Dan DeWeese nonfiction pieces

This page holds some of the articles and essays I've written in the last few years, as well as interviews in which I had the opportunity to ask writers about their work. Links to recent articles are here at the top. After that, I've placed things in sections: seven older articles on film, three on art, a book review, and then two past interviews with writers.

Columns on speculative cinema in the winter 2014 issue of Propeller:

“Melies and the Limits,” on A Trip to the Moon.
“Sex Slaves,” on Metropolis and Island of Lost Souls.
“The Invention of Marienbad,” on The Invention of Morel and Last Year at Marienbad.
“The Monster in Your Head,” on Forbidden Planet.

“Imaginary Metropolis,” an article on speculative cities, from the fall/winter 2013 issue of Oregon Humanities.

“Auteur of the Book: Wes Anderson's Cinema of Readers,” a review of The Wes Anderson Collection by Matt Zoller Seitz, in the fall 2013 issue of Propeller.

“You Are Writing What You Are, All the Time” a interview of James Salter, in the fall 2013 issue of Propeller.

“Burning Bushes,” an article on the role of spectacle in contemporary culture, from the spring 2013 issue of Oregon Humanities.

Three articles on art in the spring 2013 issue of Propeller:

“Last Chance at SFMOMA: Garry Winogrand's America,” on a retrospective of the photographer's work.
“Last Chance at SFMOMA: Lebbeus Woods, Architect of No-Man's Land,” on a retrospective of the conceptual/avant garde architect's work.
“Paper is Light: Durer and Rembrandt at Christopher-Clark” on a selection of engravings by the two artists.

“Chris Ware's Box of Forking Paths,” a review of Building Stories by Chris Ware, in the winter 2013 issue of Propeller.



OLDER STUFF


ON FILM

What Ever Happened to New
Hollywood?
(Part One)

This essay ran in the fall 2012 issue of Propeller.

What Ever Happend to New Hollywood? (part one) by Dan DeWeese

IN OCTOBER OF 1967, Pauline Kael contributed an article to The New Yorker (she would become the full-time film critic there in 1968) in defense of a gangster movie she had enjoyed, but which almost nobody else had seen. Released in a small number of theaters in August, the film had received a bad review in the Times, where critic Bosley Crowther called it “a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cutups in ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie.’” The film’s director had a few films under his belt, but the young female lead was entirely unknown, and the male lead, though good-looking, was generally considered a bit wooden as an actor. By the time Kael sat down to write, the studio was preparing to end the film’s limited theatrical run and accept that it was a critical and commercial failure. “How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on?” Kael asked in the article’s opening line. “The audience is alive to it. Our experience as we watch it has some connection with the way we reacted to movies in childhood: with how we came to love them and to feel they were ours—not an art that we learned over the years to appreciate but simply and immediately ours.” She was writing about Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and the work within it of the film’s stars, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty.

On the other kind of screen Americans watched—they called it the “small screen” back then, before those screens, too, started taking up entire walls—there was a new hit television show that was a bit of an odd project, at least for network television: the show cashed in on current pop music fashions while simultaneously satirizing them. Talented songwriters were hired to write songs for a television show about a band whose members (in the beginning, at least) couldn’t actually play the songs—they were young men who didn’t know each other, but had answered an ad in the newspaper. Shows were filmed and records were recorded and released anyway, and sold like hotcakes—for two years, the group outsold The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The actors worked to learn their instruments so they could go on the road and do concerts—real concerts, at which young people did scream with earnest joy, despite the fact that the show’s creators understood the show primarily as a media experiment, when it wasn’t just silly. The show and the band became an American teen-dream pop culture bubblegum phenomenon, money rolled in, and it became apparent that Bob Rafelson had annihilated the last vestiges of a line that had already become pretty thin (The Beatles had been erasing it from the opposite direction), leaving two equally unsatisfactory answers to the question of whether this group was a real or a fake band: the Monkees were both, and neither.

What was more important was that the Monkees—tv show or recording artists, real or fake—were a hit, and the project’s success convinced Columbia to give the Monkees’ co-creators, Rafelson and his friend Bert Schneider, a generous motion-picture development deal. A joke can only last so long, though—especially when a large swath of the audience isn’t in on it—and when Rafelson was asked to deliver a movie about the Monkees, nobody involved wanted to keep sounding the same note. Rafelson decided he could benefit from the help of someone who shared his oppositional-defiant orientation toward increasingly media-controlled mainstream American life. He knew a young actor who was thinking about giving up acting—he was tired of being cast in cheap motorcycle movies—and concentrating instead on directing and screenwriting, so Rafelson invited this actor/screenwriter/aspiring-director to hole up with him in an office over a weekend and consume whatever substances they felt it was necessary to consume in order to write a movie about the Monkees.

The result was the burn-it-to-the-ground meta-movie Head, which is not about the Monkees so much as it is about how ridiculous it is to pretend there is a thing called the Monkees, and that this thing might conceivably be dropped into any recognizable American movie genre. The movie was (deliberately) so surreal and angry that there was no possibility of it actually appealing to the Monkees’ actual fan base, so Columbia decided not to include the Monkees in the marketing materials for the film about the Monkees. The result was that only a handful of people—Rafelson says it may have been fifteen, counting his parents—showed up to the premiere. Rafelson had escaped the Monkees by torching the concept, though, and you can see both Rafelson and his co-writer in Head’s diner scene, which devolves into chaos as Peter Tork argues with Rafelson about whether it was okay for Tork to punch a transvestite waitress. Rafelson is the man in sunglasses telling Tork that it’s fine, really, and could he please move to the next set? His co-writer is the man who walks up and joins the argument for a moment, and whose presence causes viewers unfamiliar with the film’s backstory to blurt some variation of “Wait—is that Jack Nicholson?”

Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson in "Head"

WARREN BEATTY and Jack Nicholson were not alone in inaugurating the brief and—if you’re into downbeat personal films, conspiracy-theory stories that dissolve in existential confusion, or drug-fueled road- or head-trips—beautiful period of American filmmaking that came to be known as “New Hollywood.” The name is at once a reference to a generational changing-of-the-guard and a riff on the films of the French “New Wave” that inspired so many of Hollywood’s young writers, actors, and filmmakers. Like the once-common parlor game of sorting people based on whether they preferred The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, one could probably sort most New Hollywood titles on whether they operate in the mode of Godard/Breathless or of Truffaut/The 400 Blows. Though the canonical story of the New Hollywood suggests it begins with Kael’s defense of Bonnie and Clyde and the movie’s subsequent storm of America’s movie-houses and box office (it grossed over $50 million in the U.S. alone), there were certainly other portents of the shift. Midnight Cowboy pounded the last nail into the coffin of the Motion Picture Production Code by accepting its X rating and winning the Oscar for best picture anyway. The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock slept with a mother and then her daughter—and was celebrated for doing so—decades before anyone coined the regrettable terms “cougar” or “MILF.” The Wild Bunch was more violent than Bonnie and Clyde, and one would never suggest that Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider was made under the influence of fewer drugs than was Head. And Easy Rider, at least, was seen—it cost less than a million dollars to make, and pulled in roughly $100 million.

And the numbers are important—it bears repeating that these were studio pictures. Unlike bands who could survive by playing gigs primarily in their own cities (or, in the case of bands from New Jersey, possibly even only weddings) or writers building a regional reputation (a “Southern writer,” for instance, or the dreaded “writer of the Pacific Northwest”), the American film industry had no viable second- or third-tier distribution or exhibition system: you were national or you were nothing. Men like Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, then—wait, that is nonsense, there are no men like Beatty and Nicholson, they are peerless—possessed a unique concatenation of charm, guile, talent, looks, passion, and ambition that made them the perfect match for an industry in which the capital was badly confused. By the mid-1960s, the vocabulary and attitudes—if not the lifestyle—of 50s Beat culture had spread from the coasts to middle-America; a young novelist named John Updike had written a novel in which a disaffected former high school basketball star shacks up with a prostitute across town rather than stay with his pregnant wife, and the novel was considered good; and as if Elvis Presley’s gyrating hadn’t been enough, when The Beatles showed up on Ed Sullivan with outrageous haircuts, the nation’s girls screamed and fainted. The energies being released by these and other cultural moments were coalescing into something increasingly referred to not as culture, but as “counterculture,” as if there were some kind of dark, second energy in the country whose goal was nothing more than negating standard American values.

Blind to the tumult going on around them, however, Hollywood’s aging studio owners continued to offer the public only small variations on what had worked before. In 1967, 20th Century Fox spent $18 million making the happy kid-picture Doctor Dolittle. It made only $9 million, the studio lost a $4.5 million lawsuit to a rejected screenwriter whose plot point had been used in the film, and the whole disaster nearly bankrupted the studio. After Jimi Hendrix burned his guitar before acid-dropping frolickers at Woodstock, the traditional sunny Hollywood musical also appeared a bit square. My Fair Lady cost $17 million and grossed $72 million in 1964, The Sound of Music cost $11 million and grossed $286 million in 1965 and ’66, but in 1969, Hello, Dolly! cost $25 million and pulled in…$33 million. That’s a profit—technically—but not enough, and critics and the audience joined the studio in being fairly disappointed.

It began to look like the old genres—those dependable templates that simply needed to be filled out with slight variation from year to year—were dead. The aging studio owners had no idea what kind of movies young people wanted to see, and dismal box office returns were proving this to them. “The Monkees” tv show and records were a hit, Bonnie and Clyde was a hit, and Easy Rider—a film Rafelson’s production company had delivered, but which was so embarrassingly sloppy that it was obvious everyone on set had been on drugs—had just pulled in $100 million. It appeared there was a generation of Americans who wanted something entirely different, but the studios had no idea what that was. These young people, though—Penn and Beatty, Rafelson and Nicholson—seemed to know.

Bonnie & Clyde in a movie theater

WHAT HAPPENED next was that American theaters were witness to the most extended and radical European-inflected or New York-based attack on the glitzy Southern California Hollywood aesthetic ever seen, and it was funded by Hollywood. Hal Ashby tickled audiences with a teen who played suicide games before sleeping with a (doomed) grandmother in Harold and Maude; Nicholas Roeg doomed Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie to a gothic Venetian time loop in Don’t Look Now; Alan J. Pakula matched a (doomed?) Asperger’s-ish Sutherland with a (doomed?) icy call-girl Jane Fonda, threw in a killer, and called it Klute; Peter Yates made Robert Mitchum sad and deluded (and doomed) in The Friends of Eddie Coyle; Sidney Lumet stole the young star of The Godfather and had him portray first the (doomed) counterculture costume-artist cop in Serpico and then the sexually-tormented (and doomed) bank robber Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon; and Robert Altman had Elliot Gould mutter nearly incoherently throughout the arch adaptation of Raymond Chandler that was The Long Goodbye. Gould’s Marlow is not quite doomed, probably because he was able to shrug off the insanity surrounding him, on account of it was okay with him.

That’s just a small sample of the films that came flying out of Hollywood in these years, and a sample that doesn’t even consider Beatty and Nicholson’s highlights—and within the New Hollywood movement generally, Beatty and Nicholson both went on runs of particular daring and achievement. Beatty followed Bonnie and Clyde with McCabe & Mrs. Miller (dir Altman), The Parallax View (the Pakula conspiracy film par excellence, which has been lifted from over and over and whose power is only accentuated by the fact that as of this writing, it is somehow not available for purchase on DVD—and I am writing this in 2012), and then Shampoo (dir Ashby). And these are of course the years that made Jack Nicholson Jack Nicholson—he’s the best part of Easy Rider, then turns out Five Easy Pieces (Rafelson), Carnal Knowledge (Nichols), directs Drive, He Said, acts in The King of Marvin Gardens (Rafelson again), The Last Detail (Ashby), Chinatown (Roman Polanski), The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni), Tommy (Ken Russell), and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman).

Hal Ashby, Otis Young, and Jack Nicholson on the set of "The Last Detail"Hal Ashby, Otis Young, and Jack Nicholson on the set of The Last Detail.

And that is still a small sample of what was going on. The Godfather ran in some theaters for over a year—there was no reason a fan of that or any other film might not go back and see it a second, third, or fourth time. The power of scarcity was still an operant and central component of the act of moviegoing during these years. Before the advent of home video or cable television, once a film left the theaters, there was no reason for a fan to feel any particular guarantee that he or she would ever see it again. Audiences could buy the soundtrack album to Mary Poppins and relive the film, to a certain degree, by putting the LP on their turntables. They could not, however, buy a soundtrack album of Jack Nicholson cursing his way through The Last Detail. (This may account for the way in which the decline of people doing impressions of their favorite movie stars is suspiciously correlated with the rise of home video. The only things digital in the late 1960s and early 1970s were calculators; the only things available on-demand were pizza, Chinese food, and, if you were lucky, the police. Average citizens may have entertained each other so often with their impressions of Bogart, Brando, or Jack partly because that was the only way they were going to get to hear Bogart, Brando, or Jack that day. But no one does impressions in the office or at dinner parties anymore—we play YouTube clips on our phones.) Filmmakers with sensibilities firmly beyond the scope of commercial viability were given the opportunity to direct features anyway. Henry Jaglom, Monte Hellman, and Barbara Loden received budgets and directed films that entirely subverted Hollywood and audience expectations. Altman got so weird in Three Women that no one had any idea what Shelley Duvall was doing or why. Terence Malick launched himself with the flattened-affect film Badlands, and even something as ostensibly popcorn-friendly as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was sexually confusing, because who is with whom, or are all three of them together, or what? What is going on?

It’s difficult not to look back at the era sentimentally, and to thereby imbue it with more aesthetic virtue than it may have possessed. (Anyone seeking correction regarding the level of virtue in Los Angeles in these years need look no further than Peter Biskind’s gossipy Easy Riders, Raging Bulls for evidence that, regardless of the filmic virtues they may have possessed, the era’s players maintained equal enthusiasm for their vices.) It’s crucial to keep in mind that the holders of capital, though they agreed to fund all of these further attempts at spinning the Bonnie and Clyde energy into golden box office receipts, did not turn over their position as the holders of capital. With a few exceptions, these were not independent films—they were, in fact, highly dependent films. A significant layout of cash was required, for instance, for Robert Altman to go up into the mountains in British Columbia and build, by hand, the small town that would serve as the set for McCabe & Mrs. Miller. These filmmakers may have been inspired by Breathless, but they certainly weren’t using wheelchairs for a dolly like Godard did. So it’s not surprising that when studio executives saw footage of McCabe & Mrs. Miller and it looked like fogged film of the cast wearing expensive costumes while mumbling and stumbling through soft-focus rain and mud, they were less than excited.

The story of the first half of the New Hollywood, then, is that of the unleashing of tremendous creative energy that resulted in fantastic films, but with no changes in ownership of the means of production. In other words, it was great, but on someone else’s dime. Studios are famously agnostic about aesthetic achievement. It’s fine if a film is profitable while also being good, but only one of those things is absolutely necessary. Many of the early New Hollywood films may have been supremely human, but there were a couple films on the horizon—one was about to come out, and the other would soon be dreamed up—that were going to be mechanical, and were going to destroy box office records. And though Beatty and Nicholson—and many of the other New Hollywood filmmakers—may have been talented and beautiful, they were not mechanical. That was going to be a problem. Ω


 

Lost Racer

This essay on Downhill Racer, the 1969 film directed by Michael Ritchie, ran in the July 2011 issue of Propeller.

Downhill Racer, 1969, directed by Michael Ritchie, starring Robert Redford and Gene Hackman

HALFWAY THROUGH Michael Ritchie's 1969 film Downhill Racer, David Chappellet, a brash young skier from Idaho Springs, Colorado, wins a downhill event on the European circuit. When one of his fellow U.S. Ski Team members congratulates him later and tells him he ran a good race, Chappellet agrees, happily reporting that he only missed one turn—he took it too wide. Traveling from mountain to mountain in Europe in order to skitter down icy slopes on two slivers of wood hardly seems the kind of thing one could be perfect at, and Chappellet's suggestion that he was nearly there is too much for Crich, the team's other top skier. "All right, he's good, and he's fast, and he wins a couple races," Crich complains to the team’s assistant coach, "and I’m the first one to admit that a good racer turns everybody on. But he’s not for the team and he never will be." The coach, played by a young, straight-shooting Dabney Coleman, offers a matter-of-fact response: "Well it's not exactly a team sport, is it?"

Downhill Racer movie posterThe question of what, if anything, a talented individual owes others arises again and again in Downhill Racer. It helps greatly that the talented individual in question is embodied by a fresh-faced Robert Redford, and that Gene Hackman fills the role of the team's head coach, a man who believes not only that downhill skiing is indeed a team sport, but also that Chappellet might be the U.S.'s best chance at a first Olympic gold medal. Hackman has always been a master of the small pause, during which he assesses the person he's speaking to—he often smiles while doing so, as a cover for the fact this his gaze has gone coldly analytical. That gaze—and Redford's return of it—brings an energizing frisson to their scenes together. The two men need each other to fulfill their individual goals: Hackman wants to be the coach who brings the U.S. ski team its first Olympic downhill gold; Chappellet wants to be better than every other person. Though they want the same result—that gold medal—it’s also clear that they’re too similar to ever really like one another. They don’t even really bother to try.

Depending upon which source you consult, Downhill Racer was either a victim of a distribution hang-up at Paramount, or was possibly just rejected by audiences expecting the charming Redford they'd just seen in Barefoot in the Park rather than the aloof version he was giving them as Chappellet. Either way, the film fell into a cultural void until a Criterion Collection edition returned it to view a couple years ago, and it now seems to slip nicely into what has been a tough position to fill: among the formidable wave of American films and directors loosely referred to as "The New Hollywood," where is the movement's take on the sports film? Most critics suggest The New Hollywood spirit starts with Bonnie & Clyde, expands throughout an exhilarating era of filmmaking that includes titles like Five Easy Pieces, M*A*S*H, Dog Day Afternoon, and dozens of others, and is then savagely annihilated by Steven Spielberg via the invention of “the blockbuster” in the person (or fish, I suppose) of Jaws. The era includes other sports film candidates, of course: The Longest Yard, Rollerball, or maybe something scruffier, like the Jack Nicholson-directed college basketball counterculture film Drive, He Said.

