Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


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

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Poetry Roundup 2014

This is not a “best of” list since the very idea of arranging yearly readings fetishizes the new and builds obnoxious hierarchies; it also reinforces spurious notions of critical omniscience. Most year-end Best Of lists are less about critical acumen than the dominant market forces of Big Publishing or Hollywood studios and the ways in which the circulation of the eternal same flourishes. It depresses me when I read a review of the same middlebrow novel over and over and over in The Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, NYRB, LRB, etc. This is why a review publication like Rain Taxi is invaluable for its devoted attention to the small press scene, where so much vital literature is being published. The public relations machine of Big Pub produces an overwhelming and monotonous conformity and a banal chorus of yea-sayers. Anyway, I don’t spend my time on all that. It’s not so much that I’m a snob. I just a have a different set of priorities. So “best” poetry is a silly category, finally. There’s too much poetry in any given year to take in and far too little of it that comes my way. I can’t pretend to even have been aware of a very small percentage of the work circulating through the poetry sphere. A few of these titles were not published in 2014 but this is the year I discovered them, so they’re new to me.

Robert Adamson | Net’s Needle | Flood Editions

Ed Barrett | toward blue peninsula | Pressed Wafer

Daniel Bouchard | Art + Nature | Ugly Duckling

Amy Catanzano | Starlight in Two Million: A Neo-Scientific Novella | Noemi Press

Thomas Devaney | Calamity Jane | Furniture Press

Joseph Donahue | Red Flash on a Black Field | Black Square

Rachel Blau DuPlessis | Interstices | Subpress

Joel Felix | Limbs of the Apple Tree Never Die | Verge

Allen Grossman | Descartes’ Loneliness | New Directions

Fanny Howe | Second Childhood | Greywolf

Pierre Joris | Barzakh: Poems 2000-2012 | Black Widow Press

Pierre Joris | Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry | FSG

Hank Lazer | N24 | little read leaves textile

Jackson MacLow | Complete Light Poems | Chax Press (Jan 2015)

Joseph Massey | To Keep Time | Omnidawn

Jennifer Moxley | The Open Secret | Flood Editions

David Need | Rilke’s Roses | Horse and Buggy Press

Fred Moten | The Feel Trio | Letter Machine

Jeffrey Pethybridge | Striven, the Bright Treatise | Noemi Press

Karen Randall | Extruded Gilgamesh: an introspection & Inanna: of the Entangled Ligatures & the Dearth of Thin Ink | Propolis Press

Claudia Rankine | Citizen | Greywolf

Robert Seydel | Songs of S. | Siglio/Ugly Duckling

Harvey Shapiro | A Momentary Glory: Last Poems | Wesleyan

Lissa Wolsak | Of Beings Alone | Nomados

Jay Wright | Disorientations: Groundings | Flood Editions

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Damage Report: Stallone, Robocop, and The Wounded Warrior

On Late Stallone

The pseudo-melancholy of late Stallone in recent films like The Expendables and Escape Plan points to a small but important shift in how aging American masculinity is represented on the screen. Whereas Sly used to stand as an exemplar of the Reagan era “hard body,” as Susan Jeffords put it, he has now cannily reinvented himself as a new kind of iconic figurehead – the aging hero, battered by loss, yet still determinedly loyal to his comrades and his code, fighting the good fight against insuperable odds or a corrupt system or regime.

Physically he has become even more beautiful, that is, more ugly and battered. The voice has dropped even lower – every word is uttered basso profundo, as though he had found a way to reduce the Book of Genesis to the intonation of a few grunted monosyllables. Stallone’s perpetual hangdog features – the drooping eyelids, surrounded by scar tissue (real or make up?), the thick sensual mouth, often wrapped around a cigar – have become exaggerated with age and signify a comfortable, if grotesquely nostalgic view of American manhood post-9/11. He no longer asserts his dominance directly, but instead asks us to take him in, a stray dog buffeted about by the radical changes to the cultural status of maleness. “Save the Dinosaurs” might be his bumper sticker. His leathery carapace acts as a kind of armor – both deflecting danger and making him, by dint of all his wrinkles, even more vulnerable. Poor Sly – always so forlorn and laconic.

In these late films he has come into his perverse own as an exemplar of minimalism. Not unlike two other genuine masters of acting minimalism in cinema, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, he has found a way to turn his liabilities as an actor into his greatest asset. Rocky and Rambo were figures whose besieged grandeur derived from how the system they trusted in betrayed them. This is the core of the Stallone brand and he has figured out how to keep selling this decayed aura through the current form of weak cultural anxieties. But the real genius of Sylvester Stallone is that he has become the high priest presiding over his own funeral. The Expendables is a plea for the utterly dispensable.

Post-script: The title, The Expendables, conjures up images of sacrifice, or even a kind of noble nihilism, but of course nobody but the baddies die in these films. It's all a comic fist-pumping brofest. A far cry from one of the best films about war ever made, John Ford's magnificent They Were Expendable (1946). In Ford's vision the best men are routinely slaughtered in the line of duty.

