The Twilight Zone‘s Women in Trouble: “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine”

March 18, 2013 § 5 Comments

CM Capture 14See the first post in this series on the five female-protagonist episodes of The Twilight Zone season one for background.

“The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” (viewable online at Vimeo) is a quintessential TZ episode, and Rod Serling script, in the way that it teeters between indulgence in nostalgia and examination of nostalgia as a force in American life.  It was directed by Mitchell Leisen, an art director and costume designer who broke through and became a director of some important films in the 1930s and ’40s.  It makes perfect sense that he worked with Billy Wilder and other heavy hitters of the studio golden age; this episode would be a great entr’acte or palate cleanser for a double feature of Sunset Blvd. and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, between which it fits chronologically.

Leisen’s emphasis on costumes and design shows through in the episode, which features an aging actress (Ida Lupino) who, rather than seeking out new roles, prefers to sit in her darkened study watching her past performances, alone, wearing terrific dress after terrific dress, with a glass of something strong.  It looks great, and the flickering light of the projector is used evocatively and beautifully as a visual motif.  (You’ll have to take a look at the episode online; I’m too lazy to gif or video clip examples of these sequences at the moment.)

Early on, the episode features a gorgeous sequence in which Barbara Jean, the actress, startles her maid by emerging from behind the screen on which her younger self, playing a nurse in a golden-age war romance, is being projected.

Picture 2

The episode had begun, in Serling’s narration, with a “Picture of a woman looking at a picture.”  The reflexivity of this construction, the near-mirroring of Barbara Jean’s younger (ostensibly fictive) and older (ostensibly real) gestures, and the horror on that supposedly fictive self’s face, are the first glimpses of the theme that Serling, the episodes’ directors, and the talented actresses would carry through these five season one episodes: women mirrored, glimpsing their own objectification, their troubled place within both the episodes’ contemporary America and the frame of the viewer’s television screen, their supposed need and desire for the attention and protection of others.

Leisen does wonderful work with these frame-within-frame structures throughout the episode.  But Lupino adds her own strokes of genius (I presume, not having seen the script, not having been on the set): the way, in the sequence shown above, her hand begins and stays at her neck, while her younger self’s hand begins at the mouth and works its troubled way down to her neck, exposes her self-consciousness about aging, and about, well, her neck.  (Lupino, incidentally, would later become the only woman to direct an episode of the original TZ series.)

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The aging Snow White in the land of studio moguls.

Barbara Jean’s agent encourages her to “get [her] war paint on” and come to her studio to hear about a new part being offered to her.  Dressed like a young starlet, she is told that the part would be that of a mother.  Horrified that she is no longer expected to play the young romantic lead, she leaves in a huff, retreating to the screening room.

Seeing her leading man, now an happily aged businessman, is the last straw: Barbara Jean manages to will herself into the screen, living inside the projector in Hollywood’s idealized past, a half-person half-projection.  Now, there is more than a little of the typical 1950s plot element of a woman needing her man above all in this episode (more than in the others under discussion here).  But in the end, Barbara Jean makes her own choice, and that choice has as much to do with “the pictures getting small,” to paraphrase Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd.  The questions remain more or less the same today: Who wants to play a second-fiddle mother when they’ve been the lead?  And why can’t the romantic lead ever be older than 25?

This escape into film is set up beautifully by the episode’s beginning, in which the viewer’s television screen is filled with the film being projected onto Barbara Jean’s screen, making the fictive “real” until the camera cuts to her watching that screen.  It is somewhat interesting to speculate on how obvious it was to contemporary viewers that they were watching a pastiche of an old Hollywood film: the treacly lighting and music tend to make me think that they were partly let in on the joke, but it’s not as though material so far removed from this were uncommon on television in 1959.

Hearing the cries of her agent from within the screen to come back and live in the present, “Barbie” (as he calls her — and yes, the Barbie doll was launched earlier in 1959, and yes, this will come up again) turns back to the “camera” and camera, gazes out at him, kisses and throws her scarf toward him (or at least, toward the fictive “camera”).

Picture 3

Leisen’s background really comes together here: in this shot and others, the layering of interior set on interior set, the inclusion of frames within frames, the desire to wear elaborate, cumbersome, gorgeous costumes always, leads to a conclusion of remarkable beauty.  (It’s also possible, as an aside, to see the episode, and especially this ending, through the lens of camp and the gay embrace of glamour, especially in light of Leisen’s oeuvre.)

Barbara Jean’s decision can be seen as a choice to become an image, an object: she is blowing a kiss and throwing a scarf to messy reality, to her declining prospects for celebrity or employment, to a woman’s natural aging.  But of course she is performing as a subject, too, choosing to “live” on her own terms rather than “age gracefully.”  It’s probably my least favorite of the five episodes under discussion here, but it contains riches, and it fills me with questions about its production and how (or whether) it fits with the other episodes in Serling’s writing.

Shame and Slavery: Tarantino, Lincoln, and Shelby Foote

December 31, 2012 § 2 Comments

Now reading: The Civil War: A Narrative, by Shelby Foote; Across the Land and the Water, by W. G. Sebald.

It’s the Emancipation Proclamation’s sesquicentennial tomorrow.  Big deal, y’all.  We’re in the midst of the every-fifty-years retrospectives of our Civil War, too.  And I’m in the midst of a confluence of culture concerned with these events: in addition to my beginning of Shelby Foote’s massive narrative history (which I’m reading intermittently, between other books, probably all of next year and then some), the past week has featured viewings of Django Unchained and Lincoln.  I can’t imagine three more different treatments of slavery and its end.  To my surprise, I’m most bothered by Foote’s history (though, of course, I’m very early in this 2000-plus-page project), though all of them are problematic in their own ways.

(Inescapable SPOILERS ahead, I’m afraid.)

