Archive | March, 2015

Interlude 1: Los Angeles Plays Itself/Among the Thugs.

30 Mar

1.

Los Angeles Plays Itself is pure dynamite.

Director Thom Anderson lays out an odd, compelling thesis: Los Angeles is a real city turned into a symbolic space, through the alchemy of Hollywood and movies. The city has, over the years, absorbed some of its cinematic reflection, and then been transmogrified into metaphor again.

With brilliant voice-over narration, and film clips from sixty or so movies, Anderson creates one of the best—and most important—documentaries in recent memory.

Quotable, thrilling, investigative, meditative, insightful—this documentary wanders through dozens of great films (and not so great ones), including Blade Runner, Chinatown, Sunset Blvd, Kiss Me Deadly, Falling Down, Outside Man, Zabriskie Point, Rising Son, American Me, and Marlowe. And if some of these are bad films, all of them become more intriguing viewed through Anderson’s prism of history, aesthetics, anthropology, art design and personal history.

I’ve always loved movies about movies—Scorsese’s Conversations with Marty is one of my first real journeys into the back alleys of cinema, and Odyssey: The Story of Film should be required viewing for all movie fans—but this is also a kind of not-so-secret, but forgotten, history of over 100 years of one of the U.S.’s greatest, and weirdest, cities.

I cannot believe how much I loved this movie.

I cannot believe how much I loved this movie.

He dissects half a dozen movies through the prism of transportation. “Loss of a car is a symbolic castration,” he says, and then lays out his evidence. This idea, of car equals masculinity (to white, wealthy Hollywood insiders) in Los Angeles, and without your car you are no longer man, appears again and again in dozens of films. And he reveals Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as an argument for good public transportation. (By the end of this segment, I agreed.)

He reinterprets—and for me, reinvigorates—bad action movies, Die Hard and Lethal Weapon 2, among them, as metaphorical attacks on Los Angeles architecture. Sounds bizarre? Well, it works.

Anderson is also opinionated. He has a miserly view of Woody Allen, for instance, who visits L.A. in Annie Hall. But he’s a canny critic of films with a great eye, and he offers a great study of film noir, as well as independent films about underrepresented ethnic groups.

He’s tightly focused but also conversational, with fascinating little asides and observations. By turns doomy and apocalyptic, acerbic and funny, insightful and even moving, I adored every exquisite minute of it.

The best thing Anderson does, though, is challenge the way I view movies. I’ve been too complacent about the connective tissue between films, relying on the auteur theory when this type of aggregate interpretation of a place is so much more meaningful.

 

2.

Among the Thugs is a horrifying, ghastly first-person exploration of English soccer hooliganism, and its connection to racist neo-Nazi organizations, organized crime and something askew and semi-hidden in English culture.

Buford was an American living in England, when he witnessed a trainload of Liverpool fans running amok after a victory. He was aghast, but noticed that native Brits didn’t make much of it. So he investigated. He embedded. And what he discovered is a type of Heart of Darkness for sports fans.

Buford is a very fine reporter, a trained observer and an elegant stylist. He’s grappling not only with crowd theory and social violence but also youth culture, sports fandom, and deeper, darker strands of ingrained violence and nationalistic, nativist fervor.

One writer compared it to a real-life A Clockwork Orange, and this is apt. There’s a dystopian flavor to Buford’s experiences, cities abandoned to atavistic tribes. And the violence is obscene, almost pornographic—gouging, headbutts, knees to the groin, stomping faces onto sidewalks—pointless and absurd. For the hooligans are often people with regular jobs during the week, even families, who are addicted to breaking social norms through weekly drunken ultra-violence. And here’s the kicker: for a time, Buford enjoys it too. He likes the restless feeling before a crowd turns violent. And he argues that this crowd violence for a purpose provides the thugs with a surging adrenaline and identity heightened by taboo.

Absolutely and stunningly grotesque.

Absolutely and stunningly grotesque.

