Friday, October 28, 2016

Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize

I was pleased that Bob Dylan received the Nobel prize in literature. I expected that if an American got the prize it would be Philip Roth, among the greatest of our living writers. Don DeLillo was in the running too, and he would have made a worthy recipient. I was surprised that it went to Dylan. A lot of people might not regard what he does as poetry or literature. There are significant reasons why he was an appropriate choice. There's no denying that he has written his share of rotten lyrics. But he's also written some really fine ones, and I wouldn't limit them to the three albums often cited as his best--Bringing It All Back Home (1965)Highway 61 Revisited (1965), and Blonde on Blonde (1966). I would add to the list of his best albums The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), John Wesley Harding (1967--an overlooked great album), Blood on the Tracks (1975), Desire (1976), Oh Mercy (1989), Time out of Mind (1997), Love and Theft (2001), Modern Times (2006), and Tempest (2012).   (Not all those albums are equally good, and not all the songs on those albums are equally good).  There are other songs scattered throughout his work that are more than worthy.  Some of his lyrics may not read like poetry, but some do.  I can't deny that some of his lyrics work better set to music as opposed to being read silently or read aloud, but to me that seems a small matter.

Calling what Dylan does "literature" may require a certain expansion of the definition. And also an expansion of the definition of "poetry."  But not much of an expansion. Maybe no expansion at all.  Where are the standard universally accepted definitions of literature, of poetry?  Given the incredible diversity of poetry and poetic forms abroad today, and widely divergent literary tastes among readers, there is room for Dylan in the mix. The argument that the orality of his songs links back to the oral origins of poetry holds some weight for me--I wouldn't go back to Homer but might mention some of the songs from Shakespeare, William Blake, and others (I read that Rabindranath Tagore, a Nobel Prize recipient, wrote some musical lyrics). I'm not equating Dylan with Shakespeare or Blake. I'm suggesting that some of his lyrics work musically in the same way as Shakespeare's. There's a lot of poetry in the American folk music tradition, even in the traditions of Tin Pan Alley. There's also an argument to be made for regarding Dylan's lyrics as a kind of public poetry that has made a tremendous impact on millions of people and that played a role in movements for social change across the world.  The sheer bulk of his work--given these other factors--is worth considering too.

Having made the argument, I wouldn't expect composers of rock or folk music to receive the Nobel Prize very often. I really can't think of anyone else in that category who would merit it in quite the way that Bob Dylan does. 

All of that said, writers like Philip Roth and Don DeLillo are far more deserving of the prize than some of the obscure winners of recent years.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Brittle Innings, by Michael Bishop

Michael Bishop's novel Brittle Innings (Fairwood Press, 1994) is about a grade C minor league baseball team in South Georgia during the World War II years of the 1940s. It's narrator and main character is Daniel Boles, an 18-year-old shortstop from Oklahoma who’s fast on his feet and a good hitter. He's got major league prospects, and in the back of his mind he's hoping that the major-league might lie in his future. Bishop has a real knack for characterization, and even the minor characters in this novel stand out as individuals. Daniel describes how he's recruited to the Highbridge Hellbenders by the team owner and how he takes the train to South Georgia and on the way is sodomized by a man who claims to his known his father in the Aleutians of Alaska. The trauma of this attack causes him to lose his voice and through much of the novel he can't talk at all.

Bishop knows baseball: he describes the plays and the strategies and the attitudes of players with skill. But this isn't just a baseball novel. Daniel Boles becomes roommates and then friends with the team’s first baseman, Henry Clerval. He's an extraordinarily tall and bulky man whose body parts don't seem to fit together in a natural way. He's got scars on his face. He speaks in an overly articulate and somewhat archaic language that reminds one more of early 19th century Britain than mid-20th century small-town America. Unlike most of the players on the team, who have to share rooms, Clerval has his own room, and only out of kindness towards the new recruit does he agree to become Daniel’s roommate.