As the Duke puts it in a moving funeral scene, after the US troops have been beaten down in the Phillippines:

"Serviceman is supposed to have a funeral. That's a tribute to the way he spent his life. Escort, firing squad, wrapped in the flag he served under and died for. In a war you gotta forgot those things and get buried the best way you can. You all knew Squarehead Larson and Slug Mahan. They were just a couple of bluejackets who did their job and did it well. Squarehead Larson -- he was the best cook in the Navy. He loved the old Arizona. Now they're both gone. Slug -- he was always quoting verse, bits of poetry. So here's one for him. It's about the only one I know"

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you 'grave for me:
Here he lies where he long'd to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

The New Robocop

The new Robocop lacks the razor-sharp satirical edge that made Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 film such a delight. It also lacks the pathos. In the original Robocop Murphy, as he begins to reclaim his humanity, finds himself devastated and utterly alone, his wife and son having been told he’s dead. His predicament is more than one of the usual anti-hero’s existential alienation – having lost both his family and his very body he’s condemned to a posthumous existence. He is a man who has outlived himself.

This Robocop, rather absurdly, yet cunningly, places family at its emotional center. Instead of recoiling in horror from what her husband has become – a mere stand-in for himself, a grotesque remnant, straight out of a horror film – the wife (played by Abbie Cornish of the appealing, defiantly upturned nose) adopts a fiercely loyal “stand by your man” attitude. What’s compelling about this approach is that the idea of Robocop has been made over into a rather effective allegory about returning vets who’ve undergone traumatic injury or prosthetic surgery in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a palliative Robocop. It offers the impossible dream of redeeming both the shattered body and the families who have been broken apart by ten years of useless war in the Middle East.

This is emphasized in two key scenes: the first, before we even see the unveiled (and grossly dismembered) Robocop, who is now little more than a head and a pair of lungs, is set in a clinic where a guitarist with a prosthetic hand magically learns how to play again (the music is Joaqin Rodrigo’s “Concierto for Aranjuez,” a clear signal to NPR-liberals). The second takes place in the closing shot of the film, where the reunited family stands resolutely inside their doorway as the camera dollies back, standing tall together, come what may, even though the hero/father is permanently maimed, imprisoned in a monstrous metal body, incapable of anything but feeling the harrowing absence of human touch.

The romantic appeal of the new Robocop is that no matter the damage inflicted by trauma, by the state, by technology, by the colonization of the body, there remains some spark of soul and humanity that cannot be subdued. This is the stuff of Hollywood and humanist dreams. Spirit will always triumph over fate. But as Jake Barnes more astutely surmises at the end of The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Monday, September 1, 2014

SONG X: New and Selected Poems

I'm very pleased to announce the publication of SONG X: New and Selected Poems, just out from Talisman House Publishers. SONG X collects work from seven previous books and chapbooks and one artist's book, co-produced with Charles Alexander and Cynthia Miller and released in a very limited edition. With the earliest poems dating from the mid-90s, SONG X gathers over twenty years of work, much of it in the tradition of the gnostic postmodernist lyric, from books that are either out of print or hard to find. It also includes a generous offering of new poems.

"I hear the motion in these stirring poems as radiant spans of thought, 'the Auto-Graphic gesture of becoming.' A reader will experience the recurrence of a most ancient way of being lost, a world stranger, a visitor here, an X who travels in one long single take. For Pritchett, the word is the sign of a divine spark that must be continually fueled by more thought. Not cinematic: secret. The poems unveil an orange glow behind loneliness, a color beyond erasure." --Fanny Howe

"Patrick Pritchett's Song X takes its title from the classic free jazz album by Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman. And like the music on that album, Pritchett's poetry seeks to wrest itself from the inherent materiality of its making so that it may achieve an impossibly pure spirit of lyricism. As the poet declares, 'this is the beauty that smites the city,' a visionary assault that comes 'In the asterisk that occludes or names each event.' Song X contains a generous selection from Pritchett's earlier collections, including Burn, his daring 'doxology' on the martyrdom of Joan of Arc, and Gnostic Frequencies, a work that as clearly reveals the antinomian and acosmic impulses that are shaking up contemporary American poetry as any I might name. To read Pritchett is to walk upon 'the ground / that undescribes you.' And that is holy ground." --Norman Finkelstein

"Patrick Pritchett is an exceptional poet. His revelatory Song X is a gift of life and years and gives up many joys and lived private truth. He is not afraid of beauty and its formal intellect in the estate of song. It's great to have this essential gathering of his work, it's a great book." --Peter Gizzi

Saturday, July 19, 2014

On "Roses: The Late French Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke"

David Need's masterful translations of Rilke's late work in French are now available in an exquisite edition from David Wofford's Horse & Buggy Press. The artist Clare Johnson has produced a series of interstitial, stand-alone ink drawings which add a whole new dimension to the poems and Need has provided a beautiful autobiographical meditation on what Rilke means to him -- and us -- as an afterword. This is one of the most sensual books, in every sense -- spiritual, erotic, and tactile -- that I've come upon in some time. I'm delighted to have been asked to contribute, along with Joe Donahue, a blurb, which you can read below. It's also a substantial contribution to the vast body of Rilke scholarship and translations in English.

"Rilke sang of actual roses, the tangible incarnadine flower, not some abstract Platonic ideal. In these intimate and luminous translations from his post-Elegies work, written in French, David Need rescues Rilke from the cult of New Age positivism, restoring his uncanny mystery, his harrowing commitment to dwell along the perilous and empowering borderline between inner necessity and a manufactured world of dead objects. The realm of Rilke’s roses is chthonic and immanent. All aperture and cusp, fold and further fold, the flesh of the rose’s petals permits both a bantering playfulness and the most profound experience of evanescence and fragility. Because they die into themselves each day, Rilke’s roses are always undergoing loss and transformation; they are his highest allegories for praise and finitude, Orpheus and Eurydice conjoined. In the classic Rilkean gesture, they are always departing, always arriving – the impossible moment of plenitude and emptiness, Celan’s niemandsrose – the poem that knows itself by knowing no one. Or as Rilke has it: 'no one’s sleep beneath so many lids…'"

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Blunt Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow – a highly entertaining if overlong mix of preposterous metaphysics and uber-meta-cinematic technique – is when, all is said and done, the most elaborate cute-meet and courtship film perhaps ever made. It’s also a movie about how a novice version of Tom Cruise, wimpy and unsure of himself, learns how to become the unstoppable professionalized Tom Cruise. In other words, a kind of boot camp for stardom.

The logic of the film is the Mulligan – a golfer's series of endless do-overs. (I should know; once reader, I did golf. Badly). This produces a kind of philosophical slapstick that is very amusing and a subtle if not sufficiently elaborated critique of the working of capital and everyday life. You have to wake up. You have to go to work. There's always some guy yelling at you to pick up the pace. Repetition, as Adorno might say, is the lynchpin of capital, the human body reduced to a machine performing the same tasks over and over.

Cinematicaly, it works because it’s entirely consistent with, indeed, evolves out of the principles of montage. A logical inference of causation or association is established by simply cutting from one image/scene to a parallel one. The audience fills in the gaps. The gaps -- both cinematic as well as narrative -- consist of jumps in time. The script is smartly constructed; as Richard Brody remarks, it's "Groundhog Day meets Saving Private Ryan" (which is probably just how it was pitched, I imagine).

Brody is right, too, when he points out that Doug Liman, the director, missed a chance to explore the script's implications of a truly harrowing existential crisis: what it means for a person to become unstuck in time, ala Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim, or Traven in Ballard's "Terminal Beach." Pilgrim's journey becomes a martyr's progress, but Traven grows deranged. Cage's name indicates his predicament: the trap of endless resurrection, which is also the dilemma Stanislav Lem (as well as Soderbergh) investigates in Solaris. Instead, Edge of Tomorrow is content to revel in its nested doll/maze-like plot about continual reiteration. This is the logic of FPS games. But it also mimics the film production process -- next take, better take/fix it in post -- and indeed, the marauding aliens are called, for reasons that go unexplained, "Mimics."

But the end result of repelling the alien invasion and its lotus-like hive mind, glowing beautifully at the bottom of a flooded Louvre like a mammoth Damien Hirst installation, is only to serve as prelude for Cruise’s na├»ve, shirking Major Cage to learn how to become a fitting match for the Angel of Verdun AKA Full Metal Bitch, played with cut-throat aplomb and glistening deltoids by Emily Blunt, a blue-eyed beauty who suffers no fools as she wields an enormous carbon-fiber blade like some avenging Valkyrie. "The Angel of Verdun," of course, is a famous sculpture by Rodin which, if memory serves, Geoff Dyer writes about in his wonderful book on World War I memorials, "The Missing of the Somme." So "Edge" is also a film about star-crossed lovers and destiny and all that rot. To win the war, the hero must learn how to win the heroine. The rest is not silence, but explosion.

The credit music for Edge of Tomorrow should have been Chrissie Hynde's sardonic "Like in the Movies," (from Stockholm): "the audience goes home satisfied/because nobody really died." I went home satisfied, in a Hollywood popcorn sort of way, even though the film annoyed me no end. It's impossible not to compare this film to Cruise's last SF outing, the vastly inferior "Oblivion." Both hinge on replicating the hero through multiple iterations; "Oblivion," via clones, in "Edge," through constant re-births. Has Tom Cruise (who's better here than he has been in a long time) acquired some kind of ironic distance on his own image, offering us a commentary on stardom's emptiness? Or has his vanity metastasized, achieving some kind of infernal Omega Point of the image, disappearing up its own fundament?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

For Allen Grossman

Sad news today from Norman Finkelstein: Allen Grossman (1932-2014) has died.

