Thursday, July 30, 2009

Everything and Nothing



In a recent post, I acknowledged my new found appreciation and studies regarding poetry. In addition to this, I've also found myself realizing that my studies of art (namely painting, sculpture, and architecture) are even more lacking than my lowest understanding of poetics were. Even if a subject doesn't interest me, I do my best to seek out texts that offer a view or a subtopic that may catch my eye, all for the goal of trying to educate myself as much as possible. I love art, but I haven't done much studying in the area. I took two art history courses in college, and found the subject matter endlessly fascinating (the professor was another matter, but I digress), but since then, I haven't really revisited these interests, since I tend to focus on art in the form of books and film instead of canvases and oils. I dabbled in painting while in high school, and I've spent many quiet afternoons strolling the exhibitions of Chicago's Art Institute. Hoping to familiarize myself with with some names and concepts, I recently read Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity by David W. Galenson. Even at first glance, this isn't a work for someone just looking to read an overview of art history. However, any look at creativity, even when filtered through media in which I'm not completely versed, is always a welcome diversion for me. Having just completed this text, I'm at a loss for what I think of Mr. Galenson's arguments. One one hand, he provides excellent historical background information and looks into the lives of various artists, ones both universally recognized and not as famous. However, the book's theme is such that the point is made either obviously or not at all, bordering on ideas that, while important, do not necessitate an entire book.

An immediate example of this wide-ranging duality is Galenson's profession. he's a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, not an art scholar. As I read the first few pages of the book, I could not help but wonder whether this would be a blessing or a curse. A reader might prefer a book written by someone with a more specialized understanding of art criticism (however, in the author's defense, he is extremely well-versed, even if it's just on the student level), but also, his "outsider" status had the potential to work on another level. I'm not attempting to make this sound too cheesy, but I had hope that it would be a sort of journey between the author and the reader, a joint study on the dynamics between creative prodigies and wise, experienced masters. Almost immediately, however, I came very close to putting the book down for good, after reading this passage:

"My initial analysis of the auction prices for the American painters produced the puzzling result that the work of some artists (including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko) increased in value as their careers progressed, whereas other artists (including Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol) produced their most valuable works at very early ages. To understand why these age-price profiles differed so much, I began to look in more detail at the careers of individual painters (Galenson xii)."

Once I had read this, I was worried that he would take a strictly, well, economical approach to his observations, viewing the works for their financial values above everything else. Yes, famous works of art command unthinkable prices and values, but at the core of creativity, it's just impossible to hang a price tag on a piece of creativity, no matter what the medium. Luckily, my fears were temporarily eased as I read on to find this observation:

"There are many common misunderstandings of the history of art, but perhaps none is more basic than the confusion over what determines the quality of art. Although it is of course possible to consider separately the quality of a number of different attributes of an artist's work, the overall importance of art is a function of innovation (2)."

While Galenson still borders a little too closely on basing values on appearances in textbooks (many concise tables and charts illustrate the various ages and representation of artists at exhibitions and in textbooks), he doesn't focus primarily on dollar values. However, the book really does not do much except to state the obvious. Some artists peak early, while others peak later after many attempts, changes, and failures. Of course, this is just a basic summary of the text, but some of the passages and examples border on insulting. This is especially true in regard to Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

"In the two decades since she designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Lin has pursued a career as an architect and sculptor...That a 21-year-old artist could conceive an innovation that would be fully expressed in a single enormously successful project, and that would be followed by no others deemed significant by art scholars, is a phenomenon unique to conceptual art, and in this Lin's career resembles those of [Paul] Serusier, [Meret] Oppenheim, and [Richard] Hamilton (80)."

Once again, my personal views return to creativity and success as not always being visible on public platforms or general consensus. I cannot get into her head, but I highly, highly doubt that Lin would consider herself a failure just because her works following the Memorial have not received international acclaim. Even if she, to this day, desperately wants to be recognized for another design or project, this is not to say that she has failed. Galenson also seems to confuse his definitions, especially in relation to other media. He devotes several pages to writing and film, and I had to re-read his defintions of "conceptual" and "experimental."

