Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

True Grit

December 28, 2010

True Grit is the Coen Brothers’ remake of the Henry Hathaway film that starred John Wayne. I haven’t seen the earlier film, but I have read the Charles Portis novel that it is based on. Although I liked the novel’s narrative voice, I ultimately found it disappointing. I thought Portis could have done a lot more with the characters and the situation than he did. It ends up being a very conventional Western novel.

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is a fourteen-year-old girl living in Arkansas during the 1870’s. When her father is shot to death by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), she swears to get revenge. With some difficulty, she persuades Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a U.S. marshal with a sinister past, to pursue Chaney with her. They are joined by a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is after Chaney for a separate murder. They follow Cheney into Choctaw Territory, where he has joined an outlaw band led by “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper).

The Coen Brothers have boasted that their film is faithful to Portis’s novel. In fact, they have taken enormous liberties with it. In the film, both Mattie and LaBoeuf speak a heavily stilted English. This is not how these characters talk in the book. I suppose the Coen Brothers thought this was funny; I just found it annoying. Also, we are expected to believe that contractions weren’t yet invented in the 1870’s. I lost count of how many times I heard someone begin a sentence with “Let us…”

Some of the changes are more troubling. In the novel, there is a Native American sheriff who helps Cogburn, LaBouef and Mattie at one point. This character has been completely written out of the movie. (The novel also has a Mexican character who is completely written out of the script.) In the film, Cogburn kicks two Native American boys who are tormenting a mule. If I remember correctly, in the novel the boys are white. Also, there is a scene in the novel of a public hanging. A Native American man is allowed to make a short speech before he is hanged. In the movie, he is dropped through the trap as he starts to speak. (There was some nervous laughter from the audience at this.) Considering that there are so few Westerns that present Native Americans in a positive light, one can only wonder why the Coens made these changes.

I found the movie moderately entertaining, in spite of the cutesy fake Shakespearean English and the problematic politics. Jeff Bridges is appropriately gruff as Cogburn, though at this point in his career he could probably play a gruff character in his sleep. Hailee Steinfeld and Matt Damon do the best they can with their awful lines. It could have been a much better film.

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within

December 19, 2010

There seems to be a resurgence of interest in the Beats. This is the second time in a week that I’ve seen a film about a Beat writer.

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within is a documentary by Yony Leyser. It features interviews with many people who knew the writer. The film is well-made and provides many details, including film footage of the author himself, yet, when it was over, Burroughs was still something of a mystery to me. It’s still not clear to me what made the man tick. For example, the film discusses at length Burroughs’s obsession with firearms. We learn that he always carried a loaded gun and that he slept with a loaded pistol under his pillow. Yet the movie never succeeds in explaining this behavior. Did Burroughs have an experience that caused him to feel threatened? The film never indicates that he did.

Burrough’s fondness for weapons was bound up with a propensity for reckless behavior. He shot his wife, Joyce Vollmer, to death. (Not surprisingly, their son grew up to be a basketcase who drank himself to death at the age of thirty-three.) He nearly killed himself while doing target practice in his backyard. He shared needles with other addicts. He got himself bit while playing with a venomous snake. One of Burroughs’s friends expresses amazement that he lived as long as he did. The film discusses all these things dispassionately, though I think some moral judgement would have been appropriate here. Just because you’re a genius doesn’t give you the right to be an irresponsible asshole.

Critics have accused Burroughs of romanticizing drug use, but the film makes it clear that he hated being an addict. He quit several times, but he always eventually went back to his habit. As someone who has seen some of his friends develop addictions, I could relate to this part of the movie.

The film devotes a great deal of attention to Burroughs’s influence on the punk rock movement. There are interviews with several musicians, including Patti Smith. Since I’m not a huge fan of punk rock, I can’t say that I found this terribly impressive. I would have liked it if the movie had talked more about Burroughs’s influence on other writers, especially Beats such as Kerouac and Ginsberg.

The film does provide some human moments. We learn, for example, that Burroughs liked cats and that he shared recipes with his friends. Still, for the most part the film confirmed my previous impression of Burroughs as a cold and aloof person.


December 16, 2010

Howl, a film by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, examines the circumstances surrounding the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem and the critical reaction to it. The film has been described by some as a cinematic form of literary criticism.

Much of the film is devoted to the obscenity trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers), who published Howl. Equal attention is given to an interview that Ginsberg (James Franco) gave at the time of the trial. There is a re-enactment of the famous reading of the poem that Ginsberg gave in 1955 in San Francisco, and there are also scenes from Ginsberg’s early life. There are animated sequences that accompany the reading of the poem.

I found Franco convincing as Ginsberg. Overall, I thought the film was intelligently done, but, except for the some of the animation, I did not find it emotionally engaging. I think that this was due to the device of telling the story of Ginsberg’s life mostly through his interview. People who had a strong influence on Ginsberg (Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Carl Soloman) appear only in flashbacks, and we never hear them speak. (We never even hear Ferlinghetti speak during his trial). Ginsberg refers to his parents repeatedly (he feared his his father’s disapproval), but we don’t really learn much about them. Defenders of the film argue that it is meant as literary criticism, not as an attempt to fictionally portray Ginsberg’s life. Maybe so, but I prefer films that affect me on an emotional as well as an intellectual level.

One thing I can say for the film is that it did make me want to read more of Ginsberg’s writing.

Never Come Morning

October 23, 2010

Norman Podhoretz, the neoconservative guru, once asked the most cosmically stupid question I ever heard: “Why does [Nelson] Algren always write about bums?” Well, first of all, bums exist. I’ve seen them in every part of the country I’ve ever lived in. I’ve talked to them. I have given some of them rides on occasion.

Let’s look at the question another way. Leo Tolstoy wrote about Russian aristocrats. Thomas Mann wrote about middle class Germans. You write about what you know about. That may be a platitude, but ideas become platitudes because they happen to be true. When John Steinbeck wrote about the European resistance in World War Two, the result was flat and unconvincing. He was more successful writing about Okie farmers who lost their land. This is partly because he actually talked to such people, and partly, and perhaps more importantly, because he something about the physical environment that these people lived in.

However, it was more than just familiarity that prompted Algren to write about outcasts. He believed that it is necessary for us to understand such people. In an introduction written for the 1963 edition of Never Come Morning, Algren explained his concern with society’s dispossessed:

    I felt then, as now, that the presence of the YMCA, of settlement houses and of churches… could have no greater modifying effect on incidence of local crime than so many loan agencies, so long as the people who run the schools, the people who run the churches and the banks, the people who elect people and get out the newspapers feel no identification with the outcast man and the outcast woman. Anything less than such identification is contempt – and no man is quicker to sense contempt than the outcast. None is more swift to return contempt for contempt.

He also wrote:

    Nor all your pity nor all your preaching, nor all your crusades nor all your threats can stop one girl from going on the turf, can stop one mugging, can keep one promising youth from becoming a drug addict, so long as the force that drives the owners our civilization is away from those who own nothing at all.

The novel tells the story of Bruno “Lefty” Bicek, a small-time hoodlum and aspiring boxer in 1930’s Chicago. He works for Bonifacy “Barber” Konstantine, a petty gangster and pimp. (Barber’s apartment is decorated with parrots in tiny cages, a metaphor for how he controls other people.) Bruno’s girlfriend, Steffie, is raped by thugs working for Barber and forced to work in his brothel. Meanwhile, Bruno is arrested for a robbery and spends time in jail. During this period, he is haunted by the fear that the police will discover that he once killed a man in an alley fight. After his release, Bruno is offered a large amount of money to box a well-known fighter. He sees this as his opportunity to rescue Steffi and to start a new life. However, Bruno finds that breaking free of the Barber’s control is not an easy thing to do.

Never Come Morning is a work of heart-breaking beauty. The story’s brutality is leavened by the compassion and understanding that Algren shows for his characters. I consider it one of the great novels of the twentieth century.

Not Really a Review of Never Let Me Go

October 18, 2010

I am debating in my mind whether or not to see the new British film, Never Let Me Go, which is directed by Mark Romanek and based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. I looked up Ishiguro’s novel on Wikipedia, and when I read the synopsis, I was startled to learn that it has the same basic idea as The Clonus Horror, a Grade B science fiction movie that was made in 1979, and which starred Peter Graves, Dick Sargent and Keenan Wynn. (You may recall that it was shown on Mystery Science Theatre 3000.) It tells the story of a group of people who discover that they’re really clones, and they’re going to eventually be killed so their organs can be harvested. Since Ishiguro wrote the novel in 2005, I think it likely that he got the idea from The Clonus Horror. (He may have watched it on MST3K.) The novel was shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize. It did pretty well for a book inspired by a bad movie.

At first it struck me as cheesy that Ishiguro would take an idea from a movie that appeared on MST3K. On further reflection, however, I can’t really fault him for this. Having done some writing myself, I know that coming up with ideas is hard. Shakespeare had to get his stories from wherever he could find them. My problem is that I don’t know if I’ll be able to take this film seriously, knowing its origins. What’s more, the trailer makes it look like one of those self-consciously arty, but decidedly middlebrow, British films. I’ve had bad experiences with those things in the past. On the other hand, it does have Carey Mulligan, whom I liked very much in An Education. Then again, the wikipedia article says that the novel ends with the main character resigned to being killed and her organs being harvested. Yuck. The hero of The Clonus Horror at least fights back. That’s the kind of story I like to see.

Somebody in Boots

September 11, 2010

I started to read Nelson Algren‘s Somebody in Boots several years ago. I had just been laid off from a job, and I badly needed cheering up. Unfortunately, Somebody in Boots is not the sort of book you should read when you need cheering up. I put it aside, and it’s not until recently that I worked myself up to finish it. First published in 1935, it is Algren’s first novel. It didn’t sell well at the time, and it’s not hard to see why. This book is a glimpse into Hell.

Cass McKay lives with his abusive father and his brother and sister in a small town in Texas. His life is so bleak and hopeless that he actually envies the tramps who pass through town. At least they get to move around. HIs family eventually falls apart under the pressure of poverty and of alcohol. Cass leaves home and starts riding the rails himself.

Whatever romantic notions you may have about a hobo’s life will be pretty much demolished by this book. Algren describes in pitiless detail the many miseries of this existence: loneliness, boredom, lack of food, lack of sleep, eating bad food in soup kitchens. The hobos in this book live in continual fear of being arrested by the police or of being beaten by railroad dicks.

One problem that I’m sure that many people will have with this book is that Cass is not a good person. Among other things, he takes part in the gang rape of a woman. Later, he almost rapes an adolescent girl. He is a racist, as is almost everybody he meets. (The world depicted in this book is saturated with racism. The Black and Mexican characters get the worst of it.) Cass is clearly a product of his brutal environment, but Algren doesn’t try to soften the edges of his personality for that reason. If we feel any sympathy for Cass, it’s because some of the people he meets are even worse than he is.

Cass eventually winds up in a nightmarish Texas jail. There he comes under the influence of a fellow inmate, a sadistic bully named Nubby O’Neil. Nubby takes Cass under his wing, promising to take Cass to Chicago after they get out. Although Algren doesn’t press the point, there is clearly something vaguely fascistic about the relationship between the two men. In Chicago they break into a store. The police show up, and in the confusion Cass takes off with all the money. While hiding from Nubby, he takes up with a prostitute, Nora. Cass develops a genuine tenderness and concern for Nora. The irony is that this seeming humanization of Cass merely leads to a new criminal career. He and Nora start robbing drugstores in the manner of Bonnie & Clyde.

Towards the end of the book, Cass befriends a Black man, and the two of them attend Communist Party meetings, where they hear Black and white workers talk about fighting back against their exploiters. For a time it seems as though Cass is going to be redeemed after all, but Algren doesn’t go that route. Some people have accused Algren of being too pessimistic, but it seems to me that he was trying to say that there are no easy answers. This is a powerful and disturbing book. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but it is well worth reading nonetheless.

The Journal of Albion Moonlight

August 29, 2010

In Kenneth Patchen‘s novel, The Journal of Albion Moonlight, the title character leads a group of people who are fleeing across the country. We’re never told from whom they are running away or why they are running. A pack of vicious dogs is pursuing them. They are looking for a town named Galen, where they are supposed to meet someone named Roivas. At least, this is what we are told in the beginning. The details keep changing, much as they do in a dream. The point-of-view changes from the first person to the second person and back again. However, certain events keep recurring, often in altered forms. Certain ideas and characters keep reappearing. These things create a thread that give the novel a sense of continuity.

Patchen wrote this book right after the Second World War had broken out, and the war’s presence is felt throughout the novel. The dogs clearly represent the war, which threatens to destroy humanity, represented by Albion and his comrades. Patchen was a pacifist; his hatred for war and what it does to people is palpable. What also comes through is his hatred for capitalism, which he clearly sees as being at the root of the conflict. For example, he writes:

    There is only one way to end war: that is by bringing Capitalism to an end.
    There is only one way to end Capitalism: that is by Revolution.
    There is only one way for Revolution to succeed: that is by establishing a world-wide Socialism.
    This is the task of mankind. This will be done.
    Capitalism and Fascism are one under the iron mask.
    Capitalist economy leads inevitably to War;

    To fight against War is to fight against the Capitalist State.

Later, Patchen writes about an encounter between Albion and a recruiting officer:

    Recruiting Officer: Sign here.
    Moonlight: I will not.
    Recruiting Officer:Oh, you won’t, eh? Why not?
    Moonlight: I refuse to fight your war.
    Recruiting Officer: My war! What the hell… won’t you fight for your country?
    Moonlight: Yes, I will fight for my country.
    Recruiting Officer: O.K. That’s better. Here… on this line.
    Moonlight: But I told you I wouldn’t sign it.
    Recruiting Officer: Look, guy, I ain’t got all day. I thought you said you’d fight for your country
    Moonlight: I did; but you’re not my country.
    Recruiting Officer: What the hell have I got to do with it?
    Moonlight: Everything. You’re the only face of government I’ve ever seen – the mill cops, the dicks on the railroad…

Later, Albion argues with another officer:

    Number Seven: Look fellah, maybe you don’t know what you’re up against. Do you know what happens to conscientious objectors?
    Moonlight: I know what happens to soldiers when they get a bayonet in the gut.
    Number Seven: Oh, that’s it? So, you’re just plain afraid, eh?
    Moonlight: Yes, I”m plain afraid and fancy afraid, but that isn’t my reason for refusing to fight in an Imperialist war.
    Number Seven: Ahha, so that’s it – a Red.
    Moonlight: Yes, I’m a Red and a Black and a Brown and a Yellow and a White; I’m a Negro, a Chinaman, a German, a Spaniard, a Swiss.
    Number Seven: Don’t get cute…
    Moonlight: I’m the grandson of a man who was killed in a coal mine because the owners saved a few dollars on timber; I’m the son of a man who worked thirty years on a farm and was buried in a pauper’s grave; I’m the friend of a man who was lynched because he had a black skin…
    Number Seven: You dirty son-of-a-bitch…
    Moonlight: And you sit there on your flabby ass and ask me to sign a paper saying that I’ll take a rifle and shoot down my own people.
    Number Seven: We’ll take care of you.
    Moonlight: I said my own people… I refuse to kill in your defense – so long as there is war between nations, the working classes of the world will be blinded to one simple fact: that they have only one enemy – the German people, the English, the Dutch, the Japanese, the Mexican – one common enemy; and that is Capitalism.

