grafton’s on Mass Ave. It was very much a men’s club, all poets, who argued affably about the Red Sox or old movies, etc. Occasionally the rare intrepid woman would join us. Jackson Braider’s lovely wife, Lisa, was one – witty, unflappable, the very image of grace. Peter Sacks would stop by the table now and then and he and Bill would trade insults. “Oh that took the mickey out of you, Corbett!” Peter would crow.

It’s funny, as they say, the things you remember. I recall going with Ingrid to a party on Pearl St in Cambridgeport. I forget now who our hosts were. It was loud and wall-to-wall crowded with people twenty years my junior. In other words, hell. But for one moment all that went away when my office mate Karene Grad walked through the door, date in tow. I’ve never forgotten the smile she gave me. It seemed to lift me right out of my shoes. (Karene helped me get a gig in BU's Writing Program, which really saved my ass).

So many amazing colleagues, many of whom, like myself, were asking themselves what the hell they were doing here. People like Aaron Lecklider, Kim Reilly, Paige Meltzter, Amy Spellacy, Lisa Szefel, John Ondrovick, Karen Bishop, James Murphy, George Blaustein, Anna Deeny, Sarah Cole, Karene Grad, and Teresa Villa-Ignacio. Some of the smartest, funniest people I’ve ever known. We were all in it together and only our sense of the sardonic saved us from despair. Thought looking back now, in 2022, I think, for me, at any rate, despair still holds the high cards.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

PUBLIC FIGURES, Jena Osman (Wesleyan 2012)

N.B. I'd forgotten I'd dashed this off back when Osman's book first came out. Apparently I'd thought better of submitting a rather negative piece but now I've reconsidered. I've never been a fan of Osman's conceptually overdetermined work. Yet this was was a book I held out hope for when it first appeared. Instead it proved to be a deep disappointment.

This book-length poem-essay is written in the spirit of Benjamin and Sebald (with a nod to Paul Virilio’s work in “War and Cinema”), focusing on the construction of the historical gaze. How do public “figures” – commemorative statues by and large erected to mark military campaigns and victories – shape, that is, figure public space? These lieux de memoire, as Pierre Nora calls them, not only elegize historical events, but inform the social and psychological commons, the space of everyday life.

The book hinges on the conceit of the statuary gaze. “The idea occured.//Photograph the figurative statues that populate your city. Then bring the camera to their eyes (find a way) and shoot their points of view. What does such a figure see?” In the photos that accompany the text, we get a few underwhelming shots of some statute’s line of sight, which is hardly the same thing as “what they see.”

This method wants to provide a powerful way to think about public space though it runs the risk of de-historicizing the very issues Osman wants to re-historicize. Statutes don’t gaze but are meant to be gazed at, of course. But if they could be said to gaze at all then what they see is neither the past nor the future, but the present, mapping it as an eternal now stripped of trauma, a kind of amnesia performed in the very act of commemoration by which civilization elides its own barbarism. As Benjamin remarked, “historicism is a vulgar naturalism.”

Public Figures follows rather loosely a tradition of documentary poetics that runs from Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead” through much of Charles Olson and Susan Howe’s work on American history. Like Olson and Howe this is a book about the latent possibilities of form, especially form conceived of as an act of political intervention. As a meditation on history however it is somewhat banal. As a meditation on the possibilities for the non-lyrical poem it breaks some new ground, but occasionally where it reaches for the essayistic mot juste only manages the flattest of platitudes.

Image: Thinly masked critiques at the end of the disasters.
The leader as bishop is a hawk with heads sutured at the ends of each wing.
With knees in the mud.
The parrot, the ass, the dog, the monkey, the wolf.
Infantalized humanoids, all cower in their bestial cover behind the leader like a
cloud, his wings holding back their perfidy of which he is a part.
You are the shadow at the back, looming like a trace of escape.

Caption: Man with safety orange sweater looking in backpack, then putting it on back.
Man running while on cell phone. Family of three. Troupe of charlatans.

Story: You’ve been evaluating your options. On the one hand, all has gone according to plan. On the other hand, you feel yourself losing your motivation, your focus. The data set is missing a crucial page, buried at the scene. Focus on what matters: Timing. Persistence. Clarity of purpose. The landscape is secondary.

The three tiers of response move from immediate perception to common details to fractured narrative and confused self-reflection, inviting the reader to take part in the process Osman follows in her historical detective work. The effect is deliberately unsettling and disjunctive, with the richness of impression giving way to a deflated language of evaluation. This kind of writing, nurtured during the 90s at grad programs in Buffalo and elsewhere, strains for a new kind of verisimilitude, mixing genre styles, collage-like, to affect a new dialectical image, as Benjamin describes it, whereby disparate objects from different cultural moments produce a sudden illumination of the past. But the effort falls short.

To be fair, Osman’s not really after lyric intensity here. The deliberately prosaic tone of her anti-poetry works to fend off the temptations of the merely beautiful, as if beauty and political commentary were somehow incompatible. (By way of contrast one thinks, for instance, of the late work of Geoffrey Hill, whose inquisitions into the power of the state ring with lyric fury).

No one could ever accuse Osman of acceding to the demands of melopoeia, much less actual prosody. For her, a poem is as dry a report on experience as an annual corporate earnings sheet. She’s a specialist in deflated frisson. The idea here seems to be that ekphrastic writing can not only be bent toward political ends, but that by producing a warmed-over dialectical shock of recognition the reader will be jolted into new awareness of public space. While some of the poems here do accomplish that most of them merely reify the very thing they want to reveal.

Interspersed with the book’s reflections on statuary, snippets of military jargon culled from The Forever Wars in the Middle East act as vaguely intended counterpoints. These are transcripts, we are informed, from various drone pilots to be found on You Tube. The language of course is clipped, dry, matter of fact. It’s difficult to know what Osman intended to achieve with this gimmicky juxtaposition.

“possible new target approaching target one building
designate new target target five pilot copies sensor”

There’s no indication if these communications have been altered or edited, as seems the case, or if Osman transcribed them as is. This is in itself constitutes a case of bad faith, the verbal equivalent of presenting edited footage, with its elisions and cuts, as “the way it really happened.”

For the most part, Osman’s project in Public Figures is resolutely local, focused on her own immediate environment in monument-rich Philadelphia (she is a professor at Temple), a city awash in patriotic “heritage.” She conducts her interrogation of the lived experience of public spaces in order to probe the way they shape the political unconscious of the daily personal sphere, the background replacing the foreground.

But one wonders how she might have dealt with something on the order of St.-Gauden’s monument to Shaw’s 54th regiment in Boston. Its famous rejoinder, Robert Lowell’s “For The Union Dead,” does some of the anti-monumental cultural work Osman takes on, splicing present with past. Lowell’s poem is charged with tremendous affective energy, a quality conspicuously lacking in most younger experimental poets today, who eschew emotion for the kind of desiccated clinical language of a theory seminar. One might call it poetry by poets who can’t write poetry. In the 1990s this seemed radical, offering the hope for new possibilities in poetic rhetoric and critique. By 2012, it’s become dated: formulaic and, finally, forgettable.