But Downhill Racer, viewed from the perspective that forty-two years provides, seems the best of these films that had the luxury of existing pre-Rocky. Though the rags-to-riches, pulling-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps narrative Rocky milked was hardly invented by Sylvester Stallone, the impact Rocky had, and continues to have, on American sports films shouldn’t be underestimated. The procedure of having an underdog do well, encounter difficulty, train hard to a pop-music assemblage (Q: “Hey Sly, how do you stay in shape?” A: “Montage”), and then vanquish his opponent in a rousing final battle hadn’t been as strictly formalized as a money-making formula before Rocky as it would be afterward. Rocky itself doesn’t follow the pattern correctly, of course, since Rocky (spoiler!) loses at the end, which is why if no sequels had ever been made, Rocky might be esteemed as highly as On the Waterfront or Raging Bull. Instead, of course, we have a tradition that includes not only Rocky’s II-XXIII, but also wrestling Rocky’s, arm wrestling Rocky’s, dog Rocky’s, hockey Rocky’s, and kid hockey Rocky’s, to name just a few. Or several.

Gene Hackman and Robert Redford in Downhill Racer

Downhill Racer
, though, isn’t a film that uses sport to extol the virtues of love, teamwork, or the human spirit. It is, instead, a film whose characters are suspicious of clichés about love, teamwork, and "the human spirit." These people are interested in winning, and that's it. The result is a film about skiing that resists attempts to be about anything other than winning at skiing.

There's a semantic issue here, of course: it's possible that Downhill Racer does say something about the human spirit, it's just that the human spirit referenced isn't what we usually refer to as "the human spirit." In other words, rather than promoting fairly conservative social virtues—and by conservative, I just mean traditional and safe, since no one is going to argue against teamwork or friendship or love or whatever other noble qualities heroes usually learn and then utilize in order to win their championship—Downhill Racer is about human beings focused on the pursuit of individual excellence. Chappellet, for instance, doesn’t appear to have or want any friends. He picks up an old girlfriend on a break in Colorado, and falls into bed with a European beauty, but neither relationship is feasible as something beyond the moment, and he doesn’t seem motivated by women—he needs no Adrian who, after difficult childbirth, tells Rocky to "Just win," and for whom Rocky then works mightly (in montage) to just win. In fact, director Michael Ritchie—who would later debase the homilies of Little League baseball by presenting foul-mouthed, cigarette smoking kids in The Bad News Bears—presents Chappellet as someone whose pursuit of excellence isn't instrumentalized in any of the ways we almost always see excellence instrumentalized, i.e. by someone who does it for God, for parents, for a spouse or a kid, to score with women, or to get rich. What probably alienated viewers of Downhill Racer is that in most Hollywood movies, the hero's acquisition of a skill is used as a means of achieving a goal. Redford's Chappellet, however, doesn’t want to be the fastest skier in the world in order to vanquish a dragon, defeat a personal demon, or win a damsel. He just wants to be the best in the world so he can know he’s the best in the world.

Robert Redford and Camilla Sparv in Downhill Racer

Some might label obsessive pursuit of personal victory a brand of narcissism, and fair enough—the issue is certainly in play. But the beauty of the film—and especially of James Salter’s adaptation of the Oakley Hall novel The Downhill Racers—lies in the degree to which it dramatizes the contradictions bound up in the pursuit of excellence. Even though Chappellet pursues racing just for the sake of racing, the purity of this focus doesn’t result in any kind of beatific or inspired openness on his part, and in fact seems to push him only farther away from others. His teammates enjoy a sense of camaraderie, but Chappellet doesn’t share it. A crucial difference might be that the team's other members come from well-defined social backgrounds. When a teammate explains that he's from Dartmouth, Chappellet repeats the word quietly, as if it's from another language: "Dartmouth." Chappellet is from nowhere, of course, and though he has built his whole world around nothing but downhill skiing—the film begins when an injury to another skier results in Chappellet getting called up to the team—he nevertheless remains entirely alienated from the actual world of downhill skiing. The things he takes joy in—feeling he was almost perfect in a race, for instance—are the exact things that cause others to keep him at a distance.

When Chappellet goes home to visit his father (there's no mention of his mother or what became of her), we see that the man actually lives outside of town, in a rundown house that is, for lack of a better term, just up there in the mountains. Chappellet is keenly aware of class—or perhaps it's the film that is keenly aware of class, while Chappelet is only vaguely and suspiciously aware of it—possibly because there is no word he can say (“Dartmouth”) that will immediately convey to others the context of his background.

And yet, despite this discussion of Chappellet as alienated and absent a mother, he's not antisocial, and is hardly ill at ease. Rather than making Chappellet a young man wracked with class envy, Salter, Richie, and Redford craft a character aware of class, but who doesn't have any particular point to make about it. For Chappellet, rather than being some totalizing social concept that one can never escape but must endlessly struggle against, class is just one of many obstacles that threaten to mire one in a plane somewhere beneath the exalted realm of excellence. He doesn't hate class, he hates mediocrity.

Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights

It's easy to satirize this kind of character. Adam McKay and Will Ferrell have a great time doing so in Talladega Nights—"I piss excellence," Ricky Bobby intones—but Ricky Bobby wins race after race, so what's depicted as "pissing excellence" is a position of total dominance. In the first thirty minutes of Downhill Racer, on the other hand, we see all of one David Chappellet race. In fact, there's an entire sequence devoted to Chappellet being given the 88th starting place in a race he's entered in immediately after joining the team, and he's so annoyed that the course will be too destroyed by that point for him to possibly win that he declines to race. He just skips it. When his Dartmouth teammate naively asks why he didn't race, Chappellet says, "Well they had me seeded about 150, so I told 'em I didn't want it."

And then after all of this build-up, when we finally get to see Chappelet race at Kitzbuhel, he wipes out. This isn't handled in a melodramatic manner in which Chappellet made a crucial error, or there's some skill he doesn't have but desperately needs. We just watch him racing...and then he crashes. Afterward, when he struggles to explain to Hackman that it wouldn't have happened if he were given a better starting position, Hackman cuts him off. "You just weren't good enough, that's all," Hackman says. We've seen Hackman's character make the rounds raising support and money for US Skiing by suggesting that victory will follow funding, so Hackman, too, is there to just win, and meets Chappellet's flatness with his own: "You just weren’t strong enough." So Hackman's character is driven, Chappellet’s teammate Crich is driven, the woman Chappellet chases in Europe is driven—this is the world of driven individuals, and regardless of what they say, none of them appears to actually live for some notion of team glory. Each person believes he or she is the hero, and there is no story other than skiing.

Robert Redford alone in Europe in Downhill Racer

The narrative’s leaps and elisions of time are unexplained—you pick up the contours of the relationships from the way in which the characters speak to one another, or from other cues. A night scene of Chappellet walking alone through town seems strangely devoid of other people until you realize that it's Christmas, and he's alone in Europe. He has wanted everything in life to be about success in the field of skiing, and thus finds himself enduring a world in which everything is about success in the field of skiing. Play—the innocent practice that begins most pursuits of excellence—is no longer allowed. "Nobody races unless I say so," Hackman tells Chappellet at one point. The screenplay is not always this direct, though. At one point, a ski manufacturer hoping to outfit Chappellet looks at him and says, "The skis are stiff—it gives them much more stability." It's clear that the man is attributing Chappellet's personal qualities to the merchandise.

Films like Dodgeball mock the old Rocky conventions, but Downhill Racer reveals the degree to which a filmmaker can simply walk away from those conventions, if he or she desires—the film straightforwardly reveals the degree to which the conventions are not only ridiculous, but unnecessary. "Isn't it stupid, how we used to talk about the justice of sport?" Crich laments late in the film. When a journalist asks Chappellet what his plans are after the Olympics, he has no answer. "This is it," he says almost glumly. The race sequences throughout the film feature no conversation, no talking, and precious little explanation of who the other racers are. Even late in the film, we enter sequences by being dropped into the middle of things, and the characters, too, seem to be trying to keep up. "Chappellet—you can win," is all Hackman says at one point. He delivers the sentence at normal volume, in the tone of one reporting a surprising development rather than offering any particular encouragement.

One of the film's early shots of Redford finds him squinting against the light as he pauses to look at the peaks that surround him. His insignificance—the transience of one human being when measured against the grandeur of epic mountain ranges—is smartly translated to the level of sport in Downhill Racer's conclusion. At that level, it isn't the drama of man versus nature, but instead the ephemeral, time-bound quality of any achievement made in competition with others. After all, just because you might actually win doesn't mean the game will end. There is always a next race, just as there are others pursuing excellence as intensely as you are. Failure is never more than a fraction of a second away. Ω

an alpine view in Downhill Racer


 

Outer Space Psychodrama

This essay on Solaris, the 1972 movie directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, ran in the July 2010 issue of Propeller.
 

Outer Space Psychodrama by Dan DeWeese

A LITTLE OVER an hour into Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris, Kris Kelvin nervously tells Hari, his wife, that he has to leave the space station he is on but that she is welcome to come along. She agrees, but when she asks him to help her take her dress off so she can change into a space suit, Kelvin loosens a few rows of laces at the back of the dress before he realizes that there is no seam there to be opened—the laces aren’t functional. Kelvin tears the dress open from the neck to the shoulder; Hari doesn’t flinch. When he pauses at her lack of reaction, she looks at him, baffled. “What are you looking at?” she asks.

What he is looking at is a woman who—like the dress she is wearing—is impossible. Kelvin came to the space station alone; his wife has been dead for years. But it’s telling that Tarkovsky has amplified not the pages (and pages) of scientific speculation present in Stanislaw Lem’s 1960s novel of the same name, but this single, inspired sartorial moment, and the familiar fear we see in response to it in Kelvin’s eyes: This woman is not who I think she is.

We know that though science fiction dramatizes stories that take place in the future—it’s how they make the science fictional—the genre actually delivers cloaked versions of some contemporary moment: Planet of the Apes riffs on civil rights, Star Wars recasts World War II, and Blade Runner suggests transportation solutions for the mess that is downtown Los Angeles. In Solaris, though, Tarkovsky curtails dramatization of the future to such an extraordinary degree—and so expediently shrugs off any of the genre’s typical conventions—that it’s tempting to suggest the film isn’t science fiction at all. We open on shots of plants, water, and sunlight, so that our expectations of a technological backdrop or alien environment are immediately thwarted. The soundtrack begins with Bach, and the film’s first hour—this material is not in Lem’s novel—concentrates on the natural world: a stream, fields, a house, children, and a horse. Viewers hoping to be dropped into the usual science fiction milieu of future time or extraterrestrial place will be disappointed, and maybe even angered, by the degree to which Tarkovsky withholds those items.

Donatas Banionis as Kris Kelvin in Solaris

This extended opening takes place at the country home of Kelvin’s father. Kelvin is scheduled to leave on a flight to a troubled space station orbiting Solaris, a planet covered by a possibly-sentient ocean composed of a mysterious material. The space-time realities of space travel mean that this is the last time Kelvin will ever see his father—the older man will be dead long before Kelvin ever returns. The two have trouble talking, and are then interrupted by a visit from a man named Burton, who had been at the space station long ago and had a hair-raising experience there. He wants to prepare Kelvin and influence his belief in the importance of studying the planet. There is a young boy with him whose identity is left a mystery.

There was certainly precedent for opening your science fiction epic in the countryside—Kubrick, of course, has us spend the opening section of 2001 with the apes, and there’s no way to watch Solaris without thinking of its mod sci-fi cousin. The sterility, absence of women, and antiseptic formalism that Kubrick brought to 2001 couldn’t be further from Tarkovsky’s vision, though. The characters in 2001—the ones we watch after “The Dawn of Man,” at least—operate with an all-encompassing, unquestioned resolve. The astronauts headed to Jupiter, especially, have no uncertainty regarding their mission, and they do exactly what they’re supposed to do. The drama arises from an external, machine-oriented issue: Kubrick’s astronauts are engineers, and their computer fails, so they have to take steps. The dramatically-gripping parts of 2001—as opposed to the technically-, philosophically-, or psychedelically-gripping sections—form what is essentially the first and greatest Information Technology drama in the history of cinema: Can something be done to fix this computer?

Audiences felt—and still feel—that Kubrick finds all sorts of fascinating material, both narratively and visually, in this. Tarkovsky didn’t share this opinion. “The film has made on me an impression of something artificial,” he said of 2001. “It was as if I have found myself in a museum where they demonstrate the newest technological achievements. Kubrick is intoxicated with all this and he forgets about man, about his moral problems. And without that, true art cannot exist.” Tarkovsky’s claim that Kubrick “forgets about man” seems, at first, odd. For all of 2001’s opacity or psychedelic suggestion—it’s easily one of the top scoring “What did that mean?” films of all time—one thing that seems clear is its focus on possibilities for where humanity is headed. But man’s “moral problems” are not necessarily the same as the possibilities for his species, and therein lies Tarkovsky’s complaint. The motor that drives 2001 is essentially anthropological: We are a species, the film suggests. We came from somewhere, and we’ll head somewhere. The forces behind this are monolithic.

space station hallway in solaris

The motor that runs Solaris, though, is psychological. Tarkovsky draws the tension in his film from guilt, doubt, and shame. The discovery of an exotic extraterrestrial landscape and intelligence is, in this story, old news. The planet Solaris has been discovered, explored, studied, and theorized about for decades and decades before the story even opens, and it has led to no particular insights about humanity, and even fewer about Solaris. “Why is it that in all the science fiction films I’ve seen the authors force the viewer to watch the material details of the future?” Tarkovsky asked. “Why do they call their films—as Stanley Kubrick did—prophetic? Not to mention that to specialists, 2001 is in many instances a bluff, and there is no place for that in a work of art.” This complaint is in many ways the one Kelvin finds himself investigating at the opening of the film: people have already taken their prophetic stances on this space ocean. They have examined its composition and speculated about what—or who—it is. But the science of “Solaristics” has come to nothing, and Kelvin openly doubts whether the study of this place he’s being sent to is even intellectually important. It’s possible the whole thing is just a waste of time.

And then he reaches the station and finds an environment he is entirely unprepared for. “I’d like to film Solaris in such a way as to avoid inducing in the viewer a feeling of anything exotic. Technologically exotic, that is,” Tarkovsky said. The refinement in the second sentence there is crucial. Because rather than the clean, computer-controlled mod-pad of 2001, the space station in Solaris is a disordered site of grotesquerie, mortification, and shame, in which the two remaining crew members (a third has committed suicide just before Kelvin’s arrival) are being visited by corporeal manifestations of people or creatures from their thoughts and memories. And the first time Kelvin falls asleep, even though he barricades the door before climbing into bed, he wakes up to find that he’s sharing his cabin with his late wife. She seems a bit disoriented, but she is wearing that lovely dress, and it’s a perfect fit. Though the manufacturer—of the dress and of the woman—apparently doesn’t realize that human clothing is supposed to come on and off.


THIS IS A
commonplace, but it should be said that both Solaris and 2001 are formidable works of art in part because they allow for multiple readings. Watch 2001 when you’re a child, for instance, and the shutdown of HAL can feel like the silencing of the astronauts’ child: he said something wrong, and now he can’t live with them anymore. Watch it when you’re older, though, and another metaphor feels equally viable: these men are taking their parent off life-support, and they’re going to have to live without him now. The tensions in these films—and the ways in which those tensions and situations, because they’ve been dislocated to outer space and the future—allow us to project our own particular assumptions and preoccupations onto them.

What’s interesting in Solaris is how, though the problem is located on a space station, the problem doesn’t, even within the world of the story, have anything to do with space or the future. The men call the manifestations visiting them “guests.” We learn very little about the other crew members’ guests, though, because each man seems either to be ashamed of the identity of his guest, or to be doing physical battle with and possibly “murdering” his guest as a way of getting rid of it. (Kelvin isn’t innocent of the latter strategy. He shoots the first Hari into space, but a new Hari—with no memory of the previous one—shows up the next night.) The men aren’t battling a technology, so they aren’t sure whether they should respond with technology. They discuss whether to bombard the ocean with radiation, but they’re grasping at straws. When the guests stop appearing, one crew member hypothesizes that this might be because the ocean has read something in Kelvin’s mind that has made this form of communication—which the men experience as psychological torture, though the ocean probably isn’t aware that it is considered poor form to communicate with humans by sending them manifestations of their dead wives—no longer necessary.

donatas banionis and natalya bondarchuk in solaris

By that point in the film, though, we’ve watched what has primarily been a story about a relationship between a man and a woman. The ocean is just the MacGuffin that sets everything in motion, and we don’t know what’s in that ocean any more than we know what’s in the monolith in 2001. Both films circle an enigma.

It’s surprising, when thinking about how useful these MacGuffins are in the context of science fiction, that the auteurs of the 1960s and 70s didn’t work in the genre more often. The Birds wanders in that direction, but Hitchcock always keeps a tight rein on his material—it never moves beyond the bounds of suspense. Antonioni was asked more than once if and when he would make a science fiction film, because his examinations of relationships between men and women were often so uncompromising that they unnerved audiences, or moved into perceptual territory—one usually says “visual,” but Antonioni’s obsession with the instability of any one person’s vision makes “perceptual” seem more accurate—that felt alien and unsettling in a way we associate more closely with science fiction than with traditional relationship films. Antonioni’s response to the question of whether he’d like to make a science fiction film is revealing of his characteristic dourness, as well as of the falseness, even at the practical level, of thinking that the genre is somehow different. “Actually, there is a science fiction film in the works,” he said. “But I’m not entirely happy with it yet. I would like to, though—who knows? Perhaps one day. Most likely, we’ll still come up against the same problems.”

Antonioni never made his sci-fi movie (unless you count the end of Identification of a Woman, though that’s more a reference to science fiction rather than its actual presence), but it’s the terrain Antonioni already shared with Tarkovsky that interests here. One of the insights of Antonioni’s films is that falling into or out of love with someone always already involves entering an altered state. Antonioni likes to have one or more characters who are so keenly aware of this fact that they’re distressed by it. Regardless of the character Monica Vitti plays, for instance, the woman knows she is losing herself. Knowing you’re high on someone doesn’t necessarily make the high go away, though, and Antonioni so aggressively interrogates the notions of identity and desire bound up in relationships that he eventually pushes his characters—and thus his narratives—into modes of perceptual disorientation that viewers often had no words to describe outside of the vocabulary of psychedelia or…science fiction. But Antonioni’s characters don’t do drugs (sit down, fans of Red Desert: quail eggs don’t count) or go into space, and the films take place in the present.