For all that, Patchen didn’t approve of the organized Left. He ridicules the Communist Party, and he is dismissive of the Trotskyists. Patchen doesn’t try to put forward any kind of political program. He leaves it to the reader to try to find a way forward.

Another theme is Patchen’s deeply conflicted attitude towards religion. He apparently detested organized religion, yet he was obsessed with the figure of Christ, who appears as a character in the novel. There are numerous references to the crucifixion and the virgin birth. Patchen seemed to regard Christ as representing a spiritual and moral perfection that humans are not able – or are perhaps unwilling – to attain. At other times, Patchen seems to be struggling with the whole concept of God. (Not surprisingly, Patchen admired Melville.)

The novel is filled with acts of violence, some of them committed by the eponymous hero. We’re shown a world in which no one is innocent, a world where people readily betray one another. Yet there are humorous moments and even some deliberate silliness. The Journal of Albion Moonlight is not always an easy book to read. There are passages of stream-of-consciousness writing, and in some places there are two parallel texts on the same page. Yet for all that, it is the richest and most rewarding book I have read in a long time.

The Beats: A Graphic History

August 13, 2010

Non-fiction graphic works are a relatively new development. Harvey Pekar has been a pioneer in this field, with among other things, his history of the SDS. The Beats: A Graphic History, written by Pekar with Paul Buhle, Ed Piskor, et al.; shows both the strengths and weaknesses of this genre. Although it is overall a compelling portrait of the Beats, there are some aspects of it I found unsatisfying.

The label “Beat” has been applied to a wide variety of writers and artists from the mid-twentieth century. One thing they all seemed to have in common was a hostility to convention and to societal restraints. Pekar believed that they paved the way for the counterculture of the 1960’s. Interestingly, they tended, with the notable exception of Burroughs, to come from working class or lower middle class backgrounds: Kerouac’s mother was a factory worker, Kenneth Patchen was the son of a steelworker, Slim Brundage’s father dug ditches, Diane Di Prima’s grandfather was an anarchist, and so on. They tended to be left-wing in their views (though Kerouac and Burroughs were politically right-wing). Another common characteristic among these writers was an attraction to Buddhism. Allen Ginzberg became a devoted practitioner of the religion. Philip Whalen went so far as to have himself ordained as a Buddhist monk. (William Everson, however, became a Dominican.) Pekar doesn’t try to explain this attraction. Were these people merely rebelling against the churches they were brought up in, or was there more to it than that? Sadly, Buddhism didn’t help Kerouac with the severe alcoholism that led to his untimely death. (The Buddhist writer, D.T. Suzuki, tried unsuccessfully to get him to give up alcohol for green tea.)

Pekar devotes the largest section of the book to Kerouac, Ginzberg and Burroughs. Characteristically, his portrayals of these people are unromantic. He shows their faults as well as their achievements. His portrait of Burroughs is actually disturbing. (I remember during the 1980’s, Burroughs enjoyed an eerie popularity. All my would-be hipster friends regarded him as the quintessence of cool. Of course, all that was shot to Hell when Burroughs appeared in a Nike commercial.) Some of Pekar’s portrayals of other Beats are too short and perfunctory. The effect at times is a bit like reading trading cards about Beats.

Most of Pekar’s contributions are drawn by Ed Piskor, who draws in a very traditional comic book style. The result is a bit predictable and becomes monotonous after a while. The contributions by other artists (Jay Kinney, Nick Thorkelson, Summer McClinton, Peter Kuper, Mary Fleener, Jerome Neukirch, Anne Timmons, Gary Dumm, Lance Tooks and Jeffrey Lewis) are more visually adventurous and therefore more satisfying as well as more in keeping with the spirit of the Beats.

I wish Pekar hadn’t relied so much on Piskor. However, this book is still a good introduction to the Beats.

Harvey Pekar (1939-2010)

July 17, 2010

I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Harvey Pekar, one of my personal heroes. I knew he had been having health problems for a long time, but still the news of his death came as a bit of a shock. I was hoping that he would still be with us for quite a while.

