Monday, April 30, 2012

April in Review: Cinephiles vs. Movie Geeks, Nostalgia for the Filthy 1950s, and Posthumous Bolano

I only have time for a post per month now, in this white elephant of a blog. In this month's post, detailing what my brain has been up to in April, The Beatles are now as old as Mozart; Doris Day sings about stalkers; and Roberto Bolano makes me hallucinate.

Aesthetic Prejudice

The other day I came across this children's reference book, published by Doris Kindersley, on Great Musicians, which pictures The Beatles on the cover, along with smaller illustrations of Mozart (that's the little guy in the periwig, right?) and Billie Holiday. It occurred to me that this was the best answer to the high-low conundrum posed in my last post. With time it doesn't particularly matter in what sense an artist is considered “great,” or whether that sense is decided at the time or at any point afterwards. Less than 50 years after their advent, The Beatles are now “classics”; they have been canonized; as part of their education, children must be taught about the contributions of the great rock musicians and of jazz musicians as well as classical musicians to culture. To children who would not have heard of any except through their education they must all look the same: 50 years ago or 250 years ago, it's all old.

I'm not saying The Beatles don't belong there, either; I'm simply curious about the process by which pop culture gets incorporated into the cultural canon, since it's not by a rationally-formulated critical consensus based on a systematic, comprehensive aesthetic theory. For example, I've noticed on the internet that movie fans frequently come in two flavours these days: “movie geeks,” who are interested in contemporary movies (going back to, say, the 90s); and “cinephiles” (or movie snobs), who are interested in “the classics” (or, Hollywood and European cinema up to the mid-60s) and Modernist and avant-garde cinema up to the present, and tend to scorn geek favourites. It would be easy to argue that movie fans who are interested in classical Hollywood cinema are not interested in contemporary movies because the two have almost nothing in common: classical Hollywood movies were based on popular (and often dreadful) novels and plays and influenced by theatre; contemporary Hollywood blockbusters are based on comic books or YA series and influenced by video games. But then, classical Hollywood movies have nothing in common with Modernist and avant-garde movies, either, and “cinephiles” (myself, for example) tend to be open towards both, whereas they are less open towards contemporary blockbusters (although this, like everything, is generational, and probably changing). So why do the snobs appreciate both but scorn comic book adaptations? (For my part, despite being a superhero comics fan as a child – yeah, I know, that's no geek cred at all – I disliked The Dark Knight because it was heavy, ponderous, hard to follow, no fun – not even the Heath Ledger parts – and had none of the basic, dramatically powerful psychological interest that the superhero genre – including such extensions of it as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and some manga – shares with Greek tragedy. From the favourable reviews I glean that The Dark Knight was a “morality play,” but I can't be that bothered about superhero moral dilemmas, so if the introduction of weighty moral questions into comic books is considered an advance in the form, I apparently prefer it in its immaturity.)

One huge difference between the play-or-book-based movie and the comic-based movie or the movie based on a YA or sci-fi or fantasy print franchise is that it is often assumed by cinephiles that the movies, by some mysterious alchemy that no one has ever systematically formulated, aesthetically elevated trashy novels and plays: although themselves (arguably) a kind of trash, classical Hollywood movies transformed the detritus of the traditional literary arts into a kind of art (“American art,” like rock and roll, although the British quickly appropriated the latter as they never managed to do with the former). Whereas now the source medium has overtaken the adapting medium; the former comes with devoted fans who are disturbed if the movie is unfaithful to the source (or who sometimes view both movies and books as “products” of the franchise to be separately considered and possibly enjoyed on their own merits). David O. Selznick anticipated the future of moviemaking when he adapted the pop classic Gone With the Wind into an epic blockbuster, realizing that he had to please the novel's rabid fan base. What I wonder about are movies like The Notebook. If many film critics are willing to consider the Bette Davis soap Now, Voyager, based on the bestselling novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, a “great woman's picture,” why isn't the same respect extended to contemporary woman's pictures based on bestsellers? Really, I'm asking the question of myself. I love the woman's pictures of the 1930s and 40s starring Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Barbara Stanwyck, but I wouldn't even consider watching a contemporary movie in the same genre. Maybe I should put my irrational prejudices to the test by comparing The Notebook (which I've never seen) to a couple of well-received “postmodern” woman's pictures that I disliked, Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven and Stephen Daldry's The Hours. But I'll probably just rewatch Now, Voyager instead.

