Jan 132003

Kathy Shaidle, Colby Cosh and The Ambler, Kevin Michael Grace, are having at each other about movies. I intrude on this intramural squabble only because they’re all wrong.

Pulp Fiction, to begin with, is the most overrated movie by the most overrated director of the last twenty years. About forty-five minutes into the movie, John Travolta traces a square with his hands, by way of telling Uma Thurman not to be so, or maybe it’s Thurman who makes the gesture to Travolta, I can’t remember. In any case Tarantino paints a square on the screen over it, in the manner of certain awful movies from the early 60s. With this, this ironic and allusive yet utterly obvious and stupid gesture, I lost hope. Royale with cheese indeed. By far the best of Pulp Fiction‘s three segments is Harvey Keitel’s cleaner, plagiarized in concept and many details from La Femme Nikita and in any case easily separable from the rest of the movie. Plagiarism is Tarantino’s one extraordinary talent; the best bit in Reservoir Dogs, the crooks naming themselves after colors, is lifted from the excellent little caper movie The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, which Kathy justly praises. Pulp Fiction’s chronology is shuffled to disguise its conventional plot of boy gets girl, fixes enemies, and rides off into sunset. If the movie had been filmed in time it would be more immediately obvious what a banal exercise it really is.

2001 is aptly described by its chief defender, Kevin Grace, as a tone poem, and by tone-poem standards it is watchable and snappily paced. Yes, the bone-throwing and lip-reading are cool, and given a choice to sit through one of Kubrick’s movies, I will take 2001 over Barry Lyndon, and definitely over Eyes Wide Shut.

It baffles me that some critics list Some Like It Hot as the funniest comedy ever made, and I suspect that its subject matter inflates its reputation. A far funnier Wilder-Monroe movie is The Seven-Year Itch, which more than any other single movie made Monroe Monroe and is remembered now only for the scene in which her dress blows up as she stands over the subway grate. Her combination of sex and ingenuousness is never better captured than here, when she looks directly into the camera and says, “He was like the Creature from the Black Lagoon!” The Seven-Year Itch is a perfectly sunny and cheerful movie about adultery. Such movies, about anything, were rare then and are extinct now.

Miracle from Morgan’s Creek is the wrong relatively obscure Preston Sturges vehicle to revive; try Unfaithfully Yours instead — especially the scene where Rex Harrison wrestles with a sort of 1940s equivalent of a CD burner, and loses. I laugh harder at this than anything else in the history of the movies.

That scene in Manhattan where Woody Allen (no, not his character; personally) recites the things that make life worth living into a tape recorder: “Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, the lox at Zabar’s, Louis Armstrong’s ‘Potato Head Blues’…” — what’s not to hate? I mean, get a blog if you have to do that sort of thing. Like Kathy, I prefer Crimes and Misdemeanors: the skewering of the Alan Alda character is even more delightful because one gets the distinct impression that Alan Alda, in life, is actually like that. But I would trade both movies, plus Annie Hall, for the first half of Love and Death, distinguished for, among other things, containing not only the best but the two best village idiot jokes ever.

Thumbs-up, thumbs-down, this is fun. Stay tuned for other thought-substitutes, coming soon!

(Update: AC Douglas posts his top movies of 50 years hence. I have enough trouble just figuring out what I like.)

(Another Update: What I call plagiarism Colby Cosh calls research. Here’s a guy who can refer to Rashomon and write “acquaintance with the grammar of one’s art,” when the art is movie-making, in a single sentence, calling me a snob. I like it.)

Jan 082003

A friend of mine bet his girlfriend he could write a sonnet in an hour — Keats is supposed to have written “On Chapman’s Homer” in an hour — and foolishly sent me the result. The first twelve lines limp along in correct enough pentameter, but he concludes with:

For even if these foes produce a battle won,
A sight so simple as her smile doth make them one.

This is about the best straight line I’ve been fed for a while; I sent him back this couplet from Pope:

A needless alexandrine ends the song,
That like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.

(Update: Nobody, not even Seablogger, who dissects it line by line, appears to have remarked of Andrew Motion’s bit of doggerel that the second line is an alexandrine, dragging its slow length along.)

Jan 032003

(To the tune of “Maria,” from The Sound of Music)

He builds a nuke without rebuke
Then asks for foreign aid.
He thumbs his nose at those who will
Clean up the mess he’s made.
Amassing troops at the border,
Dear Leader’s not an asset to world order.