"Susan Sontag described [Jean-Luc] Godard as a 'deliberate destroyer of cinema,' and compared his innovations to the radical conceptual departures of Cubism: 'His approach to established rules of film technique like the unobtrusive cut, consistency of point of view, and clear story line is comparable...to the challenge of the Cubists to such hallowed rules of painting as realistic figuration and three-dimensional pictorial space (158-159)."

This is his book; he's free to use any signifiers and definitions as he sees fit. However, reading the above passage, wouldn't it be much more logical to classify Godard as an "experimental" filmmaker as opposed to a "conceptual" one? Sontag's quote seems to point in the direction of 'daring' instead of 'straightforward.' I'm merely going by my own definitions. Yes, these are heavy criticisms, but this is not to say that Old Masters and Young Geniuses is without merit. Galenson provides some excellent footnotes, observations, and essential quotations both by and about some of the most lauded, yet misunderstood artists in international history. I would not hesitate to pick up a book by Galenson on art history and concepts, however, I'm not sure if he truly presents any insights or hypotheses that are groundbreaking or, in the words of Wired magazine's Daniel Pink, "audacious and controversial." Artists of all stripes have different times and ages in which creativity and production are at peaks. The problem is that Galenson attempts to classify such a broad idea into an economic logarithm, an idea so intangible that he tells us a little bit of everything about the lives, approaches, and creations of the artists in question, but nothing that makes the book's existence necessary or different.

Work Cited:
Galenson, David W. Old Masters and Young Geniuses. Copyright 2006 by Princeton University Press.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Aught Music



I just made my first contribution to the Aught Music blog, discussing the song "July, July!" by the Decemberists. Please check out the blog as a whole, but here's the link to my piece, in conjunction with a look at "California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade" by Rich Thomas.

I'm never one to pat myself on the back, but I feel that I made a decent point in summarizing the appeal (or lack thereof) of the Decemberists' music:
"However, their style is such that there is usually no happy medium. It's just as easy to enjoy their take on Victorian times, sea shanties, and Dickensian low-lives as it is to loathe such a niche."

The beauty in Colin Meloy's songwriting, and the maturation of the Decemberists as a complete unit is that they very well could have been a "one and done" band, since their music had the potential to regress into satire or, even worse, repetitiveness. This growth is best exemplified by their recent album, The Hazards of Love. Not only is this their best album to date, it's arguably one of the best albums of 2009. I look forward to seeing them live in about three weeks, and I plan to review the show as a submission to Treble Zine. Stay tuned.

Since the Aught Music blog is a collective, I don't plan on devoting singular posts on Chicago Ex-Patriate whenever one of my contributions is published; to me, that would go against the whole spirit of a long-running collective project. So from now on, I'll just post a brief update on the right-hand column whenever I have a write-up posted there.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Toshiro Mifune: The Face of Acting

During a recent viewing of Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, I recalled a slightly hazy memory from my last screening of Rashomon, about six years ago. I would venture to guess that this happens more often than not for most film aficionados--a burst of memory from a terrific line or dialogue or a particularly well-acted, well-shot scene. I was around twenty when I saw Rashomon, and was awed for typical reasons: the beautiful cinematography, the frankness of the plot, and the twisting narrative structure. I do plan on watching it again very soon, and I'm positive that I will be just as affected by the scene now as I was at that time. I don't recall the dialogue, but the scene I've been alluding to depicts the interaction between Toshiro Mifune's criminal and his rape victim. His hands are tied behind his back, and he squirms and laughs excitedly in her direction. At this time, there are more Mifune films that I have not seen as opposed to ones that I have seen; however, that particular moment in Rashomon spoke volumes about his acting talent and placement among the best in international cinema through the years. The force of his laugh, his violent movements despite being tied up, and the complete lack of redemption of his character would be virtually impossible to re-create with anyone else.

I didn't realize this at the time, but that scene transcended a line between great acting and an almost unnerving embodiment of the character. In addition to possessing a gifted range of acting, Mifune was endowed with a face that seemed to express more than any other actor or actress could hope for. Acting is a skill that can be practiced, honed, and matured; a face that adds nuances and seemingly metaphysical realism is a gift of genetics that Mifune used to his advantage, always with stunning results. While what I'm discussing is more or less intangible, this is not to be confused with the definitions of Method acting, a style that gained prominence in 1950s American theater and cinema. The Method involves an actor or actress "becoming" a given character, to the point of obsessively studying and losing oneself in a performance. The examples are well-known in film history, whether it involved Johnny Depp living with Hunter S. Thompson to prepare for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or Joaquin Phoenix insisting on being called "Mr. Cash" on the set of Walk the Line. In my opinion, this has nothing to do with Mifune's disappearance into his roles, since my argument is that he developed his characters naturally through both acting and facial ranges. However, watching him portray a vile rapist or a conflicted samurai, a novice could not be faulted for assuming that Mifune used variations of Method acting.

Keeping with this physical idea of the face, a wildly different yet semi-related example would be Julia Roberts. I very well may be in the minority with this opinion, but I've never considered her to be a great actress. She's not bad by any stretch, but for me, there's always a subconscious understanding of "That's Julia Roberts on film" instead of "that's [insert character name]." However, it's virtually impossible to deny the radiance of her face, no matter which one of her films is being discussed. Again, this is not on the same level as Toshiro Mifune's portrayal of emotions by expression, but there is a connection. Roberts can always be counted on to be the center of attention on film, because she's blessed with a face that demands said attention. Mifune's face also demands attention, because it always had the opposite effect. It could twist wildly from one emotion to the next, whether conveying depression, complete anger, disgust, or even happiness. Even at his happiest on film, there's almost always something darker lurking behind his sneering smile, especially when playing a faulted character.

Let's return to his performance in Throne of Blood, Kurosawa's retelling of Macbeth in feudal Japan. Granted, this is not a textbook interpretation or adaptation, but consider the characteristics of Macbeth in William Shakespeare's play. In the course of the acts, Macbeth is heroic, noble, cunning, delusional, homicidal, emasculated, and eventually meets a tragic demise befitting the true definition of "tragic hero." Just looking over these generic adjectives, Mifune's portrayal of Washizu in Throne of Blood gives film audiences the most realistic interpretation of Macbeth, even with its fantastical, supernatural elements. Screencaps simply do not do these ideas justice, but they help to some extent. Mifune gives a legendary performance in every sense of the word, but his face does just as much acting as his words and body language. When Washizu first encounters the spirit in the forest, he is skeptical, cautious, and challenging. However, Mifune's eyes give just a tint of fear and uncertainty about what the character is actually seeing. This is fear that, on the outside, would not be admitted or completely apparent in a Japanese warrior returning from a battle.



The scenes between Washizu and his wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) are not only excellent imaginings of the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, but they also skew understood notions between men and women, social and gender-based understandings of the time that more or less stated that women were inferior to men. In Macbeth, there's no doubt that Lady Macbeth calls the shots, keeping her husband under complete control. In Throne of Blood, Washizu presents the air of being in control, but it's obvious that his wife gets her way when she sees fit. Mifune's eyes depict a wariness and a reluctant, atmospheric submission to Asaji's whims. Washizu is all bravado and leadership, but he simply has no way around Asaji's ideas of further advancement. There are a few scenes in which it appears that he will lash out at her, either physically or verbally, but no matter how agitated Washizu gets, there's a barrier that he cannot cross. His face drops, and his eyes dim powerfully.



I could not find a screencap that fully illustrates the power and range of the banquet scene; however, the death scene below helps to show Washizu's descent into madness, loss of power, and ultimately defeat, which has its first stirrings when he sees the ghost sitting to his right. In the banquet scene, Mifune does an astounding job of showing the guilt and insanity of Washizu's mental state. There could have been the potential to over-act, yet the more Mifune puts into the scene, the more powerful it becomes. His eyes widen, his teeth are bared, and his facial muscles seem to stretch. The fear and doubts that his eyes merely hinted at in the film's beginning now register without any doubt or reservation. Washizu is at his end, both emotionally and physically. Before being ambushed by his subjects, he animatedly assures them of his (supposed) victory, yet this pride and assurance is clearly mixed with the delusions and madness that have not gone away. Mifune's face does everything to show this. Look at his eyes in the death scene below. In my opinion, no other death scene in cinema history could have been better portrayed. Mifune was more than just a terrific actor. He was a man who could become a character by sheer force of his body language and facial tics, almost to the point of his acting merely accompanying his body. The combination of his talent and physical makeup remain unmatched to this day.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Blushing Less



A brief note before I get into thoughts on Roberto Bolano's poetry. In the past, this post would have immediately been filed under a "Casual Friday" heading. While I do plan on keeping that theme available for more light poetry topics, I'm more embarrassed by it than not. In the past few months, my scope, appreciation, and understanding of poetics has increased dramatically. While I do not claim to be any kind of expert or scholar in this field, I've found myself reading much more of the form as well as writing my own at a pretty substantial pace. These feelings began to take shape after I wrote my last poetry update on John Berryman. Not only was I not pleased with the quality of my analysis, the idea that I had casually lumped an esteemed poet into such a flippant categorization ultimately meant that I was at best missing the point and themes of the poems, and at worst I was demeaning the writer and not taking the proper time to engage myself with the nuances of various poetic forms.

Now, keeping this personal criticism going, I felt even worse about all of this after I read The Romantic Dogs, the first English language collection of Roberto Bolano's poetry. I've written about and studied his novels in great depth, with great time, and given that Bolano considered himself a poet above all else, perhaps I should have stumbled across this collection a lot sooner. A few months ago, I wouldn't have given a second thought to referring to the late Bolano as a "novelist." Even after more studying of his life and works, I might have upgraded (only to prolong the inevitable) this to referring to him as a "writer." Now, with a decent understanding of his mission, along with a few weeks of reading his poetry, it's more respectful, not to mention apt, to refer to him as a "poet." This is how he referred to himself during his lifetime ("The poetry makes me blush less"), so, at least for myself, that is how I will signify him, from here and into the future, encompassing any writings and essays in which he is my subject, poetically or fictionally.

With all of this said, I could not help but notice a striking similarity between some of the subjects of his poems as well as the subjects (and obvious/latent themes) in the novels of his that I have read. I'm not attempting to make the fatal mistake of blurring of confusing the distinction between a writer's poetry and fiction, especially given that Bolano clearly found fiction to be a sort of lesser art, a lesser canvas for his messages and talents. However, I found it virtually impossible to NOT think of the novel The Savage Detectives as I read the poem "The Lost Detectives."

"Detectives lost in the dark city.
I heard their moans.
I heard their footsteps in the Teen Theater.
A voice coming on like an arrow.
Shadows of cafes and parks,
Adolescent hangouts.
Detectives who stare at
Their open palms,
Destiny stained by their own blood.
And you can't even recall
Where the wound was,
The faces you once loved,
The woman who saved your life (Bolano 47)."

Considering that the novel focuses on two wandering, conflicted, yet self-assured poets through their travels and exploits in Mexico and beyond,

"Shadows of cafes and parks,
Adolescent hangouts"

acts as a brief glimpse into the dizzying scenes in The Savage Detectives. On the flip side, as I write this, I'm also reminded of Juan de Dios Martinez, the earnest yet equally conflicted detective featured in the novel 2666.

"Detectives who stare at
Their open palms,
Destiny stained by their own blood."

Of course, making these kinds of simple connections might seem almost too easy, but to me, it shows how Bolano's devotion to poetry was manifested into his novels. While I'm still in the process of reading his complete bibliography, I can only imagine that his other novels can be tied into some of his other poems, not limited to the pieces that appear in The Romantic Dogs. However, to respect his work as a poet, I'd like to close with a look at one of the poems as its own piece, separated from any connection to his fictional works.

"RAIN"

"It's raining and you say it's as if the clouds
were crying
. Then cover your mouth and speed up
your step. As if those emaciated clouds were crying?
Impossible. So then, why all this rage,
This desperation that'll bring us all to hell?
Nature hides some of her methods
in Mystery, her stepbrother. And so, sooner than
you think, this afternoon you consider
an afternoon of the apocalypse, will seem nothing but
a melancholy afternoon, an afternoon of loneliness lost
in memory: Nature's mirror. Or maybe
you'll forget it. Rain, weeping, your footsteps
resounding on the cliff-walk. They don't matter.
Right now you can cry and let your image dissolve
on the windshields of cars parked along
the Boardwalk. But you can't lose yourself (83)."

While the gender of this poem's subject is left undefined (and at first glance irrelevant), it's not out of the question to think that the subject is a man. Bolano was adept at, whether through stereotype (crude, unemoting thugs) or reality (a gifted ladies' man who happens to be bisexual), masculinity in all its forms. However, ultimately the gender is not important, since the happenings are universal. Melancholy, rainy afternoons can fill anyone with a sense of foreboding, dread, or keen awareness. The imagery of Mystery being Nature's stepbrother is almost perfect, and could very well nod towards the sometimes dysfunctional relationship between science and spirituality (perhaps I'm reaching just a bit, but I feel there's some stock in that reading of the line).

No matter who you are or how you view yourself emotionally, there are some days and moments in which a simple thing (such as a humanized view of a cloud, in this instance) can trigger deeper, more complex thoughts. Ultimately, this is the genius of Roberto Bolano the poet. He can accurately depict all things local, political, and creative, yet at the core of these ideas is the simplicity and the complexity of all human emotions.

Work Cited:
Bolano, Roberto. The Romantic Dogs. Copyright 2006 by The Heirs of Roberto Bolano. Translation copyright 2008 by Laura Healy.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Partly, Beautifully Cloudy



This is probably the most cliched title that I could have come up with for this essay, but no matter. Given the complexities of the novel Cloud Atlas, it's probably fitting that a sub par title can join with a serious essay. David Mitchell's 2004 epic is one of those rare novels that has the potential to appeal to both academic circles as well as specific genre enthusiasts. Pick a style, pick a genre, and chances are that the book touches upon it in some capacity. Historical fiction readers will enjoy the narratives of Adam Ewing and Robert Frobisher. Mystery lovers will be enthralled by the modern conspiracy tale involving journalist Luisa Rey. BBC comedy fans will likely eat up the comic, horrific misadventures of publisher Timothy Cavendish. Also, but not finally, science fiction readers will appreciate the dystopian visions in the chapter "An Orison of Somni-451."

Or not. There's also the very real possibility that readers of these genre niches would not want anything to do with Cloud Atlas, especially since it's a sin to even think about reading the varied chapters apart from the other ones. Despite my earnest claim that the novel has wide-ranging appeal (I still hold this to be true), it's a complex work that cannot be digested by flipping to and fro. The chapters (which actually work as novellas) need to be read together, despite the fact that they get separated into halves, thanks to some creative, painstaking connections between the various characters and eras. Even the most studious reader will, on first reading, miss at least a few of the plot points, not to mention finding the occasional one challenging. No matter how long this essay turns out to be, I will undoubtedly miss some of the major ideas and passages, but I'm hoping that what I do cover will stir up interest in this book, especially for people who are not familiar with it; I was one of those people up until a month or so ago.

"The novel as series of nested dolls or Chinese boxes, a puzzle-book, and yet--not just dazzling, amusing, or clever but heartbreaking and passionate, too."- Michael Chabon, from a quote on the back of the paperback edition.

As much as I admire Mr. Chabon, his blurb tells nothing about the novel, not that this is entirely his fault. However, it tells almost everything that's to be expected, too. Such is the mystique of Cloud Atlas. It bounces from time to time, from style to style, matching anything as good as Thomas Pynchon, as well as the intentional melodrama of Romantic-era fiction. Every change and jump in style is calculated and timed perfectly. The first halves of the tales tell enough to leave the reader aching for more; the second halves close out perfectly, whether their endings are jarring or peaceful.

"The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" opens the novel, and it's probably the greatest example of Mitchell's fluency in the history of literary styles. This journal of everyday life, intrigue, and culture clashes in the sixteenth century is said to be influenced by the works of Herman Melville. Personally, I found the pacing, language, and even the punctuation reminiscent of Aphra Behn's Okonokos.