In Solaris, however, Tarkovsky had the opportunity to go ahead and start with the preconditions of science fiction—travel in a spaceship; to an extraterrestrial location; to meet an alien consciousness—but then allow the narrative to pursue questions not merely of that alien ocean, but of what it means to love. Can you love a simulacra drawn from patterns in your head? Or are we only ever in love with simulacra—the things we project onto people, drawn from patterns in our heads? Solaris begins with talk of a space station in the future, but ends in the territory of relationships and the past.

donatas banionis and natalya bondarchuk in the library in solaris

WHERE TARKOVSKY'S Solaris (Stephen Soderbergh’s 2004 remake is forgettable) and Antonioni’s Red Desert meet is the narrative location that gives the lie to genre as a useful organizing principle in the first place. Genre may be a way of categorizing our thoughts in addition to our DVD stores and websites, and we of course already have a common phrasing for what many great films do: “transcend” genre. Even that metaphor is loaded, though, suggesting as it does that genre works are somehow babbling down in the inferno, and we require a brilliant Virgil to help us escape upward to paradise. It’s more accurate to suggest that some directors simply operate independently of genre considerations. In Solaris, for instance, in the space of a few seconds we are thrilled by a vision of weightlessness, moved by a man and woman embracing, entranced by the image of the convulsing ocean, absorbed in the details of a Bruegel painting, stirred by images of Kelvin’s parents and childhood, and still cognizant of the struggle these men on the space station are engaged in with their situation. The moves Tarkovsky makes between these kinds of material feel entirely natural. The film is devoid of any particular show-off sensationalism, pulp-exhibitionism, or winking suggestions of being somehow “post-modern.” Things proceed quietly, and watching the film, one is reminded that to move so smoothly between these supposedly disparate states is in fact entirely natural—that thoughts like these are not disparate, but the natural process of our minds at work and play. We think about all sorts of things each day, and experience all sorts of moments, and most days move through these thoughts and states fairly naturally. In the bookstore and at the theater, however, we accept the market’s claim that these are very different things—that science fiction isn’t about relationships, that psychedelia can only be the result of psychotropics, that mysteries must include detectives, and if there are more than a few laughs, it must be a comedy. It’s the parsing out of material into these rigid categories, however, that is the artificial or stylized act, and not any author or auteur’s failure to conform to the rules of the game.

In other words, it isn’t the authors who make odd moves, it’s the marketplace. It’s genre as a concept that is weird, not intergenre or genre-crossing work. And the enmity that genres often feel for one another—the way in which “literary fiction” sniffs at “memoir” (two terms whose use to indicate discrete genres is recent enough that people in publishing as recently as the 1980s still found the term “literary fiction” odd), while they both condescend to science fiction and fantasy, who then look down upon the detective novel, which looks down upon the romance novel, which looks down upon pornography (a genre which is happy to complete the cycle by accusing literary fiction of being repressed, affected, uptight, and therefore something to be looked down upon)—points us straight toward the old narcissism of slight difference. It’s so easy for material operating in one genre to slip into another genre because the boundaries are illusory in the first place. You’re trapped on a space station investigating a mystery, and what appears is the simulacra of a beautiful young woman whom you loved in the past—and the simulacra says that she loves you now, and cannot bear to sleep anywhere other than with you. We have a science fiction setting, the investigation component of a detective narrative, the emotional conflicts of a relationship narrative, and the naturally resulting sleeping arrangement decisions to be made.

So when claiming that Solaris is one of the best science fiction films ever made—and it is; I am—the problem is that one of the methods Tarkovsky uses to achieve this greatness is to make the film not particularly science-fictional. A character wears a space suit for a bit; we see some stars and an ocean; there are hallways we understand form a circle. That’s it. But while we’re dazzled by those distractions and our own expectations, Tarkovsky uses sleight of hand to simultaneously work with all sorts of other material, as well. And though it’s fine—and fun—to distract an audience with a puff of smoke, the best magicians appear to be doing nothing in particular. Tarkovsky knows how people’s eyes track across a frame (one of his favorite moves is to have a character exit a shot, then re-enter moments later from a surprising direction), and he knows what their minds hope to derive from a story. In science fiction, we expect a rocket ship and a space station mystery with alien creatures. And we get that here, but slant. We get it, but so in the end we’re moved not because an alien has been defeated, but instead because the film has somehow become a meditation on how badly we miss childhood, how intensely we love our parents, and how powerfully we regret the ways in which our own attempts at love have failed or gone wrong. By the end of Solaris, we occupy Kelvin’s position: we don’t understand what machine or entity has taken us to this surprising place, but we feel we belong here.


THE FATE OF the woman with the odd dress is similarly arresting. In this case, unfortunately, ingenuity finds a unique path to heartbreak rather than home. Like Antonioni and Bergman, Tarkovsky’s talents seem particularly enlivened when there is a woman at the center of his films. (Mirror, the lovely, languorous film he made after Solaris, features Margarita Terekhova in what may be the sexiest fully-clothed hair-washing scene you’re ever likely to see, at least in any film in which the same actress plays the roles of a man’s wife and of his mother.) It’s not terribly surprising that Kelvin, knowing full well his space station girlfriend is a counterfeit, becomes taken with her anyway. When we see that Hari is developing the ability to be away from Kelvin, though—to live, if only for moments, on her own—she becomes even more fascinating. Loosening herself from whatever alien force has bound her to this man seems a noble struggle.

But with neither a personal past nor an identity, the independence Hari develops while stranded on a space station offers limited consolation. Kelvin finds the flaw in the dress, but it’s Hari who sees a way out. Because though weightlessness is lovely to watch and perhaps a brief thrill, no one wants to float forever. Ω

the ocean in Solaris, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky


 

Returning to Breaking Away

A short piece on the film directed by Peter Yates, from the spring 2010 issue of Boneshaker, a bicycling journal to which I occasionally contribute short reviews of only the bicycling scenes from various films.

movie poster for Breaking Away, directed by Peter Yates“What’re you, an exchange student or something?” a young woman asks Dave Stoller early in Breaking Away. He has just used a fake Italian accent while introducing himself to her, and though the accent is comical, on the campus of the University of Indiana in 1979, it is apparently sufficient. But Dave is not only not Italian, he’s a townie, or what the citizens of Bloomington call a “cutter,” after the town’s signature local industry of stone cutting. Taking some time off after high school and before whatever comes next, Dave spends his time idolizing the Cinzano cycling team, winning local races, and riding his bike around town while offering jaunty, Italianate greetings to the neighbors.

Breaking Away won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay in 1979, and it features some actors of note: a young Dennis Quaid glowers shirtlessly at the quarry; Daniel Stern, in his first role, does admirable work as the awkward Cyril; and Paul Dooley brings welcome energy to the role of Dave’s father, a used-car salesman rendered nearly speechless when he discovers that his son’s cycling preparations involve shaved legs. The acting, dialogue, and pacing are rough enough early on that one begins to wonder if 1979 was a weak year for screenplays, but the film gets better as it goes, and the screenplay reveals an admirable degree of care: the plot points of a Rocky-esque criterion race showdown between the cutters and some preppy college kids form the story’s backbone (with no Rocky sequels yet in existence in 1979, the narrative force of the first Balboa film had yet to be diluted), while the story also manages to trip lightly through the main beats of the relationship-imperiled-by-a-lie romantic comedy pattern. The film’s modest scale and earnest intentions keep the whole thing charming and low-key, though, and in its ensemble attack and 1970s palette, it was certainly source material for Richard Linklater’s more manic Dazed and Confused.

The cycling in Breaking Away, and it’s handling visually, will turn no one’s head. Outside of a lyrical ride mid-film in which the sympathetic driver of a Cinzano truck spontaneously sets a pace for Dave as he trains on a highway outside of Bloomington, there’s no particular flash to Dave’s bike, the way he rides it, or the way director Peter Yates films it. In our age of the computer-aided “camera” (those are virtual-reality quotes, not ironic ones) that can swoop anywhere and capture anything, however, it’s nice to see the old Eisensteinian strategies one in a while. It turns out that some handheld shots and cross-cutting among riders still works fine for creating rising tension.

It’s also nice to see a depiction of bicycling-as-resistance unattached to the political and/or environmental causes it is paired with so often these days. Dave’s attachment to his bike—and to his idea of Italy, and his fake accent—is a resistance that, because it is purely existential, is understandable to anyone. Dave doesn’t want to become a stone cutter, but his life experience is limited enough that he has only a hazy idea of what other options exist. Among Dave’s friends, and especially with his father, “going to college” still connotes intellectual or social pretensions, so Dave has imagined himself as an Italian cyclist. People trying to escape their hometown destinies have certainly done things far crazier.

Dave’s Italian fantasy can’t last, but that doesn’t mean he’s headed for some kind of brutal defeat. Most of us, after all, have nursed our own idealistic fantasies of what riding the bike around town will be like, or how it will feel, or who we will become as a “bike rider.” Dave’s disillusionment comes courtesy of a chance, cruel meeting with the actual Cinzano cycling team, but it’s no different, really, from anyone’s first flat tire or crash. It sucks. Bikes turn out to be objects that can break, and break us. But Dave plugs away. He doesn’t give up the bike, and he doesn’t give up on becoming something more than a cutter. After all: if he were truly defeated, the movie couldn’t be called Breaking Away.


 

Bicycling and Freedom in American Film: The Ice Storm

A short piece on the bicycling scene in the film. This ran in the summer 2009 issue of Boneshaker.

movie poster for The Ice Storm, a film by Ang Lee, based on the novel by Rick MoodyToward the beginning of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, Elena Hood (Joan Allen) chats with, and is faintly hit on, by a man who runs into her at an outdoor library book sale. It is 1973, and we are in New Canaan, Connecticut. Elena apologizes for not joining his “congregation” after visiting a couple times the previous year, and the man—his shoulder-length hair, corduroy jacket, and mock turtleneck as of-the-time as the vague Christianity he describes—begins to suggestively explain how he has lately “begun to minister much more in what one might call therapeutic environments, in small groups, and couples, and, uh…one on one.” Looking into the distance, though, Elena interrupts him: “My daughter,” she says.

Wendy Hood’s ride past the library is handled quickly. We see Wendy (Christina Ricci) in a scarlet coat and blue jeans, pumping lightly as she rides through an intersection on a blue cruiser. A jump-cut moves us into a slightly closer shot—the jacket lends Ricci a Red-Riding-Hood quality—before Lee cuts back to the original long shot as she rides past. Elena smiles, faintly—it is one of the only times in the movie she relaxes her otherwise relentlessly-pinched anxiety—and says, “I haven’t been on a bike for years. When was the last time you rode a bike?” The pastor smiles. “They say you never forget,” he says.

The rest of Wendy’s bike ride includes shoplifting a moon pie from the pharmacy, saying hello to a boy who repays her courtesy by pretending his G.I. Joe is shooting her as she rides away, and finally, making out with that boy’s daft older brother (Elijah Wood) in an empty swimming pool. Melancholy woodwinds in the score cast a pall over everything, and later, when Elena tells Wendy she saw her riding and that “You looked very free when I saw you, as if I were seeing my own memories of being a girl—there was something internal about it,” Wendy responds by saying, “Mom, are you all right?”

This happens throughout the film: Lee, as Rick Moody does in the novel the film is adapted from, presents day-to-day life in New Canaan as suffused with oppressive, existential dread. Elijah Wood is either scared to death of or just entirely baffled by a football. People experience kissing—anywhere, for any reason—as dreadful. Everyone seems fouled in emotional lines: the family’s father (Kevin Kline, sewn into his polyester pants) is romantically entangled with a neighbor (Sigourney Weaver), Elena’s emotional self seems to have been strangled by some invisible cord, and everyone, regardless of whether they have or haven’t done anything wrong, seems tied-down by guilt, depression, or both.

We are used to seeing bicycles presented as an antidote to commuter-traffic stress, fossil-fuel poison, or middle-age spread. In The Ice Storm, though, Wendy’s solitary bike ride is the only moment of ease or grace that appears to occur anywhere in town. This is bicycle riding not as an antidote to stress or indolence, but to an experience of daily life as a living hell. The duration of the relief Elena enjoys while admiring her daughter as she glides past on the blue cruiser? About ten seconds.




Bicycling and Freedom in American Film: The Great Muppet Caper

Another short piece on a bicycling sequence, also from the summer 2009 issue of Boneshaker.

a still from the great muppet caper, in which the muppets ride bicycles through a parkSeeing the full body of Kermit the Frog in a public setting is a bit like running into your teacher at the grocery store. It’s vaguely interesting and a bit of a thrill, but also: entirely grotesque. The Muppet-in-public suddenly acquires every physical vulnerability a human being has, but without recourse to the coordinated physical movement that gets us safely through our day. In an actual park, it’s obvious that because he’s nothing but felt and ping-pong balls, Kermit will be killed by the first dog who comes along. To put Kermit on a bicycle, then, is to subject him to absolutely certain and immediate injury—the height of irresponsibility.

And yet, in The Great Muppet Caper, ride he does—as does Miss Piggy and the rest of the gang. As in the films of Antonioni, most Muppet movies include a moment in which you wonder: But how did they get that shot? When Kermit and Piggy mount their bicycles and begin to ride through a London park while singing an upbeat ditty titled “Couldn’t We Ride?”, the way in which one has been watching the film to that point cannot continue, because now, in every shot, we are alert to the means of production. Where are the wires, we ask ourselves, the hidden pulleys and rods? Are there little people at work here? Is the bicycle moving at a proper speed? Is it correctly upright? The entire physics behind bicycle-riding becomes so foregrounded in the viewer’s consciousness that one can’t help but realize how devilishly tricky the whole business is. Roughly every single human being over age six has wiped out on a bike—there’s just no way a Muppet should be able to get away with riding at all.

The Internet answers all questions, of course: this bike ride comes courtesy of hidden wires, axle-to-axle rods, marionettes, hidden cords, radio controls, and deft editing. And yet this knowledge fails to put the issue to rest. Throughout the Muppet bike ride sequence, iterations of the trick are explored: the camera moves, and angles change. Kermit and Piggy circle in opposite directions, then ride holding hands; Kermit rides with no hands; he stands on the seat, and then does a handstand. We look, in vain, for the strings. Has an airbrush erased them? The park path lies in sun-dappled shade. Is it those shadows that prevent us from detecting the trickery? What the hell is happening here?

Every marionette battles cords, wires, and lines, and every puppet operates under the dictates of a superior power. Strings don’t hold a marionette down so much as they make a marionette a marionette, and a puppet without a hand is just a sock. What is provoked when watching Muppets on bikes, though—beyond the question of why Piggy changes size among the various shots—is really the same unsettling question that dominates our own rides: How is it that bicycles stay up in the first place, for anyone? When we observe the Muppet bicyclist and decide he doesn’t look natural, this is in comparison to a combination of balance, momentum, and spin that was always a bit of a trick. One way to keep from falling, we realize early on, is to speed up. Because the bicycle is a machine that converts centripetal force into levitation, every ride we take is already a bit of a floating special effect.

What resonates at the end of the en masse Muppet ride in The Great Muppet Caper, then, is the spooky feeling that what keeps a bicycle-riding Muppet from falling isn’t really the hidden wires or rods. Part of what keeps the Muppets from falling is the same thing that keeps us from falling: to continue forward on a bicycle, one just continues, forward, on the bicycle.



Prospero's Pharmacy:
Peter Greenaway and the Critics Play Shakespeare's Mimetic Game

This essay on Shakespeare's The Tempest and Peter Greenaway's film adaptation, Prospero's Books (1991), appeared in Almost Shakespeare (McFarland, 2004), a book of essays about Shakespeare in film, edited by James Keller and Leslie Stratyner.

Prospero's Books

Shakespeare’s Prospero seems incompetent. He is condescending and short with his daughter Miranda, despite the fact that she displays nothing but love and admiration for him. He has bungled his relationship with his adopted son Caliban to the point that the estranged beast dreams of murdering his foster father at the first opportunity. He maintains an awkwardly uneven association with his best and most potent ally, Ariel—a friend he seems to revel in demeaning by rehashing ad nauseum (Prospero claims it’s a monthly ritual) the story of how he released Ariel from Sycorax’s spell. And despite what appears to be obsessive overplanning of his plot, Prospero interrupts one of the few moments of delight he offers when he realizes that he has nearly forgotten to protect himself from advancing murderers.

Looming over these details, however, is the role incompetence might have played in how and why Prospero was exiled from Milan in the first place. The only narrative we get of what must have been a harrowing scene—a father and his young daughter surprised in the night, thrown into a small boat, and cast onto the dark ocean—comes to us through Prospero himself, in which he portrays himself as a victim of his brother Antonio’s overweening greed and ambition. Yet Prospero’s story includes troubling details. Intent only on his study of the “liberal arts,” Prospero admits to a virtual abdication of his dukedom: “The government I cast upon my brother, / And to my estate grew stranger, being transported / And rapt in secret studies” (1.2.75-77), and later, “I, thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated / To closeness and the bettering of my mind…” (1.2.89-90). A stranger to his estate, neglecting worldly ends, rapt in secret studies—these aren’t the traditional qualities of a noble and reliable duke, father, or narrative protagonist.

They are the necessary qualities, of course, of what Prospero really is: a magician. In “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Jacques Derrida makes an observation regarding the role of the magician. Examining Plato’s use of the term pharmakeus, Derrida raises the subject of an interesting synonym of pharmakeus:

The word in question is pharmakos (wizard, magician, poisoner), a synonym of pharmakeus (which Plato uses), but with the unique feature of having been overdetermined, overlaid by Greek culture with another function…The character of the pharmakos has been compared to a scapegoat. The evil and the outside, the expulsion of the evil, its exclusion out of the body (and out) of the city—these are the two major senses of the character and of the ritual. (130)

Derrida goes on to cite further details regarding the ritual whereby a pharmakos was exiled from the city (blows to the genitals and being burned alive were possibilities, it seems), but the general idea is sufficient: considered a source of poison, the pharmakos was a likely candidate for violent expulsion from his society.

From the perspective of narrative facility, it would have been far better for Shakespeare to earn the audience’s sympathy for his protagonist by writing Prospero as a noble and hardworking duke, overthrown by immoral bandits rotten to the core. Instead, however, Shakespeare muddies the waters of his protagonist’s backstory; making his protagonist a magician indicates that at least by the end of his career, Shakespeare understood perfectly well the implications of the pharmakon structure. While Derrida’s essay offers details regarding the recommended method for expelling the local pharmakos, The Tempest examines what life a pharmakos might expect to lead after being expelled from the city. Prospero is a magician who has apparently avoided the low blows and been spared the flames; is some ways, then, he is like a Jesus who slipped out the back of the garden of Gethsemane, or a Socrates who chose not to take the hemlock.

Prospero’s complexity has been a perpetual problem for readers. Harold Bloom, a man who prides himself on being a traditional and supposedly clear-eyed reader, seems mystified by the choice. “Why does Shakespeare make Prospero so cold?” he asks. “The play’s ethos does not seem to demand it, and the audience can be baffled by a protagonist so clearly in the right and yet essentially antipathetic” (669). It doesn’t seem to occur to Bloom that perhaps his understanding of the play’s ethos is in need of revision, and neither does he explore the possibility that an audience that finds Prospero antipathetic is anything but baffled—that, in fact, finding Prospero antipathetic might indicate perfect understanding of Shakespeare’s intention. The pharmakon structure plays itself out in a social milieu just as easily as it does in a psychological one, and an audience of theorists isn’t required for the phenomenon to be comprehensible. It seems reasonable to assume that an audience shown a magician who has shirked his political duties might find Prospero’s exile perfectly appropriate: rather than attending his responsibilities to his dukedom and his daughter, Prospero, it seems, was turning himself into a wizard. He had it coming, really.

Though René Girard analyzes the play through examination of mimetic structures, he comes to the same conclusion. Citing the same lines in which Prospero admits neglecting his estate, Girard points out that “If Prospero had deliberately plotted to turn a potential into an actual rival, he could not have gone about it more adroitly than he did…Prospero perversely incited this brotherly desire for his own ducal being…No sooner had he lost it, however, than he furiously desired it back” (349). Girard later asks (mostly rhetorically) why, if Prospero was as popular a duke as he claimed to be, his subjects didn’t defend him from Antonio’s abduction plot. But Prospero couldn’t have loaded the dice any more powerfully against himself—not only did he mimetically entice his brother’s betrayal, but he did so while studying magic, thereby inheriting a persona (the pharmakos) that his subjects would agree needed to be exiled. Girard’s mimetic principles predict Antonio’s betrayal of Prospero; the support Antonio’s plot received from others is a result of Prospero’s role in Derrida’s pharmakon equation. Both Girard’s and Derrida’s analyses identify Prospero as a likely sacrificial victim—they simply arrive at the sacrificial destination from different directions. The Tempest we are describing, then—borne of Derrida’s pharmakon, operating along Girard’s mimetic lines—is entirely different from The Tempest Bloom and perhaps most audiences read, in which Prospero is “so clearly in the right.” Our Prospero is neither clearly in the right nor clearly in the wrong—as a magician/wizard, he can be neither. It’s difficult to know what to make of Prospero because, in many ways, it seems that The Tempest is about Prospero’s inability to know what to make of himself.

Or is it that Prospero is uncertain regarding how best to go about unmaking himself? He ends the play, after all, by abjuring his “rough magic,” promising to bury his staff and drown his (singular) book (5.1.50-57). Shakespeare, it seems, chooses a not insignificant challenge for himself in The Tempest: he attempts to center a play on a character who, rather than being developed or created, actually desires the opposite: to become less and less a character—to be unmade. But this is where we stumble upon another problem with the character of Prospero. If Prospero is an ambivalent pharmakos possessed of no absolute value or essence, then what good does it do for him to drown his book? In other words: How can Prospero hope to unmake himself, when the role he plays is that of a character barely present in the first place? Though Bloom strangely and hyperbolically claims of Prospero that “the unholy powers of the magus surpass anything we could have expected” (a statement that begs the questions: Where? When?), he ends in roughly the same arena of doubt regarding Prospero’s promise to abjure his magic, saying, “We are listening not to a poet-playwright but to an uncanny magician whose art has become so internalized that it cannot be abandoned, even though he insists it will be” (683).

a stage within a room in Prospero's Books

Enter Peter Greenaway, bearing Prospero’s Books. If there is a director suited to “the ethos” (to use Bloom’s term) of late Shakespeare, it’s probably Greenaway. Shakespeare, after all, wasn’t averse to a good, self-referential joke (Pyramus & Thisby comes to mind), and neither did he shrink from calling attention to the constructed nature of his plays: there are the oft-mentioned plays within plays, actors playing characters who, in turn, act as other characters, clowns who comment on the characters and the plot, and so forth. But it’s the Shakespeare of the romances (The Winter’s Tale, for one, but even more so The Tempest), in which traditional notions of genre are subverted or transcended, who provides material particularly apt to the interests of Greenaway, a filmmaker who has said, “I don’t think the cinema is a particularly good narrative medium. My interest, I suppose, would concentrate on other notions that the film represents. If you want to be passionately attached to narrative, then be a writer, not a filmmaker” (177).

The Shakespeare who wrote The Tempest might have felt similarly about narrative—we’ve already discussed his seeming lack of concern with establishing a sympathetic, goal-oriented protagonist, and as no significant obstacles to Prospero’s control are ever presented, the play is decidedly lacking in significant conflict or suspense. There are various ways of trying to express the play’s narrative anomie—Bloom labels it “virtually plotless” (666), Stephen Greenblatt introduces it as “a kind of echo chamber of Shakespearean motifs” (3047), Girard claims that “The entire play is within the play” (343)—but regardless of the terminology, it’s clear that Greenaway places himself firmly in this line. His film opens with a text crawl against a dark background, including the following:

Prospero, once the Duke of Milan, now reigns over a faraway island, living there with his only daughter, Miranda…One evening, Prospero imagines creating a storm powerful enough to bring his old enemies to his island. He begins to write a play about this tempest, speaking aloud the lines of each of his characters…

John Gielgud as Prospero in Prospero's Books

By depicting Prospero himself as the writer of The Tempest, Greenaway reverses Bloom’s claim that we aren’t listening to a poet-playwright. Greenaway’s Prospero has so internalized his knowledge, and his very conception of the world, that The Tempest takes place only in his head—one can’t help but wonder if Greenaway read and agreed with Girard on the nature of the tempest in The Tempest:

It is une tempête sous un crâne, as Victor Hugo would say—Prospero’s own, a work of (im)pure imagination, the very play we are watching. The tempest has only one effect; it brings all the enemies of Prospero under his power, in the one place where all his wishes are immediately fulfilled, his island, the nonexistent world of literary creation. (350)

Though a tempest that occurs only in Prospero’s imagination seems a small detail, it radically reconceives the play: Where Shakespeare’s Tempest originally appears to depict the process whereby a pharmakos reintegrates himself into society, Greenaway suggests that once a magician is expelled, there’s no going back. Greenaway’s Prospero spends more time in his own head than he does on his island, and the revenge/reintegration story that he calls The Tempest is clearly the mere fantasy of an impotent sorcerer whose magic is no longer relevant.

Not content to merely indulge the Prospero-as-Shakespeare reading of The Tempest, Greenaway forces a third persona into the conflation, saying:

To explain the strategies, which I would like to think are legitimate, is to first of all consider the possibility that since this is Shakespeare’s last play, it is in some sense Shakespeare’s farewell to the theater—and this might well be Gielgud’s last grand performance. So this may represent his farewell to magic, farewell to theater, farewell to illusion. So using that as a central idea, there was my wish to find a way of uniting the figures of Prospero and Gielgud and Shakespeare. From that, everything else follows… (149)

It’s typical of Greenaway to (over)load his characters in this way; the difficulty one has with suspending disbelief in his films—with forgetting for more than a few minutes, say, that one is watching a film directed by Peter Greenaway about some characters and events that are fictional constructs, created only in the service of symbolic or narrative expediency—is intentional. “I want to regard my public as infinitely intelligent, as understanding notions of the suspension of disbelief, and as realizing all the time that this is not a slice of life, this is openly a film” (salon.com). We’ll let the validity of Greenaway’s notions regarding the relation of intelligence to suspension of disbelief pass without comment, and simply recognize that staging The Tempest in Prospero’s head (and having Gielgud do the voice of every character) is only the first, and most obvious, of the ways in which Greenaway foregrounds the constructed nature of the entertainment he creates. His camera tends to remain on one plane, pointed in one direction, occasionally tracking slowly to the side—roughly the point of view of someone floating gracefully toward the aisle from a good seat in the middle of the third or fourth row. The primary actors keep mostly to the same plane, moving left and right in front of the camera, but rarely forward or backward, almost as if they are butterflies pressed between glass, or slides ready for examination under a microscope.

Miranda and Ferdinand are watched by Prospero and Ariel in Prospero's Books

Formally trained as a painter, Greenaway is also obsessed with the concept of the frame. In Prospero’s Books, he bombards the viewer with frames within frames, images within and/or superimposed over other images, compositions that recall famous paintings or myths, and so forth. Unconcerned with the traditional primacy of narrative, Greenaway constructs Prospero’s Books as a series of moving paintings, really—a kind of illuminated text. Working on a massive set, his compositions are intricate, gorgeous, and often of mind-numbing spatial depth. Greenaway’s images routinely possess more “layers” than those created by probably any other living director—one could go through the entire film watching only the deep background and find more than enough visual material to keep the eye busy—even in shadows that appear to be a hundred yards from the camera, there are often barely-visible figures, lurking. Far from reminding one of other “art house” directors who use low budgets as an excuse for creating only the simplest images, Greenaway’s fantastically complex choreographies put one more in mind of the grandiose cinematic gestures of someone like Busby Berkeley, who worked on similarly immense sets, solving what must have been similar problems regarding the careful use of whole troupes of dancers and actors.

The layering and choreography would be a kind of cold virtuosity if the subject matter didn’t demand them, or course, but with The Tempest, Greenaway is in possession of material that allows him to indulge his talents to the fullest. Greenblatt calls the play “an echo chamber;” when Gielgud intones the play’s first word—Boatswain!—it’s echoed multiple times by different, modulating voices, a process which continues until the voices are echoing entire lines, as if Prospero is somehow giving birth to the voices, teaching them to speak (which nicely anticipates Caliban’s famous lament regarding his feelings about the value of being taught language by Prospero). There are physical echoes, as well: when Prospero lights a candle, for instance, hundreds of other candles in the room alight into a spontaneous, sympathetic blaze; there is not one, but multiple ginger-haired Ariels, ranging in age from toddler to Starbuck’s employee—at one point three of them assume a tableau that mimes one of Raphael’s cherub paintings; and Greenaway takes literally Shakespeare’s suggestion (mouthed by Caliban) that the island is populated with countless voices and spirits(1)—almost every frame of the film is filled with extras in various states of dress; the tracking shot that comprises the opening credits sequence alone includes so many history- and literature-inspired tableaux that anyone interested in fully unpacking the sequence might want to set aside a few months for research. It’s difficult to read Shakespeare’s Prospero as anything other than profoundly isolated; Greenaway’s Prospero, on the other hand, appears to share his accommodations with the population of a small (though mute) city.

The most obvious change Greenaway has made, of course, is in his title. When an interviewer alluded to Prospero’s pledge to destroy his “book” at the end of The Tempest,(2) Greenaway responded, “I have a great antipathy to that ending and would take up a quarrel with Shakespeare, if I could be so bold…You must remember the last two [books]—a collection of Shakespeare’s plays and The Tempest—are preserved” (141). If there is a shortcoming in Greenaway’s vision, it stems from this sentiment. Shakespeare’s Tempest is about a man walking away from his “book”; Greenaway’s Tempest, however, is structured around a kind of pervasive bibliophilia;(3) by preserving the Shakespeare volumes, Greenaway validates the very fetish Shakespeare sought to destroy. Greenaway, then, creates a film text whose views are exactly antithetical to those apparently held by Shakespeare, or at least the Shakespeare who wrote The Tempest.

Greenaway is far from alone in stubbornly refusing to relinquish his fetishization of the book, of course. Borges (a book fetishist if ever there was one), in a lecture entitled “The Enigma of Shakespeare,” claimed “a book of genius is a book that can be read in a slightly or very different way by each generation…We can read Shakespeare’s work, but we do not know how it will be read in a century…” (473). It’s interesting to note that Borges uses the phrase “Shakespeare’s work” as representative of “a book of genius”. Like Greenaway, Borges thinks of Shakespeare not so much as a man, but as a book—specifically, the book that Greenaway has Caliban rescue from destruction at the end of Prospero’s Books, the book of collected plays and poems, the book that Borges and Greenaway and anyone with sufficient funds can purchase and take home and hold in their hands while turning the pages; in the same lecture, Borges also claimed that “Shakespeare had the power to multiply himself marvelously; to think of Shakespeare is to think of a crowd” (470). But what is the crowd Borges thinks of, if not all of the characters from all of Shakespeare’s plays, tromping through Borges’ fertile mind?

Title frame from Peter Greenaway's film Prospero's Books

It’s that very image—Shakespeare’s characters released from the bounds of their dramas, Othello rubbing elbows with MacBeth, Romeo attempting desperately to seduce Hermia, Beatrice and Benedick chatting with Petruchio and Kate, and so forth—that brings us back to The Tempest and Prospero’s Books. Because Shakespeare, as is well known, had no book; his plays were only published posthumously. It’s not Shakespeare who shares an island with mysterious voices, and not Shakespeare whom Greenaway depicts striding through rooms filled to overflowing with other humans (or at least beings with human forms)—these are scenes inhabited by Prospero. Because so little is known about Shakespeare the human, it’s almost as if he exists as an empty vessel that his readers have a desperate need to fill, usually to overflowing. They want to substitute Prospero for Shakespeare; to substitute their favorite copy of The Complete Shakespeare for Shakespeare; to substitute Shakespeare’s characters for Shakespeare; anything, it seems, will do, as long as the emptiness is filled. Borges sees Shakespeare in a book, but also finds him in every one of his characters, who are found, of course, in the book, though they weren’t originally, as Shakespeare didn’t publish. Greenaway sees Shakespeare in Prospero, and Shakespeare in Gielgud, and Prospero in Gielgud, and Prospero, of course, is a character in a book, so he sees both Shakespeare and Prospero in the very book that he depicts Prospero-as-Shakespeare as writing…in his film.

This is mimetic hysteria. Girard helps:

Is this tempest taking place solely in Prospero’s imagination, as we first suggested, or in the real world, as we are now suggesting? The genius of this play is that both answers are true simultaneously. Given the Shakespearean postulate of mimetic circularity, Prospero’s imagination can be everything and nothing at the same time, or almost nothing, only a slight exaggeration here and there. A great writer’s invention does not have to coincide with the real world for the two to be fundamentally the same. (351)

This is the most crucial point to be made regarding The Tempest. Unfortunately, it’s a point that is utterly overlooked by every other critic and writer and reader and director who has interpreted the play, all of whom rush so eagerly into the drama’s circular mimetic game that they thoroughly lose track of the difference between an author and a character and a reader by the time they finish the first act, if not before. A great writer’s invention does not have to coincide with the real world for the two to be fundamentally the same. Girard has located the mimetic fallacy within the entire argument regarding whether Prospero should or should not be read as Shakespeare: specifically, it is the assumption that the play somehow needs to intersect with the real world, with the “real Shakespeare,” at all. The character of Prospero needn’t be a mimetic representation of Shakespeare anymore than the character of Miranda should be a mimetic representation of Shakespeare’s daughter. The tempest, the island, Prospero and Miranda and Ariel and Caliban, all of the other voices and spirits and characters: they inhabit an imagined reality all their own, and need not answer to some presumed literary rule that every piece of literature should, at some level, be reducible to fairly straightforward biographical allegory.

In fact, once a closer look is taken at the usual reading of Prospero-as-Shakespeare, other flaws become readily apparent. First and most obvious is the oft-repeated claim that The Tempest is notable not only because it’s Shakespeare’s last play, but also because he knew as he was writing it that it would be his last play. There is no evidence to support this assumption, and there are two entire plays—All is True and The Two Noble Kinsmen—that seem to controvert it.(4) The play’s epilogue, too, is often read as a farewell to the theater; yet nothing Prospero says in the epilogue is inconsistent with the action of the play or otherwise implies a break in character, outside of the fact that Prospero addresses the audience directly, which isn’t itself unique, as the same direct audience address appears at the close of other Shakespearean plays. And perhaps most tellingly, despite the fact that Prospero pledges to break his staff and drown his book, the play doesn’t dramatize those acts. The reading of Prospero-as-Shakespeare, then, requires the reader to read Prospero as a probable liar—Shakespeare, after all, continued to add to his “book” when he collaborated with Fletcher on All is True and The Two Noble Kinsmen.

Prospero attended by "spirits" as he writes, in Prospero's Books

To see the degree to which The Tempest’s self-reflexive mimetic game sucks in those who involve themselves, one need only return to Greenaway’s excitement regarding his ability to plug Gielgud into the Prospero role: “…since this is Shakespeare’s last play, it is in some sense Shakespeare’s farewell to the theater—and this might well be Gielgud’s last grand performance. So this may represent his farewell to magic, farewell to theater, farewell to illusion” (149). We’ve already noted that Shakespeare continued to practice his magic, if a lesser version, after The Tempest. Gielgud, too, failed to satisfy the terms of Greenaway’s implied contract, stubbornly continuing to appear in films almost every year until his death in 2000. Even Greenaway himself refused to overthrow his charms when it came to The Tempest. In an interview with American Film, he said, “There’s a project I’d like very much to do, called Prospero’s Creatures, about what happened before the beginning. Sort of a prelude to The Tempest. And I’ve also written a play called Miranda, about what happens afterwards on the ship on the way home” (128). So not only was Greenaway unable to keep from making more books about The Tempest, but Prospero appears in them. Despite Greenaway’s excitement about lining up the farewells, neither The Tempest nor Prospero’s Books was a farewell to anyone, whether living, dead, or fictional.

