Oh, my! What a cinch? Easy!
. . .

Cast a cold eye

A reader writes:

Now let's talk about Gregg Toland

OK, let's. You go first.

Me, I got nothin', except a couple of topics to research. Maybe you can help?

  1. At the height of his career as a cinematographer, having just finished Citizen Kane and The Little Foxes, Toland vanished into wartime work for four years. Then he returned to Hollywood and dropped dead, age 44.

    One artifact of his Navy tour is readily available: a peculiar attempt at propaganda with real good explosions. But I'm curious as to what else went on. Toland was a fast worker, an experimenter, and a control freak. What does a guy like that end up doing in the military?

  2. I wonder whether composition-in-depth can be funny.

    Toland had iffy results himself. He worked, uncredited, on Frank Borzage's sublime History Is Made at Night, but that's not exactly a laff riot. While I have a soft spot for both Come and Get It and Ball of Fire, neither click gracefully into place. It's possible that Edward Arnold was getting tired of his broken-hearty shtick; in Ball of Fire, Hawks bears some blame for flubbing the slapstick finale. But there's something more persistently off, some interference with the Hawksian rhythm.

    Even though claustrophobic clutter seems thematically appropriate to the later movie's sequestered scholars, Toland's style just might not meld with Hawks's gift for portraying social engagement. In a Hawks movie, the world's well sacrificed to the pleasure of two or three human beings noticing each other. In Toland's camera, the world stays with us.

    Maybe for a different type of comedy, though? Robert Altman and Jacques Tati are more detached, and use wider canvases. In the right hands (of a madman!) maybe deep-focus could attain Will Elder levels of disorientation?


The Little Foxes is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with Gibson Girls

Between his Naval discharge and his heart attack, Toland shot two films of interest to Renfrew Q. Hobblewort:

(1) Here's a man who came back from the wars, even if he fought them in Hollywood, to work with Walt Disney on "Song of the South", itself a cult film yet oft-neglected by filmistas, I think largely because of the whole Uncle Remus thing, arguments over which will permanently color (ahem, maybe a poor choice of words) the expeerience of watching it. But check out some of these frames.

(Toland visible or not in this production shot?)

It's been a while since I've seen the film (with good reason -- see below about distorted reality nightmares), but my recollection is this is the film where live action and animation had to be combined in greatest detail to date. Toland fans ought not neglect this one.

What my memory finds odd about the look of this movie isn't just the juxtaposition between the animated and live action, the black and white and color, but the sense of being in this otherworldly little box of parallel reality -- the sharp focus but limited horizon of the Uncle Remus soundstage. No wonder this movie gave me nightmares as a kid.

Parenthetically, and I don't want to open a digressive can of worms here, has anybody done a good study of Hollywood's process of learning how to photograph people of differing skin tones?

(2) "Best Years of Our Lives" is one of my favorite movies, and I don't think it's just because it's William Wyler. (Wyler, as I recall, lost his hearing while filming 'Memphis Belle', only partially recovered it, and made the sadsack unemployable bombardier the focus of the war-nightmares part of the movie. But I digress.) For all the rep "Best Years" has as an alternatingly sentimental and realistic (for the time) movie, there's a good part of the storytelling done visually.

"Kane" fans ought to all own a copy of this and take a look at it shot by shot. So hard to say how much of the editing and pacing and so forth came from where, but the framing and shots will be recognizable. Check out the ceilings in the scenes at Butch's; the lingering depth of focus on Hoagy Carmichael's fingers, just lingering in the foreground, while everything else goes on in the rear; the anti-Norman Rockwell composition of the scene with the Dana Andrews character coming home to his hell-hole home on the wrong side of (underneath) the tracks. Check out that pan over the drug store when he finds the best job he can get in the modernized place is as a soda-jerk. The from the floor shot of Fred in his hangover bed, where he wakes up not knowing where he is or who the pretty dame who put him to bed is, and compare it to Susan Alexander's suicide bed. Etcetera.

. . .

A Valentine from Ghana

Should We Call it off? Lately things have not been the way they use to be between us. The spark in our lives is not there any more. So...
From the collection of Emily Wright


Domenic Salotti writes:
Personally, I sent my female friends the attached photo below for Valentines Day, along with the following words:

"For all you do....
....to keep us warm and safe."

It received a good response. Ladies love ironic feminist iconography.

(By the way, this photo is from the North Korean educational book about the great communist revolutionary, anti-Japanese patriot, and original riot grrrl, Comrade Kim Jeong-Sook. From: The Great Mother - Comrade Kim Jeong-Sook © Chosun Democratic Peoples Republic, Pyongyang, Chosun Publishing, 1982.)
Cookin' and Fightin'

Another reader challenges:

I don't get it. Where's the irony?

That's a puzzler, all right. It's not in the icon, and it's not in the feminism, and I certainly hope it's not in the love. In the personally, maybe?

Domenic himself responds, adding a riddle of his own:

Considering that this picture was published within a book meant to educate North Koreans about a historical and patriotic figure, while encouraging young women to be brave in defence of their country against foreigners (Kim Jeong-Sook would be shooting against Japanese imperialists in this photo), but was used (by me) as a Valentine's Day card, I'd say that there was an incongruity between the original intent of the picture and the result. Taken out of context, this photo is ironic. (How's that?)

However, afterward, I realised that I had also sent this picture to friends in Peru, where such propaganda isn't so unusual (see: Shining Path) and realised that they could have missed the irony and taken my intentions to be literal (i.e. I was encouraging them to be a militant Maoist). Would that be ironic too?

Another Cupid writes:

This is all synchrodipitous - I saw that salutation thing the other night, right before I checked in here and saw the hearth defenders, and then tonight, well... credit the muse.

I'd better get over my doldrums and post a new entry soon I don't know how much more romance I can take.

. . .

Four Flies on Turbulent Velvet

For me, a still closer analogy is conversation, with its fragmenting veerings of immediate impulse, its easy changes of tone and subject, its relaxed or fraught (but inevitable) drops into silence, its emphasis on voice....
- Cholly Kokonino
Whatever sort of "practice" I've been casting about for and failing to define or assemble, I know it would have one important quality: it would be very directly dialogic. Yes, there'd be all sorts of byzantine qualifications to jury-rig just the right degree of privacy and publicity, to prevent the twin dangers of cold contractual individualism and co-dependent absorption. Still, this is key: I need other people dialogically. I need them far more than a writer needs his audience.
- Turbulent Velvet

Yes. We need them as a writer needs fellow writers.

Stories, poems, essays, and memoirs begin in response to more-or-less imagined peers. We haven't found a specific "genre of conversation" because every genre is a conversation, established and maintained by the conversational impulse.

And whereas most novelists, for example, find distraction from that originary impulse in the growing work itself, other writers linger by the source.

I know by experience this sort of nature that cannot bear vehement and laborious premeditation. If it doesn't go along gaily and freely, it goes nowhere worth going. We say of certain works that they smell of oil and the lamp, because of a certain harshness and roughness that labor imprints on productions in which it has a large part. But besides this, the anxiety to do well, and the tension of straining too intently on one's work, put the soul on the rack, break it, and make it impotent; as happens with water, which because of the very pressure of its violence and abundance cannot find a way out of an open bottle-neck.

It is no less peculiar to the kind of temperament I am speaking of, that it wants to be stimulated: not shaken and stung by such strong passions as Cassius' anger (for that emotion would be too violent); not shocked; but roused and warmed up by external, present, and accidental stimuli. If it goes along all by itself, it does nothing but drag and languish. Agitation is its very life and grace.

I have little control over myself and my moods. Chance has more power here than I. The occasion, the company, the very sound of my voice, draw more from my mind than I find in it when I sound it and use it by myself. Thus its speech is better than its writings, if there can be choice where there is no value.

- Michel de Montaigne
But because I do have some dim conception at the outset, one distantly related to what I am looking for, if I boldly make a start with that, my mind, even as my speech proceeds, under the necessity of finding an end for that beginning, will shape my first confused idea into complete clarity so that, to my amazement, understanding is arrived at as the sentence ends. I put in a few unarticulated sounds, dwell lengthily on the conjunctions, perhaps make use of apposition where it is not necessary, and have recourse to other tricks which will spin out my speech, all to gain time for the fabrication of my idea in the workshop of the mind. And in this process nothing helps me more than if my sister makes a move suggesting she wishes to interrupt; for such an attempt from outside to wrest speech from its grasp still further excites my already hard-worked mind and, like a general when circumstances press, its powers are raised a further degree.

The ideas in succession and the signs for them proceed side by side and the mental acts entailed by both converge. Speech then is not at all an impediment; it is not, as one might say, a brake on the mind but rather a second wheel running along parallel on the same axle. It is a quite different matter when the mind, before any utterance of speech, has completed its thought. For then it is left with the mere expression of that thought, and this business, far from exciting the mind, has, on the contrary, only a relaxing effect.

* * *

For it is not we who know things but pre-eminently a certain condition of ours which knows.

- Heinrich von Kleist

So if, like Montaigne, we find discussion "sweeter than any other action of our life," why bother to write? Why do some of us feel this impulse to rush ephemeral life, leaking and splashing from our cupped hands, into some more public and permanent form?

And why into this one? After a century of popular musics, motion pictures, talk shows, and improv comedy taped before a studio audience, why continue to transcribe or mimic half-remembered uncertainly-improved vivacity like poor old-timey storytellers, playwrights, philosophers, and critics had to?

Maybe we're talking talk a bit too up? Maybe talk has its own problems? I can't speak for Velvet or Montaigne, but the translator of the quoted essay, David Constantine, writes that Kleist "felt himself to be at odds, he felt embarrassed and uncomfortable, he was not understood. He was known as somebody who muttered to himself at the dinner table in company. People supposed, because of his difficulties in communication, that he must have some speech impediment. Ordinary dealings, ordinary efforts at communication, were bad enough; but to utter the truth of the heart, which he longed to do, this was a nightmare of impossibility."

My own delight in vigorous conversation, although sincere, isn't as reliable or benign as I tend to make it sound. It's true that I began publishing when an editor said I should "write that down and send it to the magazine." But I began writing shortly before, when I lost trust in the conversational sufficiency of lovers, friends, or jobmates. Or myself, for that matter.

Even when live discussion is available, sweetness may be lacking. After bouncing like Daffy, I deflate like Porkypine; I frequently absent myself from even the pleasantest parties. Aggressive engagement genuinely charms me, but even the hint of a slight or a dismissal makes me a sullen thin-skinned thin-lipped bore. And my own pleasure hardly guarantees pleasure for all. As Kleist notes elsewhere in his essay, "the faster speaker will always have an advantage"; what I consider a rewarding tussle between equals, others may consider the posturing of a loudmouthed bully.

Writing helps me suspend disbelief in persistent community. Writing helps me prolong the hope of shared pleasure and cooperative knowledge. If the intoxication's weaker, so is the hangover.

If T. V. and I are right that weblogging can approximate, more closely than any other form, our ideal of written conversation, then we can expect that weblogging will expose, more painfully than any other form, the costs and contradictions of that ideal.

But so long as we just keep reminding ourselves it doesn't matter, I guess it'll be OK. As the poet sang, or, more precisely, as the poet painted backwards in varnish on a hand-hammered and polished copper plate, relief-etched in acid, pressed in multiple pigments, hand-painted, and then sold a few copies of over the next three decades:

If thought is life
And strength & breath;
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.


"if...we find discussion 'sweeter than any other action of our life,' why bother to write?"
We find sex, most of us do - when we find it at all - sweeter than child-rearing, with its disciplines and responsibilities - most of us do. It's the stretch of temporal finitude toward the in. The long haul and its gambles. A conversation that lasts months has depth built-in.

Yes. I tried to hint at something similar in the "distraction" of the growing novel, but failed.

