Monday, July 27, 2009

On Kenneth Branagh's HAMLET (1996)

When I first saw Kenneth Branagh's 4-hour "full text" version of Hamlet during its initial theatrical release in 1996, I was not overly impressed. I thought it was OK but too long, had too many cameos and was too much of a Kenneth Branagh Experience. Now, having just finished watching the pristine DVD release, I wonder what kind of bad weed I was smoking back in '96. Branagh's Hamlet is a great film. And more than that, it is the best Hamlet I have ever seen on film: better than Olivier's reductive "man who could not make up his mind" interpretation; better than Tony Richardson's 1969 film with Anthony Hopkins miscast as Claudius to Nicol Williamson's Hamlet (although Hopkins is actually a year older than Williamson, he looked about 10 years younger in 1969, and Claudius should really look noticeably older than Hamlet); better than Zefferelli's version with crazy Mel Gibson pretending to be sane; better than the tame 1980s PBS film with Kevin Kline; better than the Ethan Hawke 'Wall Street Hamlet' with Sam Shepard as the Ghost (providing the best scene in the movie, by far). Brilliant and thrilling and as mad as its protagonist, Branagh's film deserves to be seen again and again. Yes, Jack Lemmon's wooden line readings weigh down the front end a bit, but that's ultimately a minor flaw, and what works in the film massively outweighs it--to wit: the "too, too solid flesh" soliloquy in the suddenly emptied great hall; the mirrored "To be or not to be" soliloquy during which the camera moves in so that the edges of the mirror become invisible and we have an image of two Hamlets with daggers drawn preparing to duel, an absolutely perfect visual analogue for the soliloquy; the thrilling "let my thoughts be bloody" speech reimagined as a German Romantic aria performed atop a snowy mountain out of Caspar David Friedrich; Derek Jacobi's Claudius, who comes off in this production as almost a Macbethian tragic figure (it could be argued that this is Jacobi's movie); Brian Blessed's performance as the Ghost, especially the wonderfully understated side-glance of tenderness he directs at Gertrude in the bedchamber scene; the amazingly fluid camera work (looks like steadicam, but it's actually all dolly shots); the marvelous Wellesian low-angle shot that shows Hamlet and Gertrude reflected in a pool of Polonius's blood; the perfect casting of Charlton Heston as the Player King (which made me think: if Chuck had been offered more roles like this during the 90s, maybe he wouldn't have gone looking for love at Wayne LaPierre's house); the mad genius of Branagh's set with its rooms behind mirrors, secret passages and myriad hiding places, a set on which no one can say with certainty "Now I am alone..."; the fact that one of those mirrors conceals the padded cell in which Ophelia will rave... I could go on ("I'll rant as well as thou") because this is a great film, probably the only Shakespeare film that's worth watching twice solely for its excellence as a film. The DVD commentary track by Branagh and the film's textual advisor is also quite good. It was only when watching the the movie with the commentary track on (and Shakespeare's words muted) that I was able to fully appreciate the filmic beauty of this work (the mise en scene, shot compositions, etc.). This is a Shakespeare movie that still looks amazing even without Shakespeare's words. Check it out.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

THE RENAISSANCE by Walter Pater

Pater's Renaissance is one of my Bibles. Specifically, it's my Pentateuch. Joyce's Ulysses is my New Testament, Gravity's Rainbow my Apocalypse, Tristram Shandy my Apocrypha, Kafka my Koran, and A la recherche du temps perdu my endless Mahabarata. One of the most beautifully-written books in the English language, The Renaissance has an undeserved reputation for purple prose and an all-too-deserved one as the holy book of decadent aestheticism. "I wish they would not call me a hedonist," Pater once complained, "it gives such a wrong impression to those who do not know Greek." As we all know, however, the real reason we are discomforted by any description of ourselves is the possibility that it might give people the right idea. Pater was an aesthete, and his book is the first and best English-language manifesto of aesthetic life. Here's a taste (and just a taste) of what Pater is capable of:

On Pico Della Mirandola: "And yet to read a page of one of Pico's forgotten books is like a glance into one of those ancient sepulchres, upon which the wanderer in classical lands has sometimes stumbled, with the old disused ornaments and furniture of a world wholly unlike ours still fresh in them."

On Michelangelo: "A certain strangeness, something of the blossoming of the aloe, is indeed an element in all true works of art: that they shall excite or surprise us is indispensable. But that they shall give pleasure and exert a charm over us is indispensable too; and this strangeness must be sweet also--a lovely strangeness."

