About Me

My photo
Go out with you? Why not... Do I like to dance? Of course! Take a walk along the beach tonight? I'd love to. But don't try to touch me. Don't try to touch me. Because that will never happen again. "Past, Present and Future"-The Shangri-Las

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Outlaws and Inlaws, Part the Second.

I've expanded the scope of this "reviewing short story anthologies" project by adding a couple more anthologies: Calling the Wind: Twentieth-Century African-American Short Stories, Ed. Clarence Major, and Dangerous Visions, Ed. Harlan Ellison (a "classic" science fiction anthology upon which I gorged as a teen). 

From The Outlaw Bible:

Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs: Gonzo, performative account of sex. There’s a lot of butter in this pastry, but celebrations of carnal love were arguably revolutionary acts at the time, and Bangs unleashes the same flavor of psychedelic sweat that perfumes the urgent rock criticism for which his name is the name brand.

Complete by Patti Smith: An ecstatic evocation of erotic magic qua musical performance qua sex. Smith shuffles identity options like tarot cards; a womanly Walt Whitman containing mutually exclusive multitudes. I could feel John Knox and Jonathan Edwards screaming in my cerebrum as I read this lusty pagan invocation. Suffer, boys.

For more Patti Smith poetry, in convenient audio format, check out: http://www.ubu.com/sound/smith.html

L'anarchie flier by Patti Smith: A manifesto demanding that rock radio maintain its indie integrity and play the real music, man, the music of the people, instead of selling out to huge financial interests.

Decades after she wrote this, a morning show DJ I knew told me how fired up he was about the fresh talent he’d heard at a recent music festival.

“Are you gonna play them on your show?” I asked.

“Naw, we have to play off a list they send us,” he replied.

Then Clearchannel (now iheartmedia) bought his station and fired all the off-mike people a few weeks before Christmas. Sorry, Patti Smith, you lost.

Paradoxia by Lydia Lunch: Dirty grimy sexy adventures between a drug-loving klepto who may or may not be Lunch herself, and a Bad Boy who’s obviously trouble. Leather-jacket rough erotica. Hallway knife-humping. Outlaw indeed!

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk: Tyler Durden’s organization is even more of a Bro Terrorist Network than in the film; forget “You have to fight”; all recruits to Project Mayhem are ordered to kill someone. A big contrast with my fight club, where the first rule is have fun and be safe.

The second rule of my fight club is that you guys gotta eat all this pizza, cuz I’m not taking any home.

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller :The narrator accompanies a guy from India around Paris, including that most representative emblem of civilization, the brothel. A scatological misunderstanding (the Indian guy poops in the bidet) becomes the central motif of the narrator’s conversion to amoral nihilism. Miller’s case for this conversion is flimsy. It turns on raw speculation; what if the whole universe is just poop in a brothel bidet? To which one can respond, yeah, and what if it isn’t?) but I find his prose rich and seductive in a way his ideas aren’t.  

Ask Dr. Mueller by Cookie Mueller: Mueller costarred in the classic underground cinematic provocation Pink Flamingos, and this is a behind-the-scenes account that surprised me. The surprise is just how normal and level-headed everyone is; the characters in this film are grotesque monsters, but the performers are civilized and charming. The only unreasonable person in the story is Mueller’s mom, who tries to stop Mueller from letting her baby appear in the film. Happily, Mueller’s baby did make her screen debut as Noodles, a name which sadly does not appear in any baby name book. Such stardom may not be the most divine gift a mother can give, but it’s a start.

Pimp by Iceberg Slim: Slim shows us a night in a dangerous brothel, where a stew of lusts and yearnings keeps everybody swirling like bladed, bleeding tops. Frightening, but Slim’s prose is zesty and enthusiastic.

Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz: A young man is either getting raped by a delusional motormouth, or participating in full-immersion BDSM edgeplay. Wojnarowicz ain’t showing his hand, but he shows plenty else. Woj led a short, intense life and wasn’t afraid to take readers into the pains and pleasures he knew in his allotted time.