The strategy at work in Shakespeare’s Tempest remains superior to its challengers. Rather than revealing or reinventing Shakespeare, the interpreters of The Tempest are, time and again, simply pulled into the play’s mimetic, sacrificial game—they become a part of the play. Shakespeare dangles Prospero in front of them in the same way Prospero dangles his dukedom in front of his brother Antonio. Antonio took the bait, and so do Shakespeare’s interpreters, deciding that Prospero is Shakespeare, that finally we have the man, finally he is writing about himself. Because he lunges so enthusiastically for the bait, Greenaway can’t help but blink when it comes time for the sacrifice—he refuses to allow the books to be destroyed, inventing the preposterous “solution” of having Caliban rescue the books from the water, one of the falsest moments in the film.(5) Strangely, Greenaway recognizes the fraudulence of the book-drowning gesture, but misinterprets it, saying, “There’s one thing I would take issue with Shakespeare on: in the end he destroys his books, which I find very painful indeed. We can’t unknowledge ourselves, we can’t turn away knowledge once we’ve got it” (131). The fact that “we can’t unknowledge ourselves,” of course, is the very reason it’s perfectly safe for Prospero to destroy his books—their loss won’t reduce his powers one whit. For this same reason, it’s perfectly safe for Shakespeare to sacrifice Prospero, to strip him of his powers and make him wave goodbye: Shakespeare knows full well that he isn’t his characters, and if he invites his audience to pin him down within the confines of a single character, it’s with the full knowledge that he simultaneously is and isn’t Prospero; he can safely slip out the literary back door at any moment, and write again later.

There’s something undeniably sinister about this game; it’s almost as if The Tempest, rather than being a comedy or a romance, is really a cousin of a darker literary genre: the taunting letters practicing serial killers often send to the police. In both cases the authors flaunt their position of control: both the killer and the playwright claim the power to kill at will, whenever and wherever they see fit. They simultaneously want and do not want to be caught: they want to be caught in order to receive credit for their crimes and assume the position of celebrity they feel they deserve; they want not to be caught so that they can kill again, extending the game and adding to its complexity. They want to be caught so that they can be revealed in all their power and glory; they want not to be caught so that they can grow even more powerful. The two desires operate simultaneously, and this is how Shakespeare uses his Prospero: This is me, he teases, and then just as suddenly: This is not me.(6) This is me; this is not me. Here I am before you; now I’ve disappeared. Prospero is Shakespeare’s dummy, a corpse he animates in order to lead us off track. When he’s done with it, he dumps it at the audience’s feet, and they applaud.

Prospero IJohn Gielgud) at his writing desk

Shakespeare leads his audience so off track, in fact, that not one of the critics explores the fullest implications of the game Prospero, and Shakespeare through him, is playing. A man who has been stranded on an island for a long time, Prospero has clearly been refining his powers, awaiting his opportunity for revenge. Prospero holds everyone in such sway, in fact, that he reveals his darkest potentials directly, but not one of the other characters questions him: “This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (5.1.278-279), he says of Caliban, admitting responsibility for a would-be rapist and murderer, the result of Prospero’s own careful education. It’s a telling moment, this acknowledgment of ownership, especially placed where it is—almost as if Shakespeare is at pains to remind us that Prospero has two children; the beautiful and virtuous Miranda must coexist with her monstrous, murderous sibling.

It’s perhaps for that reason, then, that the end of The Tempest is so unsettling. The popular reading of the play’s conclusion is a sentimental one, in which Prospero (almost inexplicably) chooses to forgive his enemies, and then Shakespeare supposedly steps forward and bids his audience a fond adieu. But couldn’t this easily be yet another bit of smoke and mirrors from the ambivalent pharmakos? Because isn’t it implied that the next step in the narrative actually consists of Prospero on a boat, headed back to Milan? Is it possible that Prospero addresses the audience directly not to say goodbye, but to include them in his potent hypnosis? Bloom: We are listening not to a poet-playwright but to an uncanny magician whose art has become so internalized that it cannot be abandoned. Greenaway: We can’t unknowledge ourselves. By promising to drown the book, to destroy the pharmakeus, Prospero seeks to earn passage to Milan and reentry into society. But does a pharmakos who destroys his pharmakeus really cease to be a danger to society? Does the magic come from the magician or from the wand? What is more dangerous, the poisoner or the poison?

Shakespeare wrote again after The Tempest, and we’ve already pointed out the likelihood that Prospero would have no problem continuing to use magic, should he choose to do so. Perhaps it’s a cynical point, but: had Prospero murdered his enemies right there on the island, he would have no way back to Milan. The last lines of the Epilogue, after all, allude to crime: “As you from crimes would pardoned be, / Let your indulgence set me free” (19-20). If both Derrida’s pharmakon structure and Girard’s mimetic structure point toward the need for a sacrificial victim, and we can agree that Prospero’s supposed destruction of his book, even were it dramatized, wouldn’t be a true sacrifice, then where in the game that is The Tempest is the sacrificial victim? Prospero ends the play smiling at the audience. There’s an axiom regarding identifying the sacrificial victim in a game: it begins, “If you can’t spot the sucker…”

One can only assume that it will be smooth sailing back to Milan.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.
     662-684.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Enigma of Shakespeare.” Selected Non-Fictions. Ed. Eliot Weinberger.
     New York: Viking, 1999. 463-473.
Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy.” Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago:
     University of Chicago, 1983. 63-171.
Girard, René. A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare. New York: Oxford, 1991.
Greenaway, Peter. Interviews. Eds. Vernon and Marguerite Gras. Mississippi: University Press
     of Mississippi, 2000.
Greenblatt, Stephen. “The Tempest.” The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New
     York: Norton, 1997. 3047-3054.
Hawthorne, Christopher. “Flesh and Ink.” Salon.com. (6 June 1997): n. pag. Online. Internet. 21
     Apr. 2003.
Prospero’s Books. Dir. Peter Greenaway. Miramax, 1991.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. In The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New
     York: Norton, 1997.

Notes

1 3.2.130-135: “Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, / Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. / Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments/ Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices / That if I then had waked after long sleep / will make me sleep again…”

2 5.1.56-57: “And deeper than did ever plummet sound / I’ll drown my book.”

3 Despite the fact that the film is entitled Prospero’s Books, I’m not, in this essay, going to discuss the books Greenaway invents and depicts, primarily because they don’t seem to me to be used in a way that illuminates and/or alters Shakespeare’s text in any way. The images, and the way they’re dropped into the film, are definitely cool from a technical standpoint, the subjects of the books are certainly creative, and the voice-over artist that describes the books’ contents possesses exactly the right kind of sonorous voice, but…they just seem forced to me. I think Greenaway’s fetishization of books and what they represent has a lot to bear (negatively) on his interpretation of The Tempest, but I think an examination of what he does at the end of the film with the book of plays and the book of The Tempest is sufficient to make those points.

4 The desire for an admired person’s career to conform to a perfect, mythic narrative is of course just as pervasive as those careers’ persistent refusal to do so. One need look no further than the lamentations that arise every time a former title-holding prizefighter unretires in order to fight again, or the pained way in which fans follow an aging athlete’s late-career seasons spent with some lesser team. Professional sports mythmakers do their best to ignore these embarrassingly mortal seasons in much the same way we prefer to pretend that Shakespeare perhaps did no more than copy-edit All is True and The Two Noble Kinsmen.

5 Greenaway’s entire handling of the Caliban character strikes me as decidedly odd. Played by the dancer Michael Clark, Greenaway’s Caliban is a lithe, androgynous, bendable fellow with dramatic eye makeup—hardly intimidating or monstrous. Like his depiction of the books themselves, Greenaway’s conception of Caliban seems forced. I can’t help but wonder if part of the problem stems from the fact that, as a person who has decided to interpret The Tempest by structuring it around Prospero’s books, Greenaway himself best occupies the Caliban role. He, after all, is the person so impressed by Prospero’s books that he names his film after them, in much the same way Caliban obsesses over the potential powers held within Prospero’s books. Both Caliban and Greenaway worship, in their own way, at the foot of Prospero and his library.

6 Greenaway’s film, of course, dramatizes only the first half of the equation. It is, in its way, a film of only half of the The Tempest.



ON ART

Return to Rothko (Part 2)

This piece ran in the spring 2012 issue of Propeller.

Return to Rothko, part 2 by Dan DeWeese

(This is the second of a three-part essay on Mark Rothko, occasioned by the Portland Art Museum’s retrospective of the artist’s work. The author returned to the show multiple times in April and May in an attempt to explore how thoughts on the exhibition, reception, and meaning of art change according to time and context.)

“My art is not abstract, it lives and breathes.” –Mark Rothko

ONE OF THE interesting and welcome aspects of the Rothko retrospective currently on display at the Portland Art Museum is that attendees are allowed to photograph most of the paintings. A photo is of little use if one wants to experience a full painting, of course. Rothko’s paintings are too big, too detailed, and derive part of their power from their exhibition—the way they’re lit, where and how they’re hung, the qualities of the wall space around them, etc. (This is true of all paintings, but is an especially acute problem with particular artists, and Rothko is one of those.) Photography is a welcome opportunity, though, for this very reason: it only takes a few attempts at photographing the paintings to realize that photographing the paintings is pointless. The paintings are great; photos of the paintings are lame. (Digital images of paintings that appear on the Internet are an abomination. This article, because it includes digital reproductions, is abominable.)

I’m often a bit bashful in museums—if I sense I’m in someone’s way, I’ll back up to try and move out of their field of view, though this kind of politeness is obviously counterproductive to looking closely at paintings. On a recent Friday afternoon, though, as I wondered aloud whether I should try to sneak down to the Rothko retrospective again, someone mentioned that the museum would be open for free at 5:00. If the museum was going to be free at 5:00, I thought, then there would probably be few people inside before then. I hustled down there, and when I walked into the exhibit at 4:30 there were, by my count, three other people in the Rothko exhibition: a woman looking at the late period paintings, and another woman chatting with the lone security guard. I had already visited the retrospective a few times, and had found that I was not moved by Rothko paintings that, at other times in my life, in other museums, had moved me. But this time I would be able to look at them without being in anyone’s way. I wasn’t hoping for anything momentous. I just wanted to look closely, through a lens, to try to understand. What I concluded—and what I’ll use some photos to argue—is that Mark Rothko made more decisions than other painters.

That is underselling the point. Mark Rothko engaged every inch of his canvases, and that level of mental and physical engagement required the ability and willingness to make so many decisions, on so many canvases, that I can’t fathom how he managed it.

First, though, it might be useful to look at some other paintings. Take Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue? from 1966:

Barnett Newman's painting "Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?" (1966)

Now that is a horrible little digital reproduction of what is actually an interesting painting, which only underscores the importance of seeing paintings in person. But it’s good enough to see that the major decisions that Newman has to make in the painting have to do with:
            Canvas size
            Colors used
            Placement of colors
And though that's just three things, they already strike me as difficult decisions to make. If you’ve ever decorated a room, for instance, and have had to choose a wall color, the color of a sofa you’re going to buy to place in the room, and the color of shelves that will also stand in the room, this is a perfectly sufficient exercise to think about when considering decisions. (I’m not claiming interior decorating is the same as abstract painting. I’m just thinking about some roughly analogous decision-making.) Should the walls, sofa, and shelves match in some complementary way? Should one stand out? How big should the sofa be as compared to the room? How big should the shelves be? Should the sofa and shelves be standard items, or should one or both of them be unusual in some way? Should some element of the room call attention to itself? Should the room soothe a person, inspire a person, or confront a person? (Or should it perform a mix of those—should it carry the potential of spurring different reactions based on the time of day or quality of light in the room?) Anyone who has thought themselves into distraction—or been driven to distraction by someone else thinking themselves into distraction—while trying to decorate a room or resolve some similar aesthetic problem is prepared to enter into thoughts about the strengths or weaknesses of non-representational painting. Because what if, instead of a room to decorate, someone gave you, as a gift, an empty canvas, stretched and ready to be painted. What would you paint on it?

I wouldn’t paint anything on it. Because lacking any experience as a painter, I would lack the confidence necessary even to make the first decision. I wouldn’t even know what the first decision to be made was. Should I decide on something I want to paint ahead of time, or do I just begin to paint and see what happens? Can I just experiment on a canvas, or is that a waste of a canvas? If I screw up this canvas just trying stuff out on it, how much money have I wasted—how much does a canvas cost? Will the person who gave me this canvas think I’m a jerk? Do I have to show what I do on this canvas to other people? Will they judge me for how I’ve used the canvas? When circling through these questions, leaving the canvas blank starts to seem like a pretty good idea. The blank canvas is a problem. I might give the blank canvas to someone else, since one way to resolve a problem is to make the problem someone else’s problem. I’ve decided I’m a one-decision painter. My decision is: I don’t paint. So when looking at the work of people who do paint, whether I do or do not personally like a particular painter or painting, it’s helpful (I think) to keep in mind that I’m looking at the work of someone who took on the problem of the blank canvas, which is a problem I, personally, lack the courage to take on.

Here’s another example: Agnes Martin’s Milk River, from 1963:

"Milk River" by Agnes Martin (1963)
Agnes Martin, Milk River, 1963. Oil on canvas, 72 × 72 in. (182.9 × 182.9 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Larry Aldrich Foundation Fund 64.10 © 2009 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Again, I’m not a painter, but I sense decisions in Milk River that are similar to those made in Newman’s painting. (And again, we can’t appreciate the care and quality of Martin’s painting by looking at that reproduction. It’s not even close.) I recently sat in a room at the Whitney Museum in which a number of other Agnes Martin canvases hung together. Together they comprise a 12-part painting called The Islands, and I liked them quite a bit. (I’m not reproducing them here only because I don’t have access to any press-approved images of them.) They were in many ways refinements of the style and project in Mink River, and were composed of paint and what the labels called “graphite.” A similar Martin painting at the Museum of Modern Art lists “pencil” instead of “graphite,” but you get it: there is paint, and then there are carefully measured and drawn pencil lines that create regular columns, rows, or grids. The Islands paintings are variations on this technique, with the decision made in each painting being, essentially, how far apart to place the pencil lines.

If you’re like me, you’re thinking about how you could make a painting like this yourself. Abstract painting often provokes this response, and rather than challenging or refuting it, let’s do a thought experiment in which I reproduce Agnes Martin’s The Islands. First, I need to buy a bunch of canvases. They’re big canvases, so I’m going to need a truck to get them home. It might take a few trips. Wait—where can I get these canvases? They don’t sell canvases this large at the art store, do they? Am I going to have to stretch these canvases myself? Because I don’t know how to do that. Also, even if they are available for purchase—where am I having these canvases delivered? I don’t have a space in my home where I can work on canvases of this size, so I’m going to have to rent some studio space somewhere and have the canvases delivered there. This is starting to sound expensive, but let’s keep going. The next thing I need to do is buy paint. What kind of paint? Um…I don’t know. I think she used oils. Or acrylics. I’ll look it up. Even if I know what kind of paint, though, I’ll need to pick a shade. What shade should I pick? Again: I’m not sure. Also, can I just use the paint straight out of the tube (it comes in tubes, right?), or am I going to be thinning it somehow? And hold it: What kind of brush will I be applying it with? And will I need to prepare the canvases in some way before I apply the paint? And do I need to prepare the brushes? People don’t prepare brushes, do they? Wait—I need implements other than brushes, too. What are those? I have to choose some other paint-working implements to buy.

I’m going to stop. I’m getting tired of making decisions—or, because I actually lapsed into questions, I’m getting tired of not making decisions, of being unable to make these very basic painting decisions. And we didn’t even make it to pencils. This is why I’m a one-decision painter: I don’t paint.

I’m bringing all of this up, though, just to suggest that if you want to have a sense of why people get worked up about Mark Rothko, it’s important to see the paintings in person. Here is Rothko’s Untitled, 1963:

Mark Rothko - Untitled (1963)

Simple. Some colored shapes on a canvas, similar to the Newman painting. A kind of compositional balance and symmetry, similar to Martin’s paintings. But here is a detail:

Mark Rothko - Untitled (1963) - detail

Differences. Newman’s decision to place a yellow stripe at a certain point is a final decision—once the stripe is painted, the painting is complete. Martin’s decision to draw pencil lines at exact intervals is a final decision—once the measurement is decided on and the lines are drawn, the painting is complete. And let’s keep in mind, from my failure to even get through a thought experiment in which I recreated the Martin paintings, that I feel that both the Newman and Martin paintings are, in and of themselves, achievements. Neither Newman nor Martin had the luxury of thinking about recreating a painting they already knew was good—they painted their canvases without knowing the results were going to be good. Recreating a painting is, psychologically and emotionally, extremely safe. I’m not trying anything new when I recreate a painting. If someone doesn’t like it, I can claim that it’s the original painting they don’t like, not my own work. There is no risk in recreation. And yet I still couldn’t get through the thought process required to even consider it. Newman and Martin made these paintings without the comfort of safety, which is an entirely different creative space to work from. But Rothko works the transitions between his colors very closely, and he allows paint to drip or spray, and there’s nothing rigorously straight, discrete, or mathematical about it. It’s tempting to call it messy, except that it’s not the result of carelessness, but in fact its opposite: it’s the result of someone caring about tiny details, of taking the time to work every inch of the canvas.

Here is another detail from a Rothko—this is from No.15 {Dark Greens on Blue with Green Band}, from 1956:

Mark Rothko - No.15 (1956) detail

How many colors are there? I don’t have a definite answer, but what’s important is that Rothko’s paintings invite multiple viewings, because they are not what they appear to be. They appear, at first glance, from a distance, to be a few colors. They are often, in actuality, many colors. They appear to be regular shapes which, once selected, would end the need to make any further decisions about what shapes to paint. Upon closer inspection, though, one finds that when Rothko might easily make a final decision—or finish a painting—by selecting a uniform mathematical or geometric solution, he instead chooses to complicate what he’s doing by making all sorts of individual little decisions as he works across the canvas. His lines do not appear to be carefully measured. His stripes are not exact. His shapes do not have definite edges, but neither is the haziness of the edges a consistent haziness. Despite its name, there are more colors than just green or blue in the above painting. There are hidden layers. The hidden layers contribute to what we see on the surface. And sometimes they show through.

The commitment to making new decisions across every inch of the canvas is part of what makes Rothko interesting. I did not, even at 4:55, when the others visitors had left and the entire exhibition was empty except for me and a lone security guard, find myself spiritually moved by the paintings. Maybe that can’t happen again. Maybe something is wrong with me. Who cares. I can notice that the complexities of brushwork and color and shape that Rothko brings to even the smallest areas of his canvases makes those small areas almost paintings of their own. Is there a difference between being moved by a painting and being moved by a painter’s commitment to a painting? If there is, Rothko’s work—the sheer physicality of it—may at some level be an attempt to collapse that difference.

This is a close section—just a few inches—of Untitled, 1969:

Mark Rothko - Untitled (1969) - detail

There’s something behind the darkness. And here is a section of one of the Seagram mural sketches from 1958:

Mark Rothko - Untitled (Seagram Mural Sketch) - detail

Consider an item from Jacob Baal-Teshuva’s book on Rothko, which I looked at again after my recent visit to the retrospective: “During the months in which he worked on the Seagram murals, he completed three series of gigantic wall paintings, approximately 40 works in all, and for the first time in 20 years made painted sketches as studies.”

That gives me pause. The Portland Art Museum show features three Seagram mural pieces—they are, each of them, paintings Rothko considered sketches. I lack the mental endurance necessary to get through even just a thought experiment about reproducing a white canvas with pencil lines on it. In 1958 and 1959, Mark Rothko completed dozens of paintings that are massive in size, possess multiple layers, are created via treatments and techniques some of which are unknown, and bear evidence that, even in his “sketches,” he chose to continue making decisions with his brush across every inch of canvas. Yes, he had assistants who helped with some aspects of preparing the canvases, but this strikes me as yet another decision, or series of decisions, he faced and made that I wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to negotiate. What do I ask the assistant to do? What do I not trust the assistant to do? What am I physically capable of doing? What am I not physically capable of doing? Rothko faced these questions and made decisions.

Mark Rothko paintingWhen the gallery began to fill with the people coming in at 5:00, I left. And I thought I had probably seen something that the evening’s crowd, if it was composed of good, polite people who would not want to get in each other’s way, might not see: up close, inches from the canvases, there is quite a bit of evidence that Mark Rothko was fearless. He did not shy from decisions, and the complexity and beauty of his work is, in many ways, a result of his willingness to engage further and further questions across the breadth of his canvases. Some of Rothko’s decisions I am, as a moderately intelligent thinking and feeling person, able to sense. But some of the power of the paintings derives from the fact that they are also the result of decisions I can’t sense. Rothko is answering questions and making decisions at levels beyond me. I have visited the Rothko retrospective multiple times and have tried twice to write about it, but all I can offer right now is: During the months in which he worked on the Seagram murals, he completed three series of gigantic wall paintings, approximately 40 works in all, and for the first time in 20 years made painted sketches as studies. And the mental, physical, and creative endurance required to do that is difficult to fathom. I don’t know how he did it. And no matter how many times I look at the paintings, I don’t think I will.

 


 

This Year's Models: Notes on the 2012 Whitney Biennial

From the spring 2012 issue of Propeller.

IN A CORNER SPACE of the 2012 Whitney Biennial stands a Yamaha organ that, via a computer program and carefully constructed bamboo fingers, occasionally makes sounds. When I watched it, the intervals of silence between notes were often long enough that other observers, lacking the time or patience to wait, moved on. My reward for lingering, though, was an occasional, surprising moment when a clicking bamboo piece suddenly depressed a key. Four pipes leaning over the organ suggested a carefully arranged ruin, beneath which the machine’s sporadic bleats of “heavenly choir”-type sound took on the air of a mechanized attempt at survival.

"Pipe Organ" by Lutz Bacher, at the 2012 Whitney BiennialThe piece—Pipe Organ, by Lutz Bacher—greatly entertained me. In a Biennial with ample space given to process-oriented items, Bacher’s organ has it both ways: while the occasional triggering of a solitary note suggested an ongoing performanc, the piece was also interesting to look at as a sculptural arrangement. In other words, it looked finished, but sounded in progress.

This Biennial has received high praise, and some of that may be the result of viewers finding pleasure in the dramatic tension of process. A work in the “process” stage carries a sense of potential that a finished piece no longer has, and many of this Biennial’s artists exploit the enticing suggestiveness of process. Georgia Sagri’s installation, Working the No Work, documents her work toward crafting a book she never intends to actually complete. Sam Lewitt stops by occasionally to pour more ferromagnetic liquid onto the floor—in ensuing hours, viewers can observe the substance slowly fuzz and spike like a gelatinous mold. And Dawn Kasper pulled off the sales job of talking the show’s curators into letting her move her “messy” studio space into the museum's third floor and then coming in to hang out in it during the Biennial. (I put “messy” in quotes only because as an installation, it’s of course a premeditated mess.) When Kasper walked into her space in the afternoon, put a Gary Numan album on the portable turntable, and started chatting with her friends, I couldn’t help but think that there is a line between a process freighted with a sense of stakes and a process of just hanging out, shooting the breeze, and not trying much. One is art, and the other describes my weed-filled backyard, to which I do not charge admission. Visitors can decide which side of the line Kasper is on.

Dawn Kasper installation at the 2012 Whitney Biennial

I recognize those thoughts on process reveal an aesthetic prejudice: I’m a bit of a square, and like it when artists make something. Items like Cameron Crawford’s making water storage revolution making water storage revolution—an attempt at generating “useless labor” by creating an item with neither purpose nor utility—leave me cold, and I’m always naively surprised by how often contemporary art posits itself as an intellectual exercise. When an artist contrives a project in which it’s somehow off-limits to actually try something, which means that he or she can’t possibly be accused of failing, it’s difficult not to read the situation—if you’ll forgive the therapy-speak—as a bit “highly defended.” If you don’t try, you can’t fail is how I believe people should approach the lottery, but it usually disappoints me in art.

I acknowledge this because I realized while moving through the Whitney that I’m quite drawn to investigations of process, documentations of transitional states, or examinations of change—and these kinds of pieces are present throughout this Biennial—when they also carry the vulnerability and risk of delivery in a finished state. Tom Thayer’s marionettes, animation, and suspended cardboard paintings, for instance, operate as something of a companion piece to Bacher’s organ, in that the animations are broadcast on old computer monitors, and change slowly, at times via slight jitters the inattentive eye could easily miss. The warm reds and oranges of Thayer’s work were a welcome environment, and a record of Carl Orff’s “Street Song” playing much too slowly seemed the right soundtrack for his corner of the show. Liz Deschenes’ photo monotones possess a regal grandeur, but their real power is a result of Deschenes’ skill with composition and scale. And it’s hard to find an artist more committed to a high-stakes investigation of transition than Forrest Bess, a curated collection of whose work has been given its own room. Bess, active in the 1950s and 1960s, not only painted the colorful shapes that formed his pre-sleep visions, but believed those visions offered surgically-realizable suggestions on sexual physiology. This is an artist who (between shipping his paintings to the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York) with no anesthetic other than strong drink and stronger conviction, alone on the south Texas coast where he lived and worked as a fisherman, cut a hole in the base of his penis because he felt surgically-created hermaphroditism would resolve his sexual anxieties. He not only survived, but took photos. I feel like writing something sassy like “Stick that in your Biennial!” but of course the reason I’m mentioning it is that they did.

"Hearsay of the Soul," a film by Werner Herzog at the 2012 Whitney Biennial

There is a stronger selection of films this year than in recent Biennials. Previous exhibitions have too often included films that were little more than simple recordings of some other art rather than explorations of the expressive range or power of film itself. The most talked about film this time around is Werner Herzog’s “Hearsay of the Soul,” certainly due in part to the director’s name recognition. Herzog’s multi-screen film juxtaposes engravings by Hercules Segers with a performance by cellist/composer Ernst Reijseger, and demonstrates that Herzog’s skills at creating momentum and intrigue are just as operative in a fourteen-minute piece as they are at feature length. Reijseger’s music invests Segers’ detailed-to-the-point-of-abstract engravings with an unnerving and engrossing spiritual resonance.

Did you know some people still just paint or dance, though? Jutta Koether’s The Seasons (pictured above) came as something of a shock, in that there was no additional element or game: they were just paintings. Andrew Massullo’s non-objective paintings carry a similar force, reminding that explorations of shape and color on canvas can result in perfectly simple pleasures. The Biennial offers a diverse selection of performances and events, as well. A one-day visitor can only experience the barest sample of these, but one of my lasting impressions of the Biennial will be the dance performance “Who's Zoo,” by the Michael Clark Company. The Company was invited to spend a four-week residency at the Biennial during March and April, to work with both professional and untrained dancers developing choreography for performance. (I felt a bit of a movie-business thrill seeing Clark—I knew him as the embodiment of Caliban in Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books, a movie I love and which made every other viewer I’ve ever spoken to want to flee the theater.) The company’s performance at the Whitney incorporated participation from the non-professionals in a way that felt both authentic and playful, and the professionals seemed loose and free. Clark himself waded through, as well, entering anonymously in a hooded sweatshirt. It may be unsophisticated to admit that the day’s greatest thrill involved tapping my foot to Pulp songs performed at high volume while I watched a bunch of people dance. But it was nice, late in the afternoon on the fourth floor, to watch artists perform a finished piece in earnest, generating energy the old-fashioned way: through a whirl of color, movement, light, and heat.


 

Return to Rothko (Part 1)

This piece ran in the winter 2012 issue of Propeller.

Return to Rothko by Dan DeWeese

(This is the first of a three-part essay on Mark Rothko, occasioned by the Portland Art Museum's retrospective of the artist's work. The author will return to the show in April to produce part two and return again in May before writing part three, in an attempt to explore how thoughts on the exhibition, reception, and meaning of art change according to time and context.)

“There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless… Consequently if our work embodies these beliefs it must insult anyone who is spiritually attuned to interior decoration; pictures for the home; pictures for over the mantle; pictures of the American scene; social pictures; purity in art; prize-winning potboilers; the National Academy; the Whitney Academy; the Corn Belt Academy; buckeyes; trite tripe; etc.”
—from a letter dated June 7, 1943, and signed by Adolph Gottlieb and “Marcus Rothko,” in response to a negative review in the New York Times

THERE’S A ROTHKO exhibition at the Portland Art Museum, and it’s safe to assume it would pain him. Considering the number of home makeover shows on television, a reliable percentage of the exhibition’s attendees probably qualify as the people Rothko labeled above as “spiritually-attuned to interior decoration”—but despite his prediction, I observed not a single person who seemed insulted. Poster-sized prints of Rothko paintings have served as pictures for people’s dorm rooms, offices, and homes for decades, of course, sometimes over mantles. The abstract expressionists living, working, and exhibiting in New York post-World War II are thought of as having comprised their own “American scene,” and people—young people, especially—are often drawn to abstract expressionism at the same time they pursue early interests in “classic jazz,” European art cinema, beat poetry, and other greatest hits of post-WWII culture, by which I mean, in a phrase probably untoppable in its evocative accuracy: “The Birth of the Cool.” Continuing through the passage above, most people think of Rothko’s work as centered on a search for “purity in art,” and it’s unavoidable in any chronologically-organized retrospective museum exhibition not to view the paintings as items of evidence produced by the “potboiler” that is the story of the artist’s life. (It’s even more difficult to resist this when the artist’s life ended in suicide.) Finally, Rothko’s importance has been acknowledged by pretty much every academy one can think of, though I’ll admit I didn’t confirm with the Corn Belt Academy, failing to find any evidence of its existence.

Critics have exhaustively noted, analyzed, and theorized the distorting effects of museum shows that must be marketed and profitable, whose gift shops include greeting card versions of the art, and which provoke a nostalgia-clouded view that suggests the artist’s biography reveals his or her intentions. These issues are—in another succinct phrase that crops up often enough in contemporary criticism that it’s probably this phrase itself that is the cultural challenge of our time—always already part of our contemporary experience of art. The only way for the Portland Art Museum to gather forty-five Rothko pieces at one time is to lay biographical claim to him (he lived in Portland from age ten, when he emigrated from Russia, until seventeen, when he graduated high school and left for Yale), but the exhibition does an admirable job of not making too much of this, since Rothko’s artistic community and aesthetic breakthroughs occurred on the East Coast, and it would be silly to pretend otherwise. The forty-five paintings are packed shoulder to shoulder along the IKEA-esque switchbacks museums employ to coax more walls into limited space, and the work is a representative selection that gives visitors a good sense of the subjects, compositions, and techniques Rothko worked through on his way to finding the iconic form for which he became famous.

Four Rothko paintings on a wall at the Portland Art Museum

Snaking switchbacks in the Mark Rothko show at the Portland Art Museum

So why did I walk away feeling low? Seeing these paintings together right down the street from where I work is an opportunity. Over the next couple months I can slip back in and look at them as many times as I like. And yet when I went back to look at the show a second time, it was with reluctance. I moved through quickly, confirmed a few things, and left, as if hoping to outrun something.

The reasons for this response are possibly childish or naïve. I am not a religious person. I believe most of the creative work we do in our lives will be forgotten, and that our social, professional, and creative personas often turn into parasites that first feed on and then devour our consciousness. But even before I had ever seen a Rothko painting in person—when I was just a kid paging through art books in a small-town library—I had admired the work I sensed lay behind finding that final form, and the care that went into the choices about color and size. Later, when I was in my mid-twenties, I turned a corner in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, walked unexpectedly into a room with a large Rothko, and was able to look at it for only a few minutes before I had to leave, lest I be caught on the verge of tears. The painting had a power I hadn’t expected—a presence that, in some mute way, spoke to me. So I believe in Mark Rothko. I believe in his project, and I believe in his results.

But recently, as I stood in the Portland Art Museum and for the first time in a number of years came face to face with some of these paintings again? I didn’t feel anything. And that was frightening.

Wikipedia’s current entry on Rothko includes this sentence: “As a result, Rothko’s work became increasingly abstract; perhaps ironically, Rothko himself described the process as being one toward ‘clarity.’” Rothko's reputation is secure. He doesn’t need anyone to attack Wikipedia in defense of his work, methods, or the meaning of anything he said. Yet I still want to take a marker to the screen and line out “perhaps ironically”. Why does this artist provoke in me such a defensive response? It’s difficult to describe to anyone who feels the work is boring, or that their kid could do these paintings. (I’ll accept the former, by the way, because we can't all be moved by the same things, but the latter? No.) The brief explanation is simply that the things you’ve read or heard about the paintings possessing indefinite or shifting depths, or a sense that they have a power to envelop or challenge the faculties of the viewer: I’ve felt that. I am one of those people who doesn’t just like Rothko, but who feels, depending on the day and how many drinks I've had, that he either: a) may have pushed painting to a kind of terminal expressive point beyond which it’s not possible to go, and which painters since Rothko have avoided; or b) wasn't really painting at all in the end, but doing something closer to sculpture—dragging, via an act of will, unnamable energies into material existence.

People who thought the paintings were purely exercises in color and composition were missing the point, Rothko said—he was after something bigger than that. This doesn’t mean, however, that color and composition weren’t necessary for him to find his way there. The colors, forms, layers of paint, canvas size: all are elements of the alchemy he hit upon, and if they are not sufficient for the alchemy, they are at least necessary. Rothko claimed the paintings he made in his final period were neither abstract nor expressionist—my parsing of that is though some of their power still lays in the way they produce reflection on the material conditions of their creation (one of the short definitions of abstract expressionism), Rothko wanted viewers to respond with something far different from thoughts about which colors go nicely together. Because there is nothing representational in Rothko’s late work to cast the mind in the direction of literal interpretation ("Ah, a bowl of fruit"), the relationship between the eye and the painting is direct, and Rothko hoped that in the directness of that relationship, viewers would not think, but feel. Recognizable figures in the paintings would only distract viewers from this response, so when Rothko spoke about leaving behind symbols and moving toward abstraction as an act of clarity, and the anonymous Wikipedia author speculates that Rothko said this “perhaps ironically”? Well: no. Figures were in the way, so he dispensed with them. He was speaking plainly.

Mark Rothko: Iphigenia and the Sea: Horizontal Phantasy (1943)
Rothko's "Iphegenia and the Sea/Horizontal Phantasy" (1943). Rothko would soon decide figures and symbols were in the way, and would dispense with them.

This is why I suspect Rothko would dislike the Portland Art Museum exhibition. He wanted viewers to be moved, spoke often of hoping to provoke something spiritual, but responding to a painting in that way is only possible under certain conditions. Toward the end of his life, Rothko was accordingly interested in controlling the conditions under which his work would be viewed, and though he didn’t live to see the Rothko Chapel in Houston, he was working in his mind (and with architects) on designing ideal rooms for his work. The paintings in the Portland Art Museum are all in the same room, though, under the same light. It’s not the light Rothko believed was best for his late work, and the snaking switchbacks of image-heavy walls bear little resemblance to Rothko's desired rooms.

The kind of quiet time with a painting that is necessary for one to be moved is also difficult when the painting is part of a major exhibition whose purpose is to draw a crowd. I'm hardly innocent of contributing to the distracting crowd factor, of course—in addition to personally being one of the crowd, the first time I went to see the exhibition I brought my kids, one of whom had been clear about his opposition to spending time at the museum that afternoon. He expressed his discontent by sitting on a bench and playing video games while I looked at the paintings. So the young Philistine with the tablet computer and the earbuds? Sorry—mine. This, in a way, is part of the paradox: the only way we can leverage a request to have a Rothko show of this magnitude in Portland is under these conditions, and the Portland Art Museum has done the work of making this happen for us. But under these conditions—in crowded corridors, on crowded walls—we may not really be seeing the paintings.