He’s always breaking treaties,
But his penitence is real.
If things have worked out badly
He’ll just make another deal.
I hate to have to say it
But I very firmly feel
Dear Leader’s not an asset to world order!

I’d like to say a word in his behalf.
Dear Leader makes me laugh!

How do you solve a problem like Korea?
How do you reason with the barking mad?
How do you find the words for our Dear Leader?
A cineaste! A communist! A cad!

Dec 312002

I hate to distract AC Douglas from his battle with the benighted Elvish forces with a flank attack, but I haven’t quite finished with the Jabberwocky yet. AC’s argument, to review, was in two parts. First he argued that the criterion of art is that it fills the heads of its auditors with ideas. (The ideas are supposed to be vague.) I objected that this definition is impressionist — it depends on the auditor, different auditors react differently, and sooner or later we arrive at rank subjectivism. Later AC elaborated, or clarified, or amended his position as follows:

The J Test in no way depends on the tester finding the work under test to be personally appealing. What it does depend on is the depth of the tester’s knowledge of the domain to which the work belongs, and his ability to put aside his personal likes and dislikes, and make his judgment based on the qualities of the work itself.

“Personally appealing” is a bit of a red herring. The Jabberwocky test relies on the evocation of a response in the auditor, and its nature is beside the point. All such theories are impressionist. But in the meat of this passage AC argues, against accusations of subjectivism, that even to apply the Jabberwocky test one must be a qualified auditor. Now let’s imagine two qualified auditors, both with deep domain knowledge and the ability to set aside their personal preferences. What happens when these auditors disagree? According to AC this never happens; as he writes in his comments to my first post:

It’s quite impossible that two persons of the same degree of knowledge, and the same capacity to distance themselves from their own prejudices, likes, and dislikes, would disagree on the binary question of art or not-art for the work under test, although they may differ in their assessments of the degree of quality of that work if determined to be art.

His experience must be different from mine. Certainly in English and American poetry, a field I know pretty well, distinguished scholars disagree radically on evalulation. As best I can tell, AC would mediate such disputes by presentation of scholarly credentials; yet scholarship has little to do with talent, and judging art takes talent. C.S. Lewis read more 16th century English poetry than I ever hope to, yet he misevaulates it generally, by elevating the “Golden” style (Spenser, Sidney) over the “Drab” (Ralegh, Gascoigne, Jonson), and as a result consistently fails to find the best poems. This failure is not of scholarship but of taste.

AC may reply that Lewis never errs on the “binary” matter of distinguishing art from non-art. Since there appears to be no room in AC’s categories for “bad art,” I can’t be sure, although I doubt it. (If I am wrong about this I would find an example of “bad art” helpful.) In any case, calling a criterion binary does not make it so. The Jabberwocky test, to be useful, must be capable of finer distinctions than “art” or “non-art.” If we are to use Jabberwocky strictly to eliminate the non-art, and then substitute some new criteria for evaluation once we’ve pared down the field, then what are these new criteria, and why weren’t we using them in the first place?

Oct 292002

This topic been circulating for a while. Jim at Philosoblog kicked things off by discussing (scroll down, Blogger permalinks busted as usual) the role of envy in leftist politics. I pointed out that envy can be animated by such tiny distinctions that placating it is of no use. Michael of Team Blowhard jumped in, arguing that envy isn’t the only explanation, that there’s a coolness factor to consider:

…the motivation I encounter that interests me most is this one: leftie-ism is attractive.
That’s spelled a-t-t-r-a-c-t-i-v-e, and I think it’s a huge mistake not to take it seriously. Far-out art? Good food? Bookstores with personalities? Performers who take wild chances? Glamour and sex? Snazzy design? If these things mean much to you, you’re going to be spending more time exploring the left-hand part of the room than the left-hand part. And the more time you spend there, the more likely it is that you’ll take on leftie coloring… where’s the envy?

Well, neither Jim nor I proposed envy as the sole explanation of leftist politics. (For the purposes of this discussion I will call “leftist” anyone who thinks the government ought to redistribute wealth to poor people. People who think the government ought to redistribute wealth to rich people are Republicans.) Envy is usually underrated, however, because everyone suffers from it, to a greater or lesser degree, and no one likes to admit it. It is, shall we say, unattractive.

By “attractiveness” don’t we really mean youth, at least partly? The young, we all know, tend to be leftist, because leftism requires ignoring the unseen, long-range consequences of one’s decisions, which is quintessentially adolescent. I myself remember taping up McGovern posters in sixth grade. This tendency may or may not be immutable but is in any case of very long standing. The young also tend to be attractive. So leftism tends to be attractive. Whaddaya know?

The right also tends to be Christian in this country. Now of course going to church is way uncool, so that’s more points for the left right there. Christianity deals effectively with envy, as Nietzsche pointed out, by shunting it to the afterlife. In the next world, to be sure, all the buggers who stepped on you will get what’s coming to them, but for now render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. This heads off the envious desire for “social justice” at the pass.

In the absence of Christianity, the left supplies its own religion, art-worship. Membership requires a firm belief in art as self-expression (“Whatever I spit, that is art.” –Picasso) and artists as the vanguard liberators from tiresome bourgeois constraints. Self-expression has been the reigning aesthetic in the West for about 200 years, since the publication of the Lyrical Ballads in 1798, so this is usually no problem. One can detect vestigial traces of the requisite attitude even in Blowhard Michael when he refers to “far-out art” and “performers who take chances.” (The art cult also compares unfavorably to Christianity in the envy-avoidance department.)

Genuine aesthetes are welcome in the art cult but no actual interest in art is required. People who attend Karen Finley shows or Sonic Youth concerts or other art-events that are objectively terrible are surely members of the art-cult yet, almost as surely, not interested in art in the slightest. There are as many aesthetes, people with a genuine interest in art, on the right as on the left. But the right has deserted the battle, leaving the field clear for the art cultists.

Sep 302002

To a Dead Journalist

Behind that white brow
now the mind simply sleeps —
the eyes, closed, the
lips, the mouth,

the chin, no longer useful,
the prow of the nose.
But rumors of the news,

cling still among those
silent, butted features, a
sort of wonder at
this scoop

come now, too late:
beneath the lucid ripples
to have found so monstrous
an obscurity.

–William Carlos Williams

Sep 262002


No word, no lie, can cross a carven lip;
No thought is quick behind a chiselled brow;
Speech is the cruel flaw in comradeship,
Whose self-bemusing ease daunts like a blow
Though unintended, irrevocable!
For wound, a mere quip dealt, no salve is found
Though poet be bled dry of words to tell
Why it was pointed! How it captured sound!
Charmed by mere phrases, we first glean their sense
When we behold our Helen streaming tears.
Give me dry eyes whose gaze but looks intense!
The dimpled lobes of unreceptive ears!
A statue not a heart! Silence so kind,
It answers love with beauty cleansed of mind.

–T. Sturge Moore

Sep 092002

My spirit will not haunt the mound
Above my breast,
But travel, memory-possessed,
To where my tremulous being found
Life largest, best.

My phantom-footed shape will go
When nightfall grays
Hither and thither along the ways
I and another used to know
In backward days.

And there you’ll find me, if a jot
You still should care
For me, and for my curious air;
If otherwise, then I shall not,
For you, be there.

–Thomas Hardy

Aug 312002

In Hamlet the pompous old windbag Polonius sends his son Laertes off with this speech:

And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel,
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatched unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel; but being in,
Bear’t that th’opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice:
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgement.
Costly thy habir as thy purse can buy,
But not expressed in fancy; rich, but not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man;
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are more select and generous in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

This speech consists wholly of platitudes, platitudes intended by Shakespeare as platitudes, platitudes then and platitudes now. It’s kitchen-sampler stuff. It is delivered by one of the least attractive characters in all of the plays, one who lacks the virtue to be a hero and the brio to be a villain and can’t even manage to snoop without getting himself stabbed. Yet after “To be or not to be” it is probably the most often-quoted speech in Shakespeare, and always seriously. This is not a happy reflection on the state of literary culture.

Jun 282002

My Picture Left in Scotland

I now think Love is rather deaf than blind,
For else it could not be
That she
Whom I adore so much should so slight me,
And cast my love behind.
I’m sure my language to her was as sweet,
And every close did meet
In sentence of as subtle feet
As hath the youngest he
That sits in shadow of Apollo’s tree.

Oh, but my conscious fears
That fly my thoughts between,
Tell me that she hath seen
My hundreds of gray hairs,
Told seven and forty years,
Read so much waste, as she cannot embrace
My mountain belly and my rocky face;
And all these through her eyes have stopped her ears.

–Ben Jonson