Monthly Archives: July 2008

Necessity, the Mother of Vacation

The long habit of living indisposeth us for dying.

~ Thomas Browne, Religio Medici

The long habit of working, on the other hand, indisposeth us for living.  And so in order to smother any secret longing for the rope and dagger, I am taking a vacation.  If you are one of the dozen or so regular visitors to this page and would care to know, I’ll return the week of August 11th.  If you are, instead, an irregular visitor – well, there are things you can take for that, you know.

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Marginalia, no.19

This roving humor…I have ever had, & like a ranging spaniel, that barks at every bird it sees, leaving his game, I have followed all, saving that which I should, and may justly complain, and truly (for who is everywhere is nowhere)…, that I have read many books, but to little purpose, for want of good method; I have confusedly tumbled over divers authors in our libraries, with small profit, for want of art, order, memory, judgment.

~ Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy

Wasn’t it Pascal who named Distraction mankind’s universal foe, the catholic goad of nature, preventing us at every turn from attending to life’s proper tasks? Though periodically re-lamented (as if just discovered), the habit of distraction must confer certain benefits.  A too constant focus on life’s mortal intentions toward us can be a downer, after all, and there are just so damn many books to read – most of which, like Burton’s, are themselves the happy products of distraction.

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Trashing Cinema

It was fun watching the applecart being upset… but now where do we go for apples?

That’s Paul Schrader, screenwriter for Raging Bull and Taxi Driver.  The quote is lifted from Robert Fulford’s National Post article surveying the long wreckage left in the wake of Pauline Kael’s reign at The New Yorker.  Ever since 1967, the idea goes, when Kael came out swinging for Warren Beatty’s Bonnie and Clyde, American film has been steadily vulgarizing.

The trouble with the democratization of taste is that you too often end with something unpalatable.  It’s a popular sentiment among the mandarins of culture, as well as the creatively frustrated and underappreciated, and perhaps there’s some truth in it.  But it’s not enough to fault the critics for the trend, and Fulford admits Kael can hardly shoulder all the blame.  Her career was simply emblematic of her era.  Rather than summoning and driving it, Kael too was a victim of that fleeting specter -the zeitgeist- that so single-mindedly set about dismantling bourgeois sensibility and prejudice in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

We all get a little spooked by the zeitgeist.  But I wonder if the critic, like the artist, isn’t a little more susceptible to a good spooking than most.  Perhaps, like a 19th century medium channeling spirits, a critic who manages to levitate his way to prominence does so by an especially effective channeling of the zeitgeist’s own critical genius.  In which case, Kael may have given herself and her colleagues too much credit when she complained:

When we championed trash culture we had no idea it would become the only culture.

Is it really so bad?  Have we fallen so far?  Are the Love Gurus, Terminators, Armageddons and Independence Days that have plagued American box offices these past twenty years the truest, best representatives of the age?  Was cinema and artistic sensibility prior to the Kaelian Revolution such an unadulterated paradise?  Surely, no one who has seen American Pie or Superbad can deny there’s been movement toward greater vulgarity, even compared to the teen movies of my own generation like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or The Breakfast Club

But I think there’s something more fundamental at work here, something that trips up all would-be romanticizers of the heretofore.   We fall victim to that ruse of perspective by which the far horizon seems full of towering achievements only because its lesser works are rendered invisible by distance.   If we’re unable to see any legitimate cinematic achievements in our own age (I nominate There Will Be Blood), it’s because we’re so thickly surrounded by the present undergrowth of lesser works which will, with time enough and distance, find a merciful oblivion.

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Marginalia, no.18

The plants, said Aristotle, live in a perpetual sleep; because they have only a vegetative soul, all their aim is in the flower. They have their mouth in the earth, and it is their hermaphroditic corolla that they expose to the birds of heaven, without the least repression. Literature, today, would be that plant…

~ Jacques Maritain, Art and Poetry (1943)

“Repression” being a bad word nowadays and people generally overfond of exposing their corollas in public, a reader might imagine Maritain intended a compliment; but no, it’s a critique of mindless sensualism.  As one half of a Josephite marriage, Maritain knew a thing or two about repression, I suppose.  Of course, it’s ungenerous to discount a man’s philosophy based on the incomprehensibility of his personal life, so we’ll thank him for the botanically suggestive reminder that -moving heaven downward- the head and heart take anatomical precedence over other symbolic organs.

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Marginalia, no.17

O who can hold a fire in his hand
By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?
Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite
By bare imagination of a feast?
Or wallow naked in December snow
By thinking on fantastic summer’s heat?
O no!  The apprehension of the good
Gives but the greater feeling to the worse.

~ Shakespeare, Richard II

In 1971’s Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the incomparable Gene Wilder, as Wonka, sings in praise of pure imagination: “If you want to view paradise / Simply look around and view it / Anything you want to, do it / Want to change the world / There’s nothing to it…”  Imagine you’re there, in other words, and there you are.  Pace Mr Wonka, his elder namesake begs to differ.  But Shakespeare is always insufferably realistic about the limits of self-deception.

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Art and Imperfection

We were so eager for happiness, we forgot we weren’t free.

That’s one of the more poignant lines from Marjane Satrapi’s beautiful film, Persepolis – adapted from her graphic novel of the same name.  It tells the story of Satrapi’s own life: her childhood in Tehran, the overthrow of the Shah, the Islamic Revolution and the turmoil of the eight-year war with Iraq.  Especially powerful are the portraits of her grandmother and an executed uncle, and the frank, mesmerizing sequences that lead us through her student years in Vienna and subsequent (temporary) return to life under the ayatollahs. 

After Persepolis itself my wife and I watched the “making-of” documentary also included on the DVD, which delves into the rather old-fashioned techniques used to such rewarding effect in the film.  Entirely drawn and inked by hand, the months of detailed labor behind Persepolis was once par for the course but in the era of CGI requires a special devotion to craft that is vanishingly rare.  The robust, magical, shadow-theater quality of the final product is worth every hour poured into it.

Satrapi herself comments on the decision not to use computer-generated imagery.  The trouble with CGI, she suggests, is its absolute precision, and hence its inhumanity.  That sounds about right.  By their very nature, computer-generated images are the product of mathematical perfections alien to the human eye and hand.  I recently heard a Pixar director describe how in order to create a CGI image which will be received as true-to-life one has to engineer the illusion of dirt and flaws.  With traditional animation, on the other hand, one may strive for perfection in line and form as ardently as one wants without fear of actually achieving it, and the results are immediately received as true and familiarly human. 

A CGI movie may tell an inspiring story, then, and it may be a technical feat, but it can never be art in the same sense that a film like Persepolis can.  The greatest achievements of art are necessarily imperfect.  Their imperfection is inseparable from their greatness.  The poet Robert Lowell came to the same basic idea when he declared that “imperfection is the language of art” – by which he meant any true and truly human art. 

Whether bequeathed us by swooning Greeks or as a side-effect of progress in science and technology, there is a mathematical idea of perfection at work in culture today which we’re frequently tempted to admire for the wrong reasons or apply in the wrong cases.  We’re so eager for perfection, you might say, we forget that we ourselves are imperfectible.  This misunderstanding is one of the more irksome and self-defeating pathologies of modern man.  Geometry, after all, may deliver us the distance of a star and chart out the recesses of space, but it will never map the abyss of the heart.

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