I don't remember how I first came across "The Ether Dome." But its extraordinary mixture of melancholy and the prophetic voice mesmerized me. Here was a poet who defied the trends of the post avant-garde by unapologetically owning the obligations of High Modernism, yet who also seemed unclassifiable, embracing the vatic visionary mode in an era drunk on shallow irony. His work was both sublime, heated by the hellish furnace of history, and at the same time risked a raw sentimentality that somehow always felt earned.

My professor at Colorado, Jeffrey Robinson, first introduced me to Grossman's magnificent and bewildering manifesto, "The Sighted Singer" (he'd studied with Grossman at Brandeis). Grossman's sheer generosity to the idea of poetic voice, articulated so precisely and humanely, astonished me. Though I recall being deeply annoyed by his praise for Elizabeth Bishop and his complete ignorance of Zukofsky, Oppen, and Niedekcer. Well, "nobody's perfect."

Grossman was unabashedly hieratic. His great gift -- maybe his greatest? - was the way in which he acknowledged and honored our mortality. He was a poet of tremendous humility. A poem was a field charged with eros and with the sadness of its own fragility. Out of this came work of the highest lyricism:

"Stars are tears falling with the light inside.
In the moon, they say, is a sea of tears.
It is well known that the wind weeps.
The lapse of all streams is a form of weeping,
And the heaving swell of the sea."

from "The Woman on The Bridge Over the Chicago River"

And here is the galvanizing first sentence of "The Sighted Singer," brimming with the challenge of futility and transcendence.

"Poetry is a principle of power invoked by all of us against our vanishing."

What else can one add?

Here's my hasty, off-the-cuff elegy. Logos is cultural, and therefore, transient. But poetry, poetry, one hopes, goes on to infinity...

The Broken Tower
i.m. Allen Grossman


How we lived
how we bathed
how we wept

outside the homes
for our own
lost names?

A name is a cloud.
It burns
its own grave.

Someone said
“rain.” Someone
said this rhyme

means pain
except that in song
it lifts us

& we stand
outside time
laved by the light

the impossible

There is no
outside nor any
inside either.

Only the stellar
dust that makes
of the Void

a body and from
a body's garments

What song is this?
If I forget thee, O
my vanishing

then what song is this?
To become the green
doom of pastoral

on the bridge of the Messiah?
To insist that
the poem breathe?

There is no word
for death because every
word kneels before

its open grave.
Pray to the amen
that no one says.

Outis, Shalom.
The word for hope
is bridge or nothing.

Passage to a book
made by dust
to be read by dust.

Remember this.
How words are dust
without any end.

There is no end
but what dust will whisper.
Begotten and forgotten.

Murmured without
end. Murmured without

Monday, June 16, 2014

Will the Real Poet Laureate Please Sit Down?

The Library of Congress has recently announced that Charles Wright, 78, professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, has just been appointed our newest poet laureate. Quoted in the NY Times, Wright seemed a bit dazed and confused – and yet disarmingly spot on. “I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do!” But like a good American, once he’s told, he’ll do it, he says. He raises a good question, though. What “is” a poet laureate?

Fortunately, I think I have an answer. And it’s not good. The office of the American poet laureate is an evil plot to pervert poetry. It's like when the GI Joes are betrayed by their own President, who secretly works for Cobra, and must turn to Bruce Willis for salvation. In this case, Bruce Willis is played by Charles Bernstein. Bernstein once and for all hilariously skewered the sanctification of poetry in his brief essay, “Against National Poetry Month as Such.”

Not to get all self-righteous, but poetry is not like vitamins, it should go without saying. Poetry is, um, like thinking: it’s dangerous. Or as Camus once put it, “beginning to think is beginning to be undermined.” Robert Kaufman put it best when he described poetry's job as one of making "thinking sing and singing think."

But more than that, the idea of an office for an American laureate epitomizes a certain hubris: it's symptomatic of the desire of empire to suborn all cultural production to its cause.

Now it’s not that Charles Wright is a bad poet. Far from it. Though when it comes to the laureateship, good or bad has nothing to do with it. Twenty years ago or so, when I was first learning my craft as a poet, I found Wright inspirational. He’d absorbed both Pound’s tessellated lines and Montale’s wry irony and combined them into something powerful by drawing on his Appalachian heritage. But what started out as distinctive and new soon decayed into mannerism. In a word, he became soporific. For some years now, a Wright poem has pretty much had the same effect as a shot of Nyquil. I'm sure Wright himself is a charming affable fellow and his work in "Black Zodiac" remains powerful for me. My point here is not to run down Wright or any previous laureate - even though I can't help but fantasize would it might be like if say, Anne Waldman was named to the post. The thing is, Anne Waldman already is our poet laureate and has been for some time now. Which is kind of my point here.

