Friday, September 28, 2007

Short Cuts (Capsule Reviews)

Yi Yi: Criterion released the late Edward Yang's masterpiece a few months ago, and it immediately went on my Netflix queue.

It was even better than I expected. It holds one's attention in an uncommon way, more like a novel than a film—in this way it is rather like La Meglio Gioventú (The Best of Youth). Yang's characterizations are economically expansive, an absolute necessity for a film based as much as it is on a theme of the way the past continues to ramify long after we turned onto a different path. The delicacy with which Yang develops many different storylines simultaneously—each on a very different register—is something sadly missing from American filmmaking. Yang also masterfully creates a vocabulary for his characters through quick tableaux (like the picture at left), a trick with which American filmmakers like Wes Anderson have had success in the past but are now seeing terrifyingly diminished returns.

Yi Yi is, quite simply, an essential film.

Louis Menand, "Drive, He Wrote"

One of my favorite openings to a review is David Bromwich on Louis Menand's American Studies:
Louis Menand has been publishing reviews and essays for about twenty years. He writes on most things a non-specialist could write on: novels, movies, television, magazines, politics, education, manners, celebrity culture. His academic training was in literature, but academically most of what he does would now be classified as cultural history; his book on the American pragmatists, The Metaphysical Club, was an ambitious and rewarding contribution to that genre. He brings to his pieces a large share of general information, prose decorum, and an accent of overwhelming sobriety, sometimes nicely, sometimes oddly varied by facetious asides. For those of us who have been following him on and off, the puzzle has been to decide what exactly he cares about.

On arriving at the end of one of Menand's pieces, you commonly think: how ably done. The subject has been closed. You are less excited than you were before. The absence of extreme opinions in Menand's work is reassuring, but it is also, when the articles are presented in bulk, rather baffling. A critic, like a reader or a spectator, is allowed to go over the top in wonder and delight, or, if he is a good hater, to make us laugh out loud. Even daily reviewers often exhibit a ruling passion or a driving enthusiasm. It has not been clear what Menand's is.

This of course sets up the rest of the review perfectly, but it is, more to the point at hand, sad. Sad because the closing paragraphs of Menand's essay on Kerouac and the Beats perhaps explain a bit of this air of imperturbability and pragmatic dourness.

Menand writes movingly throughout the article of how the Beats were misunderstood, mischaracterized, and, of course, mistaken. The Beats, at least for Menand, were not so much about the drugs as about the kind of things—and I'm writing this with a completely straight face and with no hint of disdain—the movie Superbad brought off so well. As Menand writes,

The book is not about hipsters looking for kicks, or about subversives and nonconformists, rebels without a cause who point the way for the radicals of the nineteen-sixties. And the book is not an anti-intellectual celebration of spontaneity or an artifact of literary primitivism. It’s a sad and somewhat self-consciously lyrical story about loneliness, insecurity, and failure. It’s also a story about guys who want to be with other guys.
I certainly felt this way when reading it back in high school, but my friends were wild about Burroughs then and I didn't want to offer this rather meek alternative reading when they could talk about mescaline and sexual perversions. As Menand argues, the book's about male vulnerability, and that's only cool if you're vulnerable and fucked up by booze or drugs or horniness or your own inner demons.

I encourage you to read all of Menand's essay, but the ending, as I said, killed me. Perhaps, as he finds something to identify with in Kerouac, I find something in him that describes too well my current state:
Books like “On the Road” have a different kind of influence as well. They can, whether we think of them as great literature or not, get into the blood. They give content to experience. Many years after my encounters with Ginsberg around the department water fountain, I took a job in Boston, two hundred miles from New York, and I ended up commuting there by car. I drove at night, so that the trip would not eat up the workday, and I often stopped for gas at a service area on the Mass Pike about fifty miles from Boston. It’s fairly high above sea level there, in the lower ranges of the Berkshires, and I would stand at the pump in the dark looking at the stars in the cold clear sky as the semis roared past and with the wind in my hair, and I liked to imagine that I was a character in Kerouac’s novel, lost to everyone I knew and to everyone who knew me, somewhere in America, on the road. Then I would get in the car, and, bent over the wheel, while the trucks beat on past me, and the radio crackled, the sound going in and out, with oldies from the seventies, I began the long drop down to the lights of Boston, late in the night, late in my life, alone.
Later: WTF? David Brooks of all people pointing out that, goddammit, On the Road was once considered fun! I never thought I'd see the words "discharge of youthful energy" (much less "delightful, moronic, unreflective fizz") in a column by the Man in the Pink Oxford.

But his point is a solid one, at least as far as it does seem strange that, all of a sudden, On the Road is this deeply melancholic novel about spiritual quests and male vulnerability. His diagnosis of the change is also correct—what he calls the Boomer Narcissus—the black hole of a solipsistic generation bending the light of all culture to fit its form. Well, that's a little too dramatic, and so is Brooks, but the Boomers do tend to reinterpret most cultural artifacts to suit their stage of life. (Is this a new phenomenon? probably not, but you couldn't tell Brooks that.)

But seriously, the jab at the Sal Paradises of today ("If Sal Paradise were alive today, he’d be a product of the new rules. He’d be a grad student with an interest in power yoga, on the road to the M.L.A. convention with a documentary about a politically engaged Manitoban dance troupe that he hopes will win a MacArthur grant. He’d be driving a Prius, going a conscientious 55, wearing a seat belt and calling Mom from the Comfort Inns.") is pure vindictive cant. Brooks is merely complaining that he can't even take some small amount of vicarious joy in the overheated antics of liberals (a joy which will be chased immediately by, of course, a supercilious sniff of disapprobation and patronizing diffidence), antics which he has largely fabricated.

Brooks pretends liberals or bohemians or whatever all just became squares—that it's the rules (self-created, self-enforced) that have changed. Nope, Dave, it's the world. Do you know how expensive gas is? See how far you get on your cross-country trip living as broke and beat as Sal and Dean. Sheesh.

No comments: