September 14th, 2007

  • lizhand

Richard Brautigan

I hadn't thought about Richard Brautigan for years, till I saw that quote from The Pill versus the Springhill Mine disaster yesterday. Then lo, this morning there's a brief appreciation of his work in the Guardian. For those of us of a certain age, Trout Fishing in America was as ubiquitous as, well, Trout Mask Replica. The Revenge of the Lawn was another book you saw everywhere among literary hippie types — among other things, the cover art for Brautigan's work was memorable, photographic and usually featuring himself in Buffalo Bill getup alongside a soulful-looking hippie chick. His absurdist take didn't age well, though, and he lacked Vonnegut's gift for the arch or deadpan catchphrase. So it goes.

Brautigan killed himself in 1984 — I remember being shocked by that, as his work had such a summery quality; not feel-good, exactly, but somehow bright and deceptively offhand. I was shocked too at how old he was at his death: 49.
  • lizhand

Lost Pages or The Little Black Book: 4

Nov. 12 1975

I want to record memories I have, before I lose them. There are places in my mind that I have been shy to revisit; I think I will recall them soon.

And continue to record the present.

Nov. 13. God has been very good to me in giving me my friends and family. Thank you.

I called Simon last night and spoke to him briefly. He sounds so much older, more restrained and mature. It’s strange, how we’re all moving on.

OJ [[Oliver in WTM]] talking about a smile that slowly dissipates into evil, in Feasting with Panthers. Oscar Wilde behind the picture of Dorian Gray ... Take it one more time; the most sinister thing is that which is somehow commonplace.

I am trying to define the compelling horror which surrounds some of the most mundane things about me; not here so much as Katonah, anyplace where the wealthy live and decline. The easy acceptance of drugs, the drinking and sex; none of it done to flaunt or prove anything, merely done out of boredom. The way a fat person eats when alone, in memory of a time when the sensation was pleasant ---

“I don’t want to repeat my innocence. I want the pleasure of losing it again.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise

“Balndanders (whose name we may translate as Soon-another or At-any-moment-something-else) ... adds that his emblem is the inconstant moon.” Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings

I am curious about what happens as I write about my own images — reflections — of the people I know ----

“Deep in the mirror we will perceive a very faint line and the color of this line will be like no other color. Later on, other shapes will begin to stir. Little by little, they will differ from us; little by little they will not imitate us. They will break the barrier of glass or metal and this time will not be defeated.” — The Book of Imaginary Beings
paul shirt
  • pgdf

Fernanda Pivano

At breakfast every morning, Deborah and I amble through a few pages of one book or another, read aloud by yours truly. The latest one is the record of an interview of Charles Bukowski, conducted by the Italian journalist and author Fernanda Pivano.

On a whim, I went looking for her name on YouTube, and found this snippet, where she interviews Jack Kerouac in 1966, and then appears as her aged self circa the present.

Seeing as how there's all the hoopla this year celebrating the 50th anniversary of ON THE ROAD, I thought this video doubly appropriate.

It's sad to see Jack in his drunken dotage, but hell, it's all part of his myth.

Posted by Paul DiFi.

Ultra-Violent and Ultra, Ultra-Violent

It’s kind of sad…No, it’s appalling, really, that Neil Jordan, director of THE BUTCHER BOY and MONA LISA, should have his name hitched to formulaic dreck like THE BRAVE ONE, Jodie Foster’s Charles-Bronson-in-a-thong revenge fantasy. Previously, Jordan has always managed to imbue his commercial films with at least a gloss of personality, but not this time. The movie plays like bad TV with better cinematography and tries to pass itself off as an important part of the feminist dialogue, when what it sounds like is the feminist dialogue declawed, pimped up with a bit of the old ultraviolence, and wrapped in a package that should appeal to folks who buy their DVDS at Costco and their CDS at Wallmart, people who prefer their entertainment still warm from the corporate tit.

Erica Bain (Foster) is a New York radio personality with a show called Street Walk. She’s a pop intellectual, a snarky Andrea Rooney who rues the day (as she states in an early scene) when Rudy Giulani scoured mid-town clean of criminals and turned it into Disneyworld North, and believes that the city could stand a funkiness injection in order to renew its character. That this will come back to bite her in the ass is what passes for irony in Hollywood, but is for the rest of us an obvious set-up. When her fiancee David (Naveen Andrews of Lost) is killed by thugs, Erica begins talking in a terse half-whisper just like Jodie Foster in THE ACCUSED and half-a-dozen other films, buys a handgun and goes to knocking off random bad guys. Now despite this, the story might have been handled with a modicum of wit and style, but the screenplay (by two guys named Taylor and a woman appropriately named Cynthia Mort) comes to us courtesy of the Paul Haggis (CRASH, IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH, and the script for MILLION DOLLAR BABY) School of Filmmaking, whose doctrine requires that every scrap of meaning be pounded into the audience’s brain with a mallet. Trouble is, the movie can’t decide what it enjoys more--riffing on Foster’s lesbian cachet, letting her whip out her 9 mm dick and blow holes in an assortment of masculine villains, or trotting out its confused morality.

How confused is it?

After Erica initiates her Batwomanish reign of vigilante terror, she begins to allow call-ins to her radio show. The first caller praises the vigilante, the second thinks he or she should rot in prison, the third blames it all on the media…Get the picture? It’s multiple choice! They’re letting you go interactive with the movie, supplying five or six simplistic possibilities from among which you can pick your favorite point of view.

In another scene, an older woman, Erica’s neighbor, who hails from a land plagued by blacks with guns, empathizes with the vigilante, implying that once Erica has done with Manhattan, she would do well to bring her own version of ethnic cleansing to Soweto. And for all its feminist drag, the suggestion is made that Erica’s violence is nothing more than a psychotic burp and she’ll be all better once she hooks up with a good man and put herself under his consoling influence. Perhaps this idea is presaged when doctors are shown cutting off David-and-Erica’s clothes after the beating, and this is intercut with scenes of the two enjoying a sensitive fuck, while Sara McLachlan keens in the background—it has to be the most manipulative usage of sex paired with violence since Speilberg’s Munich, when he intercut a reunion coupling between Eric Bana (playing a Mossad agent) and his wife with clips from the Olympic massacre.

What can be said about a movie that’s too chickenshit to dig into its heroine’s psyche and show her enjoying her work? Just this. By contrast, DEATH WISH was a moral and intellectual triumph.

Critics and reviewers have a favorite word they like to use when discussing the films of David Cronenberg: transgressive. The meaning, as applied to art, has been defined thusly by the Atlantic Monthly:

“A genre that graphically explores such topics as incest and other aberrant sexual practices, mutilation, the sprouting of sexual organs in various places on the human body, urban violence and violence against women, drug use, and highly dysfunctional family relationships, and that is based on the premise that knowledge is to be found at the edge of experience and that the body is the site for gaining knowledge.”

That certainly describes much of Cronenberg’s work and—superficially, at least—seems to describe his latest, EASTERN PROMISES. But there is a point at which the transgressive becomes so familiar, it verges on cliché, on the exploitative. Thus I was led to speculate, while watching the movie, that he begins his story with a mid-wife, Anna (Naomi Watts), delivering the baby of a 14 year old Russian prostitute simply in order to show us, to shock us with, the barnyard aspects of a birth.

After the prostitute hemorrhages and bleeds out on the table, Anna finds a diary in her effects, and in the diary she finds a card advertising an upscale Russian restaurant belonging to Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a charmingly sinister old school Godfather type, who runs the Vory V Zakone, a criminal mafiya. She takes a copy of the diary to Semyon, the image of European decline amid the red-and-gold faux-Empire opulence of his restaurant, and asks him to translate it, and thus becomes involved with Semyon, his weakling son Kirill (Victor Cassell), and their enigmatic chauffeur, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a man also known as the Undertaker, a name referring to his skill in rendering bodies unidentifiable. In one scene, he hauls a body out of the freezer, softens the flesh with a blow drier, and cautions onlookers that they may want to leave the room before he starts “doing the teeth.” Unfortunately, the audience is not offered this same priviledge.

When I first became aware of Mortensen, initially in a small part in CARLITO’S WAY and later in the effective B-picture AMERICAN YAKUZA, I had the sense that he would one day become a great actor. I don’t believe he has fulfilled that promise, but with his chiseled features and astonishing blue eyes, his air of toughness and vulnerability, he has become an iconic figure, and Cronenberg has seen fit to make use of this quality in his last two films, the other being the vastly overpraised THE HISTORY OF VIOLENCE. That said, Mortensen is the best thing in PROMISES. Of the three main Russian characters, his is the only convincing portrayal. Covered in gulag tattoos, he exudes menace yet maintains a palpable Russian soulfulness, the kind of man who one moment can make a woman feel treasured and the next can take a drugged-senseless prostitute from behind for the edification of his superiors, who wish him to prove his manhood. As Nikolai, and as the killer-in-hiding of HISTORY, it seems that Mortensen has become Cronenberg’s inspiration, much as Marlene Dietrich once inspired Eric Von Stroheim, exemplifying Cronenberg’s bleak view of humanity. Under Cronenberg’s direction, Nikolai-Mortensen is a portrait of a doomed society embodied in a single man. “I’m dead already,” he says, and you believe not only that his statement is true, but also that it applies to you.

In the film’s sure-to-be-much-talked-about set piece, Nikolai fights two Chechen assassins in a bathhouse, wearing nary a stitch of clothing. It’s a persuasive scene, emblematicizing both this moribund everyman’s vulnerability and his savagery, yet it is also exploitative, amping up the movie’s homoerotic content (Kirill is a homosexual, ridiculed by Semyon’s enemies), and concluding with the image of a knife slicing into an eyeball, a gratuitous Grand Guignol flourish. The film is rife with such flourishes, and as I left the theater I wondered what we are to make of Cronenberg, and what Cronenberg wants us to make of him. He has become the standard bearer for many twenty- and thirty-somethings’ taste in movies. And there is a case to be made. In movies like DEAD RINGERS he aspired to more than his B-picture origins evidenced; yet while his latest films are said to be transgressive, the truth is that they are charged with the most simplistic of social and psychological observations, and are simply tarted-up versions of the same old crime movie less gifted directors have been producing for decades.

In a recent interview, Cronenberg says that he has grown tired of “all that,” the “all that” referring to his genre preoccupations on view in films such VIDEODROME; but he is not done with his grindhouse influences. Without them, without the constant Grand Guignol touches, PROMISES, like HISTORY, is essentially a very traditional movie, even a sentimental movie, enlivened by Mortensen’s compelling performances, and Cronenberg, whose last science fiction film, EXISTENZ, betrayed his weariness with that genre, appears to have merely switched over to conventional thrillers. He has never been less than an intelligent director, but his intelligence seems enervated, his violent, transgressive tricks overplayed and old-fashioned. Though PROMISES stands as an outstanding B-picture, it fails to reach the heights of some of his past work, and certainly does not fulfill the promise of its fundamental conception, an attempt to explore more than the surface of multi-culti London. The copious amounts of blood and gross-out material detract from that purpose, and give rise to the suspicion that Cronenberg is not just tired of science fiction, but may be tired of making movies as well.