Jelinek is a character in a novella by Bernhard, who is a character in a short story by Walser, who is a character in a play by von Kleist.

That reminds me of another failing in my post. I'd hoped to mention the peculiar nature of Kleist's dialog, with virtually every line of every character repeated questioningly and confusedly by other characters, as if we lived in a world of half-deaf Robert Benchleys. (And so we do.) At first its style seems more accurately described by Constantine's unflattering portrait than by Kleist's smoothed ride, but really, I think, essay, plays, and biographical note all accurately indicate Kleist's attention to the process of dialog. Only those of us who find communication troublesome feel the need to trouble ourselves with its workings, but our analyses will naturally be tainted by our troubles. Most people are fine with just turning the ignition key and accelerating (usually into the garage door).

We have been honored by the gaze of Dr. Amrit Chadwallah.

. . .

Science News

A first time visitor to central northwest Missouri might wonder at the raccoons which lie quietly beside the highway.

Interestingly, they represent one of the state's great successes in cooperative diversity.

In thinly populated areas, the peripatetic raccoon, the only non-human resident with a thumb, relies on hitchhiking to reach fresh garbage-rummaging opportunities. Since raccoons are nocturnal creatures, they ride with amphetamine-aided truckers and drowse through the day. The plump little fellows you see are most likely sleeping off a bender.


"Burning raccoon" Why bother when you have a... oh never mind.

. . .

Whither le Tonsille?

When last heard from, our acquaintance Anselm Dovetonsils was Vaguely Artistic Person in Residence at the Vaguely Arts Centre of Coals-at-Newcastle, Vancouvre.

At least that's when I last heard from him by name. The other day, however, I received this anonymous note which seems to bear his touch. It smells like KFC.

I swore I'd remember you forever, that last day of class.
I didn't, though.
That is, until just now.

Does that count?

I also suspect he's behind this extensive Anselm Dovetonsils fan site. Because, really, who else would be willing to stand behind something like that? (Cf. The Proctology of Melancholy, all too forthcoming from Routlidge.)

As another indicator, the site's bills aren't being paid. Faced with looming storage costs, the editor has asked me to host a recent submission for him. He tells us:

...the attached email that covered 'All the Boy Arrested' promised me a low mortgage rate, Nigerian oil riches, free MP3s, a credit check, an America free from a meddling judiciary, that my PayPal account number would be fixed, and 100% organic priapic achievement of what might be record, not to say legendary, proportion and duration, if only I would read the enclosed work.

And he forwards a note from the artist:

The illustrations were found by entering the text of the relevant Dovetonsils poem into Microsoft Word's public domain clip art file; the 'most relevant' illustration returned was selected for loving glazing by yours truly.
-- HK.

Behold All the Boy Arrested: Sonnets To and From the Portuguese.


This Dovetonsiliana just in:

One year no lost
time accident

. . .

The Spasmodic Gap

(Written for The Valve)

In mid-nineteenth-century Great Britain, a group of left-wing lower-class poets publish autobiographical free verse epic dramas. Critics name them the Spasmodics.

It sounds like a Howard Waldrop premise. Could the Winter 2004 issue of Victorian Poetry be hoaxing us?

For a while, my answer was "Baby, I don't care." Editors Charles Laporte and Jason R. Rudy select well and structure novelistically. First, Herbert F. Tucker begins with a high overhead shot of exposition, a lightly satiric, lightly sympathetic tone to draw us into the story. Then, with admirably ethical opportunism, a series of contributors apply varied professional interests to bring out aspects of Spasmodic characters and times. Details and depth accumulate. Finally, Florence Saunders Boos, openly partisan, fully engaged, describes the movement's catastrophe, with heroes ambiguously vanquished and villains ambiguously triumphant, leaving the signature effect of alternate history: an exhilarating sense of possibility; a melancholy sense of possibility foreclosed.

When curiosity won, though, I found confirmation (if not texts) easily enough.