"Amidst nebulous quilts & summery pillows I lay, in a bedroom in San Francisco similar to my own. A dwarfish servant said, 'You're a very silly boy, Adam.' Tilda & Jackson entered, but when I voiced my jubilation, not English but the guttural barkings of an Indian race burst from my mouth! My wife & son were shamed by me & mounted a carriage. I gave chase, striving to rectify this misunderstanding, but the carriage dwindled into the fleeing distance until I awoke in bosky twilight & a silence, booming & eternal. My bruises, cuts, muscles & extremities groaned like a courtroom of malcontent litigants (Mitchell 19)."

Later on, Mitchell depicts the relationship between white colonists and Natives, spanning from flat-out racism to acts of bravery and charity that break down racial barriers. The reader has to take the bad with the good, and Mitchell crafts this section with indications that the ending will turn out either happily or poorly for Ewing. This balance is nearly perfect, since either ending is a very real possibility heading into the final pages.

The letters of composer Robert Frobisher to one Rufus Sixsmith compose "Letters From Zedelghem," and ultimately my favorite passages among many in Cloud Atlas. The letters stem from the early 1930s, and it's almost a shame that they weren't actually written by a novelist from that era. If Cloud Atlas had been written seventy years earlier, I'm fully convinced that Robert Frobisher would be included with some of the most well regarded heroes in international literature. At first glance, he's a gifted composer, seeking an apprenticeship with an eccentric master composter. However, as his letters take shape, we see his independent spirit, his lack of patience for stupidity, and a wonderful twist of humor, especially given his background and social surroundings.

"At the van De Veldes' town house, the girls were arranged on the stairway to greet me in ascending order of age--half-expected 'em to burst into song, and stone the crows. Sixsmith, that's what they did. 'Greensleeves,' in English. Syrupy as humbugs. Then Mme. v.d. V. pinched my cheek as if I were a homecoming runaway and said, owlishly, 'How do you do-ooo?'....all girls posses a thoroughly unjustified self-confidence. A v. long sofa sagged beneath this family of porkers...She asked this: 'Mr. Frobisher, are you well acquainted with Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street?' Well, thought I, the day might not be a complete wreck. A girl with a taste for irony most conceal some depths. But Marie-Louise was serious! A congenital dunce (448)."

The ending of his segment is unsettling, especially given that, underneath his intelligence and bravado, his needs and desires were no different than anyone else's. However, the writing style employed by Mitchell would, as its own novella, compose one of the best epistolary works ever. Even though we're only reading one side of this correspondence, the mix of emotions, details, and black humor are captivating. Mitchell's characters have a tendency to reappear in his other novels.I can only hope that Robert Frobisher has appeared before, or will appear in a future work.

I found the sectionsset in the future ("An Orison of Somni-451" and "Sloosha's Crossin' An' Ev'rythin' After") the most challenging of the novel, and part of me wanted to blame my own lack of reading in this genre. However, another part of me wonders whether or not these chapters were supposed to be somewhat vague in order to leave (in the context of the novel) some of the plot points open for various interpretations. These sections are worth multiple readings (as is the rest of the work as a whole), but despite my confusion, not having every event in these chapters explained in my mind did not detract from my overall understanding and appreciation. And, even with leaving two of the key chapters virtually unmentioned, what should be the "overall understanding" of Cloud Atlas? The events are connected via names, relationships, manuscripts, and a recurring comet-shaped birthmark. These connections are constantly hinted at and mentioned, linking everything despite the invidivuality of the tales. Perhaps this does warrant Chabon's use of the nested doll metaphor. The text is a whole, yet is begging to be broken down. The segments are vastly unique, but unequivocally more than just the sum of its parts. Mitchell didn't create a mystery or an intentional labyrinth of a novel, yet the blending of genres might hint to that on the surface. His talents as a writer are staggering, yet there's no subliminal winking or acknowledgement of this, a la Dave Eggers, for example. Mitchell simply tells the stories as best he can, and in the process created one of the best novels of this young century.

See also: Terrance Terich's brief introduction to David Mitchell at Blogsmos.

Work Cited:
Mitchell, David. Cloud Atlas. Copyright 2004 by David Mitchell.