On Michelangelo's pietas: "He has left it in many forms, sketches, half-finished designs, finished and unfinished groups of sculpture; but always as a hopeless, rayless, almost heathen sorrow--no divine sorrow, but mere pity and awe at the stiff limbs and colourless lips."

On the Uffizi Medusa (also the subject of a poem by Shelley): "What may be called the fascination of corruption penetrates in every touch its exquisitely finished beauty."

On the proper use of philosophy: "Philosophy serves culture, not by the fancied gift of absolute or transcendental knowledge, but by suggesting questions which help one to detect the passion, and strangeness, and dramatic contrasts of life."

On aesthetic experience: "Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening. With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch."

I could continue quoting Pater until my hands curl up like lobster claws, but that would only wrench more quotes out of the contexts in which they really must be read. In the long last chapter, Pater quotes Goethe on Winckelmann: "One learns nothing from him, but one becomes something." The same is true of Pater. If one reads him deeply and well, one might become an aesthete. The Renaissance is one of my 'essential' books. Every literate human being should own a copy.

OUT OF SHEER RAGE: WRESTLING WITH D.H. LAWRENCE by Geoff Dyer

Geoff Dyer is a wanker. Anyone who has read his dire book of travel pieces, Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It, knows just how much of a wanker he can be. Out of Sheer Rage, on the other hand, is a much better and more original book, a first-person account of Dyer's failure to write a book about D.H. Lawrence that becomes, in its way, a rather beautiful book about Lawrence. Reading it, I was reminded of Henry Miller's early attempt to write a Lawrence book; as I recall, Miller amassed reams of research material and became so engrossed in the research that the book itself was never written. Something of that sort happens to Dyer, but fortunately he turns his inability to sit down and re-read Women in Love into the motive for a globe-spanning tour of Lawrentian locales that rarely fails to entertain and sometimes does much more. There are memorable visits to Lawrence's childhood home and his house in Italy, but the book really comes alive when a Lawrentian consciousness seems to leak out of Dyer's reading and invade his world. After a moped crash in Greece, for example, Dyer and his girlfriend have post-traumatic, injured sex. Lawrence would've understood their need for sex at this moment, but he couldn't have written a scene with the gentle humor of Dyer's. (Humor was not D.H.'s strong point; it's hard to laugh while coughing blood.) Even better--the high point of the book, in fact--is a druggy scene on a Mexican beach in which Dyer takes himself in hand (the arch-wanker wanks) while staring at his girlfriend's pussy and imagining himself licking her clit while she pisses on his chin. Dyer can hold this vision for only a few seconds, though, until self-consciousness kicks in and he realizes he's sitting naked on a public beach preparing to wank. There are quite a lot of good scenes, interesting thoughts and questionable assertions in this book, and they are all worth reading.

SHAKESPEARE, TRAGICAL AND COMICAL

Hamlet and Twelfth Night were made for each other. Probably written around the same time (yes, my 'probably' covers a multitude of scholarly sins, but let's leave the fraught matter of Shakespearean chronology aside for the length of this post), the two plays strangely and surprisingly complement each other, and could be fruitfully performed on alternating nights. If Hamlet is Shakespeare's greatest theatrically self-conscious work (the play within the play; Hamlet as an actor who performs madness so well that his own disbelief is at times suspended, etc.), Twelfth Night may be his greatest textually self-conscious work, frequently reflecting on problems of reading, writing, language, representation and (mis)interpretation. ("Malvolio: By my life, this is my lady's hand. These be her very c's, her u's, and her t's; and thus she makes her great P's." [insert groundlings' raucous laughter here]). And at the beginning of Act Three, Feste is a most Derridean clown (or should we think of Derrida as Feste translated into labyrinthine French?):

Viola: Thy reason, man?

Feste: Troth, sir, I can yield you none without words, and words are grown so false I am loath to prove reason with them.


