Tale Us Of Your Triggers

It seems that while human violence is on the ebb, the world’s arsenal is maturing for a very different kind of war:

In a way, this is to be expected. Material concerns have no future. Poverty, in time, shall no longer be in business. And if ideology is less and less in vogue, there must be other things — other means of self-expression — to club each other over the head with. But while the weapons have always been around, their location tends to shift according to the needs of civilization. Today one prods the world for signs of power yet comes up short. One looks for strength and is turned away. Such values are no longer a point of negotiation, for strength is undemocratic- is deemed tyrannical– and has, therefore, been replaced with victimhood and frailty as a new ideal.

Yet the club is no less heavy; is not, to be sure, to be put away merely on account of personal weakness. After all, the drive is still to hurt, to outdo- to overpower. To this end, there’s been a long list of hurts written somewhere in the ether: a catalogue of ills, attachments, and offenses — called “triggers” — that people can freely choose from and indulge as part of their natural identity. Their numbers are numberless, and by extension can pretty much be anything. There’s racism, rape, homophobia, there’s sexist thoughts, ‘fatphobia’, the wrong feelings, or the right ones expressed at the wrong time. In fact, the more of life is seen, the longer this list becomes, for any desire to take offense — and it IS a desire — will forever search for new stimuli, new ways to engage a rapidly narrowing world. Of course, none of it is new at all: it merely comes in greater quanta to satisfy this ever-growing threshold for pain. The lust, here, is to take on as many hurts as possible, to really FEEL them until the world is little more than the sum total of one’s own eye.

Indeed, you could even argue that this is all a hermit kingdom with its own rules, its own army, and its own peculiar sense of decorum. The rule is simple, really: do not offend. Or rather, learn to read the cues to KNOW what offense entails. As for enforcement- there is anger, of course. There are guilt-trips and mobs to help turn others in acolytes. There are emotional fits meant to keep the ‘debate’ (whatever it may be) from crossing the parapet. At times, these kingdoms are too distal, too fucked up, emotionally or otherwise, to truly let others in. At other times, however, a confederation of the offended will come together to- essentially- find ways of never moving past the safety of these walls. Sure, a few might turn into genuine relationships- I do not doubt this. But they will be friendships that, instead of building upon one another’s best, tend to wallow in the worst, until- much … Continue reading →

New Interview At Joel Bocko’s “Lost In The Movies”

Joel Bocko New Interview Woody AllenFor those that regularly follow Joel Bocko’s website, you will have probably seen my new interview posted last week. I contacted Joel late last year since his work is quoted in Woody Allen: Reel To Real. In fact, he was one of the only critics mentioned, within, that correctly declared the late 70s/1980 of Woody’s cinematic output to be a genuine high point- and, yes, this includes Interiors as well as the supernal Stardust Memories. Joel expressed an interest in reviewing the book and interviewing me. The result is 15,000 words on art, criticism, philosophy, and film– with only a slice of it on Allen.

This Fall, I’m updating Reel To Real with new material, including an unexpurgated version of the above interview- another 5,000-8,000 words, probably- that was simply too technical to include on Joel’s site. Still, those interested in the macro of my judgments- their inner ‘why’- will do well to read it. They are a blueprint to the arts as a whole.

Anyway- here is my answer to the first question. The interview can be read in full here.

Before we begin, for the sake of readers can you introduce yourself, your interest in Allen, and the reasons behind your outlook and approach to this book?

I am a poet, critic, and novelist living in New York City. I have a variety of interests- hence my desire to do film criticism from a wide “art-first” approach, where issues of character, writing, narrative, imagery, music, and their summation(s) matter. More than anything, however, I wanted Woody Allen: Reel To Real to be a kind of blueprint for critiquing art as a whole. It covers dozens of films at great depth so that, over time, the reader knows what to look for, and can extrapolate some of these ideas to the art-world at large. In an important sense, this book isn’t merely ‘about’ Woody’s art. It is about ART, with Woody serving merely as a convenient specimen.

