Friday, March 26, 2010

The Kid's Break

(NOTE: This is my submission to the Steve McQueen Blog-a-Thon, being hosted by Jason Bellamy at Cooler Cinema. Please click on the above link for more information and for further links to the other submissions. The Steve McQueen Blog-a-Thon runs through Saturday, March 27th.)

I think it's appropriate to open this post with a sample of one of my favorite Simpsons dialogues:

Marge Simpson (trying to make Homer realize that he doesn't know about his son's interests): Who's your son's hero?

Homer: Steve McQueen?

Marge: Homer, that's YOUR hero!

When notes or conversations arise about Steve McQueen's beginnings, the first two names that understandably come up are The Blob and the television show Wanted: Dead or Alive. Further fame would come with his more memorable roles in the 1960s and 1970s, but a little-discussed aspect of his start is his first teaming with John Sturges in 1959's Never So Few. Perhaps the fact that this film doesn't garner much attention is because it's a movie weighed down with limitations and a generally poor script. Starring Frank Sinatra as an Army Captain leading a group of rebel soldiers in Burma, the film might have gained more attention as the first Rat Pack vehicle before 1960's Ocean's 11; Peter Lawford co-stars as an Army doctor, and the role of Corporal Bill Ringa was intended for Sammy Davis, Jr. However, the role went to Steve McQueen. Perhaps this story is apocryphal, but Sinatra told John Sturges to "give the kid a break" with specific camera shots and scenery. As a film, Never So Few is important on a pop culture level as opposed to great cinema. The teaming of the Chairman Of the Board and the King Of Cool doesn't get the attention it deserves.

Never So Few tells the story of Tom Reynolds (Sinatra), a Captain leading a band of O.S.S. operatives and Kachin rebels in the early part of World War II. After an ambush leaves some of his men dead, Reynolds is given leave, and he's picked up in India by driver/Corporal Bill Ringa. We first see Ringa as he's waiting for Reynold's plane to arrive, and it starts a recurring theme of excellent shots of McQueen that seem to last just a few seconds shorter than anticipated, especially if it's true that McQueen was supposed to be featured more prominently:

Even from the beginning, Ringa's charisma is evident. While picking up Reynolds and Captain Danny De Mortimer (Richard Johnson) from an evening out, he's stopped by an M.P. for public drinking. Reynolds and company watch as Ringa beats up his intended captors before resuming his duties as a driver. When asked to explain his actions, he offers a simple "cops make me nervous." The comedic effect is one of the film's better scenes, and works as an excellent example of McQueen's penchant for characters who thrive on trouble and potential tight spots. Reynolds and De Mortimer are impressed.....

....but they're even more impressed by Ringa's admission that he makes his own gin to sell to his fellow soldiers. He violates the rules, but as the film shows later on, Reynolds has no aversion to rule-breaking himself, and Ringa's candor and fearlessness makes him an intriguing potential asset to the cause in Burma. In addition to hinting at McQueen's driving scenes in future films, the screencap below is a better example of McQueen dominating the screen. Also, from a pop culture standpoint, we have two of the most famous pairs of blue eyes in film history, sharing the screen:

I'm glossing over a lot of the plot points in order to focus on McQueen, but it's for the best. Never So Few is also supposed to be a romantic film, with a love/hate relationship between Reynolds and wealthy socialite Carla Vesari (Gina Lollobrigida). Not only is their romance poorly and hastily introduced, but Sinatra and Lollobrigida have some of the worst chemistry in film history. In their scenes, Sinatra does what McQueen would be criticized for in later years: not acting, but posing. Despite a handful of genuinely terrific performances (From Here To Eternity, The Man With the Golden Arm, The Manchurian Candidate), a lot of Sinatra's films are marked by body language that says "I really don't give a shit." In the romance scenes, the horrible dialogue ("I know what kind of man you are! So brave in battle, but so afraid of life!"), combined with Sinatra's lack of care, is unintentionally laughable.

Before returning to the field, Reynolds demands a few things for his trip: a doctor, better medical supplies, and the services of Ringa. There's a wonderful line that can be read as a precursor to McQueen's future box office appeal. Reynold's superior balks at his request to take Ringa along. "He's a baby-faced kid." To which Reynolds replies: "We want him." This proves wise, since Ringa proves himself valuable in another ambush, firing a mortar with ease:

McQueen's final scenes are the best at establishing his screen presence. Chinese rebels have killed American soldiers, and Reynolds orders the killings of prisoners as revenge. He hands the reigns off to Ringa, first ordering him to kill the prisoners, and then effectively giving him command of the unit, since he realizes that his orders will likely mean a court-martial.