I am suggesting that each of these plays mirrors the other--or that we should make them mirrors in our minds. We should read Viola's performance through Hamlet's, and vice versa; read Malvolio's 'scene of reading' through Polonius's, and so on. This might be the best way to break down the thoroughly artificial historical barrier separating Shakespeare's raucous tragedies from his serious comedies. And this barrier must be laid low if we are to understand Shakespeare at all. "Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world" is the plea Shakespeare makes through Falstaff (playing Hal pleading for Falstaff in a typically mind-boggling bit of meta-theater), and too many critics and readers have been too quick to reply like Hal, "I do. I will." An important lesson of ALL of Shakespeare, though, is that any idea of tragedy that slights comedy cuts out its own heart before it has had a chance to start beating. Maybe we can't really understand Shakespeare unless and until we can see fat Jack Falstaff and melancholy Hamlet and tranvestite Viola as brothers.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

THE MAD MAN by Samuel Delany

Oh boy... This is the book in which Samuel Delany, never one to fly his freak flag at half-staff, runs that sucker all the way up the pole, over the top and into the stratosphere. The Mad Man is the story of John Marr, a young, gay, African-American grad student in philosophy, and his decade-long quest to understand the life, work, thought and death of Timothy Hasler, a young, gay, Korean-American philosopher murdered in a New York City hustlers' bar in the early 1970s. That's the standard Publisher's Weekly-type description of this novel, and it's pretty much bullshit. The Mad Man is nothing like A.S. Byatt's Possession (which Delany reviewed and which probably inspired the novel's conception), and Gwyneth Paltrow will definitely not be appearing in the movie. The Mad Man isn't an academic novel, either--at least not after the first 20 pages. And the 'mystery' of Hasler's death is solved with a pathetically minimal amount of investigation and no real thought at all. No, while The Mad Man flirts with these genres, uses them, cruises them, it never really hooks up for a meaningful relationship. So what, finally, is this book? The Mad Man is one of the filthiest and raunchiest pornographic novels of the twentieth (or any other) century. It's a novel that concerns itself, in explicit, extensive, sometimes comic and occasionally tiresome detail, with men whose sexuality takes the form of drinking other men's urine and eating their feces. This is Delany's long (almost 500 pages in the definitive revised edition of 2002) song of urolagnia and coprophagia, a novel in which the narrator repeatedly falls to his knees to drink the warm piss of filthy homeless men. Now, the last part of that sentence might make the novel sound rather stupid, an academic exercise in transgression, slumming for tenure. But The Mad Man isn't that, either. It is one of the most highly intelligent--indeed, intellectual--porn novels ever written, a book that belongs on the shelf with Bataille's Story of the Eye and Sade's Philosophy in the Bedroom. Delany's novel might be subtitled 'Philosophy at the Mine Shaft,' for it is during an early-80s 'wet night' in that bar that the narrator begins to understand Heidegger's concept of 'meditative thinking'--surely the raunchiest context in which that thinker has ever been invoked. Delany shows us two 'wet nights' over the course of his novel, and both are among the most eye-opening scenes in the book. But if The Mad Man were only an intellectual / philosophical porn novel, it probably still wouldn't be worth 500 pages of my time. What kept me reading was the book's strange alienation effect: since Delany describes desires so far away from mine, I'm alienated from his sex scenes (the novel thus functions for most readers, straight and gay, as the very opposite of traditional pornography--another, and especially triumphant, example of Delany's deconstructive genre-cruising). I am alienated from the novel's raunchiest scenes in a way that opens up space for reflection on the nature of desire. At what may be its deepest level (understanding that the very notions of 'depths' and 'levels' would be exceedingly problematic to a postmodernist like Delany, and also that they would be, in the book's own terms, 'Hasler Structures'), the novel is an examination of the farthest shores of human desire in all its messiness and of the structures we build to contain that chaos. One critic has likened this book to "an unbelievably raunchy Magic Mountain," and while that comparison is at least a bit hyperbolic, I think it would be fair to call the novel an extended dramatic meditation on Hegel's discussion of the master-slave relationship. The narrator is impressed enough by The Phenomenology of Spirit/Mind (different translators translate geist differently; the German word denotes both meanings) to plan at one point a vast Hegelian summa to be titled The Systems of the World. The Mad Man might be read as a chapter in that abandoned effort.

Monday, July 6, 2009

THE STRONGER by August Strindberg

Strindberg's 6-page play The Stronger, a work that exerted an obvious influence on Ingmar Bergman's film Persona, is a smaller and considerably less complex work than that film, but it remains of interest because of the extreme psychological movement at its climax. When Mrs. X, the speaker, evokes her colonization by the silent Miss Y, she does so in imagery that is luridly sado-masochistic. This poetic vision of ultimate inauthenticity, probably the first and only few lucid seconds of the character's life, is immediately 'flipped' into a self-aggrandizing embrace of inauthenticity as ultimate superiority. The change comes fast enough to give readers and viewers a severe case of whiplash, and that's probably why it feels so compelling, so accurate. Defense mechanisms do tend to slip into place this quickly and efficiently, a fact that renders The Stronger a most chilling little play.

And what of Miss Y? She remains an unknown quantity, a silence upon which we can project our prejudices and call them interpretations. She may well be every bit as inauthentic as her Chatty Cathy companion. To be seduced by her silence into an overestimation of her character is to hear the sound of a Strindbergian trap closing around us.

CULTURAL AMNESIA by Clive James

This could have been a great book if it had been written by someone other than Clive James, a critic who couldn't love himself more if he bent over and gave himself a blowjob. I looked forward to reading Cultural Amnesia, I opened it with an open mind, and I was impressed when Clive pulled off an amazing metaphor in his introduction: "...the written version of Japanese is the kind of language that you can study hard for five years and yet can't neglect for a week without its leaving you like a flock of birds." That's wonderful, nearly perfect. It's too bad that the rest of the book is a shrill, screeching symphony of axe-grinding. There are a few good things here (the piece on Dick Cavett, for example), but they are too few to make this book worth the price of admission. And James is too proud of his own ignorance (of critical theory, for example) to even begin to engage with the works of Walter Benjamin or Sartre, two of his betes noires. The best review of Cultural Amnesia is a few words from a wiseguy: Forget about it.

DOUBLE LIVES, SECOND CHANCES: THE CINEMA OF KRZYSZTOF KIESLOWSKI by Annette Insdorf

Anyone who comes to Annette Insdorf's book in search of incisive, challenging criticism of Kieslowski's works should look elsewhere. Insdorf knew and loved Kieslowski (she tells us that she called him 'Wujek' [Polish for 'uncle'] and he called her 'Mala' ['little one']), and she comes solely to praise him, an attitude that tends toward the tiresome. Overall, though, her book is valuable and worthy of measured praise rather than dismissive burial. The book is very good on a strictly informational level, providing an excellent overview of Kieslowski's many early documentaries and obscure pre-Decalogue feature films, and it succeeds well in communicating the complete shape of Kieslowski's career. Indeed, it's really more an annotated filmography than a work of criticism. Insdorf is anything but critical. Her commentaries are, however, often illuminating, especially her discussion of the Three Colors trilogy--a discussion that informs and enriches our understanding of the films despite the fact that Insdorf, like the director himself, works overtime to make the trilogy (especially White) seem more humanistic and hopeful (and consistent) than it actually is. One example of the low level of critical intelligence Insdorf brings to bear on these movies: Even though she writes that the events of White take place over a period longer than one year, she's perfectly prepared to play along with Kieslowski's too-neat ending to Red and write that "the trilogy comes full circle within one year." In fact, as careful viewing makes clear, White, Blue and Red are chronologically inconsistent; Karol and Dominique could not possibly have been on a boat crossing the English Channel one year after the death of Julie's husband.

Insdorf also tells us that Kieslowski had a difficult time deciding on the proper endings for some of his films (The Double Life of Veronique and White, in particular), so perhaps the ambiguity of these endings is less a result of artistic mastery than of directorial uncertainty. Hardly a 'killing' criticism, this may just be another way of saying that Kieslowski's films are courageously authentic, true to the director's and screenwriter's visions even when those visions are uncertain or conflicted.

Since my opinion of this book is making me sound like something of a Kieslowski killjoy, I should probably state that I consider the Decalogue, the Three Colors trilogy and The Double Life of Veronique to be among the best films of the past fifty years. I wish Insdorf had written a book equal to them.

Friday, July 3, 2009

WILLIAM GASS, AMERICAN WRITER

On this July 3, as America tunes up for its annual day of self-congratulatory symphonies, allow me to pre-emptively piss on the parades by presenting a few select passages from the always aphoristic and absurdly alliterative essays of William H. Gass:

"Our culture...desires men who will be willing to be mowed down in anonymous rows if need be, used up in families, in farms and factories, thrown away on the streets of sprawling towns, who want to pass through existence so cleanly no trace of them will ever be found."--Habitations of the Word

"Consciousness is all the holiness we have."--Habitations of the Word

"Theology, it appears, is one-half fiction, one-half literary criticism."--Fiction and the Figures of Life

"...the chief point in life is to die of something and never for something if it can be helped."--Tests of Time