Like A Good Girl Should

My YouTube find for this month is this Doris Day song, “A Guy Is a Guy,” which conjures a creepy stalker scenario in a manner reminiscent of Morrissey's unsurpassed masterpiece of lyrical economy, “Suedehead." According to the fascinating, and also blessedly brief, Wikipedia entry, the 1952 song, written by Oscar Brand, was a cleaned-up version of a bawdy song, “A Gob Is a Slob,” sung by WWII soldiers, which was in turn based on an early 18th century British song, “I Went to the Alehouse (A Knave Is a Knave)." I don't know about you, but I don't want to know anything more than this about any of the songs; as with the Day and Morrissey songs, I prefer to let my imagination run wild based on the few provided evocative tidbits.

Brand's version ends respectably with marriage, which made it appropriate for Day's squeaky-clean image. But then, as with other great American pop icons of the 1950s and early 60s, Day's image is a lot more complicated than the way it was officially presented and is now recalled – incorporating the shadings found in this song, for example. Pillow Talk (1959), with Rock Hudson, is the tragedy of Clarissa and Lovelace reimagined as a sex farce that's all the smuttier for its surface cleanness, showering the viewer with double entendres and treating them to scenes like the one where Hudson and Day, in split screen, talk in their respective bathtubs with their naked feet seemingly pressed together (and tubs seemingly joined). The prurient battle-of-the-sexes question, unchanged in the over two centuries between Clarissa and Pillow Talk despite the new female independence, is whether Day, the single career woman guarding her virtue, will be tricked by Hudson into giving it up, or whether she will domesticate him into marriage. The audience, naturally, roots for both while fearing for Day even as we now that she will, by the code of the time and rules of the genre, win in the end.

One of the strangest pop culture artifacts of the 50s I've ever come across is this Colgate Comedy Hour performance by Jerry Lewis of a song called “Never Been Kissed,” which also slyly undermines his squeaky-clean image (which the song appears to celebrate) with a bawdy, and possibly queer, subtext. In the performance, Lewis trades on his juvenile/asexual/queer image (a “queerness” that wouldn't necessarily have been associated by the majority of the audience with then beyond-the-pale homosexuality) by selecting elderly men as his backup singers and giving them the names of elderly women. Then, as he gives his trademark deconstruction of performance through lip sync, he uses them for a running gag of turning to them indignantly whenever the comic sound introduces the chorus and he thrusts his hips forward (anticipating, before The King had even appeared on Ed Sullivan, Morrissey's queerification of Elvis's dangerous pelvis in his Top of the Pops “Shoplifters of the World Unite” performance), as though suspicious of their designs on his rear end. (Anality is a key feature of some of Lewis's best comedic deconstructions of class and gender, as in the spike over the college's sign that spears the telephone repairman, the ultimate victim of the electric nervousness beneath the Lynchian placidity of all-American Milltown, in the opening sequence of The Ladies Man,, and the outrageous bit of business in The Disorderly Orderly, directed by Frank Tashlin, in which Lewis as the clinically hysterical, menial orderly of the title plugs a vacuum into his ass to perform his hospital chores.)

The narrative of the song itself involves a racy woman who pretends to be virginal; Lewis's gender-crossing identification with her is evident not only in the way the song fits his official persona but in the brief flirtation with cross-dressing when he dons a wedding veil to narrate her wedding. In the curious denouement, the fallen woman who's found a way around the double standard gets her just deserts when it turns out that she's “married a man who has never been kissed” – in other words, a man like this one?

The American 1950s, as the last moment when innocence was valued in pop culture icons, is a rich and strange era for the student of pop culture to examine. As pop culture has become more permissive, it has also become, paradoxically, cleaner, since restrictions on permissible sexual content (and, ostensibly, on permissible sexual behaviour) no longer tempt performers and writers to subversion, with the result that, overall, there's less convention-flouting content in mainstream pop culture. When Beyonce tells her ex that if he didn't want her to go out and flirt with new guys he “shoulda put a ring on it,” she's relating a narrative that many women of her generation can, apparently, relate to, but there's are no additional layer of meaning, no examination or satire of sexual mores or gender roles. Somehow we're sexually freer than ever, yet at the same time more conventional than ever.

Roberto Bolano, Ghost Author

Reading Roberto Bolano's posthumously published novels since 2666 sometimes inspires in me the fantasy that these are in fact the works of ghost writers who are playing around in the vast, vague field of “the Bolanoesque,” as V. C. Andrews's ghost writer has continued to churn out novels employing the themes she established in the two series and one stand-alone novel she wrote or started before her death. What do Andrews, the trashy Gothic novelist, and Roberto Bolano, the darling of the literary avant garde, possibly have in common? Well, they both became famous as authors late in life, Andrews at the age of 56, with the publication of Flowers in the Attic in 1979, and then died young, Andrews at 65. (Bolano, as I understand it, became famous in the Spanish-speaking world with the publication of The Savage Detectives in 1998, when he was 45; he died at the age of 50.) They were also both obsessives in their fiction, Andrews's circling around themes of incest, rape, family romance, and a traumatic female coming-of-age, Bolano's around themes of rape, fascism, and the idea of art. Andrews's ghost writer, Andrew Neiderman, can perform variations on her themes but can't capture the claustrophobia of her fiction – of her Gothic imagination. (As a female Southern writer whose experience outside her family and imagination was severely curtailed by incapacitating illness, she reminds me of Flannery O'Connor – in her different literary mode.)

My fantasy is no doubt encouraged by the fact that Bolano has two English translators, Natasha Wimmer and Chris Andrews, which exacerbates the wide stylistic differences in these posthumous works. The first two I've read are The Third Reich, translated by Wimmer and apparently written in 1989, and Monsieur Pain, translated by Andrews and apparently written in 1981 or 1982. The first is an exercise in seeing how little event a novel can sustain, the second an invention-packed surrealist riff on the death of a poet by hiccups in Paris (and half the length of the first). It should come as no surprise that I preferred Monsieur Pain.

In a review of Monsieur Pain in The Guardian, Ursula Le Guin (a literary connection that heightens Bolano's genre-bending incorporation of sci-fi and fantasy elements into I guess what we have to call his avant-garde fictions) objects to the “surrealistic devices” of the novella, calling them “overly cinematic.” Her phrasing made me wonder how a novel can be overly cinematic, while her observation made me further reflect on why I – in common with many reviewers – want to call Bolano's writing cinematic at all. In his Guardian review of The Third Reich, Giles Harvey notes of the far-spaced and abortive “events” of the novel, “As in a film by Antonioni, what we are left with – what we are forced to get by on – is atmosphere,” and, I think, correctly pinpoints why the novel is unsuccessful: the menace that Bolano seemingly intends by the events is not communicated to the reader. We know that the author feels they're portentous, but the atmosphere isn't there on the page.

I also thought of Antonioni while reading The Third Reich, as well as - another “atmospheric” Modernist filmmaker, Roman Polanski – particularly his early work about relationship angst between eccentric couples, Cul-de-sac. But Antonioni and Polanski are still interested in meaning, whereas in The Third Reich, Bolano seems to be on a quest to erase any trace of meaning as he writes. Bolano's Nazi obsession shows up in the titular war game that the protagonist, Udo Berger, plays with the scarred burn-victim pedal-boat purveyor with whom Udo has become inexplicably obsessed, but the reader never learns what, if anything, is at stake (actually or symbolically) in their game, and the anti-climactic climax, centred on the pedal-boat structure that also has a great and mysterious meaning for Udo (but not the reader), is equally baffling. Maybe Bolano is going after something like Jane Bowles's achievement in “Camp Cataract,” which is also full of symbols that only have meaning to the eccentric protagonist, but whereas Bowles's story builds up to a crisis for her isolated, neurotic protagonist, Bolano's tendency in The Third Reich is to defuse the crises that seem to loom around every corner. It almost seems like the classic writer's error of not being able to bear anything too awful happening to one's characters – combined with a sensibility that supposes that horrors are everywhere, lurking in the most mundane details.

While reading Monsieur Pain I thought of Polanski, again (The Tenant, this time, though only briefly, related to one episode where Pain interacts with the woman next door in his apartment), and of avant-garde cinema generally, especially Lynch. In what I guess can be taken as the novella's climactic scene, there's an episode where Pain encounters an apparition in the labyrinthine corridors of a hospital at night that so strikingly parallels Laura Dern's corridor wanderings towards the end of INLAND EMPIRE and her encounter with a figure there that it contributed to my hallucination that I was reading the work of a ghost writer (writing after INLAND EMPIRE, that is) who was checking off the list of references that make up “the Bolanoesque”: David Lynch, check. And earlier in the novel Pain reads Bolano's oft-mentioned favourite book, Schwob's Imaginary Lives, which also seemed suspiciously on-the-nose. As far as being “overly cinematic” goes, again with shades of INLAND EMPIRE, at one point Pain goes to see a movie that seems to anticipate Rivette's avant-garde deconstructions of melodrama in the 1970s, although the novella is set in the 1930s (and the name “Rivette” occurs separately in the novel); Bolano blends the dream-like, absurdist narrative with his description of the dream-like, absurdist film.

What makes Bolano's writing “cinematic”? All I can come up with for an answer is that his imagination draws on tropes that have been explored by avant-garde and horror films (or both) rather than prose fiction. At least in his minor novels, he seems to be more influenced by film than by other writers, despite having a greater passion for reading than any other contemporary novelist I'm aware of. As for his major novels, 2666 made me think of Lynch, although I couldn't pin it down to more than a “shared sensibility,” and The Savage Detectives employs the documentary form for its middle section. Does this influence mean that Bolano's writing is “overly cinematic”? That – all I can make of Le Guin's comment – he isn't taking advantage of the elements specific to the novel? Le Guin seems to think that narrative or “story” is an essential component of the novel, but Bolano's quarrel with conventional narrative can't be the reason his work is cinematic, since many would make the same claim about film. Unless, again, what she's thinking of is that film has been more open to experiments with narrative than the novel (although, since I know very little about the experimental novel, I don't know whether that's true). And that is presumably because film – like poetry but unlike the traditional novel – can be a (non-narrative) series of images. Since these images are directly visual (not visual images rendered in language, like the images of poetry), many have been tempted into making pronouncements about the relationship between movies and dreams, which seems to make film an ideal medium for surrealist experiment. However, although one may prefer a conventional narrative or a story that plays with narrative (or either, as long as they're done well), there's no inherent reason why a novel, which is to say, a long work of prose fiction, has to have a conventional narrative. Story can be a process of making meaning; or a long work of prose fiction can do something else entirely while defeating our desire for story to make meaning. There is no guarantee that the frustration of the reader's desire for meaning will result in something profound; but then there's no guarantee that the fulfilment of the reader's desire for meaning will, either.

For more on the extremely interesting political background to Monsieur Pain, which I was unaware of while reading it, and which earns Le Guin's grudging respect, see the Quarterly Conversation review by Stephen Henighan, “Fascism, Art, and Mediocrity.” I am, however, taken aback by Henighan's confident assertions about what Bolano has to say about “mediocrities.” I would be hesitant to confidently assert what Bolano feels about anything, certainly based on his fiction; perhaps Henighan is eager to demonstrate to those who feel the way Le Guin does about experimental fiction that Bolano can be interpreted – and easily. But I have no idea where Henighan is coming from when he writes, “Art dies two deaths here: in the form of Vallejo, who is killed (perhaps) by fascism, and in the more painful – literally – death that is suffered by Pain, who fritters away his creativity and enthusiasm in a life of increasing irrelevance.” As though there is some kind of lesson to be learned from the novel, or Pain's (hallucinatory) experience; in fact, Henighan actually speaks of a “lesson” in the last line of the review.

I think all of this is sheer projection on the part of the reviewer, although it goes to show that deliberate, elaborate ambiguity does not necessarily stop readers from feeling that the meaning and interpretation of a story are secure. I think that Bolano is interested in his mesmerists, as he's interested in his Nazi writers of the Americas and war game fan culture, because he's fascinated by fringe figures, interests, and practises. Bolano's eccentric fringe figures aren't failed artists – or, for that matter, for the most part successful ones – but figures for the artist, at once mundane and fantastic, possessed by their obscure obsessions. However, Bolano doesn't do much with Pain's interest in mesmerism; like the Polish curse in INLAND EMPIRE, it's simply there as part of the atmosphere of irrationality and horror. Whatever its political backdrop, the novella itself is a series of set-pieces of surrealistic horror, and Bolano's attempt to bring together the backdrop and Pain's bizarre adventures in his encounter with a Harry Lime-like figure seems halfhearted indeed. Le Guin is far too generous: this really is all a bunch of nonsense, and compared to his best works, which are virtually indescribable in their originality, it comes off as derivative, almost like an homage to capital-S Surrealism. Apparently the hiccups and the intervention of the mesmerist are factual (there was a real Monsieur Pain), which shows the sort of real-life surrealisms – the absurdities and mudanities – that tickled Bolano's imagination in connection with the atrocities of history and the lives and deaths of great poets. 

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