Monday, July 22, 2013

Ghosts and Machines

One of my favorite party stunts is to corner unsuspecting guests and "explain" the 1980s cult classic Goonies to them. In order to do this, you need to start with One-Eyed Willy, the main synechdoche of whom in the movie is a penis-shaped key that our hero and future Samwise Gamgee finds in his parents' attic, and then carries around with him through the long, dark, moist, weedy and dangerous tunnels that apparently exist under most pacific northwestern small towns. Queue the comically-repressing family of matriarch and mama-whipped sons; queue underground misunderstandings that occasionally end in a kiss. Queue most importantly Sloth, whose forehead is about as phallic as foreheads come outside of the Star Trek universe, and whose homosocial bravura leads to one of the greatest metaphor for pre-teen orgasm ever put to film: a fully rigged Spanish galleon exploding out of the side of a mountain...At which point whomever I'm talking to has probably started inching slowly towards the door.

Jon Negroni's Pixar Theory is superior to mine in every way; it is also different, in that it does not try to find a meaning behind the details, characters and events in the Pixar universe. On the contrary, one of the most fascinating things about Negroni's theory (to me at least) is how it continually, almost perversely resists this drive. In this way it is both perfect, and strangely innocent - like a reading of the New Testament that traces every use of fish imagery, but without asking itself why fish might have mattered to Jesus, or the writer of the New Testament, or even us.

The next logical step for someone delighted by something like this would naturally be to ask "But why?" - except, of course, that the question has already been answered, by the delight. "Only connect," said Forrester; but what was an ethics in the early 20th century becomes, in the 21st, something both more and less. A pragmatics, let's say, meaning a way to do things: connect this to that and you will receive pleasure. And because pleasure is itself an end, don't worry about thinking about why you're doing what you're doing.

God knows this is not a criticism. Okay, that's not true: it is a criticism. Finishing Negroni's article, I found myself scrolling down, down, searching for that last cathartic paragraph that explained why the connectedness of a particular aesthetic world should interest me. Because it reflects and "proves" (the only way art proves anything) the connectedness of the actual world? Or because it shows us how shrewdly Pixar (following, let's see, Marvel, Nintendo, Lucasfilm, and pretty much every other genius popular behemoth of the last twenty years) has learned to manipulate and extend our innately human desire to join discreet entities into superbeings? Or maybe the meaning is "love", which Negroni mentions with an audacity that reminds me of Simone Weil's "The Iliad as a Poem of Force", but which also emits the kitschy sproing of flowers pulled from a magician's hat.

Well, every physics both rejects and implicitly provokes a metaphysics, which is why I find myself thinking above all, as I read this piece, about Negroni's three suggestive categories: monsters, animals, and machines. Suggestive, as in "hey, that's cool that the many different characters that we see in these different movies can really be reduced to three basic categories, which makes me think that the universe is not just ordered but basically understandable. So, by reading about these categories I must be on my way to understanding something, right?"

The German writer Heinrich Kleist has this ur-text about marionettes, much cited but still very useful. It is, to my mind at least, essentially an essay about mastery and innocence - more specifically, about the way that an art that has become bored of its own ability has to then discover or manufacture a new set of limitations, a new way to be bad. In other words, art is not a matter of being objectively awesome of something - it's a matter of creating a theater in which people can watch you going from "no way" to "wow!" - of turning the grass of adversity (reality, as Goethe said, or "That which resists us") into the hay of art. Puppets are great at this, since what we love when we watch a puppet show (or - and here we come to the germane aspect of the article - a cartoon, a piece of artistic technology) is the way that puppeteers make this clumsy little doll remind us of something real - even, if the artist is very good, of ourselves.

Pixar has always been good at this, as you might expect of a company that essentially based its appeal on overcoming something people thought could never be overcome - that is, the limits inherent in using computers (the most artificial tool around) to try and depict the natural world (presumably, the most real thing one can dry and represent). People probably don't remember this, but the question of realism is one that the studio grappled with from its very beginnings. Sure, they could figure things out quickly, but how could machines create a realistic leaf, or more importantly capture that je ne sais quoi of realistic movement that a hand-drawing animator could? The assumption - the dogma, really - was that they couldn't. There was no way. Art was something that only the human hand could make. Reality was our province, ours to imitate and evoke.