For this reason, I don’t necessarily state my premises outright- I don’t give readers a ‘list’ of what to look for in a good film, as that’s the quickest way to formulaic thinking (which is counter to art) and a way of avoiding the exceptions that utterly DEFINE so much of art. For instance: to many viewers, John Cassavetes’s best films might ‘go on too long,’ or Walt Whitman’s great poems have too much ‘stuff’ within. Yet a careful look at either reveals that there is purpose- there is communication- in the excess, even though concision is a good rule of thumb. The point is that any artistic rule immediately calls up sub-categories, exceptions, sub-exceptions, exceptions to the exceptions… save for one. And it is this: whatever ends up on the screen, page, or frame, it must be purposeful- it must communicate something of substance, or at least act as a route to substance, of re-framing substance. And the measure of ‘substance’ is Man at his apex. I am not … Continue reading →

Review Of Marina Julia Neary’s “Saved By The Bang”

Saved By The Bang Marina Julia NearyA few weeks ago, I came across Marina Julia Neary’s Saved By The Bang, an interesting (albeit flawed) novel that takes what might very well have been a PC disaster- a family saga set during the Chernobyl meltdown- and manages to avoid the typical pitfalls one associates with such. Just think, for example, of the childlike way Octavia E. Butler once dealt with slavery, or Steven Spielberg’s twee, hamfisted treatment of the Holocaust, or the multitude of journals- poetry, prose, and everything in between- that opine on war and suffering and evil all the while excluding the art itself in favor of agitprop. Of course, it is quite easy to express fear or sadness or hopelessness, for these states are simply part of the human condition. They are built into us from so many access points that the smallest thing will tap into them. Yet it’s much harder to slip into their interstices, to get at things less obvious- more difficult to come by- which is why most ‘artists’ don’t really give a damn about their own craft, favoring, as they do, the fluff extraneous to it.

Saved By The Bang implicitly knows this, side-stepping the above dilemma by turning a drama into a kind of comedy, thus obviating any ‘need’ for bathos- the same sort of inversion, in fact, that helps polish and define Liev Schreiber’s wonderful Everything Is Illuminated (2005). But while the book has a number of strengths that easily put it in the top 5% of published writing today, it also lacks the sort of ‘highs’ that define the best works: it is more or less a solid book that has as many bad moments (3 or 4) as truly excellent ones (likewise 3 or 4), and an interim that merely floats well- for good or ill. In short, there are simply too few memorable passages or lines that work on the mind after the novel’s done, and while the characters’ lack of genuine depth might be unimportant, in some tales, the lack of highs- spoken by or narrated around these characters- keeps it from better company. Being a Chernobyl survivor, myself, I’ve long wanted to write a book about the incident, and I’d have surely done quite a few things differently. But that is neither here nor there. My desires and my way of doing things are and should be irrelevant to criticism, which needs to consider what a thing is rather than filtered through what’s always wished for. So let us focus, instead, on what the book does well, does not do well, and- I guess- does not quite do at all.

Saved By The Bang begins with a comic look at the Belarusian intelligentsia, starting at the height of an affair between the protagonist- Antonia- and a well-known tenor, a nice touch that avoids the oft-silly, moralizing, and clunky buildups towards such by immediately casting some doubts on the book’s (initial) lead. It then moves on to Antonia’s marital woes, Joseph’s- … Continue reading →

On Countee Cullen’s “Heritage”

After a LONG time out of print, Library Of America finally released Countee Cullen’s Collected Poems a couple of years ago. To those who know literature, this was a big deal- mostly because Cullen is one of the 3 or 4 greatest black poets to have ever written, even as (as per all great writing) he was quite free from the stereotypes of ‘blackness’, or whatever other limit artists typically impose upon themselves. An almost Constantine The Great-like Christian- just note the syncretism of the titular poem- he never gave a simple answer on politics, religion, or race, even arguing with Langston Hughes that he was above all a poet, first, and a black man second. In other words, while Hughes would sometimes dip into mere agitprop, Countee Cullen was less interested in canned answers- nor did he think that he necessarily had them in the first place. This made for mysterious sonnets, strange messages, and of course- having modeled himself on the Romantic poet John Keats- great lyricism, witty lines, and memorable inversions:

For John Keats, Apostle Of Beauty

Not writ in stone, nor in mist,
Sweet lyric throat, thy name;
Thy singing lips that cold death kissed
Have seared his own with flame.

Although I’d argue Cullen had a number of truly great poems, it is really “Heritage” that is special- on a deeper level- in my own life. I recall how, as a kid, after I’d decided to start reading with purpose, I first came across Countee Cullen’s work in a Harlem Renaissance anthology. I was 16 at the time and really had no knowledge of what made for good writing. Yet there was the feeling that Cullen’s work was somehow better than most of the pieces being represented. It was more subtle- it took quite a few readings to really know what was going on, even when the poems felt simple. The book featured small pieces, mostly, and while they ranged from good to great, it was really “Heritage” that made me want to UNDERSTAND poetry- as well as learn how to craft my own. My guess is that it simply came at the right time. I was intellectually maturing, I was getting ready to leave my Orthodox Christian faith, and I was- by way of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice, among other works- diverging from the limits of ‘my’ world into the boundaries of another’s. And while there were many poets greater than Cullen that I’d initially sampled- John Donne, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane- they were completely inaccessible to a child. They are, for lack of a better term, more or less useless when first learning the craft- unless one realizes that their work is something to be conquered in time, and not merely put aside. Yet Cullen didn’t need to be awaited. He was always there:

Heritage

What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose … Continue reading →

“Mr. Robot” And The Golden Age Of Television

The word ‘re-action’ implies that something has already come. Let’s ignore, for a moment, what that something is, and just focus on the final knot of the rope:

Appraisal. Or rather, what the act of valuation does and does not entail — at least in the long run — for an object. Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot (2015), for instance, has been praised virtually without exception, with much of it revolving around the show’s technological accuracy. In fact, while the harshest critics nit-pick this very thing, few mention ‘frills’ like narrative, visual depth, and writing, as if the world begins and ends with their desires, first.

Look closer, however, and Mr. Robot is stuck between a cliche at the show’s start (“What I’m about to tell you is top secret…the top 1% of the top 1%…the guys that play God without permission”), and a predictable narrative arc at the show’s end, with a riddling of bad moments in between. It is pointless to dwell on every mis-step, but there’s the ripping off of the Enron logo for the show’s monolithic E Corp (“they’re everywhere…the ‘E’ might as well stand for ‘evil’”); the stereotype of the Indian pervert, who gets busted — surprise, surprise — for child porn; the stereotype of the ‘prophetic’ homeless man who quips on things others will never understand; the lonely, disaffected youth who is in fact ‘better’ than everyone around him; a Fight Club-level rant against Facebook, prescription pills, and consumer culture delivered to a therapist too stupid to really get it; and, of course, the laughable, clunky shift from Mr. Robot’s use of E-Corp to ‘Evil Corp,’ thus cementing the idea that much of this is happening in Elliot’s mind, and ONLY Elliot’s mind. So much, I guess, for being a ‘psychological thriller,’ as you’re given the key so early that you can’t help but turn.

Yet the mainstream valuation is still there, for just as my words will not change others’ reactions to Mr. Robot, these valuations, in turn, have little to do with the show itself. They bring in too much of the percipient, then assume the perception — whatever it may be — is the outgrowth of something bigger.

To see this in action, one merely needs to go back to the original assertion: that there’s a ‘something’ that’s already paved the way for Mr. Robot and many shows like it. After all, the last few years have been termed a Golden Age Of Television, on par with the last half-century. And while it’s good, I guess, to see that folks aren’t merely pining for the world of yore, let’s review the evidence, piece by piece, so that we’re not merely adding to the noise:

Breaking Bad (2008) was a mere assemblage of cliches rounded off with the sort of camp irreality that could have only hoodwinked (and did!) the very suburban types it featured, replete with a sprinkling of ‘artsy’ moments that were … Continue reading →