What did I do? by Larry Rivers: As a painter, Rivers deftly rethinks the genre of portraiture, and in this evidently autobiographical excerpt he delineates a time when he was trapped in alcohol, and an utterly worthless husband/father. Glimpses of his creative process whiz by, but it’s the human cost of alcoholism (and unhappy early marriages) that registers. Rivers sits in strip clubs wishing he was a better father to his kids. Compulsive wasted energy. Go check out his paintings; dunno if he shaped up as a family man, but at least in his art he was able to salvage some value from his life.

American Splendor Anthology by Harvey Pekar: Pekar wrote comics, and this one’s a squirmy account of a confrontational appearance on David Letterman. While his collaborations with underground cartoon master R. Crumb, who’s a virtuoso draftsman, brought Pekar to the world’s attention, he’s worked with a real grab-bag of artists, one of whom illuminates this anecdote, and the awkward figures in this comic are like monumental primitive sculptures snarling at each other.

Don Quixote by Kathy Acker: It’s never possible to tell how sincere Acker is being; her brand of faux-naif faux-confessional is endlessly slippery. So this rant about how the musician Prince should be the President of the United States is a tough one to pin down; taken straight, it’s as doltish a bit of neo-romantic populism as you could find. The lightest of editing could transform it into a pro-Trump editorial, which proves that its arguments are utterly invalid, but Acker’s real point may be an endorsement of Prince/Acker’s performative show-biz over the clammy pieties of the politicking class. RIP, Prince and Acker.

Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr.: Another account of substance-abusing street hustling. This time the protagonist is a pretty drunk woman who grifts a naive Navy boy. Naturally he falls in love with her, and she's not sure how best to strip-mine his wallet and break away clean. Low key prose, very different in manner from the hyperventilating expressionism of Requiem For a Dream, which was my only previous encounter with Selby.

Tin Pan Alley by Barney Rosset: This story rips the lid off depressing dive bars; it’s pretty straight-ahead prose, but if you ever feel the urge to hang out in a crummy bar strictly for the low-life atmosphere, you might prefer this lo-cal literary substitute. The single most interesting thing I found in it is the observation that the bar's low-grade Pan-European decor creates a nowhere/everywhere pocket dimension in Chicago; a pomo observation in a drably realist account.

An American Dream by Norman Mailer: A gorgon of an ex-wife hurts a man’s feelings, so he goes into a mystically sexual fugue state and strangles her to death. Seems to me that this little daydream crawled out of Mailer’s spank bank. The woman is portrayed with no surfeit of compassion; while representation does not equal as endorsement, there’s little evidence that Mailer was trying to raise awareness of domestic abuse. This smells more like revenge on an ex, although the prose has a practiced swagger that reminds us that Mailer was once a lauded Hemingway aspirant. He was also sufficiently prolific that the editors of this collection probably could have found a less repellent excerpt, but I guess that wouldn’t be very Outlaw of them. People who like compassionless portrayals of men hurting women will enjoy adding this story to their own personal spank banks.

For some reason I read the novel from which this thing is excerpted at a way too early age. I remember a lot of enthusiastic descriptions of rectal romance and the protagonist proving his manhood to another guy by getting drunk and balance-walking on a balcony railing. Norman Mailer! He's a Great Writer, kids.

From Best American Fiction of the Twentieth Century:
The Other Woman by Sherwood Anderson: A successful man is about to marry a seemingly perfect girl, but is compelled to dally with a plain, earthy married woman who works at a newsstand. The subtle twist ending leaves me in agony for everyone involved. Anderson’s neurotic fiction always puts me in mind of David Lynch, although Douglas Sirk is probably a more direct cinematic descendant.

The Golden Honeymoon by Ring Lardner: A chatty, henpecked nonsophisticate takes his wife on a glamourless vacation and gets stuck with some boring companions. You might feel like you’re stuck with a bore yourself if you read this, but there’s a wit at work. Sometimes it’s the guy telling the story being witty, and sometimes it’s Lardner himself having fun at his protagonist’s expense. Once I gave up on trying to figure out why this was in an anthology with Best in the title I found it pleasant enough. It probably packed more punch before its sell-by date; now it feels like Dave Barry by way of Norman Rockwell, which isn't terrible, but.