"But, by a certain gorgeousness or intricacy of language, by a scrupulous avoidance of the apparent commonplace in subject; by more or less elaborately hinted or expressed unorthodoxy in religion or philosophy; and, above all, by a neurotic sentimentalism which would be passion if it could, and, sometimes, is not absolutely far from it, though it is in constant danger of turning to the ridiculous or of tearing its own flimsiness to tatters by all these things and others they struggled to avoid the obvious and achieve poetic strangeness."
- George Saintsbury, Cambridge History of English and American Literature

How to excuse, or at least explain, my ignorance?

When I search my memory for verse of the 1840s and 1850s, I find Poe smouldering at one end of a long flat expanse of Tennyson, broken by a few Brownings, between the issueless extravagance of the late Romantics and the parentless extravagance of Swinburne and Whitman.

That bare spot is where the Spasmodic impulse once grew. Insofar as the Spasmodics could be construed as a group, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh is what's left of them. Kirstie Blair points out that, for once, reactionaries had reason to welcome a major work by a woman. Despite its provocations, Leigh's redemption ("Oh, wait did I say Art was the most important thing? Sorry, I meant Marriage.") provided a reassuring ending all round. Domestication was what the Spasmodics most infuriatingly lacked.

+ + +

"A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. [...] USE USE USE the process at all points, in any given poem always, always one perception must must must MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER!"
- Charles Olson, "Projectivist Verse"
"Words rhythmically combined affect the feelings of the poetic hearer or utterer in the same way as the fact they represent: and thus by a reflex action the fact is reproduced in the imagination" ... "Depend on it, whatever is to live on paper, must have lived in flesh and blood." ... "certain rhythms and measures are metaphors of ideas and feelings" ... "the word of Man made flesh and dwelling amongst us."
- Sydney Dobell
(quoted in "Rhythmic Intimacy, Spasmodic Epistemology" by Jason R. Rudy)

+ + +

Pace (not really) Ron Silliman, the School of Quietude sometimes wins. Not by being remembered, but by making sure its competitors are forgotten first. (Silliman, for example, seems as ignorant of Whitman's Spasmodic interests as I was.)

The literary canon, like other institutions, bases its authority on a set of fragile contingencies. And literary justice, like other justice, usually depends on a few outspoken individuals who refuse to let an injustice go. I'm not sure all English majors realize how unlikely their access to Melville or Dickinson really is. (Most of the creative writing MFAs I've met could certainly benefit by deeper meditation on the subject.) In my own lifetime, Zukofsky and the other Objectivists might have stayed out of reach if weren't for Robert Creeley.

John Keats barely made it through the gates into the immortality of persistent reprinting. Thirty years after his death, plenty of authorities still wished he hadn't and wanted to ensure that it didn't happen again.

+ + +

"Take yourself, and make eyes at it in the glass until you think it looks like Keats, or the 'Boy Chatterton.' Then take an infinite yearning to be a poet, and a profound conviction that you never can be one, and try to stifle the latter. This you will not be able to do."
- W. H. Mallock, "How to Make a Spasmodic Poem"
(quoted in "Glandular Omnism and Beyond" by Herbert F. Tucker)
"What a brute you were to tell me to read Keats's Letters... What harm he has done to English Poetry. [...] But what perplexity Keats Tennyson et id genus omne must occasion to young writers of the όπλίτης [hoplite] sort; yes & those d-d Elizabethan poets generally. Those who cannot read Gk shld read nothing but Milton & parts of Wordsworth: the state should see to it...."
- Matthew Arnold to Arthur Hugh Clough, 1848
(partially quoted in "Victorian Culture Wars" by Antony H. Harrison)

+ + +

In this case was literary injustice done?

It depends. (See, that's what sucks about justice.)

Like George Saintsbury, the Victorian Poetry essayists admit more or less kindly that the core Spasmodic works aren't great. Although I've only found excerpts so far, they certainly don't seem to my own taste.

But tastes differ. I also dislike the Beats, hippie shamans, declaimed celebrations of groupthink, and most attempts at lyric confession. That hasn't stripped them from bookstores and libraries.