My problem is with the whole idea of the office itself. In the 90s, Robert Archambeau wittily satirized the post of the Poet Laureate by calling for the installation of an “anti-laureate.” He nominated instead my old friend and mentor Anselm Hollo and the choice could not have been better made. Anselm went in abhorrence of prestige, of officialdom, of baboonery. He was the most learned man I ever met. But he was also the most gracious and down to earth. His hearty laugh punctured every pretension.

Way back in 1989, when I was just a wee sprite tilting at windmills, and before I'd ever met Anselm, I wrote a half-cocked, spirited polemic against the Poet Laureate post in a little journal I was editing. About six people read it. I offer it here as an appendix, for what it’s worth.


Poetry’s place in the public eye has never been an easy one to define. Since the time of Socrates’ interrogation of the supercilious Ion, poets have been viewed by most of the general public somewhat askance, as if metaphysically suspect, or worse, ungainfully employed. Plato was never shrewder, or closer to Stalinism, when he declared that the ideal state, in order to function smoothly, i.e. without dissent, should run all the poets out of town. Kierkegaard summed up the situation with his customary sting: “And men crowd about the poet and say to him, ‘Sing for us soon again’— which is as much to say, ‘May new sufferings torment your soul, but may your lips be fashioned as before; for the cries would only distress us, but the music, the music, is delightful.’”

Recently, Congress has experienced a yen for such “music” and to that end has created, through its Library, the post of poet laureate. This position grew out of an older one: Consultant to the LOC. The laureate stands in relation to poetry as the Doric columns of Washington stand in relation to some marmoreal ideal of Western cultural glory. While the intention to honor poetry’s role in American life is laudable enough, this act seems little more than window dressing. It is inconsistent, to say the least, with America’s strong individualist and populist traditions. What would Whitman say?

Curiously, we never seemed to need a laureate until the Reagan Administration, steeped in a faux populism concealing a latent royalism, took office. As with so many other brainchildren of that Presidency, this one, too, reeks with the nostalgia for Empire that has been legitimized into an agenda. With the right hand, the State makes provisions for an official wreath in the Muse’s name; with the left it reduces drastically the already feeble budget it has grudgingly allotted to the arts.

The idea of a laureate invokes a less complicated time, when poetry could be yoked to political ends without thought for what was said by the poet, or what the government did. Tennyson wrote a coded critique of the British involvement in Crimea. But Richard Wilbur, who served an abbreviated term as our second laureate, produced nothing more than the dismal cantata “On Freedom’s Ground,” a work quite inferior for a poet of his stature and a far cry from his earlier “Speech For The Repeal Of The McCarran Act.”

It is frankly embarrassing for poetry when one considers that the commissioning of this poem coincides roughly with the drafting of white papers by the State Department for the invasion of Nicaragua. Yet Wilbur is hardly to blame since the poet is no more privy to the machinations of State than any other citizen. The laureate’s post should be abandoned for no other reason than this, as it forces poets to assume the awkward onus of complicity with government policy. Moreover, the requirements of producing occasional verse are seldom conducive to a poet’s writing at his or her best level.

The truth is we need a poet laureate the way we need a Miss America.

Or as Derek Walcott put it in his interview with Bill Moyers on “A World Of Ideas”: “One of the things that America has to face is the reality that it is an empire.” This being the case, we must carry, in Walcott’s phrase, “the responsibility of empire.” American poets have been slow to respond to this challenge, despite the outstanding example of a small group of them during the Vietnam War.

What Walcott was getting at is what most poets [even Charles Wright] have always known all along. Political language mutilates meaning. It suffers drastically from rhetorical and ideological dislocation. Reagan has called the MX missile, capable of killing millions, “the Peacekeeper.” George Bush, we know, is seemingly unable to utter a complete sentence in ordinary conversation. His fractured syntax only too well represents the disjointedness of our leadership.

Poetry, despite the cynicism of Auden, who realized what Oppen had already figured out, that poetry can make nothing happen because it is not and can never be the language of policy, nevertheless can play a decisive role in the rejuvenation of language. It can rescue it from untruth because it can name things otherwise.

The only laureate is the one with no name.

Monday, May 26, 2014

O, Godzilla!

The new "Godzilla" offers all the pleasures and warnings which the old Godzilla offered, spun neatly to speak to the same concerns and anxieties that drove the original: atomic energy and the environment. Yet it turns out to be not so much a parable about eco-crisis, but another recruitment film for the Armed Forces. Godzilla 2014 is deeply suffused (is that the right word?) by images of military competence. Men in camo running around urgently speaking the language of “sitrep,” which in Hollywood parlance has become the new “we’ve got a situation here.” But “Godzilla” is not quite so obvious or egregious as “Battleground LA.” It’s not just another allegory about Iraqistan, even if some of the most impressive shots are ones where giant naval warships flank Godzilla’s even more enormous dorsal sails as though it were the latest weapon in some bizarre biogenetic arsenal. This odd alliance – American naval might with an ancient alpha predator – manages to both deplore and celebrate post-9/11 American hegemony.