Bishop set a big challenge for himself in this novel. He's mostly a writer of science fiction, and baseball is fairly different from science fiction. But there's a connection here because not only is this a baseball novel but it is also a sequel to Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein. How does Bishop connect these two threads? The answer involves journals and letters that Daniel discovers in his roommate's belongings. I won't say more because I don't want to give too much away. The novel has a number of concerns. Obviously baseball is a metaphor for the Great American dream. Friendship, fathers and sons, romance, despair, race, and class all to one extent or another play a role in the narrative.

Other sequels have been written to Mary Shelley's famous novel. Probably none of them is a baseball novel. The combination of Frankenstein and baseball might suggest that there is an emphasis in Brittle Innings on grotesque comedy or burlesque satire or whatever but that’s not the case.

Bishop’s novel is highly readable, well-written, always interesting and entertaining. I was sorry when it ended. Although Bishop sets up a potential sequel, I suspect we’re not going to see one. And that's all for the good. Sequels rarely work, and it's difficult to imagine where the narrative could go from the conclusion of this novel.  But if anyone is suited to write a sequel, Bishop is the one.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta, by Richard Grant

This 2015 account of a British journalist, Richard Grant, who buys a plantation house on the Mississippi Delta and moves there with his girlfriend from New York, raises interesting questions about understanding of place. Basically, if you weren't born and raised in a place, can you ever come to know it? Can you in your late 40s move to a place, spend a year there, and then write about it in a convincing way? Conversely, how well can you know a place even if you've lived there your entire life? There are legitimate arguments for both perspectives. I enjoyed this book. It's well-written. It has a familiar, chatty prose style. Although the author seems to believe that he's going to an isolated and exotic place that he knows nothing about-- he's honest about that--he goes without apparent preconceptions or biases. (My friend Hubert McAlexander says he has an “innocent eye”). In ways it might be better to go to a place with biases than without them. You need a baseline standard of measurement. Grant does his best to restore the old plantation house, stop leaks, deal with water moccasins (he shoots them), clear the yard for a garden, learn about the racial mores of the area, learn about its history, and socialize with the neighbors. He and his girlfriend learn to hunt and to dress a deer. It was tempting to find a Green Acres theme in this book—the uptown city boy who goes to live in the country and gets schooled in country ways. To be fair, Grant did not push that theme.

A gubernatorial candidate shows up in the narrative, the author plays golf with Morgan Freeman, he visits an aging blues singer who lives nearby. When it was all over, I found myself skeptical. This was not a matter of believing that somebody who's not from the South can't understand it. I don't believe that any more than I believe someone who's lived only in the South can understand it very well either. It's just that I felt an absence of authenticity. The author seemed to enjoy the Delta area and the people he met. He enjoyed telling stories about crazy characters from surrounding towns or from Jackson. He understood Southern history--he knew about the past of the region where he was living. He gives persuasive explanations for why local school systems (which are mainly for African-Americans because whites send their children to private schools) are in dire need of improvement. He notes candidly that the reasons for the poor state of public schools in the Delta lie on both sides of the racial divide, and with local and state government. He gives a chilling description of a visit to the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman. But in the end I didn't feel I'd learned much other than about this journalist’s willingness to open himself up to new experiences.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America, by Patrick Phillips

History can take many different forms. There are the histories that, relying on existing primary and secondary sources, present in hopefully coherent fashion an account of past events that we already know about. The numerous biographies of Abraham Lincoln or histories of the Civil War or histories of battles in the Civil War or biographies of generals fall into this category. We all know what the Civil War was and when it took place, or at least we should. We ought to know why it happened. But I think the great majority of people haven't really read a history of the Civil War that explains in much detail what it involved, the military campaigns, the primary figures. I've got sitting on my bookshelf like some kind of beast on my back the seven volume history of the Civil War by the historian Allan Nevins. I've always vowed that when I retired I would undertake this massive work. I said the same thing about Proust.

A different kind of history recovers the details of events that for whatever reason have been shrouded in mystery or simply misunderstood or forgotten. One such event is the history of Forsyth County in North Georgia. Specifically, Forsyth County as a region where for many decades no black people have lived, primarily because long ago following a crime against a white person which a black person might or might not have committed all the black people in the county were driven out. I heard this story in my childhood. I never knew the facts: it was just a hazy myth about a past that I didn't think about much. Patrick Phillips, a historian at Drew University who spent part of his childhood and adolescence in Forsyth County, has undertaken to recover the details of its history, to correct the myths and uncover events that have a real bearing on the current state of race relations in the United States. His book is Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America (2016; Norton). 

In 1912 an 18-year-old white girl named Mae Crow was walking home late one night when she was attacked, severely beaten, and apparently raped. She died two weeks later. Townspeople immediately concluded that her attacker was a black man. Their logic: it had to be a black man. Only black men attack white women. After a limited investigation the local sheriff and others determined that two black boys, aged 16 and 18, had committed the crime, with the assistance of several relatives. They were arrested. The two boys were put on trial, found guilty, and a month later hanged in the backyard of a resident who lived in the middle of town--in an event attended by, according to Phillips, several thousand people. His account of the hanging is particularly gruesome not only because it involves the deaths of two teenage boys but also because of the fact that thousands of townspeople supposedly attended like it was a kind of picnic and public circus.

After the executions, nightriders (local white residents) used the threat of violence and mayhem to drive every African American from the county.  Homes, barns, and other property owned by black residents who had lived in the county all their lives were burned. One African American farmer lost a 200-acre plot of land, which local white residents eagerly bought at low prices.  None of the black residents of the county was able to recover possessions or land they lost as a result.  No fair compensation was provided.

The details of the rape and murder are not known. Law enforcement in 1912 in Forsyth County didn't keep records. We can only guess why the sheriff and others believed that these two boys committed the crimes. Whether they were guilty or not, they were railroaded. There were close connections between the defense attorneys and the prosecuting attorneys. There was some possibility of collusion between these two groups. A cousin of the two accused boys was arrested as an accomplice for the crimes.  She was convinced by the sheriff (apparently) that the only way she could escape jail or worse was to testify against them, so she did. In 1912 Forsyth County was an isolated place in the foothills of the Georgia mountains. It was a difficult trip from Forsyth County to Atlanta or back. Only 10% (1,098 citizens) of the population in Forsyth County at the time was African-American. There were many reasons why the story that the sheriff and other law enforcement officials told about the two accused boys didn't make sense. What is clear is that they were convenient perpetrators. Their arrest and conviction allowed the politically ambitious sheriff to show to the townspeople of Cummings in Forsyth County that he was doing his job and protecting white people, white women in particular, from the predations of vicious black men.

To read this book is to be constantly horrified and amazed.  Phillips points out that Cummings today has many memorials to Confederate generals and other prominent whites who lived there. There's no trace of the black people who once lived in the area or of the lynchings and of the public executions of young black teenage boys that occurred in 1912.

Phillips has rescued from the past a story that most citizens of Forsyth County and of Georgia in general would probably like to remain forgotten.  The year 1912 is more than a century in the past. The people of Forsyth County today can't be held responsible for events in which they had no part and played no role. However, it's important that events like the ones recounted in this book are remembered and not hidden in clouds of Chamber of Commerce optimism that focus on progress and a glowing public image.  Phillips links the events of 1912 to a march in Forsyth County in 1987 that attracted national attention and led to a confrontation between marchers and members of the Ku Klux Klan.

All is Lost

The main and only character in All Is Lost (2013, dir. J. C. Chandor) doesn't have a name. The credits refer to him as "our man." He's played by Robert Redford. He is probably around 70 years old. He seems to be in good health, but he moves carefully and, sometimes, painfully, perhaps a reflection of his age and the aches and pains that come with it. We don't know why he's in the middle of the Indian Ocean, sailing alone, but we can guess that it's an adventure which he wanted as an old man to undertake. Maybe as a way of proving himself or simply as a kind of last defense against encroaching age and weakness. One problem with Redford's portrayal of this character is that his movements seem carefully calculated, deliberately slow. It makes me suspect that Redford himself moves more easily than the man in the film does. But that's not a major objection.