"Francis Bacon prosecuted his patron, Essex, for treason, and was found guilty himself of bribery and consequently expelled from court. Vianini was burned at the stake...At the hands of the Inquisition Giordano Bruno suffered the same painful fate. Nothing was ever done to Louisa May Alcott."--Tests of Time

"In every country, in every clime, regarding any rank or race, at any time and with little excuse, orthodoxy will act evilly toward its enemies. Survival is its single aim--that is, to rigidify thought, sterilize doubt, cauterize criticism, and mobilize the many to brutalize the few who dare to dream beyond the borders of their village, the walls of their room, the conventions of their community, the givens of some god, the mother-smother of custom, or the regimen of an outmoded morality--and even the Greatest Good itself could not fail to be bruised by such handling, and rapidly rot where the bruise had been."--Tests of Time

"One sign of a sound idea is its fearlessness."--Tests of Time

"Writers must reveal and accuse. It will happen naturally. No need to aim at some selected target. Writing well will put the writing in the bulls-eye."--Tests of Time

"When all is well, everyone is ill but will not know it."--Tests of Time

"Early on I learned that life was meaningless, since life was not a sign; that novels were meaningful because signs were the very materials of their composition. I learned that suffering served no purpose; that the good guys didn't win; that most explanations offered me to make the mess I was in less a mess were self-serving lies. Life wasn't clear, it was ambiguous; motives were many and mixed; values were complex, opposed, poisoned by hypocrisy, without any reasonable ground; most of passion's pageants were frauds, and human feelings had been faked for so long, no one knew what the genuine was; furthermore, many of the things I found most satisfactory were everywhere libelously characterized or their very existence was suppressed; and much of adult society, its institutions and its advertised dreams, were simply superstitions that served a small set of people well while keeping the remainder in miserable ignorance."--Finding A Form

"When I looked at man, I did not see a noble piece of work, a species whose every member was automatically of infinite worth and the pinnacle of Nature's efforts. Nor did history, as I read it, support such grandiose claims. Throughout human time, men had been murdering men with an ease that suggested they took a profound pleasure in it, and like the most voracious insect, the entire tribe was, even as I watched, even as I participated, eating its host like a parasite whose foresight did not exceed its greed. Hate, fear and hunger were the tribal heroes."--Finding A Form

"If life is hard, art is harder."--The World Within the Word

"If you enjoy the opinions you possess, if they give you a glow, be suspicious. They may be possessing you. An opinion should be treated like a guest who is likely to stay too late and drink all the whiskey."--A Temple of Texts

"Yeats grew old disgracefully. It is the only way to go."--A Temple of Texts

"It seems incredible, the ease with which we sink through books quite out of sight, pass clamorous pages into soundless dreams. That novels should be made of words, and merely words, is shocking, really. It's as though you had discovered that your wife were made of rubber..."--Fiction and the Figures of Life

"It is the principal function of popular culture--though hardly its avowed purpose--to keep men from understanding what is happening to them, for social unrest would surely follow, and who knows what outbursts of revenge and rage. War, work, poverty, disease, religion: these, in the past, have kept men's minds full, small, and careful. Religion gave men hope who otherwise could have none. Even a mechanical rabbit can make the greyhounds run."--Fiction and the Figures of Life

"Even Arnold Bennett noticed that we do not measure classics; they, rather, measure us. For most people it is precisely this that's painful; they do not wish to know their own nothingness--or their own potentialities either..."--Fiction and the Figures of Life

"Works of art confront us the way few people dare to: completely, openly, at once."--Fiction and the Figures of Life

"The artist is a lover, and he must woo his medium till she opens to him; until the richness in her rises to the surface like a blush."--Fiction and the Figures of Life

And to bring this Gassean litany to an end, one of my favorite quotes from Gass's great essayistic precursor, Ralph Waldo Emerson:

"People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them."--from the essay "Circles"

Have an unsettled Fourth of July.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

CANETTI SAID IT (supposedly)

I'm attempting to source the following quote attributed to Elias Canetti:

"Happiness is that ridiculous life goal of illiterates."

More than one movie reviewer quoted it in reviews of Mike Leigh's recent Happy Go Lucky, but none of them bothered to note the source.

UPDATE 11/19/11: The line is from Canetti's novel Die Blendung (English title: Auto Da Fe). The complete sentence reads: “Almost Kien was tempted to believe in happiness, that contemptible life-goal of illiterates. If it came of itself, without being hunted for, if you did not hold it fast by force and treated it with a certain condescension, it was permissible to endure its presence for a few days.” 

Thanks Natalie.