Friday, July 30, 2010

Virtue Ethics and Taste

If you have any interest in ethics, morality, or philosophy, you should read this.  Excellent excellent stuff.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Journal 7.29.10

Thinking about the movie Tristram Shandy (A Cock And Bull Story) which I saw last night.  A darling of the humor cognoscenti, Steve Coogan, the movie’s star, has never done that much for me.  The Alan Partridge Show especially (the chief vehicle of his fame) I found obvious and mean.  But I in general dislike the new trend toward humor of embarrassment, the cringe-inducing Borat stuff.  (To me The Office, e.g, is at best 50% unwatchable.  I fast forward through all of Steve Carrell’s tedious mugging). 

Tristram Shandy, however, turned out to be excellent.  Realizing the book is both too large and various to readily submit to adaptation, the producers aimed instead for a translation.  The movie is a thing unto itself, but one related in aim and method to the book.  So, for example, thirty minutes in, the “movie” of the book (characters in eighteenth century garb acting out the story of the novel) essentially stops.  From then on, focus switches to the actors.  Their story dominates.  Coogan, the director, and the producers worry about how the film should end; they try to drum up money for a large-scale battle; debate the merits of doing a battle; consider having a love interest (eventually bringing in Gillian Anderson).  Coogan’s girlfriend shows up with their infant son and fatherhood—a big theme of the novel—is gone into.  Just as the book in many ways ends up a book about a book, so too the movie is movie about making movies.

It all sounds wearingly ‘post-modern,’ I know, but like the book, the movie’s disassembled, self-referential, endlessly digressive nature feels necessary--even exciting.  Both in their way try to tell a coherent story.  They aim towards meaning—they just can’t get there.  So, in the book, the world is too expansive, too chaotic, for Sterne to contain it within one story.  Thus the endless stops and restarts, the metastasizing plots—everything has to be fit in.  Every story needs another twenty to explain it.  But in all this excess, there’s joy, richness, a sense of overabundance, which keeps the reader more or less content.  (Not all readers.  Samuel Johnson famously hated it).  A ninety-minute can’t approach that same abundance, so humor becomes their approximation of joy.  And it is, generally, very funny (though in a dark dry British way).  Coogan, like Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, plays a caraicature of himself.   Vain, selfish and petty, he hovers on the edge of complete jerk-iness for most of the movie.  All sorts of excellent minor roles, as well—the aforementioned assistant, the simultaneously insecure and patronizing second lead (Uncle Toby), and, my favorite, a historical expert brought in to advise the crew on how to stage the battle of Namur, a shaggy gentle man whose rumpled sheepdog look belies a ferocious contempt for the tendency in modern film to get the details of their battles wrong.  (Cold Mountain comes in for some great savaging.)

  *  *  *

Slowing down on Vineland, another post-mod hallmark, though one whose digressions feel much less necessary.  Now deep into the backstory of a secondary character, which is both unfunny and tedious.  Interesting that in Vineland as in Lot 49 the central figure is a woman.  Not sure how well either’s ‘femaleness’ is rendered (having no way to compare) but my sense is: not very well.  Zoyd is by far the most interesting figure in Vineland.  What’s NOT that interesting is the super familiar badass female ninja woman, DL.  What is it with adolescent-ish men and ass-kicking women?  (Tarantino, Joss Wheeden, whoever writes all of Angelina Jolie’s crap-ass stuff….)  As soon as you start to build a story around the ability of someone to administer instant death via touch, you’re done.  Or so I feels….

 *  *  * 

To limit: my use of the word ‘interesting.’  One of the emptiest the language provides….

 *  *  *

Two TV shows that have become almost unwatchable: Entourage and So You Think You Can Dance.  The former has exhausted itself of stories; I think its time is up.  The latter has merely made terrible choices this season, both in its contestants and its format.  The cast now is filled with craftsmen but devoid of artists.  Everybody's young and bland, and their inabilities only register more sharply in proximity to the All-Stars.  Dispiriting stuff. 

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Journal 7.25.10

The Dead Weather - Die By The Drop

Since watching It Might Get Loud a few months ago, my wife has developed a mild obsession with Jack White.  His new band, The Dead Weather, played in LA last week at the Palladium.  We like to see at least one live band per year and so we ended up going out on a Wednesday night (crazy!), acting like we were both still in our twenties.

The music was fine, I thought, if unexceptional (over-distorted blues with a lot of attitude, songwriting highly variable, lead singer from The Kills who has kind of a nice Shirley Manson thing going) but the experience itself was, as they say, banging.  (I know: no one says that.)  Jack White plays drums, mostly, --a mistake, I think. His natural showmanship and charisma don't lend themselves to staying penned up at the back of the stage, and he ended up coming out from behind the drums a half-dozen times over the course of the night.  Generally these were the best moments.

Something new for me: many concertgoers holding up their smartphones, making live video recordings throughout the concert.  Looking down from the balcony we saw the many glowing screens held overhead, like the white tops of waves on the sea.  Next to me, during the encore, a girl wrote on her Facebook page.  The horror of always being connected....

* * * 

A realization I had rereading Crying of Lot 49: we as readers ARE Oedipa (its protagonist).  We are in exactly her situation.  We believe there is some hidden order undergirding what we experience but we can’t fully fathom it.  We can’t make the pieces all connect.  As a result we suspect, perhaps, that whatever order we are learning to apprehend is not truly there.  It has been concocted, made up as a kind of joke.  For her, the "order" is the private mail conspiracy and the joker is (may be) the man whose will she executes, Inveriarty (‘not true.’) For the reader, the joker is Pynchon himself.  The novel is either a map to the hidden order of the universe (as art tries to be, exposing the hidden girders, hinting at meanings we can’t fully appreciate) or a beautiful lie (Plato’s phrase)—a sham put in place to keep us amused, to help us pass the time.

Also now rereading Vineland (I have a tendency to keep starting new books without finishing old), whose softer tone I prefer I think to Lot 49.  Still paranoia, still the giant conspiracies, but they’re less ferocious and claustrophobic.   Lot 49 like being in a cell with the O2 being extracted slowly, mol by mol. 

I highly recommend The Quickening Maze (just finished).  Less so Laughter on the 23rd Floor.  Neil Simon, a master craftsman, does lack some…something.  I want Simon to be Norman Rockwell, someone both popular and profound, a popular artist whose popularity and seeming simplicity makes him an easy target for intellectuals who mistrust pleasure in their art.  But Simon doesn’t do that, at least not the Simon I’ve read.  More like a very very good TV writer.  What you see is what you get.  

Friday, July 16, 2010

Journal: 7.16.10

Summer in the Valley in July.  100 degrees among the strip malls.  Carl’s Jr, my wife’s boss says: that’s what the Valley is, at its heart.  In a way that’s true.  Supermarket has no chard for me today so I’ll use collard green instead.  I’ve been cooking insane amounts of chard recently.  Wife’s probably sick of it.  I’m probably sick of it.  But I cook it still.  Easy, delicious, goes with everything.  How will the collards work?  Probably not as well, but I have uncooked sausage left over from dinner last night, and they seem to pair well with greens.

Bink, newly shorn, is back to his old health.  After we got back from Houston in July he had some bowel issues; we ended up taking him to a Vet ER at one in the morning the day we got back.  (My wife described the situation to the nurse on the phone.  She said we didn’t need to take him in.  We took him in anyway.  Because that’s how we are, where BinkHealth goes).  After thirty minutes of having people probe his anal areas, he was pronounced okay.  Apparently pets can develop mild colitis when they’re in high-stress situations.  The four nights he’d spent being boarded seems to qualify.  Bink’s like his parents; he doesn’t do well with change, new environments, or other people (well, dogs).  Picking him up from the boarder I always think of the way my brother and I were when we were picked up from Camp.  He’s dirty, he’s too thin, and he’s exhausted.

An understandably disgruntled Bink has his hindparts tended.

A few days ago I had the startling realization that the (tele)play I’ve been working on is, of all things, Pynchonesque.   Pynchon meets Dante, maybe, but still (both are great makers of and would-be believers in systems).  Pynchon’s not an author I thought I admired.  Now, rereading Lot 49 for the third time, I grow ever more impressed.  Vineland next.  (I read it 10 years ago, but remember it only vaguely).  Should I attempt another assault on Gravity’s Rainbow?  The last one was repulsed with all malice.   We’ll see.  Point is, it’s a breakthrough: knowing where to go to learn to write the thing I’m writing.  My thing far less paranoid and ominous than Pynchon, but the overall sense of some massive hidden order undergirding what seems chaos, as well as the way in which all my characters can seem, in some ways, to be completely insane—in those, at least, they are the same.  A line somewhere involves someone commenting on the hero’s remarkable speed in going to the heart of another man’s madness.  Maybe what it’s about?  Everybody basically crazy, in amusing and frightening ways. 

Ordered about a dozen books in the last week.  Joined a book club which I’ll probably not attend (other people will be there).  The book being discussed is something I’ve never read, by Yukio Mishima.  Also checked out, from library, a number of books about animals.  I have this vague idea that all justifications in the end, in fiction, involve metaphor, and that many of those involve animals, their behavior.  In a letter I just wrote to agents I had this prolonged discussion of Emperor Penguins, comparing myself to them.  Going with my usual strategy (if it is that) for writing to strangers: be completely myself, bizarre and even frightening as that may come off.  Easier, in its way.  Has drawbacks, of course—no one I wrote has yet responded, for example (though I’m not sure how much of that is content, how much is my status as unknown, random, vagrant).  But it was this approach that convinced my wife to date me.   Well, that and my ferocious, penguin-like, good looks….

Monday, July 12, 2010


I have a love-strong dislike relationship with Charlie Rose.  Briefly: I wish he talked less and didn't constantly call attention to his own, often fairly shallow, understanding of the issues being discussed.  This clip doesn't doesn't really speak to what's frustrating about watching his show, but it's still pretty great.