The director, Gareth Edwards, pays homage to the original in other ways by returning Godzilla to his ponderous suitmation-style, digitally rendered of course, but its lumbering movements make it appear both more organic and vulnerable to the attacks of the MUTOs, which themselves are nice nods to the King of the Monster’s old foes like Mothra and Rhodan. There’s a weird pleasure to be had, too, in watching superb actors like Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, and Sally Hawkins gape in simple astonishment or horror at green screen spectacle. It’s like being present at a master actor’s workshop. Their reaction shots show that the greatest cinematic special effect is still the close up.

There are, for a summer blockbuster about colossal scale, moments of odd grace. Juliette Binoche is one of them, of course, but she dies in a noble self-sacrifice before the end of the first act and it's our loss. It’s in the third act that Edwards stages something very unusual for a disaster film. In the midst of the carnage the monsters inflict on San Francisco (for once, New York is not the target) an elite squad of soldiers performs a HALO drop. As they fall in slow-motion through a burning sky the camera cuts to a long shot – tiny specks hurtling down through fire and smoke – accompanied by Ligeti’s “Lux Eterna.” It’s another homage, of course, to a master even greater than Godzilla. Startling and eerie, it’s as though the film jump-cut from blockbuster to art house – a moment of pure audiovisual beauty. No monsters. Just a very lovely end of the world.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The New Golden Age or, Why TV is Often Mistaken for a Visual Medium

In a recent New Yorker piece, my friend Josh Rothman waxes enthusiastic about the network TV drama, “The Good Wife,” claiming that its most recent season marks an unprecedented rise in sophistication for long form TV. “The Good Wife,” he writes, “has become profound.” Maybe it has, but I have good reasons for remaining skeptical. Granted, I can only speak from a grossly uninformed position since I’ve seen very few of these shows, nor watched them with anything like the kind of totalizing devotion they inspire in their admirers. But I’ve seen enough of them to catch both their flavor and their formula. To paraphrase Cary Grant in “The Philadelphia Story,” “To hardly know them is to know them well.”

Though I’ve refused to give into “Breaking Bad,” “The Wire,” “Game of Thrones” or “True Detective,” despite the urgent pleadings of friends, I have watched quite a few episodes of “The Sopranos” in its heyday (engrossing, dramatically superior TV, but finally, forgettable) as well as several seasons of “Mad Men,” whose rapacious slickness was fascinating before it became stale and repetitive; it’s a show that fairly preens with the smugness of hindsight. Of all these recent entries in the so-called second Golden Age of television, only “Battlestar Galactica” has consistently held my interest, partly because it’s SF, which I teach quite a bit, and partly because it takes on large moral, ethical and political questions – big questions about post-9/11 culture – that no other show has really grappled with in a meaningful way.

Rothman’s plea for “The Good Wife” finally boils down to this: that TV has finally become as good – as intellectually sophisticated and psychologically enriching – as good novels. It’s an argument I have no real problem with. Except that TV is a visual medium. Or at least, it’s commonly mistaken for one. Richard Brody, in a spirited exchange with Emily Nussbaum, notes that there’s nothing about “Breaking Bad” or any of the other new Golden Age shows that “thrive as audiovisual creation.” And that’s the crux of the matter. There’s no denying that TV has grown more psychologically complex, able to show deeper forms of interiority, as novels do, and that's no small thing. And while comparing TV to film is very much a case of apples and oranges, TV resolutely remains a form in which the visual is just a means to an end.

What excites Rothman is how shows like “The Good Wife” have made what he calls an existential turn, moving from the usual courtroom dramatics to something more ambiguous and self-reflective, something that engages powerful themes like the relationship between gender and power. But it's still the visual medium reduced, restricted, placed almost solely in the service of narrative. You rarely get a shot, a composition, an edited sequence that elicits awe or astonishment or does the visual work cinema is capable of, one that produces a deeper affective resonance than the usual staid series of close-ups TV must adhere to. TV, in other words, is about the pleasures of identifying with actors and plot payoffs. These are not small pleasures and I enjoy them myself. But films are about the pleasures of seeing itself and are, therefore, for me at least, infinitely richer.

One example comes to mind: I just re-watched Joseph Losey's “The Servant” (I was peer-reviewing a very good essay on it) and it’s astonishing how much emotional and psychological power Losey conveys, not through dialogue, but through mise en scene and meticulous camera compositions. TV is capable of this, one supposes, but eschews it because the demands of the medium must answer to a different marketplace, a different consumer or viewer logic.