The plot of All is Lost follows the struggles of the man to survive after his sailboat is disabled in the middle of the Indian Ocean. While he is sleeping, the boat collides with a container that has apparently fallen from a transport vessel, and the container leaves a hole in the side of the boat. The water that leaks in ruins most of his electronic high-tech equipment. Although he man tries to make repairs, he manages to get the radio to work for only a few moments and even though he sends out an SOS no one seems to hear it. He’s left isolated. He patches the boat, but more damage occurs during a big storm, and in a second storm the boat turns completely over, and the mast that holds the sails snaps. Before the boat sinks, Redford’s character retrieves some food and other items and retreats to a raft.

One theme of All is Lost is technology. The sailboat is well equipped with high tech instruments, but seawater leaves them useless. The man has to read a book on navigation by the stars and learn how to use a sextant by which he tracks his slow drifting movement west through the Indian Ocean towards shipping lanes, where he hopes he’ll be rescued. Several ships pass but they don't see or hear him. Throughout the film, technology proves useless.

There‘s a basic existential theme here of a man totally isolated from the world, denied the use of the technology he would normally rely on for navigation and electricity, forced to fall back on his own resolve and physical resources. He could, at any time, give up. But until the end he presses on. With each disaster, he moves methodically and logically to overcome his situation and survive. Gradually, though, his options diminish and the odds against him increase. He knows this, but he still doesn't surrender. Existentially, he's asserting himself against the world, against the void of the world, against the likelihood of his own death. He chooses to survive and to go on, to resist what seems to be inevitable, but nature and chance don't cooperate. At times he moves with the stolid indifference of some barnyard animal—instinctively looking for solutions in the face of hopelessness.  He shows emotion, depression and grief, on a few occasions, but he never seems especially lonely.  It’s clear in the last few scenes that he’s aware of his impending fate.

The man’s situation against diminishing odds and the hostility of the natural world that doesn't really care whether he survives is analogous to the situation faced by those of us approaching old age. We can try to eat well, see our doctors, go to the gym and exercise, but in the end biology takes its toll and hurls us to our fate whether we like it or not. One’s personality, individual circumstances, efforts to resist, acts of virtue or perfidy, don’t matter.

The title--All Is Lost--suggests despair and hopelessness. That is the mood and the tone that carries us throughout the film, to the very end, but in the last 30 seconds the film hedges its bets, and compromises.

There’s virtually no dialogue. Redford’s character speaks a few words into his radio trying to send an SOS signal, and at the beginning of the film we hear him read a message to his family as what he believes will be the end approaches. Other than that, the man simply moves around, trying to keep the boat afloat, trying to make repairs, trying to catch food and collect drinkable water. It's really quite an achievement--Redford’s acting in this film. But I do have to say that the film lacks a certain dramatic interest. The events we see are the events that a man in the situation of Redford's character would probably face. They’re predictable. There are no surprises. There are accidents and mishaps, which the man recovers from, but for the most part everything happens as we would expect. The only uncertainty has to do with the ultimate fate of the character. I remember after the film had been underway for 45 minutes, with still an hour to go, thinking to myself, “he's abandoning the boat and there’s still an hour to go?” The film doesn't offer a lot of conventional payback for the viewer who sits all the way through. That's not a criticism. For the most part the film is true to the plot line and the situation it develops. it doesn't create artificial and contrived dramatic situations. Rather it simply presents events as one would expect them to happen.

All is Lost reminded me of Robert Stone’s novel Outerbridge Reach, which portrays a lone sailor in a similar situation.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence

Independence Day: Resurgence (2016; dir. Roland Emmerich) is set 20 years after humanity defeated aliens come to invade Earth. Now the aliens return. The first film had a certain coherence. The aliens arrived, they destroy cities all over the world, famous landmarks are obliterated, humanity is endangered. Various individuals band together under the leadership of the US president to resist the invasion and ultimately to destroy the mothership at the center of it all. It's a science fiction movie.

