Thursday, September 29, 2016

Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War (2016; Anthony and Joe Russo) considers some of the same issues that Superman versus Batman: Justice Begins explored. The various superheroes we see in this film – too many of them to name – have been adventuring all over the world defeating villains and preventing disasters and doing what you’d expect. However, in the course of all their good deeds, they cause havoc and mayhem: buildings fall down fairly often. Explosions.  Big fires.  Lots of casualties and deaths. They’re fairly reckless. The result is that world leaders get together and decide to set up an organization that will review the actions of the superheroes and authorize their sorties out across the globe, rather than allowing them to make up their own minds. Some heroes are willing to accept supervision. Ironman is one. Others, notably Captain America, resist. There are legitimate arguments in support of each side. The disagreements among these super human people begin as mere differences of opinion but gradually deepen and become more serious until ultimately all the super fellows go to battle with each other. Thereby causing disasters and deaths. Building seem to fall down fairly often. Explosions.  Big fires.  Lots of casualties. Many reviewers and audience members saw this as one of the better Captain America films. I didn't. It was tedious. It seemed to go on forever, especially the Civil War battle sequence. What was the point? When it was over, I was gladdened.

The trouble with these films is one-upmanship.  Each film must be bigger and more epic than the previous one.  Each villain must be worse that the predecessor.  The mayhem and carnage has to be more stupendous and apocalyptic than ever.  Ultimately we reach a point of absurdity.  In this case, the super heroes turn on each other, which suggests that however super their powers might be, they’re not really very smart.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes

The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes (Knopf, 2016), is a fictional biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich.  It’s also a history of the era of Joseph Stalin and his efforts to regulate the arts and the individual.  Control meant not only censorship but also liquidation—composers and others in the arts who were seen as hostile to the Party were imprisoned and often murdered.
Shostakovich has to struggle with his own inclinations as an artist—the products of environment, upbringing, genetics—and the expectations of the government.  Does he rebel openly (in which case his likely fate would be death and an early end to his career) or does he accede to the government’s demands, forfeiting his artistic integrity? There were many who chose one path or the other. Or does he take a middle ground, negotiating between the two extremes? Is there any way to maintain integrity in such a situation?
The novel occurs in three sections: the first concerns Stalin’s reaction in 1936 to Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.  Up until that point a successful young composer with many prospects as well as a university professorship, Shostakovich sees Stalin and other government officials at a performance of the opera and then notices halfway through that they have left the theatre.  Reviews in Pravda and other newspapers make clear that Shostakovich has lost favor, that his opera has been accused of excessive formalism and elitism, that it is not suitable for the “people.” He loses his University position, performances of his music are banned, and he lives in fear for his life.  Much of this section takes place as Shostakovich waits on the landing outside his apartment in expectation of the arrival of police to cart him off to prison and worse. The second section involves a Peace Convention in the 1950s held in the United States where Shostakovich represents the Soviet Union.  He has gradually regained some favor with the government. Stalin calls him up to invite him to represent Russia.  After much demurring, Shostakovich agrees when Stalin offers that his music can again be performed.  At the convention speeches are read in Shostakovich’s name (speeches he didn’t write) which attack composers he respects (mainly Stravinsky) and express views he doesn’t hold.  He expects his own passivity, his own failure to deliver the speeches, to somehow free him of responsibility of their contents. He considered the experience humiliating.  The third section focuses on Shostakovich in old age.  He is pressured to join the Communist Party, an act that would signify his conflicts with the government have ended.  He finally does join, under duress, after the government agrees that his Lady Macbeth opera can again be performed-- after some changes (including a name change).
Throughout his career, although he writes great music to the end of his life, Shostakovich is increasingly compromised.  In the end, living in a government-provided apartment, the recipient of numerous government accolades, allowing the government to write newspaper articles in his name expressing views he does not hold, he has become a tool of the government.
Shostakovich sacrificed his own personal integrity for the sake of an artistic career.  He does have the career.  He does write great music, but at a cost.
On the one hand The Noise of Time suggests that no person could survive the Stalin regime without compromise.  It considers the dangers of attempting to negotiate the extremes between giving up one’s life to preserve one’s integrity (and family and friends) and completely giving oneself over to Stalin’s government.  Shostakovich, for the middle and late portions of his career, manages this negotiation by acquiescing. 
In the novel, Shostakovich’s encounters with government are expressed as encounters with Power.  The novel considers the difficulties of maintaining one’s identity in any situation where Power is involved—where one’s personal inclinations (artistic inclinations, may be) conflict with the expectations and pressures of Power.  The Stalin regime and Shostakovich’s experience of it may be an extreme example, but it is still representative of the point: the conflict of the individual self vs the collective, whether the latter is a government, a company, a religion, a university, or whatever. In this sense Shostakovich is the representative modern man.
The novel’s critique of Stalinism and its war on the individual is devastating. It novel is densely and beautifully written.  It’s point of view is external.  It focuses on Shostakovich as the main character but provides contextual information.  It’s not first person but rather told through an authorial third person narration, so that we see Shostakovich from his own point of view but also in the larger context of his biography and of his age.
The Noise of Time as I take it is a phrase that means music—sounds made with rhythm and structure.  It also refers to the passage of time and the changes that occur as the years pass.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands

Stephen King frequently alludes to popular film and literature.  The third volume of the Dark Tower series, subtitled The Waste Lands (Grant, 1991), frequently alludes to Eliot’s The Wasteland: in epigrams, language, and the thoughts of characters.  Direct quotations or paraphrases are common.  King mentions or similarly quotes from other writers as well.  Often these allusions connect to some aspect of the plot and theme.  In general, of course, Robert Browning’s poem “Childe Roland” is fundamental to the nature and substance of the Dark Tower series and its characters.  These allusions show how King seeks to ground his novels in a larger literary tradition, to insist on their inclusion in that tradition even though they are of a genre (fantasy, terror, the supernatural) not always admitted to it.  They also show King’s desire to make clear that his fiction has substance.  He must have been an English major.  Allusions to popular films also occur.  On occasion these filmic and cinematic references seem gratuitous, but often they play an important role.
If the second volume might have seemed slow at points, this third volume, which is longer, is certainly more full of action and events.  Notable among them are the appearance of a 50-foot tall robotic bear, one of the Guardians of the twelve portals, and the struggle of Roland’s group to bring the boy Jake, who ostensibly fell to his death in the first volume, back into the world of the Dark Tower series.  The arrival of Roland and crew in the city of Lud is also notable.  Can you think of a novel in which there is a train named Blaine (Blaine the Train) that loves puns, slaughters the citizens of an entire city, and wants to commit suicide?
King frequently departs from the main narrative to tell the backstory of characters.  In this volume he tells Jake’s story.  As with other some other digressions, the Jake story threatens to grow tiresome--until it becomes clear that it’s aimed towards an event of growing significance.  King’s handling of this event, with two characters in wholly separate worlds gradually becoming aware of each other, passing information back and forth, and finally meeting together in a climactic moment is impressive.  It’s the best writing so far in this series.  Another excellent section of the novel relates the efforts of the gunslingers to rescue Jake from a kidnapper later in the narrative.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Writing Was Everything, by Alfred Kazin

Writing Was Everything (Harvard Univ. Press, 1995) is based on a series of lectures by Alfred Kazin for the William E. Massay Lectures in the History of American Civilization in 1994 at Harvard.  It’s a literary memoir in which Kazin recounts his experiences as a literary critic, the writers he has known, and their work.  Although he discusses his acquaintance with a number of writers, he gives his main attention to their work.  This is not a memoir that takes pride in how many names it can drop or how many claims it makes for the importance of its writer.  Kazin expresses unhappiness in his introduction his with the advent of literary theory and of literary criticism that serves a social purpose.  He believes the value of literature is intrinsic, not extrinsic.  He believes a critic’s main duty is to introduce readers to good literature in a way that is not prescriptive (he dislikes the New Critics who are, he feels, too focused on making readers like a narrow brand of writing).  He is particularly irritated by an MLA session he attended in the late 1980s on the subject of Emily Dickinson and masturbation. 
Kazin suggests that many of the great writers he admires, from Dickinson forward, are torn by religious skepticism or by anguish over the void created by the decline of religion. He sees the 20th century as a time of great tumult when traditional values and western civilization seemed at risk.  World War II was its central event. Although Kazin was a lifelong liberal, the writers important to him come from all points on the spectrum, from Joyce and Eliot to Dickinson, Bellow, Faulkner, Robert Lowell, Flannery O’Connor, and others.  He seems especially impressed by Hannah Arendt and Simone Weil.
Were he alive today he would not be happy with the state of affairs.