Blood-Burning Moon by Jean Toomer: Now this is a lot more like it. A pretty young African-American woman is in love with two men; one a wealthy white guy who yearns for the days of slavery, and the other a black man with anger issues. It’s hard to see how this could go wrong, but guess what: it does. Toomer (a cult figure of the Harlem Renaissance) works a powerful spell; the entire night in this southern sugar-cane town is like a tightly strung guitar that resounds at the slightest movement. People are emotional pinballs coruscating though a vivid landscape where animals seem to understand what's happening better than humans do, until the end when an ofay mob becomes a dumb bitter beast performing a pagan blood sacrifice. Toomer understands the petulant chimp-brained resentment that energizes racism. Scary insights, gorgeous storytelling.

The Killers by Ernest Hemingway: A source text for hard-boiled noir storytelling, with the core of mystery and despair that makes Hemingway’s best “iceberg fiction” (where 90% of what’s going on is hidden beneath the waves) so compelling.

From Calling the Wind:

The Goophered Grapevine
 by Charles Chesnutt: Post-Civil War, a white guy considers buying an abandoned plantation (not far from where I live) but a former slave tries to scare him off with some tall tales about a curse on the property. The first time I read this, a few years back, I was too anxious about Chesnutt’s motivations for his whiteface performance (my understanding is that, at the time, he was in the closet to his readers about being black) to appreciate the cunning of the ex-slave’s storytelling. The second time through, I was able to see how the slave delicately mocks the way slavery commodifies human beings.

The Ingrate by Paul Laurence Dunbar: A slaveowner teaches a slave to read, write, and do basic math, all so that the slave can be of greater utility.

Then the slave escapes north and joins the Union Army. The vicious punchline is foreshadowed by the story’s title; it's a takedown of white supremist crybabyness, and, sadly, still timely.

Mary Elizabeth by Jessie Fauset: A middle-class, married woman quarrels with her husband, then listens with amused condescension to her maid’s uncultivated tales of love and woe. Condescension vanishes, though, as the maid reveals the depth of her losses. This motivates the wealthier woman to make up with her husband in a drippily sentimental climax, but the real interest of the story is the communication between women from different classes. The fact that both women are African-American packs a lot of the race/class/gender issues that still bedevil Americans into a tiny space.

From Dangerous Visions:
Evensong by Lester Del Ray: This is a skeleton in my closet. I read an edited-for-time rendition of this story as a high school Forensics team member in the Prose Reading event. It's exactly the kind of story a 16-year-old prog-rock fan would think is really deep. Basically, the protagonist is a galaxy-spanning refugee from hostile humans who are desperate to imprison him. Eventually the humans, who have conquored every nook and cranny of the universe, capture him. He protests that "I am God!" and his captor sneers "But I am Man." Wha'd I tell you? Super deep, dude.

Del Ray handles the thrilling Space Opera stuff like a pro. One might perceive a measure of thematic depth in the ambiguously pro/anti God/Human nature of the story. Del Ray's afterword declares himself to be on the side of Humanity outpacing barriers and boundaries, but don't dive into Intentional Fallacy just yet, dear readers: the humans in his story are arrogant jerks, and there's no indication that their conquering of Creation is a net gain for anything except Humanity's collective self-admiration. Mostly, though, this story is E. E. "Doc" Smith after a few Composition courses.

Flies by Robert Silverberg: Aliens rescue and heal an injured spacefarer, then send him home to earth with one "improvement," an increased sensitivity to others' emotions. This sensitivity turns him into a sadistic junkie for other peoples' misery, so he seeks out all his exes and torments them horribly. Everything I said about that Norman Mailer bit pretty much pertains to this. The women are portrayed with an unsympathetic counter-feminist loathing. Also, there's a heapin' helpin' of extra sci-fi window dressing that ain't essential to the story; it's just there to keep the geeks comfortable. Still, if it did anything to break ground for Octavia Butler's similar but richer Kindred series (another story of aliens improving humans), I'm grateful for that.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

In Defense of Not Liking the Wonder Woman Movie Quite As Much As Everyone Else (While Remaining a Feminist)

Recently, I’ve disagreed with a friend of a friend about Richard Brody’s review of Wonder Woman, and, by extension, about the film itself. I thought I’d make my case here.

