Tag Archives: Robert Lowell

Celluloid Notes

It’s fun to watch movie stars age along with you.  Last night the wife and I caught a showing of Revolutionary Road and I was pleased to see that Kate Winslet and Leonardo diCaprio (both about my age) are showing the same kinds of lines, the same crow’s feet around the eyes, etc., that I am.  It’s an odd comfort between strangers: we’re all in this together, I guess. 

The movie itself was about as bleak and devastating, and stylishly achieved, as one would expect from Sam Mendes (dir. American Beauty), with strong performances all around but especially from Ms Winslet, who is my Great Film Heroine these days.  Yes, she got a Best Actress nomination for The Reader, which I haven’t seen yet, but Winslet was snubbed by the Academy when she didn’t get a nod for this one too.  Michael Shannon got one for his supporting role as the mentally disturbed grown son of the Wheelers’ realtor (he’s a dead ringer for Robert Lowell circa 1955).  But I find it strange that Mendes, a Brit, should spend so much of his creative energies on the mores and domestic tribulations of middle-class Americans.  I wonder if he’s just pulling a Christina Stead. Stead, of course, was the gifted Australian novelist who set her semi-autobiographical masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children, in the U.S. so that, one supposes, she’d have more luck cashing in on it.

Overall I’ve done a poor job of keeping up with Oscar-bait films this year.  Sure, I enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire (except for the disfiguring-children scenes) and if Man on Wire doesn’t win for best documentary, I’m going to break something.  But I’m polishing a grudge against Darren Aronofsky and so I’ve delayed seeing The Wrestler, despite all the praise it’s getting.  Aronofsky’s last, The Fountain, was such an abortion of a film and such a waste of a perfectly good Rachel Weisz that I’m still sore about it.

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Marginalia, no.21

I go to bed Lord Byron, and wake up bald.

~ Robert Lowell

My day, I find, charts an opposite course.  I wake in the morning a romantic genius with keenest confidence in my ability to astonish the world, but by day’s end am so brow-beaten and reduced I’m shocked to find a full crop of hair reflected in the mirror.  I brush my teeth and meditate on the happy disjunction between outward appearance and inward reality.  Days like this Fernando’s dictum (“It’s better to look good than to feel good”) is a welcome consolation.  At least I have my hair.

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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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