Django is built around a hyperbolic version of slavery — a Tarantino “movie” version of slavery — featuring a capital-E Evil Slave Master whose passion in life is pitting slaves against each other in fights to the death.  This never happened, pretty obviously, or if it did, there’s no trace of it left to history.  But Tarantino’s stated mission in this movie is to “break that history-under-glass aspect” of slavery in other historical films: he wants it be visceral, and in 2012 you have to be pretty damn brutal to get popcorn-moviegoers to pay attention.  (Although, let’s be real, it’s not like Q has been a model of restraint in other movies.  You know what you’re getting if you go to his movies, including movies about slavery.)  The clever point here is that it could have happened: it would only take one decadent, imbalanced plantation trust-fund kid, after all.

The movie has a number of queasy-making scenes, and the reasons why they were queasy-making for me in a way that nothing was in Inglourious Basterds are interesting.  White American audiences are never comfortable with equivalencies between Nazis and anyone, but especially between Nazi Germany and what we still weirdly call “the institution of slavery.”  We tend, I think, to be acutely sensitive to “exaggerations” of the horrors of slavery.  We are also terribly uncomfortable with even discussing the subject, and I don’t think Django is going to do much to change that: it’s a satisfying cartoon revenge fantasy and that’s that.  It’s especially queasy-making, that Tarantino, Q, my fellow white American, chose to end his movie by encouraging us to heap scorn upon, and cheer the murder of, a loyal house slave.  But it’s of a piece with the rest of the film: it’s motivation is completely justified rage, a desire for exorcism, not white guilt.

And but so newsflash: for all the lazily scornful talk of “white guilt,” white Americans are very bad at feeling guilty and being ashamed, mostly because we remain mostly unwilling to atone for our shames.  We are also acutely uncomfortable with any notion of our history that does not follow lovely inevitable parallel moral, economic, and political slopes to paradise.  We just assume we’re going to win and that if we’re doing so, we’re doing so the right way.  (See also Hollywood, 1900-present; utter lack of national outcry about torture, 2001-present.)  I think that, by and large, the white citizens of this country have managed to convince themselves that the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of millions of African people, the marginalization of those peoples for a hundred years thereafter, and the silencing and abuse of women throughout our history, were inevitable “lessons learned” on our path to freedom.  In other words, no cause for shame.

The best thing about Lincoln — and however much it could be seen as a “history-under-glass” movie in Tarantino’s view, it affected me far more deeply than Django — might be how it makes clear that nothing about abolishing slavery was inevitable or easy.  It was messy and sordid and very nearly did not happen, even with no Confederate states represented in the government.  We, as a nation, were fighting this idea tooth-and-claw, 150 years ago, in both the Union and the Confederacy.  We were still fighting the concept of full equality less than fifty years ago.

It is worth remembering that slavery ended seven or eight generations ago.  That means that there are elderly people alive today whose grandparents or great-grandparents could have told them about their lives as slaves.

Imagine how they might feel watching a Civil War reenactment.  Imagine how they might feel seeing a Confederate flag above a state capitol.  Imagine how they might feel about those men dressing up as Confederate soldiers, fighting to keep millions of black people enslaved.  For that matter, I don’t need to imagine it.  I know how I feel.

What would you call a German reenactor of World War II battles? I think you’d call him a neo-Nazi.  You would not find him an eccentric history buff.

If you live in the South, you hear plenty about how lovely those old plantations are.  I do commend Tarantino for showing just how blood-soaked those white plantation walls were, and for blowing the damned building up at the end.  It’s refreshing.

If you live in the South, you also still hear a lot of comments along these lines:

I am a Mississippian.  Though the veterans I knew are all dead now, down to the final home guard drummer boy of my childhood, the remembrance of them is still with me.  However, being nearly as far removed from them in time as most of them were removed from combat when they died, I hope I have recovered the respect they had for their opponents until Reconstruction lessened and finally killed it.  Biased is the last thing I would be; I yield to no one in my admiration for heroism and ability, no matter which side of the line a man was born or fought on when the war broke out, fourscore and seventeen years ago.  If pride in the resistance my forebears made against the odds has leaned me to any degree in their direction, I hope it will be seen to amount to no more, in the end, than the average American’s normal sympathy for the underdog in a fight.

That’s Shelby Foote, in the “Bibliographical Note” to the first volume of his Civil War history, published in 1958.  That’s shocking, I think.  That should be far more shocking than blood-soaked Django, than the number of times the n-word is uttered in either that film or Lincoln.  “Sympathy for the underdog in a fight”: that has been the argument for Confederate pride for 150 years, now.  Sorry: underdogs are only sympathetic if they’re fighting the bad guys.  If you’re defending your right to keep people as property, and your economy is based on concentration camps, you’re not worthy of sympathy.  You’re worthy of shame.

Shame.  This is shameful.  And we’ve done our best to forget about it, these past 150 years, and especially these past four years, with talk of “post-racial” America.  The desire to “turn the page and move forward,” our most prevalent national mixed metaphor, is just another way of saying you’d like to bury history and leave it buried.  Reading Sebald is an antidote to that: the ways in which he reveals that the merest scratch beneath the surface of his life shows all the ways in which historical atrocity affect all of our lives.

Three or More Madmen

March 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy.

Reading next: The White Guard, by Mikhail Bulgakov.

Art sometimes comes at you in waves, whether you choose it or not.  More or less unintentionally, after the jolly laffs of You Know Me Al I’ve been spending the past few weeks with art like a series of hard slaps across the face, forehand and back, the skin rubbed raw.  That image is one of the trademarks of the Japanese army in Masaki Kobayashi’s film trilogy The Human Condition.

Almost ten hours of pain, suffering, and moral anguish, it becomes, somewhere around the third of its six parts, hypnotic and all-consuming, thanks mostly to the astounding brilliance of its cinematography, editing, and formal composition, and the performance of the great Tatsuya Nakadai.  That is, unless you find it completely unwatchable.  Which is perfectly valid.