It's just as well that McQueen was never really noted for his dialogue or memorable monologues, and Never So Few is no exception. All around, if the dialogue isn't bad, it's offensive (Reynolds admonishes a soldier for referring the Japanese as 'gooks,' but later tells Lollobrigida that he wants to keep her pregnant if they get married). The film is beautifully shot, and hints at Sturges' ability to film stunning scenery shots just as well as he shot tight, enclosed scenes in The Great Escape.

From another cultural angle, Never So Few features Charles Bronson in a small role, as well as an uncredited extra role by a pre-Star Trek George Takei:

In hindsight, can Never So Few be considered McQueen's breakthrough? Possibly, if one just goes by his visual scenes. As poor as the film is, said hindsight is 20/20. Even professionals have to start in the minor leagues. Culturally, the film is a memorable hint of things to come (McQueen, Bronson, and Sturges would reteam four years later in The Great Escape), and what could have been. With a little more focus and education, Sinatra and McQueen could have been considered among the greatest actors of their respective generations. While this isn't the worst film ever made, it does show the necessity of craft devotion and strong scripts. Even the star power wasn't enough to elevate this movie, but it's a great piece, even if viewed through a lens of revisionist film history or a more basic cultural filter.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Unquiet Songs

It's probably not a stretch to say that, for a band or a solo musician, if the music is described as "poetic," a major compliment has been paid. Taking lyrics by themselves, one can point to Andrew Bird or John Darnielle as being songwriters who create lyrics that can easily stand alone on a printed page as a poem. Some artists can equally wear both hats: for example, Jeff Tweedy published a poetry collection, Adult Head, in 2004, and Saul Williams is arguably the master of poetry jams infused with hip-hop and street culture. Of course, the line between writing poetry and writing music can be very blurry. In one of my college poetry courses, my classmates and I were instructed to lecture a class period on the poetry collection of our choosing. The professor was quick to stress that lyric books by musicians did not count, since the words weren't originally intended to be poems. All of these combinations, definitions, and blurred lines take on even more significance with Leonard Cohen. Not only has he been writing and performing longer than anyone else I've mentioned in this paragraph, but his tendency of being classified as either a poet or a songwriter is usually very specific, depending on the medium. I've long been an admirer of his music, but until my reading of 2006's Book Of Longing, I haven't read any of his poetry. This is probably odd, since most fans of his music have probably familiarized themselves with his written works, especially given that he's about as equally prolific in both mediums.

Given Cohen's mastery of language and the complexities of the majority of his songs, his poetry, even in longer forms, is strikingly minimalistic. Rarely is anything embellished in his words, and even with multiple examples of linguistic cunning and beautiful wordplay, he lets his themes do most of the talking, so to speak. Since so much has been made of Cohen, be it analyses or near-universal praise, it's unlikely that I've gained anything from his latest collection that hasn't been felt before. Even my introductory paragraph can be dismissed in the face of his poem "Titles." Of course, even in poetry, it's dangerous to confuse the writer and the subject; however, in this piece, one can't help but feel that Cohen's exasperated by the many names and designations that he's been given, and the overall feeling is that 'artist' or 'human being' would suit him just fine.

"I had the title Poet
and maybe I was one
for awhile
Also the title Singer
was kindly accorded me
even though
I could barely carry a tune...(Cohen 159)."

Love and sex are nearly constant shadows in his writings, if they're not the foremost subjects. Past loves and erotic encounters are the focus, but Cohen renders them as happenings, taking the good with the bad, and even pieces that are heavy on sadness seem to break through to reveal the old adage that "it's better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all." Of course, great writing can morph a cliche into an original statement. "The Remote," in all of its brevity, creates a scene of intense longing juxtaposed with a small moment of everyday life:

"I often think about you
when I'm lying alone in
my room with my mouth
open and the remote
lost somewhere in the bed (97)"

Cohen's shortest poems work like the literary equivalent of drive-by shootings. They come, they hit their targets, and they move on to the next assignment. But what strikes me the most is his use of rhymes. One of the first things we learn in grade school poetry studies is that poems don't have to rhyme. However, in my readings in Book Of Longing, I found that Cohen's rhyming stanzas seem to add another dimension to the overall emotion. Without being a distraction, it's as if he's attempting to write textbook poems, but knowing that the content far outweighs the musical meters of the lines.

"You Have Loved Enough"

"I said I'd be your lover.
You laughed at what I said.
I lost my job forever.
I was counted with the dead.