Buford negates narrative. Violence is random, ghastly and unconnected. It’s often one stranger smashing another. The English supporters are the worst in other countries, destroying cars and shops and bystanders and sometimes murdering people, a collision of cultures literally, as the English punch, kick, trudgeon, slap, choke, stab and slice their way through continental pedestrians, police, even a father who had the misfortune to be taking his baby for a stroll during an upcoming World Cup match. It is a torrent of brutality.

Jon Ronson’s Them and The Pyschopath Test are both modeled on Thugs, a big idea encapsulated in a variety of oddball characters and comic (or vicious or both) vignettes.

But Buford elides cause and effect. He avoids bullshit analysis. The hoodlums aren’t amoral, they’re viciously and proudly immoral. They enjoy the carnage. They enjoy inflicting pain on others.

Here’s a sample, of a supporter, assaulting a number of men for no apparent reason:

“Harry knew the landlord and asked if he would wait where was for a minute or two—he had something for him—and went off to retrieve it. Harry walked to his van parked across the street and returned with a spade. He used it to hit the landlord—twice, a full swing, crack, against the side of his head. Then he hit both doormen. He then picked up a park bench, lifted it over his shoulders and threw it through the window. Shattered glass was everywhere. The pub was packed, and the people inside started screaming and ran for the door. In the crush, there were several injuries. Harry waited until the pub was empty, entered it, picked up a stool and used it to smash the bottles of spirits and beer, the glass doors of the refrigerators and the wine bottles inside. Then he threw the stool into the mirror behind the bar. . . . And then he walked home and went to bed.”

A curative for “first” world arrogance, there’s pages and pages of this stuff.

Supremely unnerving, and worthy of its sterling reputation.

 

 

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NBAW, 36: 1985’s World’s Fair, by E.L. Doctorow.

5 Mar

1.

In 1985, E.L. Doctorow won the National Book Award for his novel of coming of age in 1930s New York, World’s Fair.

World’s Fair follows a grown man revisiting, and at times re-interpreting, his childhood memories of growing up Jewish in the Bronx. As a coming of age novel, it’s very fine, evocative and detailed, capturing the emotional instability of childhood.

The writing is solid and professional. The sentences hold together. And if there isn’t that white-hot electricity of some of his peers, there are no stinkers either. The novel feels exactly like what it is: a professional work by a professional writer.

Here we have the narrator describing the wild boys of his neighborhood:

These were the boys who hated boundaries and straight lines, who traveled as a matter of principle off the streets, as if they needed to trespass and show their scorn of property. They wore felt hats with the brims cut away and the crown folded back along the edge and trimmed in a triangle pattern. They wore undershirts for shirts and high-top sneakers without socks. They carried cigarettes behind their ears. Slingshots stuck out of their back pockets. They were the same boys who rode the backs of trolley cars by standing on the slimmest of fenders and holding on to the window frames with their fingertips. They wrestled sewer covers off their sears and climbed down in the muck to find things. They were the ones, I knew, who chalked the strange marks on our garage doors.

 

And just a bit later,

“It’s bad,” Donald told me. “Whenever you see one of these, make sure to erase it. Use your shoe sole, spit on it, rub it with dirt, do anything. It’s a swastika.”

 

Doctorow is Jewish, and his characters are Jewish, and there’s a low-level rumbling of anti-Semitism throughout the novel.

But the currents of racism, sexism, the dark shadows stalking pre-war America, they don’t result in anything in the novel, not really. The brief description of the story, man revisits memories of his childhood in the Bronx, that is an exact encapsulation of the novel.

Doctorow is very fine in capturing the demonic power—I’ve heard it called the occult superstructure—of childhood. You can see the narrator’s mythology of his childhood resting side by side the hard realities. It’s a neat trick, but once you see it, the novel sort of peters out. There isn’t much mystery. The funny bits are humorous but light. And there aren’t many stories in the book, more vignettes and little cast-away scenes. The whole novel feels light and slight and thin and airy. It feels like a YA novel, really, a la The Catcher in the Rye, only missing the jittery unreliability of Salinger’s often-misunderstood novel of the eccentric rich in New York.

