Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Hello Denali!

Every year in the days running up to the Academy Awards, Mrs. Word Player and I scramble to watch the nominated films in order to better fill out our Oscar picks. In an oddly timed juxtaposition, we watched Sean Penn's INTO THE WILD, an adaptation of Jon Krakauer's 1996 non-fiction bestseller of the same name, the day after I wrote about Huysman's Against Nature.

"For Nature" vs. Against Nature, I thought as I watched the film, with both lives-as-arguments taken to unhealthy extremes.

"Happiness is only real when shared"

I'd read Krakauer's Into Thin Air (1997) and the revelatory Under the Banner of Heaven (2003), but somehow missed Into the Wild. I enjoyed the evocative movie version, especially Penn's direction and Emile Hirsch's vital portrayal of Krakauer's doomed subject Christopher McCandless, and seeing all the beautiful Alaska locations really sent me back in time to my trip to Alaska.

It was only during the final scenes of the film that I put 2 and 2 together and realized that I had been in Alaska at exactly the same time McCandless was, the Summer of 1992, and had come within a few dozen miles of his "Magic Bus" on the Stampede Trail near Denali (aka Mt. McKinley).

I took this pic of Denali moments before being swarmed by millions of mosquitos

It was an unexpectedly eerie realization, not that I might have met him, but that I certainly ran into quite a few people like him during that summer. In fact, the wispy beard and unkempt curls I came home with looked quite a bit like Hirsch/McCandless's.

The trip began in North Carolina, and had an auspicious first stop in Memphis, TN where we heard then-Senator Al Gore speak about the environment and his newly published book Earth in the Balance. Because Gore was a family friend of our close friend and host for the night Mr. JG, we also came away with the inscription below (which instantly became much cooler a month later when Gore was named Bill Clinton's running mate).

My traveling companion Mr. MW and I weren't quite as hardcore (or anti-capitalist) as McCandless, and decided to target work in the salmon canneries of Kenai after hearing one too many horror story of people losing fingers (or worse) working the more lucrative fishing boats in Bristol Bay or the Gulf of Alaska. We wanted to return to UNC with cash in pocket, stories to tell, and all twenty fingers and toes.

I've always considered myself a city boy, and very much needed MW's nose for the outdoors to survive and thrive that summer, but I'll never forget the sensation of sleeping in a tent every night, hitchhiking across Alaska carrying all my possessions on my back, cooking salmon on an open campfire, and smelling really really bad after coming home from an eighteen hour shift on the "slime line".

The ability to read by the midnight sun was a huge perk

Alaska is just so enormous, so unspoiled, so beautiful, so awe-inspiring, so natural, that it's easy for me to understand how McCandless became so intoxicated by it that he thought he could harness its power all by himself.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Dog Ears #11: Against Nature (A Rebours)

Coincidentally, the protagonist of Zeroville, the last book I read, was obsessed with making a film based on Là-Bas, which was written by Joris-Karl Huysmans, the author of the next book in my to-read stack Against Nature (A Rebours). Against Nature was published in 1884 and caused a major stir in the literary community for its break with Naturalism, glorifying of Decadence, general blasphemy and controversial explosion/expansion of the scope of a novel.

Haven't we all known guys like this?

Huysman's fin de siècle novel has only one character, virtually no narrative storyline, and exists primarily to catalogue the scathing musings of its misanthropic protagonist, the solipsistic and effete aesthete Des Esseintes, who is a barely-fictionalized version of Huysmans himself.

In other words Against Nature is Huysman's blog, his forum for hating on the unworthy and loving on his faves and generally saying "look at how clever I am!" Fortunately for Huysmans, he was an enormously talented (and tormented, and viciously funny) writer and Against Nature holds up as a mammoth treatise on life, misery and the pursuit of the unattainable. Any fan of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray should read Against Nature, the "poisonous French novel" that sends Dorian down the path of debauchery and madness.

One final note, this book is the inspiration for Steely Dan's 2000 album Two Against Nature, and I imagine any Dan fans who've read up about the personal lives of Mssrs Becker and Fagan and/or listened closely to their lyrics will agree it's an inspired choice.

From the Introduction by Patrick McGuinness

p xvi "Perhaps the belief that there was nothing new was itself a necessary prelude to creating the new."

p xxxiii "How could a novel so ending-obsessed, plotless and gridlocked by description be seen as liberating? In certain respects, it was a version of Flaubert's dream of a book 'about nothing'."
- perhaps Jerry and Larry were fans of Against Nature too?

From Against Nature

p21 higgledy-piggledy|ˈhigəldē ˈpigəldē|
adverb & adjective
in confusion or disorder : [as adv. ] bits of paper hanging higgledy-piggledy on the furniture and walls | [as adj. ] a higgledy-piggledy mountain of newspapers.
ORIGIN late 16th cent.: rhyming jingle, probably with reference to the irregular herding together of pigs.

p22 "Nature, he used to say, has had her day; she has finally and utterly exhausted the patience of sensitive observers by the revolting uniformity of her landscapes and skyscapes."

Don't get Des Esseintes started on Gustave Moreau...

p28 caesura |siˈ zh oŏrə; -ˈzoŏrə|
(in Greek and Latin verse) a break between words within a metrical foot.
• (in modern verse) a pause near the middle of a line.
• any interruption or break : an unaccountable caesura: no deaths were reported in the newspapers.
ORIGIN mid 16th cent.: from Latin, from caes- ‘cut, hewn,’ from the verb caedere.

prosody |ˈpräsədē|
the patterns of rhythm and sound used in poetry : the translator is not obliged to reproduce the prosody of the original.
• the theory or study of these patterns, or the rules governing them.
• the patterns of stress and intonation in a language : the salience of prosody in child language acquisition | early English prosodies.

p56 aquarelle |ˌäkwəˈrel; ˌak-|
a style of painting using thin, typically transparent, watercolors.
• a painting in such a style.
ORIGIN mid 19th cent.: from French, from Italian acquarella ‘watercolor,’ diminutive of acqua, from Latin aqua ‘water.’

p75 casuist |ˈka zh oōist|
a person who uses clever but unsound reasoning, esp. in relation to moral questions; a sophist.
• a person who resolves moral problems by the application of theoretical rules to particular instances.

p76 "For several days in succession, his brain was a seething mass of paradoxes and sophisms, a tangle of split hairs, a maze of rules as complicated as the clauses of law, open to every conceivable interpretation and every kind of quibble, and leading up to a system of celestial jurisprudence of positively baroque subtlety."

an illustration by Arthur Zaidenberg from the 1931 Illustrated Editions issue of A Rebours

p94 "... and it is of course true that, just as the loveliest melody in the world becomes unbearably vulgar once the public start humming it and the barrel-organs playing it, so the work of art that appeals to charlatans, endears itself to fools, and is not content ti arouse the enthusiasm of a few connoisseurs, is thereby polluted in the eyes of the initiate and becomes commonplace, almost repulsive."

p110 ritornel/ritornello |ˌritərˈnelō|
noun ( pl. -nellos or -nelli |-ˈnelē|) Music
a short instrumental refrain or interlude in a vocal work.
• a recurring tutti section in a concerto.
ORIGIN Italian, diminutive of ritorno ‘return.’

p118 "Once again, he told himself, the solitude he had longed for so ardently and finally obtained had resulted in appalling unhappiness, while the silence which he had once regarded as well-merited compensation for the nonsense he had listened to for years now weighed unbearably upon him."

p125 trencherwoman/trencherman |ˈtren ch ərmən|
noun ( pl. -men) [usu. with adj. ] humorous
a person who eats in a specified manner, typically heartily : he is a hearty trencherman, as befits a man of his girth.

p141 panegyrist/panegyrize |ˈpanəjəˌrīz|
verb [ trans. ] archaic
speak or write in praise of; eulogize.

p145 purblind |ˈpərˌblīnd|
having impaired or defective vision.
• figurative slow or unable to understand; dim-witted.

p161 "Yet, the staff of a tavern were every bit as stupid and mercenary, as base and depraved, as the staff of a brothel. Like the latter, they drank without being thirsty, laughed without being amused, drooled over the caresses of the filthiest workman and went for each other hammer and tongs at the slightest provocation."
- I hereby promise to try and start working "go at it hammer and tongs" into conversation

p170 sudorific |ˌsoōdəˈrifik| Medicine
relating to or causing sweating.
a drug that induces sweating.
ORIGIN early 17th cent.: from modern Latin sudorificus, from Latin sudor ‘sweat.’

p183 hieratic |ˌhī(ə)ˈratik|
of or concerning priests : he raised both his arms in an outlandish hieratic gesture.
• of or in the ancient Egyptian writing of abridged hieroglyphics used by priests. Compare with demotic .
• of or concerning Egyptian or Greek styles of art adhering to early methods as laid down by religious tradition.

p193 Des Esseintes, while fantasizing about never eating again while receiving all of his nourishment in the form of "peptone enemas", mutters:

"What an absolute release from the boredom that invariably results from the necessarily limited choice of dishes! What a vigorous protest against the vile sin of gluttony! And last but not least, what a slap in the face of Mother Nature, whose monotonous demands would be permanently silenced!"