As for me, watching it while I was also reading Tolstoy — not just Tolstoy, late Tolstoy, prophet-howling-in-the-wilderness Tolstoy — left a sense of having my brain scrubbed thoroughly and left out to dry: unpleasant, perhaps, but necessary.  The works share a directness and search for fundamental principles and truths that’s more or less absent from contemporary discourse.  You can’t subsist on a steady diet of this stuff — at least I can’t — but you need some of it, or your soul dies.

As with Kobayashi’s film, Tolstoy is readable thanks to his formal genius and artistic integrity, through which he attempts to  wake his audience to the insanity of so many societal conventions.  And yet the works themselves are hardly transparent panes through which to show problems.  Madness runs deep in each work, and in three consecutive Tolstoy stories I read, it was inescapable as text or as subtext.

“The Diary of a Madman,” a short work left unfinished, shows how a man comes to a kind of holy madness — the madness of Lear and mysticism — through three lonely confrontations with death and God.  Tolstoy presents these experiences as uncanny, and they are, but they also felt familiar to me, a kind of universal:

A clean, whitewashed, square room.  How tormenting it was to me, I remember, that this little room was precisely square.  There was one window, with a curtain — red….  And anguish, anguish, such spiritual anguish as comes before vomiting, only spiritual.  Eerie, frightening, it seems you’re frightened of death, but then you recollect, you think about life, and you’re frightened of your dying life.  Somehow life and death merged into one.  Something was tearing my soul to pieces and yet could not tear it.  Once more I went and looked at the sleeping men, once more I tried to fall asleep, it was all that same terror — red, white, square.

The translation here is by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and they convey the confusing rush of words, the crisis of this uncanny sensation of coming face to face with the point of your existence.  It comes across as the kind of spiritual vomiting the narrator mentions.  But there are those lucid details, in this incident and those that follow it, those sensory impressions, and that artful recapitulation of “red, white, square.”

I wonder if this story and the novellas “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and “The Kreutzer Sonata” all function as entries in a madman’s diary on a metafictional level, as well.  If Tolstoy was trying to rid his work of decadent description and layers of meaning and present experiences from soul to soul, he could not help himself: he was too much an artist.  There is too much ambiguity in the ending of “Death of the Madman,” in the holy-foolishness or actual insanity of a character who gives away his possessions and claims to be afraid of nothing, and too much ambiguity in all of his stories.  Thank God.

“The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is certainly a moving work of art on Tolstoy’s terms (as I understand them, which is surely rudimentary).  I love the section near the end, when Ivan “lying face to the back of the sofa,” dying in “solitude… had lived only on imaginings of the past,” memories from his childhood of tastes, incidents, family.  As he dies, at the end, we read the following:

He indicated his son to his wife with his eyes and said:

“Take him away… sorry… for you, too…”  He also wanted to say “Forgive,” but said “Forgo,” and, no longer able to correct himself, waved his hand, knowing that the one who had to would understand.

Okay, fine.  God will understand.  But what about us, and what about his family, from which he feels so estranged?  Did he want to say “Forgive” because he is forgiving them, or because he wants them to forgive him?  And what are they to understand from “Forgo”?  One last message of moral disapproval from him, telling them to give up their decadence?  (It’s clear, from the beginning of the story at Ivan’s wake, that they do not.)  The story is something of a tragedy, something of a comedy in the Dantean sense, thanks especially to that “Forgo.”

Finally, there’s “The Kreutzer Sonata,” which is a feverish nightmare.  The nightmarish quality of the story comes in part from its narration by a murderer, Pozdnyshev, in a train compartment with the framing device’s first-person narrator, but it also stems from our (or at least my) confusion about Tolstoy’s stance towards Pozdnyshev, towards the narrator, towards the events of the story.  It reminded me a bit of Dickens killing off Dora in David Copperfield: is Pozdnyshev speaking for Tolstoy in his justification for murdering his wife, a kind of wish-fulfillment like Dickens’?

Whatever the case may be, Tolstoy presents Pozdnyshev as driven insane by sexual jealousy, with or without justification, and Tolstoy seems to be arguing primarily against the basic human sexual impulse.  This is so crazy that even at the time people were misreading the story as an attack on the institution of marriage.  And yet, as a document of the inextricable complications of sex, love, marriage, feelings of “ownership,” it’s an enduring work of art.  Into this work of art Tolstoy inserts another, the titular sonata, which Pozdnyshev calls “a fearful thing,” presenting a brief theory of art and especially music as neither “elevating” nor “abasing,” but “provoking.”  He equates the artist with the hypnotist, fearing that “this hypnotist [artist] should be the first immoral man who comes along.”  The stakes of art are high for Pozdnyshev, and it’s no stretch to see him as a surrogate for Tolstoy here.  He takes on the voice of a man who loses his mind and kills his wife.  He writes this story and shows us the murder occurring, using it to form a passionate argument against passion.  Moral or immoral?  Did Tolstoy create beautiful, ambiguous  works of art in his right mind, or in spite of himself?

David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 17 and 18

January 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Finished: David Copperfield.

Approaching the end now.  There have been spoilers all along — and no one can be totally surprised by the end of a Dickens novel — so I’m not going to bother to warn you.  But I guess I just did anyway.

Favorite passages:

Chapter 51:

With a slight wave of his hand, as though to explain to me that he could not enter the old place, he turned away.  As I looked after his figure, crossing the waste in the moonlight, I saw him turn his face towards a strip of silvery light upon the sea, and pass on, looking at it, until he was a shadow in the distance.

There’s a melancholy air to this chapter that seems to me to overcome its more celebratory passages.  But melancholy isn’t even the word I’m looking for, exactly; more like elegiac, or a kind of contemplative, lovely nostalgic tone.  Whatever the case, this portrait of Ham comes after the message he passes to Emily through David; it may be standard-issue Victorian romance stuff, but it got to me in this chapter.

Chapter 52:

Uriah, more blue than white at these words, made a dart at the letter as if to tear it in pieces.  Mr. Micawber, with a perfect miracle of dexterity or luck, caught his advancing knuckles with the ruler, and disabled his right hand.  It dropped at the wrist, as if it were broken.  The blow sounded as if it had fallen on wood.

Master stroke, those knuckles of wood.  Herky-jerky Heep always had something of the malevolent marionette about him, but I’d never realized it until reading this line, when he, the scheming puppet-master, is turned into the puppet, like Pinocchio in reverse: the poor, wicked boy revealed never to have been human after all.

Chapter 53:

I have no favorite line in this, the creepiest chapter in the book, a truly disturbing piece of what certainly feels an awful lot like a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which Dickens/Copperfield get rid of a wife that was a “mistake.”  Not only that, Dickens transforms the wife from a silly young girl to a saintly portrait of calm death, not only accepting that her existence is over after 20-some years, but also confessing that she’s glad David won’t have to deal with her anymore.  It’s even creepier and more cloying than it sounds.

And then he fucking kills off the dog.

Chapter 54:

“My dear,” said Mr. Micawber, with some heat, “it may be better for me to state distinctly, at once, that if I were to develop my views to that assembled group, they would possibly be found of an offensive nature: my impression being that your family are, in the aggregate, impertinent Snobs; and, in detail, unmitigated Ruffians.”

I am really looking forward to seeing the 1935 film version in which W.C. Fields plays Micawber.  He’s not really the kind of figure I had in mind while reading the book, but darned if I’m not looking forward to some of his line readings.

Chapter 55:

There was a bell on board; and as the ship rolled and dashed, like a desperate creature driven mad, now showing us the whole sweep of her deck, as she turned on her beam-ends towards the shore, now nothing but her keel, as she sprung wildly over and turned towards the sea, the bell rang; and its sound, the knell of those unhappy men, was borne towards us on the wind.  Again we lost her, and again she rose.  Two men were gone.  The agony on shore increased.  Men groaned, and clasped their hands; women shrieked and turned away their faces.  Some ran wildly up and down along the beach, crying for help where no help could be.  I found myself one of these, frantically imploring a knot of sailors whom I knew, not to let those two lost creatures perish before our eyes.

This chapter, “Tempest,” is, as the title would indicate, high-Shakespearean Dickens.  It’s nuts, in a good way, with a Lear-grade storm making manifest the grief/guilt of David in a welter of jarring, confused, hyperbolic sensory experiences, followed by this nearly hallucinogenic shipwreck, its shocking cargo, and the apotheosis of Ham Peggotty.

Chapter 56:

I went through the dreary house, and darkened the windows.  The windows of the chamber where he lay, I darkened last.  I lifted up the leaden hand, and held it to my heart; and all the world seemed death and silence, broken only by his mother’s moaning.

Sentences like these are what make Dickens seems so cinematic before the cinema: you can see the sequence of shots here, of David walking through the house, the light changing to darkness, holding the hand of his friend, with otherworldly moans in the background, as we fade to black.  Another spectacular chapter for the unrivaled, long-repressed id of Rosa Dartle.

Chapter 57:

Among the great beams, bulks, and ringbolts of the ship, and the emigrant-berths, and chests, and bundles, and barrels, and heaps of miscellaneous baggage — lighted up, here and there, by dangling lanterns, and elsewhere by the yellow day-light straying down a windsail or hatchway — were crowded groups of people, making new friendships, taking leave of one another, talking, laughing, crying, eating and drinking; some, already settled down into the possession of their few feet of space, with their little households arranged, and tiny children established on stools, or in dwarf elbow-chairs; others, despairing of a resting-place, and wandering disconsolately.  From babies who had but a week or two of life behind them, to crooked old men and women who seemed to have but a week or two of life before them; and from ploughmen bodily carrying out soil of England on their boots, to smiths taking away samples of its soot and smoke upon their skins; every age and occupation appeared to be crammed into the narrow compass of the ‘tween decks.

An excellent description of an emigrant-ship to Australia, and what a bloody nightmare that trip must’ve been in the Victorian age.  Like months and months of the screaming-baby-one-row-behind-you-on-a-long-flight treatment.

David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 15 and 16

January 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Just finished: David Copperfield.

Reading next: Anton Chekhov’s short stories (Norton Critical Edition).

Onward with my review of favorite passages in each chapter of David Copperfield:

Chapter 44:

It seemed such an extraordinary thing to have Dora always there.  It was so unaccountable not to be obliged to go out and see her, not to have any occasion to be tormenting myself about her, not to have to write to her, not to be scheming and devising opportunities of being alone with her.  Sometimes of an evening, when I looked up from my writing, and saw her seated opposite, I would lean back in my chair, and think how queer it was that there we were, alone together as a matter of course — nobody’s business any more — all the romance of our engagement put away upon a shelf, to rust — no one to please but one another — one another to please, for life.

I mean, “to rust”!  What an extraordinary thing for a man to say about his life with his wife, from the vantage of many years later.  And that wearying repetition of “one another” at the end.  The beginning of a remarkably ambivalent story of a marriage.

Chapter 45:

I pondered on these words, even while I was studiously attending to what followed, as if they had some particular interest, or some strange application that I could not divine.  “There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose” — “no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose.”

In this passage, and again at the end of the chapter, David rethinks certain statements in Annie Strong’s confession to her husband, implicitly applying them to his own situation.  I particularly like this for the way that the repetition, shortening each time like an echo, puts me in mind of the cinematic device — something you’d see in Hitchcock or a film noir, and now in endless parodies — of a character hearing a bothersome or puzzling phrase again and again, nagging at them from their subconscious, as the speaker’s head floats around their own.  (And a question: is this device, in fact, native to cinema, or borrowed from drama or literature?  Did Dickens actually have something like this in mind?)

Chapter 46:

“And theer’s one curious thing — that, though he is so pleasant, I wouldn’t fare to feel comfortable to try and get his mind upon ‘t.  He never said a wured to me as warn’t as dootiful as dootiful could be, and it ain’t likely as he’d begin to speak any other ways now; but it’s fur from being fleet water in his mind, where them thowts lays.  It’s deep, sir, and I can’t see down.”

Mr. Peggotty, talking about Ham Peggotty and his thoughts on Emily and an ambiguous “end of it” he foretold one day.  This passage reminds me quite a bit of Melville; amazing to think that he was writing Moby-Dick as David Copperfield was being written and published.  Were the late 1840s and early 1850s actually the apex of English-language literature?  What was in the water back then?

Chapter 47:

The neighborhood was a dreary one at that time; as oppressive, sad, and solitary by night, as any about London.  There were neither wharves nor houses on the melancholy wastes of road near the great blank Prison.  A sluggish ditch deposited its mud at the prison walls.  Coarse grass and rank weeds straggled over all the marshy land in the vicinity.  In one part, carcases of houses, inauspiciously begun and never finished, rotted away.  In another, the ground was cumbered  with rusty iron monsters of steam-boilers, wheels, cranks, pipes, furnaces, paddles, anchors, diving-bells, windmill-sails, and I know not what stranged objects, accumulated by some speculator, and grovelling in the dust, underneath which — having sunk into the soil of their own weight in wet weather — they had the appearance of vainly trying to hide themselves.  The clash and glare of sundry fiery Works upon the river side, arose by night to disturb everything except the heavy and unbroken smoke that poured out of their chimneys.  Slimy gaps and causeways, winding among old wooden piles, with a sickly substance clinging to the latter, like green hair, and the rags of last year’s handbills offering rewards for drowned men fluttering above high-water mark, led down through the ooze and slush to the ebb tide.

There’s more, but that’s more than enough to give you a sense of Dickens’ phantasmagoric description of the riverside at night.  No one does it better.  “Grovelling in the dust”!  “Last year’s handbills offering rewards for drowned men”!  “Ooze and slush”!  Interestingly, this is also the second chapter in a row in which a description of the London landscape serves as a portrait for a character — in the last chapter, for Miss Dartle and Mrs. Steerforth, and here for Martha, in this case Martha herself making the connection.

Chapter 48:

He appears to me to have lived in a hail of saucepan-lids.  His whole existence was a scuffle.  He would shriek for help on the most improper occasions, — as, when we had a little dinner party, or a few friends in the evening, — and would come tumbling out of the kitchen, with iron missiles flying after him.  We wanted to get rid of him, but he was very much attached to us, and wouldn’t go.  He was a tearful boy, and broke into such deplorable lamentations, when a cessation of our connexion was hinted at, that we were obliged to keep him.  He had no mother — nor anything in the way of a relative, that I could discover, except a sister, who fled to America the moment we had taken him off her hands; and he became quartered on us like a horrible young changeling.  He had a lively perception of his own unfortunate state, and was always rubbing his eyes with the sleeve of his jacket, or stooping to blow his nose on the extreme corner of a little pocket-handkerchief, which he never would take completely out of his pocket, but always economised and secreted.

I greatly enjoy the language in this little portrait, but also find it remarkably cruel, especially coming from Dickens and his surrogate David.  He speaks in the next paragraph of his desire to “get rid of him,” and does so in the paragraph thereafter, when he steals a watch.  Speaking of the fictional narrator, it is interesting to think of this as a step in David disciplining his famous “undisciplined heart,” treating the circumstances of this unfortunate kid as a bit of light comedy and a foible to be overcome in his domestic life — never even granting him the privilege of a name; speaking of this as a fictionalized autobiography, it is interesting to note the difference between Dickens’ treatment of David before he becomes an author and after, with his famous rejection of saying anything about the books David writes (also in this chapter) and a change in tone as he becomes famous and wealthy.  The last third of the book, while still terrific, is not quite up to the standard of the rest; it’s sometimes missing David the character, as Dickens (I guess) becomes reluctant to talk too much about his adult self.

Chapter 49:

“The friendliness of this gentleman,” said Mr. Micawber to my aunt, “if you will allow me, ma’am, to cull a figure of speech from the vocabulary of our coarser national sports — floors me.”

The meeting of Mr. Micawber and Mr. Dick — Mr. Micawber: “My dear sir, you overpower me!” — is hilarious to imagine.  This chapter also contains my favorite Micawber letter, in which he writes mysteriously of “wielding the thunderbolt” and the “domestic tranquillity and peace of mind” of King’s Bench Prison.

Chapter 50:

“The miserable vanity of these earth-worms!” she said, when she had so far controlled the angry heavings of her breast, that she could trust herself to speak.  “Your home!  Do you imagine that I bestow a thought on it, or suppose you could do any harm to that low place, which money would not pay for, and handsomely?  Your home!  You were a part of the trade of your home, and were bought and sold like any other vendible thing your people dealt in.”

Ouch.  Dickens seems to take a great deal of pleasure in writing Rosa Dartle’s dialogue, expressions of class and clan warfare as they can only be waged by those who are adopted into said class and clan, and David acknowledges her appeal (though earlier, before she was transformed into a demon of rage and jealousy).  It’s like cartoon-villain dialogue.  She might as well be twirling her mustachios.  But there’s such weird and interesting sex and family stuff underneath it; Rosa and Steerforth are kind of a parallel plot to David and Agnes, if you look at the plot from a Shakespearean angle.

Dickens and the Victorian Cinema

December 14, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit.

Sweeping Assertion #27: In the entire history of literature, Dickens is the consummate scene-setter, the one to go to for a seemingly off-the-cuff evocation of a place and its people.  My favorite part of this book so far has been the beginning of chapter nine, “Town and Todgers’s.”  It’s too long for me to write out, so read the first eight paragraphs or so here.

What a piece of writing!  I love the section on the fruit-vendors, and the immediately following description of the scrubby churchyard trees.  What a brilliant metaphor, comparing these lonesome city trees to “birds in cages.”  This section reminds me an awful lot of Ambergris, the pseudo-Victorian city of City of Saints and Madmen: the grit, the soot, the commerce and mystery.  I’m going to indulge myself and write out probably my favorite sentence:

Among the narrow thoroughfares at hand, there lingered, here and there, an ancient doorway of carved oak, from which, of old, the sounds of revelry and feasting often came; but now these mansions, only used for storehouses, were dark and dull, and, being filled with wool, and cotton, and the like — such heavy merchandise as stifles sound and stops the throat of echo — had an air of palpable deadness about them which, added to their silence and desertion, made them very grim.

My god!  For those keeping score at home, that’s 14 commas, a semicolon, and one marvelous dashed aside.  Gordon Lish’s head would explode reading that thing; he’d cut it up into six to eight sentences.  But it’s sentences like this, I think, that got and still get people hooked on Dickens.  It just sounds so damn good: the commas flowing along, the punctuation so perfect that you can almost hear Dickens reading it aloud.  And the flawless word choice, the alliteration and assonance (the rich, full o‘s of wool, cotton, sound, stops, throat, echo filling up space like the “heavy merchandise” of the warehouses).

Somehow in those eight paragraphs, Dickens conjures up a world, taking you from the city to the neighborhood to the specificity of a grubby boarding house.  You’re there, lost in the labyrinth, viewing these grotesque bruised oranges and soot-covered windows and the scene from the scary roof of the Todgers’s.  And he segues effortlessly from this into the domestic comedy of the rooms in the boarding house.  Amazing.  (Some writers I love because I feel like they’re kindred spirits, and they write in ways I feel I have written or could write; with Dickens, I can’t imagine writing this way.  I’ve never lost my self-consciousness enough, my sense that I’m writing.  I literally don’t know how he does it — on tight deadlines, no less, the serial numbers coming out month after month.  He seems to feel his way into the page, into a kind of state where the words are effortless extensions of his thought.  And it comes out brilliant: something close to prose poetry.)

This section reminds me of the opening of Bleak House, another of my favorite Dickens scenes and, I have to believe, the best description and metaphoric use ever of a London fog.  That was the first Dickens scene I ever read that made me sit up and realize what strange, nearly avant-garde, modern, cinematic things Dickens was doing with words.  To say that Dickens writes cinematically is misleading, in a way, because the words were important to him, obviously, and they work so well together, and are integrally important.  (The metaphor of churchyard-tree to caged-bird, for instance, is perfectly suited to literature, not cinema, and Dickens is always pulling brilliant metaphors and turns of phrase out of thin air.)

And yet it’s there, somehow, isn’t it?  Doesn’t it seem like a camera, roving over this seedy warehouse district in London, in the opening of “Town and Todgers’s”?  The dollies and cuts, the effects of sound and his placement of objects and figures (his mise en scene, if you want) like what you would expect in the opening of a (really good) movie?  And the way he cuts to the interior from the exterior?

As it happens, there are books about this.  (And I have this nagging half-memory of a quote about Dickens being proto-cinematic by a famous director — maybe Godard — but I can’t find it right now.  Arrgh.)  Here’s one I hope to take a peek at.  Intriguing synopsis, right?

Silver and Light

August 4, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Vineland.

A couple more things about Pynchon’s other world and I’ll move on.

There are two incredible extended metaphors within six pages of each other that identify the essence of that other world (which I posited as being the filmed world): it is its timelessness, or at least the illusion of same. Here’s Frenesi, suffering from post-partum depression and from memories of her fascist lover Brock:

Taken down, she understood, from all the silver and light she’d known and been, brought back to the world like silver recalled grain by grain from the Invisible to form images of what then went on to grow old, go away, get broken and contaminated. She had been privileged to live outside of Time, to enter and leave at will, looting and manipulating, weightless, invisible. Now Time had claimed her again, put her under house arrest, taken her passport away….

Frenesi as film, and although I don’t really understand the process of developing film very well, I think what’s intended here is the idea of silver grains recalled from development to the real world, and by extension the idea of Frenesi terrified that she’s given birth to something existing in an unbounded set, something that can “grow old, go away…”

Then there’s a metaphor that manages to be both gonzo and haunting: Brock Vond’s “erect penis” as a “joystick” with which Frenesi steers through her obstacle-filled world, presented as a “forbidden arcade… closing time never announced… no longer the time the world observed but game time, underground time, time that could take her nowhere outside its own tight and falsely deathless perimeter.”

Also important is an earlier passage, from the beginning of the previous chapter (p. 218), which I somehow forgot to mention before. Discussing the Thanatoids, it reads:

We are assured by the Bardo Thodol, or Tibetan Book of the Dead, that the soul newly in transition often doesn’t like to admit — indeed will deny quite vehemently — that it’s really dead, having slipped so effortlessly into the new dispensation that it finds no difference between the weirdness of life and the weirdness of death, an enhancing factor in Takeshi’s opinion being television, which with its history of picking away at the topic with doctor shows, war shows, cop shows, murder shows, had trivialized the Big D itself. If mediated lives, why not mediated deaths?

Now, there does seem to be a clear difference between Pynchon’s treatment of TV and his treatment of video games and film. I’m probably simplifying by lumping them all together into Pynchon’s other, timeless world, a kind of fool’s paradise. I suppose, however, that I should leave the last, blunt word to Sledge Poteet, cutting through layers of b.s.:

“You don’t die for no motherfuckin’ shadows.”

Adventures in the Shadow World

August 2, 2008 § 3 Comments

Now reading: Vineland.

In all of Pynchon’s books there seems to be a chapter that totally baffles me on first reading — a chapter I simply can’t follow. The last chapter I read, the twelfth (though they aren’t numbered), seems to be that chapter for Vineland. It involves, I kid you not: a Friar’s Club Roast of the Living Dead, a Luftwaffe officer in charge of eradicating marijuana fields, parrots telling bedtime stories to kids who then engage in communal lucid dreaming, a Kafkaesque dentist’s office, a scene which turns out (I think) to be an imaginary idyllic flash-forward of Pynchon’s own creation or perhaps of Prairie’s (or just through her, as she watches footage?), tiny gangsters playing pinochle on Weed Atman’s nose (seriously), the agonizing dissolution of 24fps and the People’s Republic of Rock and Roll, Weed Atman’s death or staged death, a system of secret highways called the Federal Emergency Evacuation Route, ninja moves, a plot to kill Castro, typical Pynchonian S&M pseudo-erotica, the gorgeous recurring Dream of the Gentle Flood, a trip to Mexico, commentary on Reaganomics, horoscopes about the danger of Pluto, and wiretapping.

There are so many loose ends here, I can’t imagine Pynchon tying them all up in 120 pages, though then again all of that only took 50. (I mean, read that list again! Only Pynchon.) It’s the chapter in which he’s throwing off ideas like sparks, seemingly on a strong cocktail of stimulants. But I think one of the important elements of the chapter is that it is, in large part, mediated: much of it seems to be the story as told to Prairie and/or seen by her on film, although it’s hard for me to tell how much is meant to be read this way and how much is simply provoked by that scenario, and meant to be read as the narrator’s address to the reader.

This question of mediation is important. In this chapter I think Pynchon reveals that his hints of another world, close to our own and connected to it but also very different, refer to the world created by and existing in film (now video, I suppose I should say), the 24-frames-per-second world. Most important in this regard is the confrontation between Weed and Rex. Frenesi has deliberately set it up to confront Weed with the accusation that he has betrayed the collective to the FBI (when, of course, it’s her that’s working for Brock Vond — although Weed might have been turned, too, it’s hard to say) on film, in the guerrilla style of 24fps. But the cameraman was changing rolls at the time, so the actual shooting is not filmed: there’s only sound footage and blurs, which Ditzah presents to Prairie. Here it is in the actual language; note all the complexity here, all the mediation:

Rex screaming, “Don’t you walk away from me!” the squeak of a screen door, feet and furniture thumping around, the door again, a starter motor shrieking, an engine catching, as Sledge then moved on out into the alley after them and Frenesi tried to find enough cable to get one of the floods on them and Howie got his new roll in and on his way out offered to switch places with Frenesi, who may have hesitated — her camera, her shot — but must have waved him on, because it was Howie… who emerged into the darkness and, while trying to find the ring to open the aperture, missed the actual moment, although shapes may have moved somewhere in the frame, black on black, like ghosts trying to return to earthly form, but Sledge was right there on them, and the sound of the shot captured by Krishna’s tape. Prairie, listening, could hear in its aftermath the slack whisper of the surf against this coast — and when Howie finally got there and Frenesi aimed the light, Weed was on his face with his blood all on the cement, the shirt cloth still burning around the blackly erupted exit, pale flames guttering out, and Rex was staring into the camera, posing, pretending to blow smoke away from the muzzle of the .38….

I mean, for one thing, so far as I can tell Rex was chasing Weed; so why’s Weed on his face with the exit wound in his back? For another, Weed’s a Thanatoid in the present-day 1984 of the book; either we believe he’s an actual ghost or spirit, or this was staged, and Weed escapes into an underground life. (If he’s a spirit, the Thanatoid Roast at the start of this chapter takes on a very Beetlejuice feel. And I suspect that the ambiguity might be what’s important to Pynchon: this way, he gets to kill Weed with both camera and gun, as well as allowing us to see various levels of conspiracy and intrigue, if we so wish.)

Right before the shooting, we are told that his face (as captured on film) betrayed his understanding of Frenesi’s betrayal, and that this was “the moment of his real passing,” his spirit actually seeming to leave his body. This ties in with a comment Howie made earlier, that confronting Weed on film would be “takin’ his soul, man,” a la that idea (is this myth or actually documented?) that some Native tribes believed the camera stole their soul. It might also go a way toward explaining the meaning of the Thanatoids: beings from whom the spirit has been drained, brains operating only on mediated experience, through the Tube. There’s also the comparison, recurring throughout the chapter (and book), of camera with gun. Frenesi, at the end of the chapter, says they were fools to think their cameras could stand against the Man’s guns.

Pynchon’s feelings about all of this remain difficult for me to interpret. He certainly is sympathetic to the aims of 24fps, and would seem to think that the camera is, in fact, just as powerful as the gun, if only we’d believe it. Factoring into all of it is that Kabbalistic myth that’s so important in Gravity’s Rainbow, of the world as broken vessel, shards of light scattered throughout the darkness. The last words of the chapter are “the spilled, the broken world.” DL is equated with Lilith and shadow, Frenesi with Eve and light, and much as in GR light/white is often menacing while shadow protects the good. The “broken world” could be the world broken into countless segments of film which only seem continuous, but the “real” world is what’s being talked about here, what’s broken. Perhaps the point is that they are parts of each other, just as shadow and light exist because of the other. The broken world of film could also redeem the broken world we live in, perhaps, by recording injustice and forcing outrage at the inhumane. Maybe that’s why so much of this book veers between cinematic pastiche, political commentary, and literary genre-play?

But the issue of possession is also troubling, and there’s definitely a hint of vampirism in some of Pynchon’s filmic references. Brock is in the possession business. He kind of reminds me of the Mystery Man in Lost Highway, with that camcorder attached to his eye. (The chapter before this ends with an uber-creepy scene in which Brock is staring at Frenesi in the dark, and starts laughing when she’s scared by him.) (And this further reminds me that there’s some pretty Lynchian stuff in this chapter; I wonder if Pynchon’s a fan?) The sections of this chapter on FEER and the surveillance of the ex-24fps’ers seem downright prescient, now. Brock abducts the dangerous elements from the People’s Republic and hides them in his secret camp, for reeducation or blackmail or torture, but uses cameras and those media outlets who will play along to remake this story into the story of radicals “going underground,” a “rapture below.” Bad puns. (Those who ask inconvenient questions are summarily removed from the press pool.)

PS: One more stylistic quirk I’ve noticed popping up more and more in this book. Pynchon makes a point of using an apostrophe at the beginning of ‘suckers, though the word had clearly lost the connotation that this implies in ordinary usage by the time he’s writing in and of. I think it’s a way for him to reinforce the crazed sexual desire, perversity, and brutality simmering beneath the surface of everyday life, politics as usual in the good ol’ USA.

Paying Attention

July 30, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Vineland.

“And here came Frenesi Gates’s reverse shot. Prairie felt the two women shift in their seats. Frenesi’s eyes, even on the aging ECO stock, took over the frame, a defiance of blue unfadable. ‘Never,’ was her answer, ‘because too many of us are learning how to pay attention.'”

I’m writing this on a laptop from a room on the University of Virginia’s Lawn, in a building designed by Thomas Jefferson. I’m here for the week at Rare Book School, learning about “The American Book in the Industrial Era, 1820-1940” from Michael Winship, Mr. American Book in the Industrial Era himself. And things have come together: the key, he’s told us, is being interested and then paying attention to what interests you.

Then Peter Stallybrass, a prof at Penn, gave a talk tonight on the reuse and recycling of woodcuts in the 16th-18th centuries. It was incredible in a number of ways, but it built to this incredible crescendo in which he found that a particular woodcut initial letter was used a number of times in the 1570 Bishop’s Bible, seemingly whenever an “I” or “J” was called for, only a small and crude figure intended to represent either Christ or God was excised from the initial when it was used to begin a chapter in Isaiah interpreted as a prophecy of Christ: the purely functional and formal become meaningful, political, ideological, if only to the compositor.

Looking close, paying attention. It’s something of a paradox in Vineland, with its seeming scorn for those who look too much at the Tube. And the quote above comes from Prairie, Frenesi’s daughter, watching a film of her mother, another of Pynchon’s tricks with flashback and the intrusion of past into present. (It’s another tour de force chapter, actually, and another great piece of film-writing from the guy who seemingly perfected the form.) But the fact remains that I think Pynchon’s sympathies (and perhaps pity, too) lie with those who pay attention. It sometimes drives them mad, and Frenesi was clearly wrong (she’s responding, it seems, to a question from a local TV news reporter about the dangers of her work in 24fps, a guerrilla film collective documenting injustice; she’s saying, I think, that they will never stop, that people are waking up, when of course, if they were, they went back to sleep, or faded into living death, a la the Thanatoids), but paying attention still seems to be the only way Pynchon sees to break the system.

Fun with Accent Marks and Brackets

July 16, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Vineland.

For my own faulty memory, here are a few quick notes on Pynchon’s usual bunch of stylistic quirks (“usual” in that there’s always a bunch, although they seem to change at least slightly from book to book):

-Most typically for him, language (and especially dialogue) is tortured into weird conjunctions. Some of the time they make sense as a way of capturing speech, but sometimes they just seem perverse, and impossible to actually capture in voice. He likes jamming a bunch of consonants together, and I can’t speculate on a reason why. Perhaps he really does think it captures the spoken word, which — let’s face it — would be unreadable if actually transcribed.

-A related point, his consistent use of the misspelling “didt’n” instead of “didn’t.” I suspect this is Pynchon’s way of pointing out that yes, in fact, people do often drop the “t” at the end, pronouncing more like “did’n,” although the “t” sound does seem to slip in there somewhere just before the “n.”

-He’s also using accent marks in the dialogue of Hector Zuniga, Zoyd’s pursuer, to capture the Hispanic pronunciation of ultimate syllables (like “in” in “complainin”). Surprised I haven’t seen this done before, actually.

Now we come to the quirks that actually seem important thematically, the media-related quirks:

-“the Tube.” That’s the dominant term for TV here, and it’s always capitalized. It’s a character and a presence. I have to keep reminding myself that this was published in 1990: Pynchon was fairly unusual, I think, in persisting in writing about the medium in such monolithic terms. I’m sure we’ll get some gonzo descriptions of the content of the feedings from said Tube later, but for now it seems a weirdly trite way of discussing the fact that, yes, we’re addicted to TV as a culture.

-Whenever a movie is mentioned in this book (and it happens a lot), the year in which it was released is placed after it, in brackets if the mention takes place in dialogue, in parentheses if not. This is, obviously, a weird thing to do in a work of fiction. Even weirder, Pynchon does not do this if he’s making up a movie (like “Pat Sajak in The Frank Gorshin Story,” which is funny not only because it’s stupid, but funny because Frank Gorshin played the Riddler on the campy old Batman show and Sajak hosts America’s favorite pointless campy show about riddles, Wheel of Fortune. And, while we’re here, that seems to be a semi-important illustration of Pynchon’s concern with television and media saturation in general: he obviously knows all of the backstory of Gorshin and Sajak, and he’s constructed the little joke to allow us to catch it, too, and I think, given the context of the book as a whole, that’s meant to give us pause: this over-familiarity with not even just purely escapist entertainment, but entertainment willfully constructed to be as dumb and campy and unimportant).

Why do this? The fact that he “cites” real movies and not the fake ones could be a metafictional device, a reminder that it’s all a big fiction (and there are moments when Pynchon telegraphs that it is to be read, intermittently, as fiction of an especially wacky and cartoonish sort, if not exactly campy). From another metafictional angle, it could be a weird glimpse at the narrator/author, at his obsessive cataloging of cultural objects like old movies and B-sides real and imaginary, at our culture’s addiction to the Tube and allied pastimes. While a lot of movies are mentioned so far, they’re almost all being watched on TV. This all reminds me very much of Infinite Jest (although really IJ, and really a lot of DFW’s oeuvre, should’ve reminded me of this book, which seems very much like one of DFW’s true touchstones), with its addicts, its isolated entertainment junkies, its killer videotape.

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