In this new Independence Day the aliens arrive in a huge mothership that is 3000 miles wide and has its own gravity.  It is so powerful that when it lands in the Atlantic Ocean it destroys the eastern seaboard of the United States. Interestingly, many of the important characters from the first Independence Day show up again. The president of the United States who is now an ex-president shows up. His daughter is a fighter pilot. A crazy scientist who has been in a coma for twenty years wakes up and immediately gets involved.  Will Smith doesn't show up. Instead, his son does. We learn that Smith's character died in a test flight some years before. Judd Hirsch shows up again. Some people I didn't remember until I saw them again show up. And there are a lot of new characters. There's an African warlord with tattoos on his arms signifying aliens he has killed. There’s a namby-pamby government bureaucrat who is timid at first but who eventually takes up manly arms against the aliens. 
I can go into detail about what happens here. But I won't. You see, I'm retired and mortal and it would be pointless to waste my decreasing lifespan describing a film like this one. I’ve already wasted time watching it. Basically, the odds are hopeless, humanity is doomed, the aliens are drilling through the Earth's crust to harvest the molten core which if they succeed will bring all life to an end. Various efforts are mounted to defeat the aliens. They fail. Ultimately, some familiar characters are instrumental in bringing about victory. Although there are a few new angles in this film (such as the arrival of a spaceship from a civilization of aliens who are enemies of the invaders—is this an X-Files echo?) there's really nothing new. The film is entertaining in the way that anything can be if you sit and stare at it long enough. We enjoy the familiar characters, we enjoy the subplots, but it's not a good film. It’s not a successful film. It's pretty stupid, even for a film that yearns to be a blockbuster.

Roland Emmerich seems to relish destruction on a massive scale.  His trademark scenes show human beings and cars and buildings and roadways and bridges being torn up from the earth and hurled through the air.  He creates a pessimistic helplessness, reminding us that we're vulnerable to the random disasters that nature and chance can inflict (earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, global warming, asteroids, comets).  You can sense him grinning and sweating as these scenes play out, his eyes bulging and his breathing shallow.  It's pornography for him.  But he's made so many of these films that the scenes of carnage are not only expected but also stripped of impact.  They're daunting and frightening, but they mean nothing.  They're cartoon nightmares.

It's interesting that, though this 3000-mile wide spaceship is threatening the earth and cities are being ravaged and destroyed and millions of human lives are being snuffed out, the subplots and character conflicts and intrigues take place, as if to divert our attention from the overbearing and insistent special effects and tidal waves and explosions and carnage.  People get caught up in hugging one another and making jokes and reviving old tensions and acting as if nothing is wrong. This happens throughout the film. People seem worried but not really panicked. No one is sitting around in a state of existential despair grieving over the earth’s destruction. Life goes on as usual with the exception of a huge alien spaceship that's about to inflict apocalyptic doom.

This struck me as odd.

Monday, October 10, 2016


The new Ghostbusters (2016; dir. Paul Feig) commits the same error as many rebooted cinema franchises. It pays too much honor to the original. It’s too much homage and not enough reinvention, reconceptualization. Ghostbusters uses the same theme song as the earlier Ghostbusters films. In loose terms the plot is similar to that of the first Ghostbuster film. Instead of a team of four men, one of whom is black, we have a team of four women, one of whom is black. The film begins with an extended exposition in which ghosts start to appear and our characters gradually come together to combat them. Once again a herd of ghosts threatens New York City. The actresses who portray the four main characters are excellent comedians: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones. They don’t play to their individual strengths. Even Kate McKinnon doesn’t have enough to do. Her wackiness is all scripted, or at least seems that way. Jones plays a bit too much to stereotype, although the film makes her smart and witty.

It’s no surprise that the film makes a point of bringing in actors from the earlier Ghostbusters movies for brief cameos: Bill Murray as a debunker, Dan Aykroyd as a taxicab driver; Annie Potts as a hotel clerk, Ernie Hudson as a funeral home director, Sigourney Weaver as an inspector for the city. None of these makes an extended appearance, but the point is made. We even see the ectoplasmic green blob Slimer, and the giant marshmallow man, or a version of him.

The film is too sluggish, the ghosts are too green, the weapons are too familiar (including their crossed streams), and it isn’t as wacky or as novel as the first Ghostbusters. It has moments of humor, but at the same time much of it seems flat and forced.  That’s too bad. With such a cast, it could’ve been better.

Early portions of the film offer a nasty but amusing satirical portrayal of higher education—Wiig plays a physics professor on the tenure track who is fired when her co-authorship of a book on ghosts is uncovered.