The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book (dir. Jon Favreau, 2016) is a third adaptation of the Mowgli stories of Rudyard Kipling.  The basis for the film is four stories, two from The Jungle Book (1894) and two from The Second Jungle Book (1895).  Disney produced an animated version of these stories in 1967.  This second adaptation by Disney utilizes the “Bear Necessities” song from the earlier film.  What I especially liked about this film was the character Baloo, voiced by Bill Murray, and a giant ape, King Louie, voiced by Christopher Walken.  These two characters, especially Murray’s character, are worth the entire film. Murray and Waken in these roles do little more than play themselves, or at least their cinematic personae, which are well suited to their parts.  Murray as the lazy, overstuffed bear who manipulates Mowgli into retrieving honey from a beehive high on a cliff is funny.  In spite of himself, he grows to like the “man-cub.”
In general terms, the film is fairly faithful to the Kipling stories.  The animation is ultra-realistic.  This is both a virtue (it’s fun to watch) and a fault (a certain level of imagination and fantasy is removed).  This isn’t a film that young children should necessarily watch—it has moments of violence and death, and Mowgli is constantly in danger from the vicious tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba).  For adults, on the other hand, once the novelty of the animation wears off, things move rather slowly.  Mowgli’s friendship with Baloo, his kidnapping by a tribe of monkeys (with King Louie as their king), and a frightening scene in which Mowgli is nearly seduced and consumed by the python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) provide moments when the film becomes more interesting. 
Compared to Mowgli, the animals in the film are over-sized, much larger than the boy, much larger than they would be in reality (but does reality matter?).  Although this was probably done to make them more interesting, it seemed deceptive to me.  Then again, this is an animated film based on fictional stories about animals who talk.
Although Mowgli lacks the physical prowess of the animals in this film, he uses his resourceful human intelligence to devise various schemes that serve the best interests of the jungle.  He’s a good imperialist.
Warner Brothers has slated release for a live-action version of The Jungle Book in 2018.  What a surfeit of delight.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three, by Stephen King

In the second volume of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, The Drawing of the Three (Grant, 1987), exposition continues.  The Gunslinger finds himself on the shore of an immense ocean and encounters a series of doors or portals, each to a different year in New York City.  Injured by an encounter with a “lobstrosity” which crawls out of the ocean, the Gunslinger must find medicine in New York that will heal the infection he suffers.  He also encounters and, essentially, recruits two individuals who become his companions on his journey to the Dark Tower.  He trains them to become gunslingers, a role to which they were already destined without knowing it.
King is a macro writer.  In every scene, in every encounter and conversation between characters, he seems compelled to provide details, an overabundance of them.  I admire his imagination and his ingenuity.  What he does in his novels, especially in the Dark Tower series, the deeply imagined alternative world of the Gunslinger, its history and mythology, its geography and wildlife, is not something most writers could manage.  What I find lacking at points is some sort of filtering mechanism, an editorial willingness to control and shape his narratives more than he does.  Shape, for King, is the power and impulse of the narrative.  It dictates its own form.  In this second volume, he moves back and forth among three main characters and their individual histories and circumstances.  He moves forward, episodically, from one portal to the next.  Each passage through a portal brings us to a sequence of events that, drawn together into the general mass of the novel, move us forward.
I can’t help but think that beyond the acquisition of two companions for the Gunslinger’s journey, the second volume has been marking time, getting the various components of the series in place so that the narrative can move forward in the third volume.

Does what this second volume accomplishes justify its length?

Friday, September 16, 2016

Blood, Bone, and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews, by Ted Geltner

I always sensed in Harry Crews’ writing a fundamental insecurity. I guessed that it stemmed from his upbringing as a sharecropper’s son from Bacon County of South Georgia. Class insecurity left him prone to other insecurities—his biographer describes his resentment of people with PhDs, for example.  He had been turned down by the University of Florida creative writing graduate program and completed an MA in education instead, which qualified him for college teaching jobs. He blamed himself for everything that went wrong in his life, including the drowning death of his four-year-old son and the failure of his marriage. He wrote for a decade before he was able to publish his first story.  Crews must have seen his life as a continuing struggle, with the world pitted against him.  It always seemed to me in his work that he was not only trying to prove himself but that he was also trying to shock, to put it all out there in your face--his embittered and alienated darkness and world view, freakish characters, grotesque violence and humor, and despairing sensibility. In his personal life, these insecurities took form in drug dependency, horrific alcoholism, and general dysfunction.  Crews’ alcoholism was crippling.
In the biography Blood, Bone, and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews, by Ted Geltner (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2016) offers up a number of reasons for the kind of writer Mr. Crews became. It is an amazing story, and Geltner has done a thorough job of tracing the life from Crews’ ancestors to his death. This is not a literary biography: it does not dwell in detail on the work, it does not offer extended interpretations of the fiction, though it does generally summarize plot details and gives information about how the novels came to be written.  What it does do is provide a thorough account of the life of the man who wrote the work and of the circumstances that produced him. Geltner lays the facts out in fascinating and sometimes gruesome detail. His book is well written, insightful, intelligent, and a major contribution to literary studies of the 20th century South.
Geltner explains how Crews developed a considerable reputation in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s—such writers as Joseph Heller expressed admiration for his work.  Elvis Presley wanted to portray a film version of the main character of Crews’ novel The Gypsy’s Curse (1974).  He was befriended by Madonna and Sean Penn.  Penn wanted to film Crews’ novel The Knockout-Out Artist (1988) but never managed to do so.  By the end of the last century, however, with changes in the publishing industry and in the general cultural environment, he found himself without a commercial publisher.  Today many of his novels are out of print. 
Given the violence, the bizarre and often grotesque characters, the sexual excess, and the overall misanthropy of his work, it’s not surprising that Crews today is languishing.  This biography suggests, by the mere fact of the anguished and incredible life it recounts, of the books that life produced, that we should revisit Crews’ writing.
As a college professor at the University of Florida, Crews frequently missed classes (especially later in his career) and slept with as many students and many women in general as he could manage. “Predator” doesn’t seem an inappropriate label. As Geltner notes, most of his faculty colleagues were willing to look the other way or to make excuses for him.  He would not survive long in the current world of higher education.  Geltner doesn’t make excuses for Crews and instead simply reports what were apparently the facts. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

