Saturday, December 5, 2009

Quote for the Day

(One in an occasional series)

11 November, 1955
Today on the pavement a fat domestic London pigeon waddling among the boots and shoes of people hurrying for a bus. A man takes a kick at it, the pigeon lurches into the air, falls forward against a lamppost, lies with its neck stretched out, its beak open. The man stands, bewildered: he had expected the pigeon to fly off. He casts a furtive look around, so as to escape. It is too late, a red-faced virago is already approaching him. "You brute, kicking a pigeon!" The man's face is by now also red. He grins from embarrassment and a comical amazement. "But they always fly away," he observes, appealing for justice. The woman shouts, "You've killed it--kicking a poor little pigeon!" But the pigeon is not dead, it is stretching out its neck by the lamppost, trying to lift its head, and its wings strive and collapse, again and again. By now there is a small crowd including two boys of about fifteen. They have the sharp, watchful faces of the freebooters of the streets, and stand watching, unmoved, chewing gum. Someone says, "Call the RSPCA." The woman shouts, "There'd be no need for that if this bully hadn't kicked the poor thing." The man hangs about, sheepish, a criminal hated by the crowd. The only people not emotionally involved are the two boys. One remarks to the air: "Prison's the place for criminals like 'im." "Yes, yes," shouts the woman. She is so busy hating the kicker she doesn't look at the pigeon. "Prison," says the second boy, "flogging, I'd say." The woman now sharply examines the boys, and realises they are making fun of her. "Yes, and you too!" she gasps at them, her voice almost squeezed out of her by her anger...Meanwhile an efficient frowning man bends over the pigeon, and examines it. He straightens himself and pronounces, "It's going to die." He's right. The bird's eyes are filming, and blood wells from its opened beak. And now the woman, forgetting her three objects of hatred, leans forward to look at the bird. Her mouth is slightly open, she has a look of unpleasant curiosity as the bird gasps, writhes its head, then goes limp.

"It's dead," says the efficient man.

The villain, recovering himself, says apologetically, but clearly determined to have no nonsense: "I'm sorry, but it was an accident. I've never seen a pigeon before that didn't move out of the way.

We all look with disapproval at this hardened kicker of pigeons...

The kicker moves off, but the woman goes after him, saying: "What's your name and address, I'm going to have you prosecuted." The man says, annoyed, "Oh, don't make such a mountain out of molehill." She says: "I suppose you call murdering a poor little bird a molehill." "Well, it isn't a mountain, murder isn't a mountain," observes one of the fifteen-year-olds, who stands grinning with his hands in his jacket pockets. His friend takes it up, sagaciously: "You're right. Molehills is murder, but mountains isn't." "That's right," says the first, "when's a pigeon a mountain? When it's a molehill." The woman turns on them, and the villain thankfully makes his escape, looking incredibly guilty, despite himself.

Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

And while I'm at it, what's the deal with having us read all these damned books?

A friend of mine who teaches at Grant MacEwen University in Edmonton, Alberta, had a visit last week from two students angry that he hadn't been appropriately impressed by an in-class presentation they had made the day before. And since they were in his office anyhow, I guess, they also decided to run down a number of other objections they had to his teaching style. Among their complaints: the professor was including information in his lectures that he did not put on the Blackboard summaries posted to the class website. In other words, students who were attending class had an unfair advantage over those who did not.

So, here's my question: do any of my compatriot bloggers on this site, or any of our myriad readers, have comparable stories of clueless entitlement in modern academe?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Prisoner, Updated

AMC has just finished its first run of the 2009 version of The Prisoner, an update of the 60s Patrick McGoohan series. The original Prisoner is often prefaced by the words "classic," and it has developed a cult of enthusiasts over the years. For good reason: the set-up was inspired, as well the look, and McGoohan was perfect for the role. The new series has received mixed reviews, at best. Two very good TV critics, James Poniewozik of Time and David Bianculli of NPR, more or less trashed it, essentially saying that all of the changes in the new series were in the wrong direction. Poniewozik called it "pretentious."

The only positive element, according to both men, is the performance of Ian McKellen as Number Two. In the original, Number Two was a sort of governor of the Village/Prison where all the action took place, ruling on behalf of a mysterious Number One (and perhaps also an even more shadowy corporate body that is alluded to but never mentioned.) Several important differences between the old and new involve Number Two (who is now just called Two). First, in the old series, the actor playing Number Two changed every episode (the exception being Leo McKern (Rumpole at the Bailey), who was in two different episodes.) In the new one, McKellen is the same Two throughout. He's also a more complicated and sympathetic character. Also, Number One has essentially disappeared. It's suggested at one point that he's just a metaphor (yeah, I think the theological implications are intended). The McGoohan character, Six, is played now by Jim Caviezel, and the universal assumption seems to be that he is upstaged at every turn by McKellen's brillance.

Although I am a big fan of the original Prisoner, I have to say that it has benefitted a great deal from nostalgia, which tends to miss out on a number of weaknesses. The most obvious problem was with the notorious final episode. Poniewozik notes that the original series was "never completely resolved," which is one way to put it. My way of putting it would be that the final episode was the worst ending to a television series that ever was: so incoherent and silly that it was almost offensive. McGoohan would later say that his home was attacked by outraged viewers the day after its original showing. After having watched the whole series and then experienced the deep disappointment of the final, all I can say is that it was an instance of justified mob violence. Although there's never been a clear explanation for what happened (McGoohan very carefully dominated discussion of the series during his lifetime, and so the open scandal of the last episode was never really addressed) there are three plausible explanations:

1. The series ended before it was supposed to, and so the producers (McGoohan was executive producer) had to quickly come up with an ad-hoc ending, and this was the best they could do.
2. McGoohan wrote himself into a corner (we might call this the Lost problem). It was pretty obvious who Number One was supposed to be, by the end: essentially, the identity is signalled at the beginning of every episode. A little too obvious, maybe. The writers couldn't figure out how to give the final a true hook, so they just threw this mash at the viewers.
3. The series suffered from the departure of George Markstein, one of the original creators, who left about halfway through the series run (following, I believe, a fight with McGoohan). Markstein might have been able to figure out to end the damned thing.

In general, the series was much weaker after Markstein left. I would argue it was him, and not McGoohan, who was the real genius behind the original.

The new Prisoner is not the equal of the original. It is far superior, beginning with the fact that it has an actual ending, which explains what has been going on for the past six hours. A number of critics complained that the narrative was confusing, and it is. Temporal and spatial shifts occur constantly, with little or no explanation. Characters appear in different roles without explanation. If you watch all the way to the end, you'll see why all of this is happening. The producers have used various techniques to mimic the mental dislocation that the main character feels. I suspect that this is why AMC decided to run the entire series over the course of only three nights. The network probably felt that modern viewers would not stick with something this difficult over a longer period. But I don't think that's a sad commentary on the show's technique. I think its a sad commentary on modern television audiences.

But the real success of the series, the reason that I am writing this post, deals with the moral dilemma presented in the last episode. This has been the area of greatest obtuseness on the part of the reviewers. Even the person from The New York Times, who generally liked it, thought that the theme of the show was much less ambitious than the 60s version: appropriate, he wrote, for our postmodern fatigue with ideology and big ideas.

I dunno: to me it seemed like there were lots of big ideas in this series, the most important one being the continued attraction of utopia, which the writers presented in a particularly clever manner, playing the audience in the same way, more or less, that Two plays Six. Like Six, by the time we figured out what has happened, it's too late.

And when I say that the ending is clever, I mean that it is morally compelling in manner all too rare at our current cultural moment. Someone who would be willing to sacrifice human freedom or human lives on behalf of The People, or Humanity, or The World, or God, is too stupid to be trusted with anything more powerful than a lawn mower: this is a moral truth so obvious that both Stalin and C.S. Lewis could agree on it. But what if the pain that we were going to relieve was not that of some bloodless abstraction, but a single individual. An individual whose agony, while fictional, is very realistic, and severe. And a character that we have come to like a great deal over the course of the past six hours. There is no longer a clearly best or worst choice: the series complicates the line between good and evil in a way that the earlier series did not.