The result is an odd novel, intriguing in a way but dissatisfying. Doctorow doesn’t want to invent any kind of narrative with characters growing or changing—his other novels don’t really work this way, either—but his novel is one-note, his objectives easy to digest and decipher. So it’s good writing with a slender comedic glow, but little else.

Here’s another great piece of evocative writing:

To walk out of a brisk autumn day into a Klein’s fall sale was an unimaginably perverse act even for an adult. Greeted by blasts of hot air whooshing up through the floor grates between the outer and inner doors, we passed into a harshly lit wasteland of pipe racks and dump bins hung and piled with every conceivable kind of garment for every gender, age and shape, from infants and toddlers to boys, young misses, juniors, men and women. And every single one of these garments seemed to be undergoing the imperial scrutiny of the released population of an insane asylum. Some sort of frenzied mass rite was taking place, the Flinging of the Textiles. As if in a state of hypnosis, my mother immediately joined in while I held on to her, for my life. Wriggling and elbowing her way through communicants three and four deep around a counter of sweaters, say, or scarves, she immediately began tossing them up in the air, just as everyone else was, altogether creating a kind of fountain of rising and falling colors.

Fine writing, but my beef with Doctorow in this novel is his inability to connect the very fine passages of writing to any kind of sinew or bone; the story feels like clouds, or pleasing mist. It’s all one-note—rapturous writing but dull storytelling. The characters aren’t driven, there’s no madness, the novel is trying to be realistic but comes off as not dully exactly, but quotidian. And not in a good way. It’s a thinner version of Auggie March, only Bellow has so many stories and vignettes and characters little Auggie gets a bit lost in the shuffle.

Fun to read but futile.

Fun to read, but futile.

 

2.

I was going to give an overview of coming of age novels, or New York novels, or overrated novels, or autobiographical novels, or even trends in fiction in the mid-1980s, but I’m consumed with various writing projects at the moment, so, instead, please fill in your own opinionated history of any of the above categories and run with it in your imagination. Just give me credit in your memories. That’s the ultimate goal: I should remain in your thoughts like an oily dream.

3.

Doctorow’s novel should not have won the top award; it beat out some smashing novels.

Cormac McCarthy published his magnum opus, Blood Meridian, a novel I try to re-read every other year. Larry McMurtry released his (generally believed to be) best novel, Lonesome Dove. John Irving (for me, overrated) put out his epic story of abortion[1] The Cider-House Rules. Bret Easton Ellis published his first, and by far best, novel, Less Than Zero[2]. Ann Tyler released The Accidental Tourist, which won her the National Book Critics Circle Award. And Kurt Vonnegut, James Michener, and Amy Hempel all released novels. An impressive list, made richer over time. How Doctorow won for his pleasant little novel of memories is beyond me. Perhaps Doctorow’s novel of the 1930s, when the left still had teeth and bite, resonated with the judges stuck smack dab in the middle of Reagan’s America? And does anyone, thirty years on, believe that this novel will be remembered but Blood Meridian, The Accidental Tourist, and Lonesome Dove will be forgotten?

Over in science fictionland, two landmark works appeared. Orson Scott Card published his epic, and some argue horribly misguided, novel of militarized children, Ender’s Game. And Carl Sagan released his first contact story, Contact.

Around the world, Thomas Bernhard and Anthony Burgess published novels, as did Carlos Fuentes, Naguib Mahfouz and Orhan Pamuk.

[1] A bad joke. Sue me.

[2] This was an enormously polarizing novel in his day, and a much better novel than the rest of Ellis’s uneven–I’m being generous—work.

National Book Award winners, part 8: 1954’s The Adventures of Auggie March, by Saul Bellow

5 Mar

(I’ve skipped Invisible Man for the moment; the library was all checked out)

1.

The Adventures of Auggie March, by Saul Bellow, won the 1954 National Book Award. It was Bellow’s third novel, an often breezy story of almost 600 pages.

Auggie March is a coming of age, picaresque novel, following the narrator as he makes his way through his youth, meeting a variety of oddball characters. He has a number of jobs. He has romantic encounters. There are lots of little incidents, anecdotes, run-ins, but there isn’t much of a larger story. It’s similar to Of Human Bondage[1]. Without the striving, yearning, heartache, or gravitas. And none of those great starving-artist-in-Paris scenes.

2.

Saul Bellow belongs to a group of Jewish-American novelists that had a tremendous impact on American fiction. This group includes Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger, Harold Brodkey and Bernard Malamud[2]. The post-war era belongs to them. They were a disparate group of writers, dissimilar in style and subject matter, but linked through a tradition-bound religion and a culture that valued intellectual achievements. They also wrote some killer novels.

Jewish people were a seismic force in America at mid-century. Fiction and poetry, yes, but also film, television, music and theatre. Consider the Jewish comedians, as way of an example. Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis, Jackie Mason, Zero Mostel, Red Buttons, Mort Sahl, and Don Rickles amongst dozens of others, and you have a game-changing shakeup of American popular culture[3].

Bellow encompasses many of the attributes of Jewish fiction. He’s urbane, self-deprecating, sophisticated, educated, haunted by simultaneous yet contradictory feelings of inferiority and superiority, and living in the black hole of history left by the Holocaust.

Bellow wasn’t a minor novelist. He was a major personality, an early literary celebrity. He was arguably the biggest star of his generation’s serious writers. He won the National Book Award three times, a Pulitzer, and in 1976 he won the Nobel Prize.

He wrote thirteen or so novels, and won the National Book Award twice. When he wants to, he can really cook. Check it out:

 

After this it wasn’t hard for Jimmy to induce me to go downtown with him, especially on science afternoons, to ride, if there was nothing better to do, in the City Hall elevator with his brother Tom, from the gilded lobby to the Municipal Courts. In the cage we rose and dropped, rubbing elbows with bigshots and operators, commissioners, grabbers, heelers, tipsters, hoodlums, wolves, fixers, plaintiffs, flatfeet, men in Western hats and women in lizard shoes and fur coats, hothouse and arctic drafts mixed up, brute things and airs of sex, evidence of heavy feeding and systematic shaving, of calculations, grief, not caring, and hopes of tremendous millions in concrete to be poured or whole Mississippis of bootleg whiskey and beer.

His prodigious descriptive skills—which are manifold—also form the major criticism of his work. He writes overfurnished, over-adorned fiction. (He certainly isn’t alone.) No one just drinks a beer or watches TV. No one takes a walk, looks at trees. Everything is a torrent of words. Everything is a segue into Bellow’s poetic fantasies. Sometimes, he overwrites. As he’s concerned with memory, his novels bend around the narrator’s memories. They don’t follow a coherent line. His excessive language can be frustrating. He writes like an author of another era, which he is.

3.

In the early fifties, Beat culture was percolating. Bop, pop, noir, drug use and nightmares were seeping into fiction, as were aspects of the lower genres of crime, mystery, fantasy and sci fi. Jazz was percolating, too. Innovative, unpredictable, urban, moody, and at times dissonant.

Existentialism + boozy, druggy late nights + transgressive sex + an outlaw mentality + eastern mystical teachings = the Beat movement[4].

There was an enormous bachelor culture in America. Single men stayed up late, drank, shot pool, roamed city streets with black overcoats and even blacker hats. They hitchhiked, worked itinerant jobs, floated like ghosts from here to there. These urban bachelors incubated a hard-living culture of townie bars and wretched hangovers.

Loads of single men + pool halls + bars + lonely postwar despair = 1950s fiction.

A series of high profile indecency trials—most of them around the proto-Beat writer Henry Miller[5]—loosened up moral and aesthetic constraints. These parameters were restrictive, but paradoxically forced writers to be subtle, witty, subversive, clever, and ironic. Fiction was becoming coarser, rougher, wilder, less suave, less dignified.