An American Cakewalk: Ten Syncopators of the Modern World, by Zeese Papanikolas

I don’t see American Cakewalk (Stanford Univ. Press, 2015) as a systematic study.  Obviously, it covers some of the same territory as Louis Menand’s American Metaphysical Club, but with a different method and different goals.  While Menand traces the development of American intellectual thought from the mid-19th century forward, Zeese Papinokolas argues that some of the greatest American writers and thinkers and artists developed from colliding and conflicting cultural forces, and that their attempt to navigate these forces, to walk their own cakewalk, enabled them to become what they became.

Papanikolas’ choice of the cakewalk as the organizing metaphor of this book works well enough, but it is an entirely arbitrary choice.  He uses it, cleverly, too cleverly at points, to build his discussions of the ghost dancers, of Dickinson, of Henry and William James, Stephen Crane, Abraham Cahan, Thorsten Veblen, Jelly Roll Morton, Charlie Mingus, and others.  These are the figures he has chosen to illustrate his thesis, but they are entirely arbitrary choices.  I find his discussion of them interesting, sometimes entertaining, and forceful—sometimes overbearing.  The conclusions he reaches aren’t always convincing.

His prose is strong and forceful but it has a tendency to run away with itself.  He has a tendency to summarize or paraphrase some of the people he writes about—I found this especially so in the chapter on Stephen Crane—where he literally paraphrases several of Crane’s stories.  I’m not sure what this achieves, except to take up space.  I have to say that as learned and widely read as Papinokolas seems to be, I don’t trust his method.  He doesn’t cite opposing views.  He doesn’t allow for opposing readings.  It’s not that he insists on his own readings—he just doesn’t seem interested in alternatives.  I think he has brilliant insights, but his book seems at points contrived and manipulative.  I don’t think he necessarily takes us to the heart of his subject.

It’s difficult to fully appreciate this book if you aren’t familiar with the figures he writes about.  I wish I knew more about ragtime music, Jelly Roll Morton, and Charlie Mingus, for example. One virtue of the book is that it introduces to unfamiliar readers writers and artists whose work is worth seeking out.  The chapter on Emily Dickinson was especially good.  And I recommend especially Henry James—the older you are, the better you can appreciate him.  He’s not for 25-year olds.

One conclusion a reader might take from this book is the idea that the strength and power of American experience comes from its diverse populations of people, cultures, and influences.  This view is contrary to the notion that the American nation is fundamentally Anglo-Saxon or even more generally European in its origins.  This is a point to consider in this year when American diversity is cited as a danger to American power and so-called greatness.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Hail Caesar