I realize I'm inviting a cyber-donnybrook here by confessing to membership snobbish cult. And maybe I’m just being obtuse, but it seems to me that quality TV fails one simple test – the ability to re-visit it, years afterwards, and derive even more meaning and pleasure than the first viewing provided. Re-watching the best, most moving, most memorable TV episode of “The Good Wife,” or “Mad Men,” or “Games of Thrones,” I would argue, fails this test and moreover, pales beside revisiting “The Searchers,” “Vertigo,” “Touch of Evil,” “Ball of Fire,” or “The Godfather.” Long form television like “The Good Wife” is meant to be consumed and disposed of – that’s what it makes it a serial. It’s quite unlike the visual poetry and ingenuity of films by Max Ophuls or Michael Powell, Steven Soderbergh, or Kathryn Bigelow.

In film, it should go without saying, composition equals emotion. That’s why I tell my students to experiment by watching a scene with the sound muted to see how the director frames and blocks a shot or sequence, what spatial relations the actors occupy (and therefore what psychological space they’re in) or how the editing, the lighting, and so forth, accomplishes aesthetic and dramatic effects that either enhance or actually work against the narrative.

Of course, it’s not fair to ask TV to do the work of cinema. They’re simply too dissimilar. Finally, despite their family resemblances, they’re completely different mediums. Still, I think it can be said that all TV, even the best, exists as a form that’s designed to be exhausted and replaced, whereas great films can never be exhausted, only submitted to, over and over again. If this makes me a cultist, so be it. The test of a classic is how often one can return to it and be enriched. Still, it would be all too easy to condemn Golden Age television as the opiate of the intellectuals. But the test of pleasure is something else again and while I doubt any of the Golden Age shows now can pass the former test, they obviously more than meet the requirements for the latter.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Hiroshima Mon Amour

“How did I know this city was made for love? How did I know your body would fit me like a glove? You’re killing me. You’re good for me.”

for T.

The first time I saw this film I was devastated. Yet I somehow came to think, naively, that it was pretentious, and even cynical, using the unspeakable atrocity of war as a mere backdrop for a love story. Seeing it again, after some twenty-five years, Hiroshima Mon Amour is more devastating still; time and loss have sharpened it. Pauline Kael famously panned it as a sop to liberal sensibilities, but the joke is on her. As so often happens in her prickly reviews, there’s a certain tone-deafness; the film itself is neglected in favor of scoring easy points on the smug self-regard of its art-house audience. But Hiroshima is not a film about peace, as Kael claims, but trauma and loss. It’s easy to understand, 55 years on, how she might have missed that, caught up in skewering both the adulatory reception given it by Dwight MacDonald and the sacred cows of Cold War sensibility.

The plight of the lovers, trapped in history, and the sudden impossible possibility of a resurrection (from what? from time itself?), elevates this film from a poignant account of a brief encounter to something else – the chance to redeem history’s shame and suffering. In nearly every frame, Emmanuelle Riva’s extraordinarily plastic face makes her the most beautiful woman in the world – beautiful, because so strikingly, hauntingly vulnerable, so deeply wounded and anguished by the ache for a love that still has the power to transfigure her again. In that moment – and this is the "magic" of cinema, that is, the way it cuts through time and space – she is every woman one has ever loved. Not a person at all, then, as the Architect says, but “a thousand women in one.” I can hear someone saying: but what about The Male Gaze? What about it? All cinema is about the pleasure of looking. If you don't get that, you don't get the mythic power of the movies. All the same, the great achievement of Hiroshima lies partly in how this romantic attitude is slowly dismantled so that Riva’s Actress becomes not a thousand women, but one: a singular suffering person, deranged by the memories of her dead German lover.

The lovers in Hiroshima are not so much doomed by their tragic pasts as by their hope for a future that hovers just outside their grasp. Both of them married, happily as they confirm to each other, they stand for an unspeakable truth, one that carries forward from Tristan and Iseult to Bringing Up Baby: that real love, the love of passion, the love of an incinerating spiritual flame, has nothing to do with marriage, cannot ever be sustained by marriage, has no chance of surviving marriage into something resembling permanence, and yet wills itself all the same into being through a reckless ardor, an unmasked devotion, an absolute nakedness before the other that renders everything else puny and insignificant, its sole justification asserted through a kind of majesty and delirium which cannot settle for anything less. The soul burns up in this kind of love. It asks to. For this is the damnation of secular transcendence and is its own theology, founded perversely on the same logic that underwrites the communal virtues of self-sacrifice and family. Love not as continuity, but entropy.