Here, utopia (in the sense of a world accomplished in the art of reducing human suffering) comes about not through politics but through the application of science. I wonder if this is not part of the reason for the mixed reviews of the series. We may have undergone some "postmodern fatigue" with politics and grand narratives, but our utopian desires have not left us. We have merely transferred them to technology. Maybe the reason that critics like Poniewozik and Bianculli didn't like the show much is that it hit a little too close to home. The 60s Prisoners embodied the cultural zeitgeist; the 2009 version challenges it.

Finally, I have to say that McKellen's work was over-praised, Jim Caviezel's under-appreciated. Both men did solid a solid if not spectacular job: the real accomplishment here lay in the writing and production, not the acting. But I think that at this point McKellen has approached a sort of Olivier-like cultural status, whereas Caviezel is too good-looking, and his politics and religion too suspect, to get any critical breaks.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Don't know about anyone else, but I've found most of the obits on Lévi-Strauss to be a little underwhelming. Lots of news outlets focused mostly on his significance from a very narrow political perspective. The guy on NPR emphasized his role in according so-called "primitives" the intellectual and moral respect that all right-thinking people now agree they deserve. Well, I guess: but he wasn't really an innovator on that score, maybe just one in a long line that stretches back at least as far as Herder. Same with the discussions of his ecological sympathies. If he was an environmentalist long before it was fashionable, that sure wasn't why structuralism seemed so important a part of Western intellectual life at one point. When it came discussions of the actual theory itself, a lot of the English-language outlets were quite vague. I credit this not to the obscurity of the argument but to the fact that so many people nowadays would say that structuralism is passé, and it would be bad form to suggest that we had all moved past the great man whose praises we are singing.

In what was to my mind the best obituary, Maurice Bloch wrote in the Guardian that:

"It is striking how, in spite of the immense respect with which he is treated, especially in France, he has no direct followers or students. Many claim and have claimed to be structuralists but it usually turns out that only a limited aspect of his thought has an influence on them, and at worst the adoption of the label "structuralist" was merely a matter of passing fashion. He is a lonely, if imposing, figure in the history of thought."

Structuralism was already on the way out when I started getting interested in it, in the late 80s and early 90s. I'm not sure that I have ever quite understood why, though: beyond the mere vagaries of academic fashion. Most of the British structuralists that I've read, like Victor Turner and Mary Douglas, struck me as much more interesting cultural theorists than what came after them. And Lévi-Strauss, to the extent that I understood him, seemed to be arguing a very big idea indeed, which was that our fundamental assumptions about human nature, and more specifically human agency, were completely off-base: empirically wrong-headed and politically noxious. This still strikes me as a pretty compelling claim.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The possibilities of comics

About three-quarters of the way through Asterios Polyp, Mazzucchelli takes up an entire chapter with a small, seemingly irrelevant moment in the married life of Hana and Polyp. The event is bookended by Polyp worrying over a blister on his foot. The rest of it (seven pages) has to do with a minor domestic emergency: Hana is swabbing her ear with a q-tip, and the end of the tip breaks off in her ear. She freaks out. Polyp comes to her rescue, using one of those little tweezer doohickies from his Swiss knife to pull it out. At the end of the chapter she hugs her husband and promises him, "That's the last time I buy that pseudo-somebody brand."

Or rather, that's one thing that happens. Mazzuchelli has structured the chapter so that, visually, there are three different sections to every page. The linear narrative I've just given you is the middle section, a series of panels set apart from the top and bottom sections visually through the prominence of the color blue (the other two sections are primarily colored in red and purple). It's also the only section with words. Above and it and below are a series of more or less unconnected vignettes from Hana's life, most of which have some relation to her body, the discharges therefrom: Hana taking a dump, Hana farting, Hana cutting her leg shaving, Hana throwing up in the toilet, Hana slurping noodles, Hana sneezing, Hana kissing her cat, Hana snoring.

There is no clear connection between these panels and the center section (a series of random panels of Hana trying to pull open a subway car door just makes matters more confusing), but for me one of the clear suggestions was of an unarticulated discomfort on Hana's part with her body, with the porousness of the human body, the way that its boundaries often break down. (This only makes sense (maybe) a little later on in the narrative). There is also a least one other sub-theme: the importance of trusting another person, and the difficulty of same. Mazzucchelli is able to communicate this in a way that--to bring up the point from my previous post--I can't see him being able to do with any other medium. Because of how the graphic novel works, you are able to digest all of the information--the various silent panels as well as the middle, verbalized moments--in one glance. For sure, you will pause on a single panel for a closer look, but at the same time all the rest of this information is also coming at you. A novelist wouldn't be able to do that: she would have to toggle from one scene to another as we move down the page. Here, Mazzucchelli is able collapse time, in a way: to give us a sense of these various moments making up the life of a person, at a single go. It's almost like watching a musical score, but in pictures.

Okay, that's enough of me complimenting this guy. My next post is going to be more critical.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Color and Alternate Reality in Asterios Polyp

Building on Trithemius's well-made points regarding visual design of characters is Mazzuchelli's Asterios Polyp, I'd like to focus on color. One chapter in AP is dedicated to an alternate reality, a sequence set off in a different mode through use of color. About three quarters through the book, Polyp the architect is depicted encountering a three-headed dog (an obvious Cerberus reference) in front of a subway station. After briefly petting this 20th century Cerberus (one of whose heads is a poodle head), Polyp descends into the subway station, which is flooded with water, creating a most Sygian impression. He gets off the train, then goes down again (Hades, one presumes) to encounter a vomiting woman, and then a set (chorus) of nattily dressed phantoms (including his parents, others), all emitting/exhaling breath/spirit/geist/whatever from their mouths. He interacts briefly with these phantoms, his own non-speech (depicted as vapor from his mouth) seems to assuage them enough to make them disappear, and Polyp enters a theater, where Aeschylus-ian drama (complete with masks) plays out on stage. This drama depicts a boy meets girl, they both have fun, girl falls/dies, boy sad drama. Then Hana's real-life impresario the choreographer (Willy Chimera, so-called by Polyp) comes in, to announce something to Polyp, summon Hana, and allow Polyp and Hana to depart from the underworld. Hana doesn't make it up; Polyp is left bereft.

First thing to point out here: almost the entire thing is depicted in the purple tone printmakers and comix artists have used for markups. The first thing that occurred to me here was to recall how Gary Panter used the same technique for many of his comics. The effect of the single color print here is, first, to set this chapter aside from everything else. Is it a dream? Is it the narrator (Polyp's dead twin brother) speaking to us more directly? Is it an alternate reality of some non-dream kind? There is no saying. But the color tells us this is separate from the rest of the story. Second, this color can be taken as a very specific reference to Gary Panter's depictions of hellish futurescapes. This is a dystopian purple, through reference to Panter. I could be very wrong about this.

Next post will be on references to Los Bros Hernandez in this sucker.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Poem for your day

I stole this off of Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac website. I don't claim to have any connection with the group of people being described here. I used to live in the city, but far away from this part of town. But I just love this poem.

Maybe I can justify it by saying that it is in honor of the Phils clinching the division yesterday.

Stadium Traffic
by Daniel Donaghy

You're on your way home
when a thousand cars
pour onto Broad Street:
the ball game's over.
No one's going anywhere soon.
It's mid-July: eighty and humid.
You smell like all the crappies in the Delaware,
wear the ache of dock crates in your back.
Your buddy lost two fingers tonight
to a jigsaw: boss said go home early,
stay late tomorrow night.
These people don't appreciate
what they have: time to go to ball games.
You get out among blaring horns
and hustlers hawking T-shirts,
walk the yellow lines like a tight rope,
arms out for balance,
all the way to the corner and back.
Broad Street still as a parking lot,
wound tight as a fist.
You pop the trunk, fish a beer
from your cooler, and pound it.
Back in your car, the radio's
recapping the game:
your team pulled one out
they would have blown last year.
You've blown the last year working
nights while your lady works days.
Night work means bad lighting,
and you've had enough close calls.
You've had enough overtime.
You've had enough.
Something has to give.
Somewhere in the distance a dog
is barking, a husband is coming home.