Except that, lo and behold, the copying of the real world turned out to be exactly what Pixar was best at. First there was Woody (so close to an actual marionette that the Kleist estate probably should have sued); then water; then Sully's fur; then superheroes; then red hair, and so on. Each movie a Columbus-level rediscovery of reality in this medium that was supposed to be so cold but turned out to be, mysteriously, full of exactly the "love" that Negroni ascribes to it. The power to connect things, in other words, be they monster, animal, or machine - to make them all, essentially, look like us. So that dearest human emotion turns out to be, not generosity, but defense: a desire to domesticate and humanize the strange, inanimate, or bestial world. A desire so powerful that, so far at least, nothing has been able to resist it.

The one exception to this has turned out to be us, of course. Humans are notoriously tricky to make look real - to "render," as the terminology has it. Which is why I think both we and Pixar itself need Negroni's categories. An alibi-seeking species, we disguise our rapacious hunger for reality under myths of the status-quo: the world is all alive, a giant living room, and best of all it loves us back. Love, the Pixar kind of love at least, is beautiful. It is also powerful - so powerful a technology in fact that it can make everything, from the monsters under our bed to a streetlight to an ant, into something that reminds us of ourselves.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Fattest Armor

Skinny poets last forever, but fat poets last only as long as the world  - just ask Joseph Brodsky. With his blue eyes and impeccable deadpan (which sounds in Russian like nothing else but in English like John Shade) he did not invent, but almost certainly did extend the role of the poet as tourist.

Poets have always been tourists, of course, but Brodsky made the pose cool or rather interesting: productive, at least of poetry. His best poems are basically just him walking around looking at stuff, and his best lines a combination of super-retweetable aphorisms and typically Russian mini-conversations with things that most people would assume to be voiceless - things like salt-shakers, picnic tables, beaches. Here, for example, from Lullaby of Cape Cod:

"A giant clock on a brick tower
rattles its scissors. The face is drenched with sweat.
The streetlamps glisten in the stifling weather,
formally spaced,
like white shirt buttons open to the waist."

(translation by Anthony Hecht and probably Brodsky himself too - see Daniel Weissbort's whiny but illuminating journal of a translator, From Russia with Love)

Now maybe it's the summer, which is after all a great season for walking around and looking at things, and then kind of transforming those things into other things or just picking them up and putting them in your pocket, but I love this kind of stuff. It's the Euro of poetry: a terminally uncool super-currency that lacks in specifics but nonetheless opens everything up, at least for a little while. Its ethics are pragmatic, which is boring but at least honest: what it promises is that everything can be interesting, the same way that the American Dream promises that everyone can be rich. I have a sense that it is doomed, not just because its various CEOs (some of my favorites: Derek Walcott, Les Murray, Seamus Heaney) have strip-mined their sources, but because there is a point where plentitude itself becomes a ponzi scheme and we have to blow the whole thing up. Why do we have to blow the whole thing up? I don't know. Maybe because you can only offer band-aids for so long until people start wanting a Rimbaud to come in and reinvent the universe. Maybe because we just have to.


As a Petersburger, meaning as a native of a city that was created, Brodsky had an intuitive grasp of apocalype. Things had a beginning, and we can remember that beginning therefore they would have an end, and we will see it. Here he is talking to Solomon Volkov:

"Once Susan Sontag said that a person's first reaction in the face of a catastrophe is basically to ask, 'Where did the mistake occur here? What should have been done to take this situation in hand? So that it doesn't happen again?' But there is another, alternate behavior, she says: to let the tragedy steamroll you, to let it crush you. As the Poles say, 'to lie down under it.' If you ever do manage to get back on your feet after that, then you rise up a different person. The phoenix principle, if you like." (Conversations with Joseph Brodsky, p. 45)

Brodsky's calm in the face of disaster helps explain his fatness, I think - explain and excuse it, since there's a subtle but important difference between Nero fiddling and the Wandering Jew. Both men know they're going down, both are slightly detached from the disaster going on around/within them; but the WJ has his eyes open. He understands himself as a witness, and the particular end really just one more version of a thing that has been happening over and over again, as it should. Recently I was arguing with a couple of Russian friends about this. I said that the same thing happened in the US, and that if you squinted you could still see the blue and grey uniforms on TV commentators and supreme court justices - but Svetlana stuck a finger down into the air between us as it were a gigantic cauldron she was stirring. History for Americans moves around, but up too, she said. A spiral. But in Russia it is only round and round.

One good thing about being strapped to a wheel of course is that it allows you to shake hands with your predecessors - in Brodsky's case, with the great amor fatist Alexander Pushkin. For me, Pushkin is the key to Brodsky - not to understanding him (Brodsky is not the kind of poet you have to "understand"), but to liking him. Read on its own, Lullaby of Cape Cod is good, but read as a sequel or fourth season to Eugene Onegin or the Journey to Arzrum it starts to feel like necromancy. It's like, Brodsky's saying "Watch me be Pushkin for a few minutes, meaning watch me try and reconcile myself to the brevity/limitedness of life by throwing language at everything. Because I'm honest, and because I'm a poet, it will not stick everywhere - it will not even stick in the places it did before, and this will be why watching me is worth your while, since by doing so you'll get some tips on which parts of the world are still poetic and thrilling and which parts have been exhausted for now."

The "for now" is an important part of it. In his brilliant biopic of Brodsky, the animator of genius Andrei Khrzhanovsky reminds us of the advantages a city dweller has when it comes to remembering: namely, that with a city, you can see the same relatively small space change, age, disappear, be reborn, in a way that, ok, may be possible for someone who grows up on a farm but is not really possible for someone who grows up all over the place. I have literally not seen the continents, let alone countries, I lived on between the ages of six and fourteen since I left them. So Brodsky's preference for time over space possesses a certain... fascination for me. Actually, it makes me jealous and a little suspicious of his "exile" - for is it really possible to be an exile when you consider the entire earth to be a single huge ship sailing through time? Or is it only possible then?

To put this another way: Oh America! Oh Olson, with his "I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America" - as if spelling it in Poundian caps makes ANY DIFFERENCE! I can hear Brodsky chuckling at our insistence that time needs to be dealt with only in its congealed form (like believing in air conditioners but not electricity). Maybe that's why we're so lonely, and so communal - for lacking any handshake with ancestors we cuddle in the boat, anxious for the brown-eyed handsome man to come and make experience not important any more, and the skinny man therefore king.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Cordelia - with Cats Now!

Imagine, if you will, that cultural history is neither progress nor regress but a sort of food court, in which the stories of our lives are played out and then resampled like so many Tiffany singles. Cats do this all the time. With front paw extended and head bowed for example our tubby Maine coon appears to be a natural courtier; but look closer and you'll see that he has really only refined the Friar Tuckishness of his even fatter older brother. Similarly Yuri, the youngest, takes the natural jitter of the skinny black cat about as far into art nouveau as one can go without lapsing into parody (which happens anyway, cats being hilarious). So watching all three together, we make a momentous and inarguable discovery: as cats age, they move back in time through the history of English literature.

Which brings us, naturally, to Cordelia. As seen "by herself" she's a riddle: a wormhole whose silence threatens to knock her play out of its tenuous psychological realism and into the allegorical strangeness of a Saturday morning cartoon. But then what if we don't see her by herself? What if, instead, we put her next to Jonah, and see the ways that the two of them get along, or rather don't, since for all their love and resemblance siblings are put on this earth for one reason and one reason only: to fight? 

Also stick up for one another, which is what I think Cordelia must be doing with her silence. Think about it: for however many hundreds of years, the Biblical prophets called out to a gradually-less-communicative God. Where had he gone? And why, when he reappeared, did he answer their very understandable questions with weird tasks and enigmas, instead of just coming out and addressing the problem? Get eaten by a whale! Spend a year in the desert! So that by the time we get to the Prophets (or parodies of prophets, which is what the book of Jonah really is), God has become something like a cross between a game show host and what I can only assume is the dashingly-dominant male character in 50 Shades of Gray. 

Sadism like this grinds us - and by "us" I mean all of us, "the prophets," or, if I can be slightly less self-aggrandizing, "those who would speak" - into a mixture of mealy obedience and gravelly Rebellion - which works for a while, I guess, except that really, don't you ever want to teach God a lesson?  Cordelia does, which is at least one of the reasons why she stops speaking - not because she doesn't love her father, but because she wants to teach him, and by teaching him turn the tables, and by turning the tables, presumably, turn the story, turn the world itself away from Simone Weil's famous wrathscape into a place so empty and meaningless that compassion has no choice but to seep in, as if following a sort of emotional/spiritual Second Law of Thermodynamics (and then writing this, I see that the understory here is basically Antigone's: when kings become unbearable, you appeal to the gods. When the gods are unbearable, bear them. See A Simple Heart, Breaking the Waves, maybe The Royal Tannenbaums).

Does it work? Absolutely not. She doesn't fix anything. Actually, she breaks the world. I mean that: shake a good paperback Lear and you can actually hear the pieces of world rattling around inside it like used matches that some asshole has decided to put back in an empty box. Because God always wins. And when we know that, I mean really know that,  our only recourse is to loose so big that His victory becomes embarrassing. Which is kind of the point, since in doing this, what such a stunt secretly hopes is that God can be embarrassed, and therefore change his mind (a hope that, depending on your own point of view may be heroic, or beautiful, or absurd).