In his essay for the Criterion Collection edition, Kent Jones notes how revolutionary and influential Resnais’ innovations with temporal sequencing have been, liberating several generations of filmmakers to break with conventional narrative technique and play with a film’s sense of time and duration. To cite merely one simple example: the somber, lyrical, carefully matched montages of street scenes from Hiroshima and Nevers, each one cut on a slow zoom out to create a hypnotic continuity, the past reaching into the present, the present always contiguous with the past. This strategy is repeated at least one more time, in the late-night bar where the Actress reveals her tortured past to the Architect. (Is it a coincidence that each of them builds things in time, the one on celluloid, the other in brick and steel?). Duras’ fractured chronology lays bare the wounds of time: the way we live our lives continually in both the past and the present. This delicate interweaving gives incredible power to the Actress’ lament for transience: “I tremble at forgetting such a love.” For to forget is to become unmade oneself, dissolved, rendered invisible inside the relentless currents of history’s obliteration.

Redemption, if it is that, comes guardedly and provisionally in Hiroshima Mon Amour. It is not merely a case of amour fou blindly seeking to cancel all debts. For the film concludes neither with doom nor transcendence, but a collapse or return to the real as the two nameless lovers seem to see each other for the first time, re-naming the other after the sites of their natal traumas: “Hi-ro-shi-ma. That’s your name.” “Yes. Yours is Nevers. Nevers in France.” History is inescapable. It brands us all. As Cathy Caruth observes, “history, like trauma, is never simply one’s own... history is precisely the way we are implicated in each other’s traumas.” Its apocalypse, if you will, is that history will always irradiate the self with the broken shards of its shattered landscapes, its intimate and inadmissible wounds, and the bodies of the lovers, revealed in all their beauty and humility – the smoothness of their skin, their unrefracted smiles, the shyness of their gazes – must carry it, haltingly, fully aware of both their own transience and the power of love to utterly surprise and devastate them.

Perhaps then, love is a form of the weak messianic power. As Benjamin notes in the second thesis of “On The Concept of History”:

“The picture of happiness which we harbor is steeped through and through in the time which the course of our own existence has conferred on us. The happiness which could awaken envy in us exists only in the air we have breathed, with people we could have spoken with, with women who might have been able to give themselves to us. The conception of happiness, in other words, resonates irremediably with that of resurrection [Erloesung: transfiguration, redemption]. It is just the same with the conception of the past, which makes history into its affair. The past carries a secret index with it, by which it is referred to its resurrection. Are we not touched by the same breath of air which was among that which came before? is there not an echo of those who have been silenced in the voices to which we lend our ears today? have not the women, who we court, sisters who they do not recognize anymore? If so, then there is a secret protocol [Verabredung: also appointment] between the generations of the past and that of our own. For we have been expected upon this earth. For it has been given us to know, just like every generation before us, a weak messianic power, on which the past has a claim.” (Translation Andy Blunden, from

The plangent austerity of Hiroshima Mon Amour does not permit us to forget that claim or the secret protocol by which the past aligns itself to the present and the ever-imminent hope for some small measure of happiness which it might still contain.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Song in Praise of the Lord of the Mark

The Lord of the Mark rode forth with all his hosts,
horse-tailed helmets flashing and a forest of tall spears.
He got as far as Worcester and decided, um
this War against Sauron? Not really his thing.
He turned & descended on Ralph’s Chadwick Square Diner
to watch the Patriots and Broncos wail on each other.
Muster the Rohirrim.

The Lord of the Mark rode forth in glory! Das right.
To Stop and Shop to be precise.
Looking for some of that totally excellent Tuscan wheat bread.
They were out. They’re always out.
What’s a King of Rohan gotta do around here?
I mean, I gave you people Helm’s Deep already.
Fuck it. Fell deeds awake! Ride to fire and slaughter.

The Lord of the Mark is a bit testy these days, to tell the truth.
First the freaking Dunlanders with their gimme gimme gimme
and now this whiny greaseball Saruman.
I mean what the fuck? I should have drop-kicked
his ass at Orthanc when I had the chance, bitch.
Nothing’s on TV.
The Lord of the Mark will ride! Forth Eorlingas!

The Lord of the Mark has no wife. Which seems kind of weird, really.
But Eowyn makes goo-goo eyes at Aragorn and for once
you wish he didn’t have such a Numenorean stick up his ass.
But once a shield-maiden always a shield-maiden, am I right?
Unless you happen to smite a Nazgul. Oh yeah.
The flowers in Gondor are lovely this time of year.
Begone, foul dwimmerlaik!

The Lord of the Mark has a new immigration policy:
more Ents, less Orcs! Bastards make a huge mess
and refuse to clean it up. What am I, the lord of welfare?
Still, they’re rather handy for target practice.
Memo to self: order that new armor from Amazon
worked with cunning shapes and shit.
Great heart will not be denied.

The Lord of the Mark has had enough, people!
Entreaties from loyal subjects? Ruling
with a firm but merciful hand? Am I not Theoden King?
OMG freaking Erkenbrand with his Powerpoint
presentation on next season’s wheat yield. Super-lame!
Cue spears clashing on shields. “I totally need a vacation,” proclaims the Lord of the Mark.

Ride now to ruin and the world’s ending.