Rothko retrospective at the Portland Art Museum - different paintings from different years hung closely together

Do we have a right to expect something different, though? The museum must work with the building it has, and it strikes me that were I challenged to suggest better placement and lighting for the pieces, the unspoken ideal lurking in my mind is nothing more than the common joke made in museums: I think the Seagram mural sketches would look better on the walls of my living room. That I seriously believe this—that I could go on about how the lighting in my living room is better, contemplation of the piece wouldn’t be broken by crowds or by the distraction of dozens of other Rothkos surrounding it, and that shifts in light due to time of day or season would bring out different aspects of the pieces—doesn’t make it any less laughable. The astronomical prices the rich pay at auction for famous paintings is just a symptom of the fetish most of us invest in art: we believe, deep down, that images we find important belong to us in some way, and that we know how these images should be presented. We believe that because we care about them, we must also know how to care for them.

This isn't necessarily true. Likewise, there may be visitors moved by Rothko’s pieces regardless of the crowds and corridors, or people who find quieter hours during which to visit. There is also a part of most of us that is happy to acquire biographical or scholarly information about a “major artist,” regardless of our thoughts on ideal exhibition. This part of us associates museums with schools, and it may be that education is indeed what museums do best. To ask more of them is perhaps to misunderstand their function.

So the sadness I felt upon leaving the exhibition wasn’t a shared public sadness—others probably left in a perfectly fine mood—so much as it was about a private sense of failing to find an important part of myself. Rothko has been, at other times, in other places, a powerful experience for me. His late paintings were brooding icons that confirmed the possibility that if one worked, and endured, and yes, believed—then a connection could be made. I felt that connection with the Rothko I walked away from in San Francisco, and I felt it with Rothkos I saw elsewhere, later. To visit the paintings but not feel the connection, then, is unsettling: it suggests that either the connection is gone, or worse, that I only imagined it in the first place. Rothko said the late paintings do have content, and I agree. If it turns out this is wrong, and the canvases are just Rorschach tests meant to invite viewers’ projections, then I have fooled myself, and there is no actual possibility for connection via art—or one less possible connection, at least, among what sometimes seems a dwindling list.

Photo: Mark Rothko holding "Untitled (1954)"
Mark Rothko holding Untitled (1954).

Rothko said: “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions...The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.” What happens, though, if we know the point, but we don’t feel it? It’s possible Rothko would have considered this problem—“doubt,” I think it’s called—to be as much a spiritual experience as tears, but I haven’t found a quote from him on that. What I do know is that Rothko’s paintings have been gathered together in my life the only way they can be, and my response has been to feel they cannot quite be—that those final paintings didn’t quite make it.

I’m not sure whose problem that is, but it’s not the artist’s. I didn’t leave the show doubting Mark Rothko. I stood before paintings I know can be moving, and felt nothing. What left me feeling low when I walked out, then—what the experience forced me to doubt—was probably just the quality of my own life.


 

ON BOOKS

Wandering the Sideshow, Guns at the Ready

The fall 2011 issue of Propeller included reviews of every book on the 2011 Man Booker Longlist. I wrote about The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWittThe Sisters Brothers
by Patrick deWitt
Review by Dan DeWeese

By now you’ve probably heard about The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt’s western picaresque. It has been nominated for a number of awards in multiple countries; the Ecco hardback’s cover art, by Dan Stiles, is clever, daring, and unforgettable; and the book’s promotional materials assure readers that the film rights have already been optioned by John C. Reilly. That’s a lot of promise and production value, which means that by this point, any reader picking up The Sisters Brothers is probably at some level wondering whether a single book can live up to this degree of pre-sale prestige.

The answer is yes. The tale of Charlie and Eli Sisters—hired killers with a reputation that precedes them—and their journey from Oregon City to Sacramento in 1851 to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm touches so many notes, so skillfully, that just a few pages of deWitt’s prose silences not only any preconceptions, but renders the world that gave rise to those preconceptions—the book business, awards season, etc.—just a faint buzz somewhere far in the background as you instead give yourself over to the world of the novel. We are in the melancholic company of Eli Sisters from the tale's very first words, as he glances sidelong at an inferior horse he has been given, and then learns that his employer, “The Commodore,” has suggested that brother Charlie operate as lead man on their next job and Eli take a smaller share of the pay. The brothers’ relationship is fractious from the opening pages, but in a way that also signals deep familiarity and fidelity, and their interplay, primarily rendered via deWitt’s formidable skill with dialogue, provides the novel with a propulsive energy. One senses that a longstanding and robust sibling rivalry has now been formalized into a work relationship, and that Eli’s response to this situation, which he considers as the novel proceeds, could land anywhere on a continuum from an apathetic shrug to murderous violence.

DeWitt takes full advantage of the opportunities a picaresque offers: there are wild and wily characters, episodes that become their own mini-stories, and always the opportunity for the brothers to move on down the road before they, or the narrative, become too deeply enmeshed in local situations. Other readers have raised Charles Portis’s name as a reference, and the comparison is apt, insofar as deWitt puts a cockeyed spin on the narrative by seeding it with eccentrics and outcasts and then allowing them to talk and hatch plans. Though the Sisters brothers are comfortable pulling the trigger with great skill and little compunction, this is a tale that takes place not in the gunfighting "Old West" of violent stoics, but rather in that other old west, the land of traveling sideshows, lost and wandering babblers, and prospectors gone batty with their lust for dust. DeWitt maintains command not only of this diverse material, but of the reader’s assumptions, as well. Every time you think the narrative has settled into being a Coen brothers movie, an allegory of the culture industry, the Fight Club trick, or just an update of Butch and Sundance, deWitt is ahead of you, and the story shifts registers—but via natural progressions that reveal, more than anything, the impoverished palette of your own assumptions. Period detail isn't employed as mere scene painting here, but is instead woven into the lives of the characters (dental hygiene figures more than once), and deWitt doesn’t defy genre conventions so much as he just respects his madmen and dreamers enough to let the story follow them where they want to go, even if it means instead of shootouts in a corral we find ourselves in a spiked stream that glows in the night while delivering chemical burns to those who wade in. This is bold, funny, inventive stuff, relayed in the companionable voice of a killer reflective enough that you worry for his safety—reflection not being a quality that keeps one quick on the draw. DeWitt has crafted something here that is like the literary equivalent of a song with a theremin in it: one first feels that the exotic oscillation renders things immediately and irretrievably dark or otherwordly, but the fact is that in skilled hands, the theremin can also deliver “Good Vibrations.” It's rare and difficult, but some compositions bounce, delight, and disquiet in equal measure. The Sisters Brothers is one of them. Ω


 

INTERVIEWS

Neal Pollack Writes Jewball

In the July 2011 issue of Propeller, I interviewed Neal Pollack about his new novel Jewball, which he self-published directly to Amazon's Kindle store.

Neil Pollack writes Jewball

When Neal Pollack announced that he would be publishing his next book, Jewball, straight to the Kindle, the author whose first book was The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature: The Collected Writing of Neal Pollack did so with characteristic boldness: he said so in the New York Times Book Review. The author of Alternadad and Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude kindly responded to questions on Jewish domination of early pro basketball, the pleasures of reading and writing noir, and the potentials of digital publishing in the era of e-readers. —Dan DeWeese

PROPELLER: When did you first become interested in writing about the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association basketball team? Was there something particular about the SPHA's (one of the more powerful American pro basketball teams of the 1930s) that made you feel there was a novel to be found there?

NEAL POLLACK: The idea for this book arrived as so many ideas do—during a conversation in a steam room in Utah. Several years ago, I was attending a retreat weekend for a Jewish organization called Reboot. The NBA playoffs were ongoing, and during a group schvitz, some of the guys started talking about the history of Jewish basketball. I'd never really heard about such a thing, but the more they talked, the more it sparked my imaginationJewball by Neal Pollack. Jews may not have invented the game, but they had a hell of a lot more to do with its development, I learned, than one might think. By the time I left the weekend, I knew that I’d have to write a book.

When I returned home, I started doing some research, and discovered the SPHA's, who were the most dominant basketball team, not just Jewish, but period, over a 15-year period spanning from the late 20s to the early 40s. They were really the forefathers of the modern game. Their coach and owner, Eddie Gottlieb, ended up founding the Philadelphia Warriors, and the SPHAs themselves became the Washington Generals, who were the Harlem Globetrotters' punching bags for decades. The team also appealed to me because they were from Philadelphia, a city where I lived for a couple of years. I have a pretty ambivalent relationship with Philly, but it's definitely a potent setting, full of grit and intrigue, that doesn’t get as much play as, say, Chicago or Boston. Jews in Philly rarely get talked about; New York dominates the conversation, for obvious reasons. Some of Jewball does take place in New York, but it’s definitely a Philly novel. I liked the idea of a whole team having a chip on its shoulder because of where it's from.

PROPELLER: There's obviously a genre we know as "historical fiction," but that phrase tends to suggest writers who approach the history aspect of their work with a degree of reverence. You've mined history more than once in your books, but definitely without the reverence. What do you think draws you to working with history and/or historical figures? And despite the fact that you bring a wicked sense of humor to your subjects, what kind of writing opportunities and challenges have you stumbled upon that wouldn’t be much different from those encountered by someone wanting to write straight historical fiction about, say, the Spanish Armada, life during the American Revolution, etc?

NEAL POLLACK: I'm attracted to stories with big scope and big characters. The times we live in are as dramatic as any other time in history, but it's hard to feel that way when you're immersed in the day to day. Many people do fiction in contemporary settings quite well, of course, but other than the occasional short story, it’s not how I want to write.

Neal Pollack doing a headstandMy previous fiction books had historical elements, but they were both straight-up satire. Not so with Jewball, which has comic elements but is a mostly straight hard-boiled narrative. Writing about Jewish basketball, I could have chosen any 1900s mini-period of its heyday—the late teens, the late 40s and early 50s—but as I did my research I was attracted to the late 30s, because Jewish basketball was at its height, coinciding with the height of German-American fascist patriotism, which was particularly strong in Pennsylvania. That history caught my attention and interest as much as the Jewish basketball stuff did. So my challenge was to try to integrate those two elements, which were obviously related but not directly, into a reasonably coherent plot.

I wanted to get as many historical details right as possible, but the plot was much more important to me. In general, when it comes to historical fiction, American writers spend too much time respecting the struggles of the immigrant and not enough time telling a fun story. I tried to make Jewball feel, as much as possible, like a book that actually might have been written during that era, and to give the narrative an urgency and immediacy that historical fiction tends to lack.

PROPELLER: The idea of a book that feels like it might have been written during that era is compelling, in that it opens up so many questions about how one sets about that task. Are you referring to something stylistic—something about pre-WWII prose style—or something more structural in terms of what the novel's narrative voice knows and discusses and what it doesn't know or discuss? Or are you thinking more about general differences in the contract between writers and readers in those pre-television, pre-computers, pre-all-media-we-now-consider-standard decades?

NEAL POLLACK: Stylistically, I'm not sure if this is a 1930s book or not; there were different styles of writing back then as there are now. My main concern was to give the narrative a feeling of immediacy and urgency, for it to feel not like a history book, but instead like something pulpy and fun written on near-deadline by a guy desperate for money. Given my constant state of financial panic, that wasn’t too hard for me to accomplish. I didn't want to overwrite and overintellectualize the material. Sure, there's the occasional wink and/or nod to the present-day reader, but there aren't many, and you’d have to look pretty hard to find them. Stretch by Neal Pollack

PROPELLER: There are particular challenges to writing about physical skills—describing all the dancers' moves in a particular ballet tends to make the ballet boring and/or confusing to a reader, for instance, rather than capturing what the ballet actually looked or felt like. You've written about the body before, though, in Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude, so you didn’t come to this challenge cold. Did you have strategies for how (or how much) you would describe basketball games or players' skills or moves in the book? Are there sportswriters (or any other writers) whose work has been helpful to you in this area—and how so?

NEAL POLLACK: I find writing about physical activity relatively easy. It's nice to have a subject matter that gives you so many active verbs with which to play. That's one of the hardest things about writing fiction—giving your characters something to actually do. Sportswriting wasn't much help, because most contemporary sportswriting is about LeBron James' “legacy,” and a lot of it gets gummed up by sentiment and melodrama. Older sportswriting tends to be slangy. Instead, for stylistic inspiration, I read old-school noir writers like Chandler, Goodis, Thompson, and Donald Westlake, not for subject matter, per se, but for style and mood and tone. I consider Jewball a noir novel that happens to have basketball as a partial subject matter, not a sports novel with some noir elements.

PROPELLER: What kind of things struck you when reading those writers with stylistic inspiration in mind? Any strategies, techniques, or particular decisions you found them using that struck you as interesting or illuminating? Were there a couple novels among that crew that stood out as particularly good examples?

NEAL POLLACK: I turned to them for mood. The sentences tend to be short and observant. A good noir novel has several paragraph or even page-length interludes that aren't much about the plot or characters, but rather about the feeling of a time or place. This is the stuff that sticks with me from books. Who killed whom means nothing, in the The Blonde on the Street Corner by David Goodisend, but the feeling of life richly obversed goes on forever. The Blonde on the Street Corner by Goodis had a lot of influence early on, as did They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Later, as I wrote the book, I started reading Donald Westlake (and his psuedonym Richard Stark) who does those sorts of surprise expository grafs better than almost anyone.

PROPELLER: One challenge in writing noir in the twenty-first century seems to be that we're awash in so much visual media now, and the noir of television and, especially, the movies, has developed conventions that involve shadows, night, neon on wet pavement, etc.—a whole visual code for immediately signaling to the audience "This is noir!" But literary noir, because it's not visual in the same way, is a bit of a different creature. What kind of stories or experiences do you feel noir-on-the-page (for lack of a better term) offers readers that is distinct from noir-on-the-screen?

NEAL POLLACK: As I said above, the least interesting stuff about noir are the "mystery" elements, and the stylistic elements you mentioned are detective-fiction clichés. There’s often less of that in noir books than you might think. The Postman Always Rings Twice, one of the genre's best, barely has any nighttime scenes at all, for instance. Jewball contains no detectives. Cops rarely make an appearance. It's about a time and a place and a vibe. There is no mystery, just a story.

PROPELLER: You're self-publishing this book straight to Amazon's Kindle store. In your recent New York Times piece, you wrote that "for a writer like me, which is to say, most working writers—midcareer, midlist, middle-aged, more or less middlebrow, and somewhat Internet savvy—self-publishing seems to make a lot of sense at this point." Early on—which I guess means only like a year-and-half ago—I read a lot of prognosticators saying that books sold straight to the e-reader market would probably be mass-market fiction (or what some people call "airplane books") and possibly textbooks. That doesn’t seem to be how the economics of the e-book market are actually shaking out, though. How and when did you first start thinking, from an economic standpoint, about doing a straight-to-digital book? And was there a moment when the aesthetic experience of reading on a particular device—I’ll assume the Kindle—won you over?

Neal Pollack with AlternadadNEAL POLLACK: When my latest corporate-published book advance was half of the last one, which was half of the one before that, I got the message. The traditional publishing model was great because you got paid a decent amount of money to work on a book, and, yes, you had to wait for it to come out, but at least there was a little credit in the bank account waiting for you. Now, though, you still have to work on the book, but for a lot less money, and for a publisher that is increasingly less interested in devoting resources to books that may or may not succeed. This isn't a mark on my publisher—I work with some great people there and they try very hard to make and sell good books for me—but the economics of the business don't favor a writer in my position. As for when I started enjoying the Kindle, I got a Kindle about 18 months ago, downloaded a book, read it, thought, this is okay, and then went back to reading regular books. But when I traveled with the Kindle for the first time, now that's when it won my heart. I'll never have to lug a shoulder bag full of books on a trip again. In that sense, it's one of the greatest inventions of all time.

PROPELLER: One of the nice things about writing is that it doesn't cost anything to create the product—you just sit down at the keyboard, which is far different from someone saying, "Dammit, I finally am going to start that restaurant I’ve been dreaming about! I’ll just go ahead and go $70,000 into debt to get the thing open, because I believe in this restaurant..." The economics of digital publishing don't require a huge financial risk. Are there other risks, though, or challenges you feel you're facing by using this publishing model with Jewball? And what kind of things are you doing to address those challenges?

NEAL POLLACK: I wouldn't say it doesn't require a huge financial risk. Yes, the capital outlay is pretty small for writing—I write my books on the same machine where I check my fantasy-baseball stats and watch my porn—but the outlay of time is tremendous. So if I put in hundreds or thousands of hours on Jewball and then only get 500 downloads (and, subsequently, less than two thousand dollars), then my per-hour rate is pretty laughable. But I can't think of it in those terms, at least not exclusively. Jewball is a book I've been dreaming about for years. I enjoyed writing it, and now I'm on the verge of trying to sell it digitally door-to-door. I'm going to work hard and send out hundreds of emails and Tweet and Facebook and Tumblr the sucker until my eyeballs bleed. If it flops, I've got no one to blame but myself, but at least I'll have the satisfaction of knowing that I went down on my own terms. Self-publishing is the future, or at least a big part of it, and I’m proud to be giving it a try. Ω


Patrick Somerville Expands the Universe

In the April 2011 issue of Propeller, I interviewed Patrick Somerville about his latest story collection, The Universe in Miniature in Miniature.

Patrick Somerville Expands the Universe

Over the holidays, I purchased The Universe in Miniature in Miniature by Patrick Somerville, a collection of stories published by featherproof books. I was immediately taken with the confidence and sensitivity Somerville brought to the stories, as well as the ingenious angles from which he approached his characters and their struggles. I emailed him demanding he reveal not only how he had created such an enjoyable collection, but also who was behind the book’s ingenious design. The author of the previous story collection Trouble, as well as The Cradle (which The New York Times called “a magical novel”), Somerville generously agreed to chat with me via a series of emails.

PROPELLER: I’d like to start by complimenting The Universe in Miniature in Miniature as a physical book-object. It’s beautiful. There are wide french folds that, unfolded, offer the reader the possibility of turning the cover into a fifteen-planet mobile, and the design and quality of every aspect of the book is top notch. How did you first get involved in working with the publisher, featherproof books?

PATRICK SOMERVILLE: Zach Dodson from featherproof is an amazingly talented designer, and one of the attractions of doing a book with them was that I’d get to work with ZThe Universe in Miniature in Miniature by Patrick Somervilleach. And it’s funny that we did a project like this together, because if you’d asked me about that term “book-object” a few years ago, I think I would have reacted with great skepticism about whether such things matter at all and said something about the primacy of the text and about how everything else is just an ephemeral adornment. But I don’t think that anymore, and I think the first cracks in my point of view began to appear when I started taking a close look at the work featherproof was doing, and some of the books McSweeney’s has put out in the last few years. Hobart also has tremendous design concepts. So many small presses put an emphasis on it, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the trend has really begun to grow around the same moment e-readers, which are books wearing uniforms, have become so popular. But what I like about what small presses in particular are doing with design comes down to the complementary aspect, the functionality of design as an extension of the book’s overall formal goals. Design carries meaning. It’s not arbitrary that the book is convertible into a mobile, but it’s also not necessary. It’s not arbitrary that it contains the images it contains, but the stories work fine without them. The wide pages, the french flaps—all of that matters. This book was always going to be linked in unusual ways, whether or not I ended up doing it with featherproof, but being here in Chicago and being able to talk with Zach and Jonathan on a regular basis and participate in the design stuff­—finding ways to use design as an extension of the book itself—made it really attractive to me.

PROPELLER: I love that the collection is dedicated to Slartibartfast, a character from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide books. And some of the stories here operate firmly in Adams territory, by which I mean that they’re smart, funny, and “science-fictional,” in that although they include technologies or entities that don’t exist in our everyday world, they nevertheless (usually) take place in a recognizable version of our world. When working on those stories, did you think about how science fiction-ish you wanted them to be, or was that more intuitive? Was there ever a time when you (or an editor) had a conversation about how to balance the realismThe Universe in Miniature transformed into a mobile with the fantastic? And are there writers other than Douglas Adams that you feel did this kind of material particularly well?

PATRICK SOMERVILLE: I think “science-fictional” is the perfect term, because I wouldn’t claim that the book is sci-fi—certainly not hard sci-fi, anyway—but at the same time, I grew up reading and loving a lot of science-fiction and fantasy, which played a big role in the development of my imagination and my growth as a writer, but I drifted away from genre fiction in college and in graduate school as I became more interested in realist literary fiction. Who I want to be and who I try to be as a writer, now, is some kind of hybrid of those phases, and this book, for me, is just an acknowledgment that fiction is many things and that writers don’t necessarily have to burrow into a niche and stay there forever. (Although maybe it makes better business sense to find one place and stay there...I’m not sure.) I think I would be unhappy if I didn’t drift around and try different things, make each book clearly different than the last. But per your question, I don’t think I ever decided, “Okay, let’s make this story about 35% sci-fi,” nothing like that, but I definitely wanted the experience of the book to be a confusing experience for the reader, one that—if it all worked right—could leave somebody asking questions about the word “real” and its value, both in terms of storytelling and in terms of everyday life. The novella at the end, I think, does a good job capturing the mixture I was looking for. And as for other writers, Grant Naylor (actually two writers, named Rob Grant and Doug Naylor), Kelly Link, Susanna Clarke, and Kurt Vonnegut are just a few examples of writers who are similarly messing around in these in-between places.

PROPELLER: That novella that ends the collection—“The Machine of Understanding Other People”—not only includes the machine (a helmet) referenced in the title, but also mysterious invitations, family secrets, and a woman who invents “Pangea University,” whose departments or programs include things like “Finally Ending Bullfighting, Which is Awful,” “Cetacean Role-Play,” and “Getting Back Mastodons—Now.” But despite the fact that there’s a kind of antic imagination energizing the situation of the story, it’s still firmly grounded in the emotional lives and struggles of its two main characters. Did it take you a long time (i.e. drafts) to reach the skillful balance you display in that piece? And do you feel that fantastic elements in fiction allow a story to find its way to emotional (or existential) places that standard “realist” fiction can’t reach?

PATRICK SOMERVILLE: To answer that last question first: yes, absolutely. And in fact to me that’s the backbone of all choice-making in the arts, the answer to why any artist should choose to do things in one way as opposed to any other way: if things are going well, it’s because you have to do it like that to get to the emotion and the story that you want to tell. When I was writing “The Machine of Understanding Other People,” I felt that things could very easily tip—tonally, I guess—in a variety of very bad directions if I didn’t stick to the core assumptions that a) the stakes of the story needed to be serious, real, and emotionally large, which I think would also be a fair approach for straight realism, too, but b) the story needed to be told in the spirit of the rest of the book, which meant a more flexible and whimsical reality that somehow still acknowledged our own sciences and our own

"Sometimes new truths, new emotional states, new weird beauties and new ideas that may actually bring solace or new life to people can only be found far, far down the path of false premises."

history but sort of insanely crammed a romanticism and, in your apt phrase, antic imagination into the telling. The first story of the book presents a totally false premise: everything is reversible. I hope that the story itself kind of acknowledges that this is not true, not for our daily lives, certainly not for the mother of the kid with brain damage, and still proceeds with it, anyway. And this is why I find fiction to be so wonderful, and this is why I love people who read and who are willing to accept a false premise for the hours it takes them to read and still be okay, still be comfortable as they’re reading, knowing that it’s not a valid statement: sometimes new truths, new emotional states, new weird beauties and new ideas that may actually bring solace or new life to people can only be found far, far down the path of false premises. I think it’s foolish when people make aggressive claims about a particular representation of reality being more or less valuable; I can’t stand it when men—because it’s usually men—say to me, “Oh, no. I only read nonfiction,” but they say it in that way that implies that reading about “the real world” has a special, superior value and that fiction is fundamentally frivolous. There is no real world. Especially when it comes to the human mind. Evangelical realists are the kind of people who end up weeping alone in the bathtub when nobody else is around.

PROPELLER: I want to ask about my favorite story in the book, “The Wildlife Biologist.” One of the things I admire about the collection as a whole is your ability to stay with characters as they wander toward, and often through, dangerous situations. “The Wildlife Biologist” is about the relationship between a girl in high school and her AP Biology teacher. How did this story develop? Did you know you wanted to write a relationship like this, or was it a situation where the characters were “telling you” where they wanted the story to go? I feel like there’s a particularly stunning benevolence, if that makes sense, to the way you handle the characters in this story, and I guess I’m wondering if you have thoughts about the relationship between a writer and his or her characters, or certain practices or approaches you think about when working with characters like these.

PATRICK SOMERVILLE: About ten years ago, a teacher gave me “Sorrows of the Flesh” by Isabel Huggan and it absolutely crushed me; after that, all throughout my twenties, I wanted to write a story about a teacher and a student, but it’s such a known and potentially clichéd story and it’s so often done that I wanted to wait around to make sure I could tell it in my own way. So I thought about it for a long time, and I was somewhat afraid of it, too. When I started to write it, I liked the idea of it digging into the actual science and digging into the politics of the town the characters were in, and on top of that, I liked the idea of a story about how attraction and eroticism between a teacher and a student is never as cut and dry as a story of predator and prey, no matter how it looks. Those were sort of my initial hopes. When I started to write, I found that the storyline about the parents in the background did something strange to the foreground, and I also found that I just liked Courtney, the main character. When you find yourself in that position as a writer, I think you tend to be a little more careful with what happens to characters, with how you represent them. It’s bizarre. It’s actually really bizarre, thinking about her. It’s possible I have a crush on that character, is what I’m saying.
     But here’s something else: In the very first draft, Mr. Carpenter, the teacher, ended up burning down that private hunting park, which made the story much more about his activism and his politics and made him into a little too much of a badass. When I wrote that draft and read it, I think I realized the story needed to be more about his failure and his mediocrity, but how Courtney was somehow going to be able to use the experience to learn something. Even if she never quite knew what it was. So that’s a good example of revision being really important. It’s not always my experience that I make such a big change to the plot, but as I wrote it became obvious that my original plan was wrong. So I changed it.

Patrick Somerville

PROPELLER: That struggle to find the right ending sounds so familiar. I definitely feel like the storytelling part of my own mind is always offering up quick ending possibilities in a kind of seductive whisper: “You could end it by burning everything down. You could end it by blowing everything up. You could end it by...” I think the ending you found in that story works wonderfully. I want to ask about something else you said, though, which is that the storyline about the parents in the background did something strange to the foreground. People talk about primary plots quite a bit, but I rarely hear discussions of the energy—and I think in some stories it’s crucial—that goes on between a plot and subplot. Could you say a little more about what that strange thing was that the material about Courtney’s parents did to the story?

PATRICK SOMERVILLE: Thank you. I think one of the downsides of overhauls like that is a kind of reduced confidence, and so hearing people say they think it worked takes on a different kind of importance. When you’re writing you have to be flexible and know that you’re going to make mistakes, but on the other hand I think sometimes the whole thing arrives organically and you just never question either the parts or the whole. Once you do detect a problem with the parts, it’s tougher to be blindly (blissfully) confident with the whole. Things can work out either way, which is one of the reasons this is so hard.
     I know what you mean about the A-plot/B-plot thing, which is actually something I started thinking about more explicitly after an undergraduate student in my workshop—a film student who wanted to see what a fiction class was like—brought the language of sit-coms into the room and used it when he talked about other work. He was very much focused on the way the various plots

"Film and television writing, I think, have a much more direct and straightforward way of addressing plot issues than fiction workshops tend to have."

bounced off one another. I found it fascinating. Film and television writing, I think, have a much more direct and straightforward way of addressing plot issues than fiction workshops tend to have, and to a large degree I think this is a deficiency in most creative writing classes and most MFA programs, this somewhat hidden assumption that voice and subtext, if done well enough, can make the very complicated questions of plot, diegesis, and narrative form disappear. I think it’s a hidden assumption because, unlike many of the weirdly angry rants against MFA programs you often find out on the internet, I seriously doubt any writing teacher, in any program, is sitting there telling students, “Okay, let’s abandon these major aspects of stoytelling and embrace these ones instead, because we’re conservative blue-blooded dicks and can’t slum it with either plots or get weird and new with the avant garde.” Most of those conversations drive me crazy. MFA programs are just places where people support you as you try to learn about your own writing.
     In this story, I think what I found was that whatever is going on with the parents and their waffling, it links up to Courtney’s intellectual quest, not what’s happening sexually or interpersonally between her and her teacher. Something about certainty and knowledge, and how disturbing it is to find that certainty, without fundamentalism, is so fleeting, whatever the discipline and whatever the epistemological approach. That’s difficult to deal with. That’s the problem of most of the characters in the book. Here, the parents are a flaky and destabilizing force, and I think by the time I came to the end of the story, it felt better to have that background story sort of leapfrog over the foreground story and serve as the outro as the foreground story fizzled and puttered out instead of ending with a big sensational fire.

PROPELLER: Another thing I like about this book is the strong sense of place—of Chicago—that is present in a number of the pieces. I live in Portland, and there was a time when I felt “Portland” might be a kind of usefully empty signifier, but I’ve been told many times now that no, if I write “Portland” in a story, it means something. If cities bring a certain kind of energy to a story—if a piece of fiction that takes place in “New York” will feel and operate differently than the same story taking place in “San Francisco”—what do you feel “Chicago” brings to the universe of fiction these days? Or is there more than one kind of energy you can draw from when you set a story there?

Patrick Somerville

PATRICK SOMERVILLE: Hm, I’m not sure. That’s a good question. In a way it’s inadvertently asking, “What are the clichés, at the national level, that pop into people’s heads when they see these place-names?”, right? For Chicago I guess that would be some cluster of ideas ranging from electric blues to 19th century meatpacking conditions to giant complicated hot dogs to left-leaning urban politics. But I think as writers—and you can tell me if you think this is true, too—we’re usually seeking to both ride the wave of pre-existing impressions of a place and simultaneously remake it with a little more accuracy, or at least remake it in the ways that we see it, too. Some more honest representation, something with the balance of subjective experience. I tried to include glimpses of a different Chicago I’ve gotten to know in my five years here—the CVS near where I live, the Viagra Triangle, the liquor store in Ravenswood where I used to buy my cigarettes. I can’t say I really understand what it does for the stories, but I do think it does something.

PROPELLER: It was the “complicated hot dogs” stuff that I mostly wanted to make sure you were aware of. As soon as someone writes “Chicago,” I always think: Hot dog story! But I can’t help but notice that twice now in my questions I have resorted to the cowardly distancing device of using quotation marks: first with “science fictional” and now with “Chicago.” I’ve tried to come up with a theory for why I’ve done this that somehow blames your own good writing, rather than my ineptitude as an interviewer, and this is what I’ve come up with: I think when writing about anything that I feel readers have preconceived notions about—whether it’s clichés about a city, genre expectations, whatever—I’m usually trying to write my own local understanding of that material—as you said, the liquor store in Ravenswood—but I’m highly aware of the degree to which the clichés are going to get in my fucking way. I feel like what strikes me about TUIMIM—what made the stories so compelling to me—is that it treats “literary fiction” as a genre whose conventions are there to be flouted. Almost every piece in the collection includes an element that makes it, formally, something other than “standard literary fiction.” (And now my use of quotation marks is out of control.) But the story “Confused Aliens” is about exactly what the title states. “The Abacus” is an interplay between your text and a series of drawings of a man’s face. “No Sun” is about characters responding to an apocalyptic event. This makes me wonder: How do you feel about this term “literary fiction”? Do you feel it’s a genre with conventions, or is it something different? You said earlier that new ideas or truths can only be found down the path of false premises—do you feel some false premises are better (or more productive, in fiction) than others? Can false premises still be “literary fiction”?

PATRICK SOMERVILLE: Literary fiction is absolutely a genre and a set of conventions, it’s completely historical and didn’t really even exist as we know it before modernism, and I don’t think it’s too shocking for me to say that art is at its weakest and most boring when the artist misconstrues mutable conventions as some kind of a priori law or maxim. I think the only ahistorical maxim I’d adhere to regarding art is that it should provoke interesting communication between object and audience.Dublners by James Joyce
     Whenever I have students read “Araby” for class, we talk about all the amazing things Joyce does to prime the ending, we talk about the sentences, we talk about the character’s delusions, we talk about why he’s crying at the end, we talk about whether the specter of English colonialism is indeed haunting that bazaar—all the things, all the “literary fiction” things. But I also always ask my students to then imagine hearing someone read “Araby” aloud while sitting around a campfire. Say your old friend James Joyce is there, drunk, he says he has a spooky story memorized, and then narrates “Araby” word for word. Now in my mind, “Araby” immediately becomes ridiculous when you put it in that context—around a campfire, it’s a complete failure of a story in that it’s not particularly entertaining, the drama is deeply personal, you could argue that the stakes are exceptionally low, and the whole thing relies on so much subtlety and so much implication that a reader who’s not particularly sensitive can read the whole thing and literally have no idea what it’s about. No idea. Is it a good story if your reader ends up tuning out, eyes wide, and chooses instead to work on creating the perfect S’mores? Can you just imagine hearing, “...and my eyes burned with anguish and anger” and then just hearing crickets in the background and someone going, “Welp, I’m gonna hit the sack” because no one has any idea what to think?
     I guess I use this little thought experiment in class to remind students (and myself) that there’s a difference between storytelling and “literary fiction” storytelling...and maybe also as a reminder that you will get trapped and unable to innovate if you get dogmatic about the conventions of literary fiction. Even if you have no intention of ever writing a story about a bunch of aliens who can’t fly their spaceship, and even if you’re never going to leave a suburban neighborhood with your fiction. I think there should always be that little voice in the back of your head telling you that even the concept of dramatizing a character’s internal conflict is a particular convention, and you best be able to do other things, too. I’ve just met so many writers who take it as an assumption that literary fiction—for me, that means character-driven storytelling with exceptional prose and a rich subtext—is superior to television, superior to movies, superior to genre fiction, and superior to video games. As though that’s not taste. There are some times when I think that, too, but it’s an opinion, you know?
     Take a look around at the majority of people in our country, how they choose to experience narrative, and you’ll see that almost no one else thinks that literary fiction is worth a shit. At least based on consumption habits. I mean yes, okay: there’s like a core group of 100,000 or 200,000 hardcore readers. But our country has what? 320 million people in it? I think it’s fair to say that less that one percent of the population is interested in literary fiction. Or will ever be. I think it was more like thirty percent right after the war but before television was popular. That’s my romanticized statistic, anyway.
     So maybe, as a writer, this converts you into a kind of torch-bearer, you know? And you say, “Okay, then I’m going to keep it alive and cherish and protect these forms—the short story, the literary novel—because they’re inherently valuable, even though they’re marginalized and even though writers can’t actually make a living anymore writing short fiction and selling stories to magazines, and literary novels, even when they’re very successful, can barely support a career.” I feel like that’s a rider on your degree, inserted by the faculty, stapled behind the diploma when you finish your MFA in fiction: Trouble, by Patrick SomervilleOh, by the way, can you also continue to believe in, promote, teach, and say nice things on the internet about literary fiction? Because otherwise we don’t make sense. Start a literary magazine. Or something. Please.
     But I think it’s unwise, as a writer, to close the door on all the other ways stories can be told and all the other ways people can be entertained with narrative just because protecting and guarding a marginalized art-form makes you special and exclusive, makes you an insider. So yes (finally answering your question), I think with this book I tried to ask questions like this within the book, using the particular forms of the stories. Some of its weirdness is my way of staying loose about the conventions of fiction. My first novel, The Cradle, is a pretty straightforward realist quest about history and family. Saying it like that, it’s a straight-up cliché of literary fiction. I don’t think that’s true if you actually read it, but I think part of my goal with The Universe was to shake out of that box and not get content or too satisfied with one place, one approach.

PROPELLER: But this whole discussion is irrelevant, because you already have a new book done and getting dressed to enter the world, so you’ll soon have to start answering annoying questions about that book rather than The Universe in Miniature in Miniature. Could you tell us a little about the new book? When does it come out?

Patrick Somerville: It’s called This Bright River and comes out in summer 2012 from Little, Brown. It’s realism, and it’s another family drama, but unlike The Cradle, it’s very long. It’s about a man in his early 30s who returns to his home town after blowing his trust fund. It has a love story, a dead person, and a late-arriving villain. I like to think of it as a cross between When Harry Met Sally, Blow, The Moviegoer, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Ω