I swept the marble chambers,
But you sent me down below.
You kept me from believing
Until you let me know...(55)"

Book Of Longing is also filled with Cohen's sketches, some of which merely compliment a given poem, and some of which work as poems themselves. There's an undeniable beauty in them, but also, as the below example suggests, a sort of intentional ugliness, not so much caricature, but drawn more for emotional relevance than reality or any outlandish definition. For me, the images worked to create a feeling that I was looking at someone's personal journal instead of a published book. The words and images are meticulous in their placement, but given the randomness and the aforementioned brevity, readers have an excellent example of Cohen's creative progress.

This is what makes Book Of Longing a compelling, satisfying archive. The pieces are definitely autobiographical, spanning a wide range of feelings and eras in Cohen's life (loves, travels, and his stay at a Zen monastery in California). Despite this range, the undeniable understanding is that every page is marked by authenticity. Cohen is the consummate artist. Much has been made about his five year stay at the monastery, and it was a journey that few people would have the mindset to make. In closing with the idea of authenticity (or, more appropriately, honesty), the poem "The Lovesick Monk" is a wonderful combination of time and mind, acknowledging his place but at the same time being human about it.

"I shaved my head
I put on robes
I sleep in the corner of a cabin
sixty-five hundred feet up a mountain
It's dismal here
The only thing I don't need
is a comb (13)"

Work Cited:
Cohen, Leonard. Book Of Longing. Copyright 2006 by Leonard Cohen. Art copyright 2006 by Leonard Cohen.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Reality (Sound)bites

In most of the books and essays that I've read regarding the state of literature (no matter which direction one wants to take such a generalization), there's really no happy medium, as I'm fond of saying. From Jonathan Franzen's essay "Perchance To Dream" (better known as the Harper's essay) to Italo Calvino's Six Memos For the Next Millennium, writers both new and old seem torn between literature's possibilities of change and growth and its stagnation and continually diagnosed death. Of course (and I say this without having read his non-fiction, but merely since he's been cited more than once in my readings), even the most wary critics of contemporary fiction must have at least some optimism. Given these polar opposite views, David Shields' newest book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto is a refreshing critique. Instead of giving in to either side, Shields has compiled a fascinating combination of ideas, problems, and hypotheses, taken from quotes, passages, and writings that span multiple art forms. Taking his manifesto at face value, literature and non-fiction writings could become obsolete, but the current need is both an understanding and a need for the ideas of reality in a given text. Before I get into more concrete examples, I stumbled upon a passage from Alain Robbe-Grillet's For a New Novel, a paragraph that works extremely well as an introduction to Reality Hunger:

"For, far from neglecting him, the author today proclaims his absolute need of the reader's cooperation, an active, conscious, creative assistance. What he asks of him is no longer to receive ready-made a world completed, full, closed upon itself, but on the contrary to participate in a creation, to invent in his turn the work--and the world--and thus to learn to invent his own life."

Shields divides up Reality Hunger into twenty-six chapters, each dealing with a certain ideal that is central to writing and literary studies in the 21st century (these ideals include "reality," "thinking," "collage," and "risk," among others). Some of these are less than obvious, and I'll return to them later (namely "trials by google" and "hip-hop"). Every piece of this numbered manifesto is either an original thought by Mr. Shields, but primarily an uncited collection of hundreds of competing quotations and thoughts. In the book's appendix, he states that his original intention was to not include any citations at all, but a full list appears at the back for legal reasons (but noted with an urgent appeal to either disregard it or to physically cut it out of the book). To honor the book's intentions, any citations that I use will go uncredited. I originally found the format to be mildly irritating, seeing that, no matter how you slice it, the majority of the quotations are soundbites. However, that idea alone is the heart of the thesis. The passages are supposed to be soundbites, and not in the negative sense. The opening chapters are almost groundbreaking themselves, since Shields devotes quite a few pages to actually defining various terms, and offering quotations that highlight the origins of the written word. In most literary criticism texts, the basics are not covered, since the general assumption is that the reader will already know the foundation; however, seeing that Shields wants to connect ideas to vast change, it's essential that he begins with the basics.

20: "The etymology of fiction is from fingere (participle fictum), meaning 'to shape, fashion, form, or mold.' Any verbal account is a fashioning and shaping of events."

29: "...The novel feasted on the unimportant, mimicking reality. Moll Flanders and Clarissa Harlowe replaced Medea and Antigone. Instead of actual adventures, made-up ones were fashionable; instead of perilous voyages, Crusoe carried us through his days; instead of biographies of ministers and lords, we got bundles of fake letters recounting seductions and betrayals: the extraordinary drama of lied-about ordinary life. Historians soon had at hand all the devices of exploitation."

Again, these may seem painfully obvious, but these are only parts of Shield's grand scheme. Whether a reader realizes it or not, Reality Hunger analyzes the entire history of literature, and as much as this is a cliche, those who don't know the past are doomed to repeat it. This is not to say that the history of fiction and non-fiction have been lacking, but the necessity for change has always been a constant. Also, the distinctions between fiction and non-fiction (especially the ever-growing memoir genre) are blurring (I'm not entirely sure I agree with this assertion). Even in the cases of plagiarism and fabrication, the acts of memory and the blending of genres can be a defense.

104: "What I believe about memoir is that you just happen to be using the nuts and bolts of your own life to illustrate your vision. It isn't really me; it's a character based on myself that I made up in order to illustrate things I want to say. In other words, I think memoir is as far from real life as fiction in. I think you're obligated to use accurate details, but selection is as important a process as imagination."

Granted, I personally can't excuse blatant plagiarism, but Shield's sections on "hip-hop" and "collage" are equally compelling. The "hip-hop quotes" highlight the history of the genre, with both originality and the art of sampling and distortion being ways for fiction to explore new grounds. This also goes for other art forms, and it's not to say that the idea hasn't already been done before with the written word. It's also a hint that, like music, literature is headed to an era of free expression and acquisitions. Quite a few of today's literary journals have been founded upon these fundamentals, especially in the zine and blog formats.

269: "Lil Wayne, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead are hugely popular artists who recently circumvented the music business establishment by giving their music directly to their audience for free on the web. The middle man has been cut out."

340: "Found objects, chance creations, ready-mades (mass-produced items promoted into art objects, such as Duchamp's 'Fountain'--urinal as sculpture) abolish the separation between art and life. The commonplace is miraculous if rightly seen."

A lot of the passages I'm citing seem to be going from one idea to the other, but that's part of the idea. Shields makes no apologies for filling the book with such a wide range, and I believe that the unspoken goal of Reality Hunger is to fill people with so many ideas that it's impossible to not be left feeling provoked, thoughtful, and disagreeable. With technology making everything instantaneous and available, even the written word has to keep pace. The idea of reality isn't necessarily about literature being consistently "real," i.e. "everyday," but to keep mutating and reflecting today's speed. Readers can still sit down with a book and enjoy it at a leisurely pace, but as a whole, the establishment needs to be shaken up. I've never agreed with a dust jacket summary as much as I do this one: "People will either love or hate this book. Its converts will see it as a rallying cry; its detractors will view it as an occasion for defending the status quo." I believe that literature today and tomorrow will be about storytelling at its core, but this book is simply begging for readers and critics to be more actively engaged in thought. For such a dizzying work, its message is simple.

Work Cited:
Shields, David. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Copyright 2010 by David Shields.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Courage and Mirrors

A lot of my recent posts have been devoted to readings of authors who I've written about before, done in the interest of both making connections between texts and creating a sort of personal and open bibliography in the number of essays that I've written. I'm hoping that, for myself and others who frequent this blog, in due time there will be a decent number of links and multiple reviews of singular writers, available for both entertainment and literary purposes, with notes and essays representing my humble views on said works. With these ideas in mind, I recently finished reading Amulet (first English translation published in 2005), one of the smaller novels by one of my favorites, Roberto Bolano. I've given his writings the most attention here, at least in terms of the number of essays that I've posted on given writers and their works. Of course, I haven't been alone in singing his praises, nor do I claim to have "discovered" him before he became relevant in mainstream literary consciousness. Awhile back, I remember reading an essay on Bolano's works as a whole, with the underlying question being "how much attention is too much?" Despite his undeniable literary merits and his gifts of storytelling in his lifetime (1953-2003), it's sometimes hard to see through the haze of celebratory fireworks. While I've done my own reviews with scholarly intentions, there have been times where I've been lost in my own gushing over his novels, reveling in the excitement of having personally discovered such a talent. In both deep and superficial ways, it's one of the joys of arts and literature.

Amulet tells the first person account of Auxilio Lacouture, an eccentric woman who calls herself "the mother of Mexican poetry." She hails from Uruguay, but ends up in Mexico City, "exactly where my wanderings took me." Her story is reliable as a whole, but there's an unmistakable feeling that she either embellishes some of her details or skims over some important parts. This may seem oxymoronic, but this passage towards the beginning of the work could be read as an example of glossing or of succinct, logical details. After moving to Mexico City, she becomes an impromptu housekeeper for two revered Spanish poets:

"I orbited around those two great Spaniards, those universal minds, moved by a poet's passion and the boundless devotion of an English nurse or of a little sister looking after her older brothers. Like me, they were wanderers, although for very different reasons; nobody drove me out of Montevideo; one day I simply decided to leave and go to Buenos Aires, and after a few months or maybe a year in Buenos Aires, I decided to keep traveling, because by then I already knew that Mexico was my destiny and I knew that Leon Felipe was living in Mexico, and although I wasn't sure whether Don Pedro Garfias was living here too, deep down I think I could sense it (Bolano 3)."

The majority of the novel revolves around the stories and flashbacks had by Lacouture during the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre of Mexican students and protesters by the Mexican government. When the massacre starts, Lacouture is in the women's bathroom of the university, and ends up hiding there for twelve days, during which she shares her stories and experiences some equally scary but intriguing hallucinations. Given the scale of the killings, her account of the happens is almost creepy in its simplicity, as if she cannot fully comprehend what's happening. Bolano shows great skill in this rendering, given that psychologically, some people would be in such shock that clarity becomes heightened.

"What did I do then? What anyone would have done: I went to a window and looked down and saw the soldiers, then I went to another window and saw tanks, and then to another, the one at the end of the corridor (I bounded down that corridor like a woman raised from the dead) and there I saw trucks, and the riot police and some plainclothes cops bundling the students and professors they'd arrested into the trucks, like something from a movie about the Second World War...but with little phosphorescent figures (Bolano 25)."

The bathroom scene struck me as vaguely familiar, and then I realized that Lacouture was one of the dozens of "interviews" in Bolano's novel The Savage Detectives. The links between these two novels doesn't stop there, but also reflect themselves with Lacouture's meetings and friendship with one of the main characters in The Savage Detectives, Arturo Belano. Lacouture is open about her sexual encounters with the poets she meets, but she becomes more of a mother figure to the young Belano. There's a vague distance between the two, but also signs of immediate respect. Belano was such a central figure in the other novel, and in Amulet it's compelling to have even further personality sketches.

"I went over and talked to him, covering my mouth with my hand, and he looked me in the eye, looked at the back of my hand, and didn't ask why I was covering my mouth [Lacouture's teeth had fallen out], but I think he guessed straight away, unlike the others, I mean he guessed the deeper reason, the ultimate dignity that obliged me to cover my lips, and it didn't matter to him.
That night I made friends with him, in spite of the difference in our ages, and all the other differences! I was the one who introduced him, some weeks later, to the poetry of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams and T.S. Eliot (Bolano 38)."

A friend of mine who introduced me to the works of David Mitchell pointed out Mitchell's habits of inserting characters from his previous novels into his later ones, creating a web of interconnections, even if a specific character is only minor in one work yet central in another. However, and this is not to slight Mitchell's use of the device, Bolano uses it more to create a fuller fictional bibliography and history in his novels. In Nazi Literature in the Americas, he created fictional essays and lists of book publications that read like a real encyclopedia; in his other novels, he's attempting to create a real world in the midst of fiction, not making his characters grander than they need to be, but showing how "real" they are, even in simple storytelling.

Amulet has been (mistakenly) called a companion piece to The Savage Detectives, but with the end of the novel, it's clear that Bolano's preferences for poetry have taken over, and as beautiful as the writing is, the hallucination scenes are almost too abrupt, turning into a poem-like closure, but one that's not emotionally connected to the storytelling side of the story. Lacouture, for all of her happenings, becomes at best an enigma, a sort of mouthpiece for Bolano's expertly crafted assortment of the Mexican poetry scene. Despite being abrupt, the final pages are haunting, leaving themselves open to much interpretation, from the blood-stained history of Mexico to its academic/poetry scenes, and to the combination of the two. Her hallucination involves children singing as they fall into oblivion, and whether this is done out of stupidity or innocence, the effect is beautifully chilling. I'll close with one of the final paragraphs. In addition to what I've stated above, the literary metaphors are obvious, but not in an expected way, but instead heartbreaking.

"So the ghost-children marched down the valley and fell into the abyss. Their passage was brief. And their ghost-song or its echo, which is almost to say the echo of nothingness, went on marching, I could hear it marching on at the same pace, the pace of courage and generosity. A barely audible song, a song of war and love, because although the children were clearly marching to war, the way they marched recalled the superb, theatrical attitudes of love (Bolano 184)."

Work Cited:
Bolano, Roberto. Amulet. Copyright 1999 by the Heirs of Roberto Bolano. Translation copyright 2006 by Chris Andrews.

"You Against You" in Hobart; "I Don't Want to Pry" in Pidgeonholes

Hey y'all. I'm a little late posting these, but I was fortunate to have two new publications this week, working in new genres, a...