09 December 2008

I'm walkin, yes indeed.....

There's a nice book-review in the Washington Post of a new book called The Lost Art of Walking. Walking is nature's antidote to depression, and if you're not depressed then it's one of the greatest ways to meditate to pure relaxation. There's a story, I don't know if it's in the book or not, of a man who decided to commit suicide, but he didn't want to do it near home. He walked out several miles into the desert in Southern California, and when he got to his final destination, he felt so good and balanced from the walk, he decided not to go through with it. When I'm in the groove, I usually walk about 5 miles a day, but my record is about 12 miles in a day.

If I remember correctly, it was Nietzsche who said that all great thoughts are conceived while walking. The list of writers who were great walkers is a long one, with Thoreau maybe the most famous.....

30 November 2008

mike leigh's naked (that's possessive, not a contraction)

I've been meaning to write something about Mike Leigh's 1993 film called Naked for some time now. Probably about 12 years or so. To this day it was the most profound theater-going experience I've ever had in my life. It showed me the anti-Hollywood, something real, not aimed at producing some sort of Brave New World feel-good paralysis. 

But I'll save the writing for the article itself. If you haven't seen the film, hold on, because it ain't easy to watch but it's one of the most powerful experiences you may ever have.

14 November 2008

the enigma of eggleston

The above photograph of the tricycle graced the cover of one of William Eggleston's books of photographs and has become one of his most iconic images. The obvious question is, why? It seems so overwhelmingly mundane, and if the focus or the framing or perspective were a bit off, it would likely be something in any old family album from the 60s or 70s. So are we just being duped into thinking it's high art? To tell you the truth, I don't know. I like looking at the photograph, although I would have a hell of a lot of trouble convincing almost anyone that it is "important" or "significant" if I had to do so. (No career as an art critic ahead of me for obvious reasons). 

Did Eggleston meet John Szarkowski, the director of photography at the MOMA, and have a beer with him and develop an immediate and especially tight bond, thus securing Eggleston a place as an "important" photographer? I don't know. But the question that arises over and over again with his photos is how we can rate him as great but at the same time not excavate all the family albums sitting in trunks in attics in search of overlooked "masterpieces." I love his photos, but I must be missing out on so much other great work that was not taken by "serious" photographers. (And now we get into that boring, muddled Foucault bullshit about what an author is, etc). "Eggleston's intentions were different, blah blah blah."

This week's Nueva Jorker (17 Nov) has a nice little piece about Eggleston to coincide with his show at the Whitney.  I think I could probably take some of my old polaroids down to the Whitney and without even trying to be a con-man I could pass them off as Eggleston's and convince them to include them in the show. I don't mean this to sound like I'm taking a piss on Eggleston; I love his work. But the question is constantly looming, what makes one photograph a work of serious art that appears in the Whitney, and one photograph something that sits in a trunk in an attic for decades when in reality they are strikingly similar? 

I'm not saying all this to try to be obnoxious or flippant or to be libelous towards Eggleston, but I'm asking a serious question. What is the game that's going on with the elitism of art in general and photography in particular? Is Eggleston a great photographer because he plays the game of being an artist, like if he were to somehow come across this blog post he would have to say that I'm full of shit and that I simply don't understand, thus perpetuating the game? Or is every thoughtful snapshooting hobbyist on the same level as Eggleston even though he may spend the majority of his time raising his family rather than schmoozing with the elites of the art world? I don't know. The question nags at me. If you are the only one in a cult that challenges the internal dogmas of the cult, guess who gets kicked out of the cult. Then the rest can go on comfortably playing the game without anyone around to question the rules of the game. 

I just simply don't know.

11 November 2008

mitchell, or, the writer

It's as if Joseph Mitchell had a list of all the things that I would be interested in when I grew up, and he wrote about everything on the list before I was born. There they were for me, published in "Up in the Old Hotel," a collection of his writings from the New Yorker. Rats in NYC, tramps and eccentrics, rivermen, the whole spectrum. 

I read most of these when they came out in book-form in 1992, and they were what made me subscribe to the New Yorker (sometimes lovingly described in this blog and the Nueva Jorker) which I've subscribed to almost continually since then. Now I'm rereading them, and they are just as relevant and vibrant and funny and deep as when I first picked up the book 16 years ago. I haven't reread "Joe Gould's Secret" yet, because I remember how good it was, how it tears you apart, so I want to save that for a time when I'm clear headed and with enough time to read it straight through uninterrupted. 

Inevitably, future generations will have a nostalgia for our time when looking back on us. For me, my own nostalgia comes out strong when I think about Mitchell writing away in the pre- and post-war era. I would have liked to have had a desk adjacent to his.

19 October 2008

stop punching those keys, jack

There's a nice profile of the poet Gary Snyder in this week's Nueva Jorker (20 Oct). I don't have a huge affection for those who came to be known as the Beats, although I like some of it. I always put off reading Gary Snyder because of guilt by association. The profile points out that he himself was somewhat upset about this association, and annoyed at Kerouac (although annoyed in the ever so precise and peaceful way that someone who studied Zen can be annoyed), and in reality there wasn't a whole hell of a lot that they had in common other than some days of friendship spent together, and a notorious day of climbing a hill which Kerouac wrote about, only thinly disguising Snyder.

I've always mistrusted the accuracy of labels on literary movements that are invented after the fact for our convenience (or, for example, the comically short-sighted way Pound came up with the name Modernism). Sartre and Camus as existentialists, for example. They were different enough to have a fued and break off their friendship, so there may have been a trend or some similarities, but to group them together is just laziness. 

So I'm looking forward to reading some Snyder. I have an intuition that he may be similar to A. R. Ammons, although I have serious doubts whether anyone can outverse Ammons, one of the most pleasurable poets I've ever read. We shall see.

14 October 2008

youth or consequences

In the 20 Oct issue of The Nueva Jorker, there is an article by Malcom Gladwell about our propensity to think of young prodigies as the epitome of talent, whereas their elderly counterparts just got lucky. "After 17 novels and no success, you're bound to get one right." Thus goes the thought process. But Gladwell points out that there are two distinctly different ways to achieve greatness in art. Instinct and perseverance. Robert Frost, maybe the best known and loved American poet, didn't publish his first book of poetry until he was 40, as just one example of the perseverance path. 

This common misconception may be the reason why Hollywood, for example, worships youth and mistrusts maturity. Screenwriters who have children have been known to make sure during phone conversations with execs that there are absolutely no screams or crying in the background, which may prompt the exec to ask exactly how old the writer is, and thereby blow his or her cover.

I think that if someone is incredibly talented AND young, it is just that much more impressive, so we tend to steer towards youth in order to satisfy our need to believe in something which is nearly unbelievable. 

Of course, the only thing not mentioned is the path that most people take, that of working steadily, gaining small successes here and there, continuing work and improving, and then coming out with a masterpiece in middle-age which was built upon what you have learned as you go along. 

07 October 2008

the debates

Listening to debates, I always think of this great poem by e.e. cummings (don't worry, easy and fun to read cummings, not infuriating cummings):

the way to hump a cow is not
to get yourself a stool
but draw a line around the spot
and call if beautifool

to multiply because and why
dividing thens by nows
and adding and (i understand)
is hows to hump a cows

the way to hump a cow is not
to elevate your tool
but drop a penny in the slot
and bellow like a bool

to lay a wreath from ancient greath
on insulated brows
(while tossing boms at uncle toms)
is hows to hump a cows

the way to hump a cow is not
to push and then to pull
but practicing the art of swot
to preach the golden rull

to vote for me (all decent mem
and wonens will allows
which if they don't to hell with them)
is hows to hump a cows

05 October 2008

patronymic icelandic

(No, that's not Latin in the title of this post).

All surnames in Iceland, to this day, are made up of the name of your father plus the suffix "son" or "dottir" depending on your sex. This is according to Rebecca Solnit's Harper's article (Oct) about her trip to Iceland. The implications of this seem rather far-reaching. 

Imagine if John F. Kennedy's son had survived and run for president under the name John Johnson. Not quite the same punch as John Kennedy Jr. Plus it increases, especially in a country with 1/1000th the population of the United States, accidental incest, although there must be safeguards, if nothing other than you can know a much higher percentage of families in the country because there are so many fewer families. But with the surname changing with every generation, it seems like it would be much more difficult to track which ancestors were yours, although I'd probably have to take a trip to Salt Lake City to confirm this suspicion. It might actually make it easier because of the domino like connectedness of all the names.

Some of the greatest and most overlooked works of world literature are the Icelandic Sagas which were written from about 1100 to about the time of Chaucer, 1400 or thereabouts. I've heard particularly great things about Njal's Saga, but have yet to read it. 

As languages go, Icelandic is one of the most hermetically sealed languages, mostly due to geography, of course. Northern Englanders who have more of an Old Norse pronunciation and vocabulary than Londoners have actually gone to Iceland and used what they consider to be antiquated English words and have been understood in Iceland by people who don't speak English.

04 October 2008

apocryphal wolfe

I'm reading the Kandy Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby, a collection of Tom Wolfe's journalism. I thought I had successfully unearthed a good example of Harold Bloom's idea of the anxiety of influence in the title of said work.  Bloom's theory, simplified, is a writer imitating another writer out of admiration, but changing it sufficiently so that he would "make it his own," so to speak. So I poked around, looking for what I thought would be the work that Wolfe was imitating (to make sure that it actually predated the work in question, making influence a possibility), and I found out not only that it was written after the work in question, but it was written in fact by Wolfe himself, The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, and not Ken Keasy, who the work was about, and not by. So much for catching Wolfe red-handed.

03 October 2008

mailer's letters

There's a piece in this week's Nueva Jorker (6 Oct), a printing of select letters from Norman Mailer. Reading letters from writers that were not intended for you is pure literary voyeurism. I eat it up. Of course you must not let the sudden rush of wind blow off your skeptic hat. 

Writers, especially colossal egos like Mailer, write everything with the knowledge that it may one day be read. This, of course, tends to detract from the intimacy if the letter is actually written to you. I haven't dived in yet, but these types of letters are always a pleasure read. Even if you see posturing, and I think I will with Mailer's letters, it reveals a great deal, if only the fact you sometimes need to shade your eyes from a writer's narcissism. 

Despite it being Mailer's attempt to outdo Capote, The Executioner's Song is one of the greatest pieces of extended journalism ever written, so all the dissing above shouldn't detract from his great abilities as a journalist.

(Later). Finished reading them. There is a surprising candidness about them, but they do not stray far at all from Mailer's persona, that of the rugged in-your-face manly-man wants-to-be worshipped character. Mailer is an interesting study. On the one hand, he wanted to be considered a great novelist and "artist," but on the other hand he never had that detached meditativeness of the stereotypical artist. He would (try to) walk the line between worldliness and tormented talent, but the scale leans heavily towards worldliness, and the artist part of his was more a desire of his than a reality.