Joel and Etan Coen revel in other texts.  Their films are fundamentally allusive.  At points the references are so subtle that you wonder whether they’re making the connections they make solely for their own pleasure.  Hail Caesar (2016) is an exercise in textual references to Hollywood films of the 1940s and 50s.  The film itself has the feel of a noir detective mystery.  The central character is one Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a “fixer” whose job is to solve all the problems that come up in a film studio.  He’s also considering a job offer from Lockheed, where he would have a more lucrative and less stressful work.  He’s a deeply moral man who goes to confession once a day and considers himself sinful because he can’t manage to quit smoking and lies to his wife about it.  He feels guilty for not spending enough time with his family.  Yet he works in a job whose primary purpose is to camouflage and hide from public eyes the scandal and immorality the film industry encompasses.  All the noir atmosphere and frame of the film accomplishes is to set a mood and then mostly to abandon it, returning now and then to renew it and then abandon it once again.  This is basically the main method of Hail Caesar: continually establishing and reestablishing itself as a film in a genre that it immediately denies itself the privilege of inhabiting.
The title refers to a film being made within the film, a Biblical sword and sandal epic, a “Story of the Christ” (cf. Ben-Hur).  A number of set pieces from various films proliferate.  There is an Esther Williams-type swimming pool ballet, an On the Town-type dance and song piece in a bar, a singing cowboy film, a domestic drama.  You can connect these scenes to actual films, the actors to real actors and actresses.
The focus of Hail Caesar is on the kidnapping of lead actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) by a group of disaffected self-proclaimed Marxist screen writers.  They’ve been schooled in Marxism by a college professor, a Professor Herbert Marcuse, who I suppose is the actual fellow himself.  They kidnap Whitlock and hold him for a $100,000 ransom.  In the process, they convert him (briefly) to Marxism, though he is not intelligent enough to know what it is.  One of the group explains to Whitlock how they’ve all worked without adequate compensation but that at least they’ve managed to implant subtle Marxist references in the films they scripted.  Later, we see the filming of the final scene of “Hail Caesar” (the film within the film), which is made after Blaine is rescued from his captors. In the scene, Christ gives a speech from the cross which is fundamentally Marxist.  This is what I mean by a reference or moment so subtle that only the Coens themselves might “get it.”
One might be tempted to see Hail Caesar as a tribute to the classical period of Hollywood films.  It is that, but it’s also highly ironic and satirical.  It ridicules while it pays tribute.  It agrees, basically, with the Marxist premise of the disaffected writers, on the one hand, yet it finds them absurd and full of self-interest on the other.  No one in the film actually takes what they are doing seriously.  They may be advancing their careers or producing films that will make them all a lot of money.  But they don’t actually think in terms of producing something of value, such as art.
In essence, the “Caesar” of the title is a reference to the film industry, and not a fond reference so much as an obvious one.  Everyone bows down to the industry. The first words you see in the film at the end as the credits begin to roll are the names of the directors, Joel and Etan Coen.  They implicate themselves in their own imbroglio.
The film is entertaining because of some characters (especially Mannix and Whitlock, but also the singing cowboy) and because of the set pieces, but as a whole it seems to meander and never really takes off.
My favorite scene involved a rabbi, Catholic priest, Greek Orthodox priest, and a protestant minister whom Eddie Mannix gathers to consult as to whether the religious content of “Hail Caesar” will offend viewers.  He calls the story of Christ a “swell story” and assures the clerics that “the Bible is terrific.” The meeting results in a hilarious argument in which no one can agree on anything: who God is, whether he can be shown on screen, how to refer to him, whether he has a son, whether he is angry or full of love, whether he is one god or three-in-one gods, whether the question is relevant at all. Insults ensue.  I was reminded of faculty meetings I’ve attended.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Black Hole Blues and other Songs from Outer Space, by Janna Levin

The interest of Black Hole Blues and other Songs from Outer Space, by Janna Levin (Bodley Head, 2016),  comes not from the discussion of gravitational waves and colliding black holes but from the drama of colliding human egos.  I’ve sat on academic committees for forty years, in one role or another, and have always been disturbed by how inefficiently they function, or dysfunction.  Intelligent people with good ideas don’t always work well together.  The problem is not characteristic of the academic world alone—based on what I’ve read about research and management and problem solving in other walks of life, it is endemic and probably an inherent aspect of the human condition.  Black Hole Blues chronicles the history of the scientists who came together in uneasy collaboration to conceptualize and develop the technology that made possible the detection of gravitational waves for the first time in September of 2015.  Levin examines each of the major scientists in turn, especially Rai Weiss, Kip Thorne, Ron Devers.

The history of the development of LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) is a fifty-year history of dysfunction, ambition, vision, and hard work--of gradual and stuttering progress towards developing a concept, building the first devices, convincing others (university administrators, the National Science Foundation, Congress) to fund it, designing and building and rebuilding the devices that made the final detection.  Levin explains, briefly, the science surrounding gravitational waves and laser interferometry, but her focus mainly falls on the human drama of LIGO—those of us interested in academic gossip and university intrigue will appreciate this aspect of the book.  Levin makes clear her belief in the importance of LIGO and gravitational wave detections.  She explains concepts clearly—she’s a physicist at Barnard College of Columbia University, so she understands them. But the book falters in conveying this importance to the reader in a convincing way.