Pekar’s American Splendor comics broadened the art of storytelling. He had a remarkable ability to find humor and poignance in every-day situations. His comics make “minimalist” short story writers look pathetic. One of the things I like about him is his willingness to talk about what it’s like to work in a mind-numbing, dead end job and about what it feels like to be poor. These are things that usually aren’t talked about in our culture.

I can’t quite recall how I first learned about Harvey Pekar. I dimly remember being aware of who he was back in the 1980’s, though I’m not sure exactly how. (I didn’t see any of his appearances on the Letterman show until years later.) When I lived in New York in the 1990’s, I would read jazz commentaries of his in the Village Voice. However, I didn’t really become deeply interested in his work until I saw the film, American Splendor, several years ago. I then plowed through a chunk of his comics as well as the books, Unsung Hero and Ego & Hubris. I realized in retrospect that the film had somewhat depoliticized him. It also glossed over some of the darker aspects of his writing.

I just finished reading The Quitter, and I was struck by Pekar’s unwillingness to romanticize or justify himself in any way. In one anecdote, for example, he admits he deserved to be fired from a job. He also recounts a humiliating incident that led to his being discharged from the Navy. There is something bracing about this kind of honesty.

Pekar will be missed.

The White Ribbon

March 16, 2010

I recently went to see The White Ribbon, a film by the Austrian director, Michael Haneke. It is set in a small town in northern Germany, Eichwald, just before the outbreak of the First World War. The story, which is told in a series of vignettes, takes place over the course of one year. During this time, a number of violent crimes are committed. The local school teacher (Christian Friedel) gradually comes to the conclusion that a group of children are behind them.

Life in Eichwald is suffused with brutality, mostly psychological, but sometimes physical. This brutality stems from two things: the feudal social relations in the town, and the severe Lutheranism preached by the pastor (Burghart Klau├čner). Most of the people in the town are peasants, and half of them work for the local baron (Ulrich Tukur). The tensions this creates are illustrated by, among other things, the fact that the residents of the town are servile towards the baron, while the baron’s pampered son, Sigi, becomes a target of violence by the local children. (The town doctor (Rainer Bock) is the only character who doesn’t seem to fit into the class dynamics of this situation. Unlike the others, he seems to be motivated by pure selfishness. Perhaps this is Haneke’s view of the middle class.) It’s not hard to see that we’re meant to view the events of this film in the context of Germany’s history in the twentieth century.

The White Ribbon is a haunting and disturbing film, all the more so because the issues are left unresolved at the end. It’s the type of movie that you keep thinking about for days after you see it.

As I was watching this film, I couldn’t help thinking of the picture books of Wilhelm Busch, which were hugely popular in Second Empire Germany. These often told stories of children who play cruel tricks. The most famous of these is Max und Moritz, which inspired the first American comic strip, The Katzenjammer Kids. The book is funny, but at the same time there is something kind of awful about it, because of the sheer nastiness of the children’s pranks. In one episode, they put gunpowder in a man’s pipe. When he smokes it, it explodes, blackening his face and burning all his hair away. (Needless to say, Busch graphically illustrates this.) Elsewhere, we see Max and Moritz laughing and cheering while a man falls into a rushing river and nearly drowns. It could be argued that that Max and Moritz are the literary forebears of Bart Simpson. I would be interested to know if Matt Groening has read Busch’s books.

The reason I bring all this up is that I suspect that Haneke may have had Busch in the back of his mind when he was writing the script. However, there is nothing humorous about the children’s crimes in this film. I must say, though, this movie might have benefited from a bit of comedy. The scenes in which the schoolteacher awkwardly tries to woo a painfully shy girl, Eva (Leonie Benesch), are vaguely humorous and provide a much needed respite from the brutality in much of the rest of this film.

As I said before, though, The White Ribbon is worth seeing. It is one of the more memorable movies that I have watched recently.