This, I believe, is the passage at the heart of our disagreement:

“Jenkins displays Diana’s fighting in two main forms: bullets come toward her in extreme slow motion, and she swats them away with her armor; and she makes martial-arts leaps toward her enemies, which get slowed down mid-leap before resuming their natural speed.

“In the film’s handful (an unusually scant handful) of warfare scenes, Jenkins doesn’t offer many variations on these two fighting modes; her modesty of style isn’t quite a modest style, nor one of conspicuously aestheticized restraint, like that of Jim Jarmusch or Sofia Coppola. Rather, it’s a style that displays neither its passion nor its reserve, and comes close to the realistic style of no style, as if in fear that a heightened or aestheticized one would ultimately contradict the point of the film and serve as a glorification of the very violence that it repudiates. It’s a superhero film with almost no excess.

“Even though Diana’s own battle skills are the peg for the movie’s action (and her fierce emergence from a trench to take on the Germans in no man’s land is one of the movie’s signal moments of uninhibited martial glory), it’s the fighting done by Steve and his human cohorts—warriors who lack Diana’s superhuman skills and, as a result, have to deploy a wide and varied range of human wiles—offers more cinematic fodder for Jenkins’s imagination. The movie’s one great action moment is a scene that brings together Steve’s tactical insight and Diana’s mighty abilities. The Fervent Five pursue Ludendorff to the Belgian village of Veld; there, they and the villagers come under siege from a German sniper who’s holed up in the bell tower of a church, and Steve comes up with a plan. Using a detached car door, he, Sammy, and Charlie provide Diana with a launching pad to catapult her up to the tower. The resulting mayhem is instantaneous and sublime; it’s also the movie’s most ecstatic and tightly packed symbolic moment, the one that illuminated the entire viewing experience, retroactively and through the rest of the action.”

I don’t want to quote the other party to our discussion without permission, but if I understand correctly, she believed that Brody:

1. Expresses, here, a preference for the men’s action that is rooted in misogyny, and

2. Overlooks the gloriousness and feminist affirmational power of Wonder Woman’s action scenes.

What I find in the quoted text is that Brody’s criticism of Diana’s action sequences is a formal one; too little tactical variety in the choreography for Brody’s liking. I’m not enough of an action enthusiast to break down, after a single viewing, the formal merits and demerits of the action scenes. Furthermore, I have no idea how good the men’s action scenes are, because I got bored and tuned out during the movie’s long midsection where it turns into a Band of Brothers story with Diana Prince as a garnish. Excuse me, I paid to see WONDER WOMAN, not these guys. So I dunno how robust the men’s action is.

But I also had formal problems with the action scenes that did highlight Wonder Woman, though I’ll acknowledge that my reasons are matters of subjective taste.

When I watch an action scene (and this goes to the heart of why I don’t generally dig superduper movies), I want to feel like the performers and fight/stunt choreographers worked overtime, while the special effects crew took the week off. I want the action to be centered on human bodies in motion.

Related: lately I’ve been fascinated by a silent short film by Maya Deren. (Go ahead, click on it, it’s barely longer than 2 minutes.)

Notice how Deren makes surprising choices about how she frames and edits the shots, yet always keeps the focus on the dancer’s body.

If I recall the Wonder Woman movie correctly, when Wonder Woman herself springs into action the postproduction team is laying on the Matrix bling and the old-school anime editing. This makes perfect sense; Wonder Woman is a demigoddess superheroine; why shouldn’t she trail clouds of shekinah glory? It’s just not my favorite flavor of action. I’m a stick in the mud about any movie that isn’t from the Wachowski Sisters using the cinematic vocabulary that Matrix brought to the game.

Wonder Woman’s final fight with Ares is particularly built on the methods of limited-animation anime, which I love… in anime. In live action I’m less delighted to see action cobbled together with Eisensteinian editing. If the movie is putatively live-action, I want the visceral physicality of bodies in motion. Action scenes are dance scenes, after all, and I prefer dance scenes where the choreographer deserves more credit than the editor.

Anyway, it seems to me that Brody’s objections are similar, though not identical, to mine; rooted in cinematic formalist concerns, not misogyny.

As for the feminist affirmational power of the film, I yield the floor.

(P.S. I did like the movie quite a bit)