In the 50s Beat Culture was counter culture. By the end of the 60s this paradigm was the norm.

Bellow is a bridge between the classical formalism of the early 20th century novelists and the jazzy riffs of the Beat writers. In him, we find both.

3.

Well, sort of, anyway. Bellow is droll, he delivers enormous quantity of detail with a slight smirk. He riffs on things that are unimportant to the story, but essential to his idea of his characters. When it works—there’s pages of brilliant, hilarious insight into a wheelchair bound businessman Auggie works for—it’s great; when it doesn’t, it’s a slog. A novel relying on mood to get you through almost 600 pages has to be funnier, more crazed. There isn’t enough danger, menace, madness. Auggie sort of trudges along, from one episode to the next, punctuated by these pithy little references to his family. He doesn’t build anything, he doesn’t really achieve much, and I suppose this is Bellow’s point. But without the derangement of the senses, without a rawer view of sex, without any propulsive engine to the story, it just hangs together.

March isn’t an interesting a travel companion. He’s too safe. Where’s Dean Moriarty when you need him?

4.

And yet, Bellow justifiably won the award. He won by default. There was nothing else.

1953 was a miserable year for American fiction. March beat out only three notable novels: Raymond Chandler’s superb The Long Goodbye; James Baldwin’s moving and poetic Go Tell It on the Mountain; and William Burroughs’s Junkie[6], which I love, but it’s hardly a novel at all. Bellow also won over Conrad Richter’s The Light in the Forest (I already wrote about his victory seven years later here), and a number of forgettable pulp novels. Looking at the competition, nationwide, it’s no wonder Bellow won the top award. Chandler and Burroughs weren’t yet accepted by the literary establishment, and Baldwin was a black gay dude writing his first novel. (Mountain is a good novel, but probably a bit overrated; Giovanni’s Room is much better.)

Those dark post-war years. Man with the Golden Arm is partially about the slipping social fabric of a returning veteran. From Here to Eternity is about the ennui and malaise of fighting men during peacetime. And Faulkner’s stories are peopled with wounded veterans and young people going off to war. Bellow’s novel is lighter, fresher, gentler, but it carries inside it a peculiar melancholy at the edges of the story.

5.

I don’t want to be misunderstood: Bellow is a great writer. He can wind a sentence around a dozen different locales and ideas, held together with witty zingers and pithy asides. He’s a masterful wordsmith, has a huge vocabulary, and half a dozen classical allusions on every page. He’s clever, witty, erudite yet cagey.

But, he’s a weak storyteller. He drags. He avoids. He sidelines. He prolongs. The idea is to mirror the fluidity—and unreliability—of memory. But the result is a novel that never quite feels like more than reminiscences. And March isn’t a very interesting travel companion. He’s too safe. Updike would have him sleep with some old ladies and then steal their jewelry. Mailer would have him daydreaming about anilingus. Roth would have him choking on childhood trauma. Malamud would never have written a book like this.

6.

Let me end with a book recommendation. This past year I read Peter Orner’s Love and Shame and Love, a Chicago novel by a Jewish author, covering a lot of similar territory. It’s taut, moving, haunting, yet expansive and beautiful and funny. It’s superior to Auggie March in every way; it’s the novel Bellow wanted to write, I think. It didn’t win any awards.

 


[1] Although not nearly as powerful.

[2] Chaim Potok and Leon Uris should be included too, but they aren’t of the same caliber. Rod Serling, too, but I can’t make up my mind about him. Genius, or just macabre and kind of interesting?

[3] The Yiddish theatre has a long, powerful influence.

[4] I don’t count Charles Bukowski or John Fante as a Beat writers. That would change everything.

[5] Sex + sex + sex + pornography + food + philosophy + stream of consciousness poetry + occasional bouts of poverty = Henry Miller.

[6] His best book and don’t let critics fool you; the more he tried to be writerly, the worse his books became.