From Appendix II

p222 alembicated/alembic |əˈlembik|
a distilling apparatus, now obsolete, consisting of a rounded, necked flask and a cap with a long beak for condensing and conveying the products to a receiver.

p223 (from Emile Goudeau's 1884 review of Against Nature):

M. Huysmans, with a remarkable talent and stupefying erudition, has put together in his book Against Nature all the elements of human despair. He has solidly spat on every pleasure, and kept for himself the terrible joy of abolishing human joy. An unhealthy book, but artistically very beautiful, perfectly crafted and skillfully wrought.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Dog Ears #10: Zeroville

Sometimes I hate myself for giving in to the siren song of movies again and again. Part of me thinks that I should know better by now. That I'm looking for something out of films that I can never find again.

Title is taken from Godard's ALPHAVILLE

This nagging gnawing feeling is magnified a thousandfold and distorted into cinematic metafiction in Steve Erickson's Zeroville, a 2007 book that came to my attention from a number of year-end "Best of 2007" lists. The cover art (sucker that I am?) intrigued me even more- why did this bald man have Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor from A PLACE IN THE SUN tattooed on his head, and what was he gazing at in that empty deep blue space?

Author Erickson is also the film critic for Los Angeles magazine (a good mag that, tellingly, I kept my subscription to during my four years in NYC), and he brings his cynical sense of humor and archivist's passion for films and the film industry to bear on this fictionalized narrative set among "real" Hollywood of the late 1960s, 70s, and early 80s. "Cinéautistic" protag Vikar (the fellow on the cover) either loses or finds his mind with the help of industry friends like John Milius, punk music, and a terrifying recurring dream that doesn't sound all that farfetched to a movie obsessive like me.

Vikar refers to Milius (seen here directing CONAN) as "Viking Man"

The book is frustrating, at times feeling like a self-satisfied collection of obscure film references and trivia held together by the haphazard wanderings of a more-violent Forrest Gump type. But there are stretches where Vikar's quest transcends the limitations of the structure and becomes something unique in its ability to communicate why people who perhaps should know better still look for something (unattainable?) in darkened movie theaters.

p42 "I mean, that's the whole thing about the movies," says the burglar*. "Bigger than the sum of the parts and all that? If the parts are too good, the whole is somehow less. I mean, you can't have, you know, Trane doing the score for Now, Voyager."

* yes, this is the kind of book where burglars wax poetic about the philosophy of cinema.

p119 "When Michael has Fredo killed, it isn't just Cain slaying Abel. It's Abraham sacrificing Isaac, because Michael has assumed the role of the father to his older brother, who has assumed the role of the son. Michael sacrifices the child to the god called Family; he destroys the family in its corruptible human form to preserve the idea of Family that's more divine, and to preserve Michael's love for Family that the older brother has betrayed."

p265 "The thing is, that movie last night* is a completely different movie when you watch it by yourself. Why is that? Movies are supposed to be watched with other people, aren't they? Isn't that the point of movies–you know, one of those social ritual things, with everyone watching? It never occurred to me a movie might be different when you don't watch it with anyone else."


p266 "Vikar says, 'Once Cassavetes told me about seeing A Place in the Sun when it came out. He hated it so much that he went back and saw it the next day and then every day for a week, until he realized he loved it. ... So why does that happen?... The movie hasn't changed. It's still the same exact movie, but it's like it sets something in motion, some understanding you didn't know you could understand, it's like a virus that had to get inside you and take hold and maybe you shrug it off–but when you don't, it kills you in a way, not necessarily in a bad way because maybe it kills something that's been holding you down or back, because when you hear a really really great record or see a really great movie, you feel alive in a way you didn't before...'"

Taylor saved a choking Clift's life by pulling two of his teeth out of his throat after he crashed his car in 1956

revolves around Vikar's obsession with two films in particular, George Stevens' A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951) and Carl Theodore Dreyer's THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928). Since I hadn't seen either before reading the book, I thought I'd at least check out one and rented A PLACE IN THE SUN. It's not a movie that you can necessarily "enjoy" on a story level, but the technique of the direction, cinematography and editing was certainly far ahead of its time. After seeing PLACE and from what I've gleaned about JOAN OF ARC, I think I understand the connection Vikar felt to these two films in particular. They both feature intimate close-ups that so fill up the screen that the viewer is drawn in deeper than they may be prepared for, and both feature stars (Clift and Maria Falconetti) whose success playing tragic roles on screen somehow translated to lives that became tragedies in reality.

That may be what makes film such a unique medium, not only can it be transcendent and transformative for the audience, but it exerts an even more powerful, and sometimes dangerous, pull on those who create them.