And tastes change. The Spasmodics don't sound more embarrassing than the self-pitying concept albums of 1970s AOR. Or more embarrassing than I was back then, a teenage cracker in an isolated farming town writing imitations of John Berryman and arguing the relative merits of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson with my best friend, soon to become a born-again journalism major. A year or two later, for a few months during an alcoholic nervous breakdown, I even liked Charles Bukowski. For me, as for so many overweeners, Keats's defiant blush has always been a beacon.

At the very least, if I'd heard of them, my college band would have been named the New Spasmodics.

Most pertinently, authors can change if they're given the chance. Victorian Poetry essayists describe most Spasmodic targets as first volumes from beginning writers, not outrageously weaker than the first volumes from their better remembered peers, and usually more interesting than any volumes from their most hostile enemies. If there was a Spasmodic "school", it was shut down before the students matriculated. I was able to read this academic journal as alternate history partly because it so often emphasizes their lost potential.

Their pop-scientific poetics anticipated twentieth century avant-gardes. Their class diversity anticipated the GI-Billed New American Poetry. Their sprawling yet motionless epics of young writers struggling to produce sprawling epics anticipated the Thomas Wolfe subtype of the Great American Novel. Their shameless invocation of neuraesthenia as muse should have interested Eliot and the poet-professor crowd. That poor sap R. H. Horne anticipated the New Directions paperback with his one-farthing-cheap Orion. The young Alexander Smith was advised to produce one long poem rather than a collection of short ones, and that's a fairly early example of narrative trumping lyric.

Smith chose to embed his lyrics in an autobiographical fantasy epic drama, since that's what everyone else seemed to be doing. And it did indeed attract attention. It got him and his advisor whacked by viciously conservative William Edmondstoune Aytoun, first from the sniper tower of Blackwood's, and then in a book-length parody, Firmilian.

"Other 'spasmodic' impulses migrated into fiction, most conspicuously the 'sensation fiction' of the 1860s, but the shadow-movement's preoccupations with romantic populism, formal experimentation, and unguarded honesty endured. Aytoun played successfully to a receptive claque, but subsequent generations have largely consigned his sensibilities to a literary and political backwater. Then as now, it was easier to be a clever critic than it was to write a memorable poem.

"More disspiriting were the enduring triumphs of the iron laws of class and education that Aytoun exploited. No acknowledged 'major' poet of Victorian Britain came from working- or lower-middle-class origins, and none of the 'spasmodists' is likely to gain more than token entry into any twenty-first-century anthologies. Even here, however, Dobell, Smith and the others might have found a measure of vindication in the vast palette of subsequent generations' preoccupations with despair, recovery, aberrance, marginality, and self-examination a palette they helped, in the face of withering critical abuse, to configure."

- Florence Saunders Boos, "'Spasm' and Class"

Snobs produce memorable satires and parodies because reactionaries depend on reaction. Without venom, their tongues go dry. Without a victim to strangle, they lie limp and tangled, a heap of parasitic ivy. Having deadened the nervous impulse that gave it life, even Aytoun's Firmilian vanished from collections: an Acme-brand hole slapped onto the cliff face, and then peeled off and thrown away.

+ + +

"The calm philosophy of poetry, in its addresses to the understanding and the domestic affections, now holds the ascendancy; but as the fresh and energetic spirit of the present age advances, a contest is certain to take place in the fields of Literature on the above questions. The sooner, therefore, the battle is fought out, the better; and to this end, the poetical antagonisms shall at once be brought into collision."
- Richard H. Horne, A New Spirit of the Age, 1844
(quoted in "Editorial Introduction: Spasmodic Poetry and Poetics" by Charles Laporte & Jason R. Rudy)
"... and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."
- Hunter S. Thompson, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas


i am still suspicious of a hoax.

Apparently, if you happen to have university library privileges and can get away from your job and family for a bit, you can see for yourself.

an elaborate hoax.
The word "hawk" begins in the air and ends with talon in the heart

'At's a good one, boss. Now I tell one: What's high in the middle and round on both ends?


Right! (I was gonna guess "E-40", myself.)

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .