I'm being looked over by...
. . .

The Plight and Troth of a Groove Artist

Critical discourse crowds around Romantic tales of the heroic artist, and don't think the artists don't notice. From a conversation between Jaime Hernandez & Zak Sally:

HERNANDEZ: Yeah, in the back of my head I'm thinking about where I stand in the world. Like is this stuff still worth doing? Is anybody listening any more? That kind of thing. I'm always thinking of that, but in the end I win. At the end I go, "Ah. I did the story I wanted to. Ha ha." And you gotta get that thick skin. 'Cause I've got years of ups and downs of people liking the comic when it's new, and then it's old, and it's useless you know, a lot of that's my paranoia, but it's sometimes nerve-wracking. But I just gotta keep my mouth shut. Keep working. Oh, I just gave away my secret.
I don't mean to be offensive. I just think it's a real talent.

SALLY: There's this band in the mid-to-late '90s era. They were great, they were from Washington, they were called Unwound. I was friends with some of them, and still friends with their drummer. They would keep putting out records, and with every record it would be great, but they'd sort of get less press and all that. And I just remember I was sitting down and having a beer and she was saying, "I don't know what's going on! We just busted our asses on this new record and we put it out, and I'm not hearing anything!" And I was like, "Ah, it's the Love and Rockets syndrome!" And she was like, "I hate that band!" And I said, "No!" After a while, if you keep being good, there's nothing interesting about that. You know what I mean? People are just like, "Oh, another Love and Rockets! It's great! The last one was great and it's been that way for twenty years, ho hum." Am I making sense here? Just in terms of what people get excited about; like, they would get excited if you started drawing stick figures.

HERNANDEZ: Yeah. I know what you mean. People have asked me in the past. They go, "so, have you ever thought of doing something different?" And I would say, "Well, what do you want me to do?" They'd go, "I don't know, you're the artist, you should reinvent yourself. You should reinvent yourself." I go, "What, but, I don't wanna be somebody else." I imagine that's what that means. Just like all of a sudden putting yourself in a different body or a different art class.

Groove artists can sometimes be redeemed for Serious Consideration by casting them into narratives of heroically-endured quasi-pathological quasi-religious compulsion. And sometimes not:

Don't press the gas and the brake at the same time, Hopey.
My brother Gilbert's a madman. Crumb's a madman. Their shit just spills out of their comics, because they have to do it or they will die. And I wish I had that, and I have the feeling I have very little of it. I just draw comics because I can, because I know how, or something, you know? Sometimes I feel that way. So that's a scary thought.

But one time I mentioned that to Gilbert, I said, "I wish I was a madman! A madman cartoonist!" And he goes, "Don't forget a lot of pain comes with those madmen. A lot of those guys are unhappy people." And I said "OK, OK. I'll just continue to do it the way I do it."

[...] And the anger helps.

SALLY: I got that.

HERNANDEZ: Well, see, there you go. And if it comes out in the work there's good anger and there's bad anger. But I think you can pull off the good anger. In other words, things still suck out there, I'm gonna show you how it can be done good. That's all I got to say.

. . .

Tuesday Weld Downdate!

Last night I listened to the commentary track on the UK DVD of Pretty Poison and was not surprised to hear that

  1. Weld and the director disagreed as to how her character should be played.
  2. The director (wrongly) believes he won the argument.


Also confirmed: The dull prologue and epilogue were added in fear that the public's intelligence might have been overestimated. And Anthony Perkins was a mensch.

Previously unguessed at: In those pre-wireless days, cramped location shooting led to our leads being miked through wires which ran up their clothing. Perkins's odd little hop and pirouette early in the matricidal sequence was motivated by his need to untangle the cord before walking back across the room.

. . .

When you were raised in a barn, Athena really means something.

. . .

Movie Comment: Michael Collins and The Wind that Shakes the Barley

The Irish Civil War was fought to decide between Julia Roberts and secular socialism. History tells us that Julia Roberts won the war but that, after the Republic was declared, Fianna Fáil drove the Church and capitalism from Irish shores.

. . .

Selected Poems of Luis de Góngora: A Bilingual Edition by John Dent-Young

Explicitly inadequate and all the more effective, like a sonnet about the inexpressibility of one's love.

(Picked up thanks to Jonathan Mayhew's admirably precise blurb.)

. . .

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Writers and Artists Who Made the National Lampoon Insanely Great
written and edited by Rick Meyerowitz

Rick Meyerowitz is not a writer and not an editor.

Although the quality of some reproductions made this a welcome supplement to my collection, it would be better to begin with Comic Book Artist #24. Or with a random set of 1970-1975 issues you'll get about the same ratio of Brilliant to Dead but replace gassy nostalgia by appropriately despair-inducing ads.

. . .

A Story by Laura Riding, Though Gently

In Delmar 8, editor Jeff Hamilton assembled eleven solid essays on Laura Riding's Though Gently and prefixed a gorgeously precise reprint of the book itself, the first since Riding and Graves hand-pressed 200 copies in 1930. Precision was called for: in Though Gently, Riding composes to the page, filling space with proverbs and poems as if for an almanac, her always disconcertingly intense focus somehow embodied in paper. It may be the damnedest single publication of her damned anti-career.

Because I like her stories and because I have a garden, here is "A Story" from page 16:

As originally printed, with a two-line poem appended

Because he spoke this time answerably the sibyl within this time answered him. Hereafter the place of the sibyl was less terrible to him and his love of her changed from doggedness to optimism. All goes well, he said to himself, and made his home near enough to be able to say that they lived together. The sibyl of course said nothing, letting him congratulate himself so long as he spoke answerably enough to deserve a margin of illusion. He made a garden round them. “This,” he would say to himself, “is our garden.” And the sibyl within did not contradict him so long as he fancied without guile. But he grew designful and persuasive. All his eloquence now went into husbandry; questioning was a mere instrumental rite. Then the sounds of his industry angered the sibyl. “Go away,” she said, “you are disturbing my silence.” He stood puzzled. “But what of the garden?” he asked. “A garden,” she answered, “is not a question. It is your silence, which differs from mine as not to ask differs from not to answer. You may leave off questioning me answerably, but you may not have it that I have no more to say because you give me no more to answer. You may not turn into a fact what is so far only a story.”

. . .

Bloo Guide Dublin

Best in-joke
In a shabby staging of a squalid crash-pad a table. On the table a fat old volume. In the volume a medical text of more or less the right period. Headlined on one open page the word "PARALYSIS" and heading both open pages "THE NEW METHOD CURE".
Best out-joke
From the top of Sandycove's Martello tower, if one hasn't broken one's specs, one views Howth Head a far better prose dúnad than those fucking "s"s.
Sharpest poke in the eye
From a distance, over Phoenix's pubic groves, the overwhelming phallusy of the Wellington Testimonial would make any decent person want to start writing Finnegans Wake.
Loudest poke in the eye
That waistcoat, that tie.
Loudest slap in the face
"The Holy Office" in the flip-off outa-here slammed-door flesh.
Most effective set design
A crop of resentment could hardly find richer loam than the imperial scale and opulance of the National Library's Reading Room.
Ordovico or viricordo
From Galway Now, April 2011, "One-Minute Happiness" by Niamh Morrin:
To pretend you feel happy imagine that you are Italian and try to use expressive hand gestures and speak faster.

. . .

The New Orpheus

"Here's a joke: Knock knock. Who's there? Barbara Manning. Barbara Manning who?"
- Barbara Manning

I bet Barbara Manning would get loads of attention if we could only somehow arrange for her to make a reunion tour.

. . .

Green Chimneys

What? No. No, the tree dies; nothing you can do about that. No, what we do's make sure the house don't burn down.

. . .

They Only Come Out at Twilight

"'Aristocracies of Thought': Social Class in the Early Folklore of Yeats and Hyde"
by Lawrence P. Morris, Irish Studies Review 18.3 (2010) 299-313

Me & Nu: Childhood at Coole by Anne Gregory, 1970

I spent much of my thirties fruitlessly attempting to write fiction, and one barren stake-in-the-ground concerned a folklorist (a smeared overdub of Douglas Hyde, William Butler Yeats, Alan Lomax, and Frederick Usher Jr.) who was fed an Americanized version of "The Demon Lover" without recognizing it as a murderous attack on himself.

Later the American side of that impulse found happier expression in "---king Elvis," but the Celtic side lay dormant. And I'm grateful now it did, since any effort of my own would have been made redundant by Lawrence Morris's fine essay.

Tracing sources and comparing more rigorous compilations, Morris demonstrates how Hyde and Yeats slanted and adulterated their selections to flatter their own precarious postures. Then, switching to speculative fiction, from Yeats's prize Dream that Has No Moral he extracts a moral pointed directly at (and below eye-level of) Yeats and Lady Gregory.

Morris naturally has no reason to mention American parallels. But you can imagine my delight when Lady Gregory's granddaughter began her memoir with:

"... And Brer Rabbit he lay low and said nuffin'..."

Grandma put down "Uncle Remus" in her lap, and laughed and laughed, tears poured down her face, and she dabbed at them with her pocket handkerchief.

Gregory's little book mashes Eloise into The Story of Babar. Insufferably spoiled brats Anne and Nu run riot upstairs, downstairs, and through the estate; Coole's owners and guests speak with impeccable diction while its staff and tenants say things like:

"Dat's right Miss Anne, keep him going sthrong. Ye're a great girl, God bless you."

The combination destabilizes in episodes from the War of Independence and the Civil War:

"Ah," he said, "Ye shouldn't have been there at all, Miss Anne, 'twas no place for ye. 'Twas De Valera speaking to some of his lads, and sure, they knew well they'd be better off on Coole land than outside. Well they know her Ladyship wouldn't let them be took on Coole land."

And attains Michael-O'Donoghue-worthy queasiness after Anne's mother is the sole survivor of an IRA kidnapping.

We told her that one of the men had said, "Tell Her Ladyship that we wouldn't hurt a hair of anyone in Her Ladyship's family," and we were rather horrified because we thought she was crying, but she said she had a cold coming and it always made her nose and eyes run very fast, so we were quite happy about the whole thing.

But I confess my favorite pages are those which indulge in that sport beloved by all ages, classes, and political parties, Yeats-mocking:

He wore a signet ring with an enormous stone in it on his little finger, and Nu and I used to giggle like mad, and say he expected everyone to kiss it, like the Pope. She and I used to copy his habit of running his fingers through the great lock of hair that fell forward over his forehead, and then hold out our hand with the imaginary ring, saying: "This ring is a holy ring; it has been in touch with my holy halo."
Some time after this W. B. Yeats wrote a poem for me alone, and again I wasn't entirely pleased to start with. I felt it was very doggerelly and not as romantic as I would have liked. [...] Years later Yeats broadcast some of his works on one of the first radio programmes from Belfast. He announced the next poem, saying it was dedicated to the granddaughter of his old friend Lady Gregory and that she had "hair like a cornfield in the sun." This time I was thrilled, and "Yellow Hair" sounded really rather splendid. I had a couple of boy friends staying and they were very impressed too.

Next morning there was an envelope by my plate, in it was a poem "To Anne G. ...after WBY."

I was thrilled. Boy friend coming up to scratch at last, I thought. What Bliss! I opened the envelope, took out the poem and read:

If I was alone on an island,
And only Anne with me there,
I'd make myself cushions and bolsters,
By stuffing her skin with her hair.

. . .

Imagining Minds: The Neuro-Aesthetics of Austen, Eliot, and Hardy
by Kay Young, Ohio State, 2010

Young earns her blurbs: you could hardly find a purer product of citational discipline then this compare-and-compare of three canonical novelists, several well-established academic critics, and snippets from a tall stack of popular cognitive science and psychology books but mostly William James assembled with affable deafness to any intrastack squabbling. Nor do pop-explicators and novelists ever disagree; nor does any reader find any novel disagreeable.

"It really makes no difference what it is that is to be proved by such means." Still, by the end, I was convinced that nineteenth-century English fiction writers and recent Anglo-American purveyors of generalized anecdotes share many notions of human nature.

Suggested follow-ups:


The Man Who Mistook His Dad For The Law: And Other Bad Calls
rather lacanic

. . .

"An Attentional Theory of Continuity Editing" by Tim J. Smith, dissertation (2005)

"Edit Blindness: The relationship between attention and global change blindness in dynamic scenes" by Tim J. Smith & John M. Henderson, Journal of Eye Movement Research (2008)

"Film, Narrative, and Cognitive Neuroscience" by Jeffrey M. Zacks & Joseph P. Magliano,
from Art & the Senses, ed. D. P. Melcher and F. Bacci (in press)

"Watching you watch THERE WILL BE BLOOD" by Tim J. Smith,
from Observations on film art, ed. Kristin Thompson & David Bordwell

The most suspenseful serial I've watched this year is Tim Smith & the Secret of the Hollywood Edit. (Least suspenseful: The League of Extraordinary Plutocrats & the Treasure of Depression.)

Yeah, so what's the big secret? Assuming we've somehow found something other than a monitor to look at, we'd probably be startled if our entire field of vision was replaced by something new while we sat in one spot looking straight ahead. And yet we remain calm in the face of such transitions in a movie theater, even if we've somehow found a movie theater screen large enough to fill our field of vision. The seemingly more natural transitional device of a whip-pan disrupts us more than the seemingly impossible straight cut. The film industry has built up a store of standard wisdom regarding which cuts are disruptive and which are close to indiscernable, and a few editors have even tried to explain how indiscernability works.

This topic cluster was bound to attract the attention of the perception-driven cognitive sciences Daniel T. Levin and Daniel J. Simons have some nice overviews. From the distinguished crowd, Smith's Harold-Lloyd-ish gumption wins my heart. Smith extends a generous line of credit to filmmakers and does all he can within reason to underwrite them; reason dictates, however, that their working hypotheses might fail, and Smith apologetically but thoroughly reports a wide range of negative results.

Besides making him a more sympathetic character, the underbrush cleared by his latest batch of invalidations leaves room for what should be (to judge by Zacks & Magliano) some very sweet new growth.

. . .

The Nuisance (1933)

I once asked whether Gregg Toland's deep dark cinematography was inherently anti-comic.

Although comparatively early, cheap, and shallow, I believe The Nuisance refutes the charge: Toland shreds the conversational weave of Hawks but he boosts the alert cynical ugliness of a Lee Tracy vehicle. His camera makes the legally acceptable most of Herman Bing's nude scene, gives Frank Morgan's stereotype the pathos of pickled meat, and wisely lets Charles Butterworth drift offscreen to deliver a laugh line.

The ending drags, but whose doesn't?

. . .

The View Down Eccles St.

Soundtrack by The Navarros

The Dubliners flinch at the moment a camera snaps them into paralysis. Portrait's wins are serially deceiving, each end-of-play a bump to the next game level. Exiles is interminable. All the suggested stories of Finnegans Wake collapse in a bright overnight eruption of slime mold. And all the episodes and parallels of Ulysses try closure on for fit and discard it.

It's fun to imagine an offended Mrs. Bloom fetching a badly cooked egg to a puzzled Mr. Bloom. Even if that scene did take (some other) place on the morning of June 17, though, it would hardly be the start of a second honeymoon, and, given the unlikelihood of separation, homicide, or suicide, their marriage was never in real danger of ending. It would continue as it had continued if it had ever continued. Some days will be better; some days will be almost as bad; one day all days will be unreachable.

For years Mr. Bloom's chief emotional support has been his daughter. Her absence pointedly suspends in working holiday.

The most stinging loss is the fate of Stephen Dedalus. Insofar as a nice normal high-mainstream storyline can be extracted from Ulysses, it must lead to Stephen's rest chez cher Bloom. And Joyce explicitly refuses both rest and explication. With nowhere left to go, to where does Stephen go? Does he hop a steamer, stoke his way to London, bed H. G. Wells and Henry James, invent a time machine, and return as the Man in the Macintosh? Does some unforeseeable encounter guide the fictional character onto a fictional path in which he'll someday write a fictional version of the book we've just read? Or have universes diverged too far to ever rejoin? Maria Tymoczko justly compares his exit to that of the Tuatha Dé Danann. The only thing we know's that Stephen Dedalus has left the house of fiction, and good riddance.

+ + +

The View U. P.

Courtesy of that evil plunderer of dead authors' royalties
"One Squire Mornington's, they told me; and somebody said they supposed it would be all u—p, up. Well, it will make him know what it is to be a poor man, for once in his life."
"If so, it's all U—P, up, adjective, not down, as the worthy Mr. Squeers said."
"Then," growled Goldsmith, with a note of desperation in his deep-sea bass, "it's h, a, double h'ell h'all, u, p h'up, h'all h'up, bullies."
'Never mind, Dick, old man,' said Harry kindly; 'it's all U. P.'

'All up,' cried Dick.

. . .

Embodied Visions: Evolution, Emotion, Culture and Film
by Torben Grodal, Oxford, 2009

I've been a season-ticket-holding fan of the cognitive sciences since 1993, but it's no secret that I've been disappointed by their aesthetic and critical applications. And I suppose no surprise, given how disappointed I was by applications of close reading, deconstruction, feminism, Marxism, evolutionary biology, and so forth. (Lacanian criticism had the great advantage of being disappointment-proof.) All these approaches snapped off their points while scribbling across a professionally sustainable territory, all in the same way: Mysteries do not survive levels of indirection.

Mortality is a mystery. Why Roger Ackroyd died is a different sort of mystery. Once we've assumed mortality, however, why Agatha Christie died is no sort of mystery at all: she died because people are mortal. Too often writers like Grodal and Kay Young inform us that Agatha Christie died because species propagation does not require individuals to survive long past childrearing age! And also Roger Ackroyd died! And also Henry VIII!

As if to underline the over-specification, much of what Grodal says about his chosen films apply equally well to their adapted sources:

Although love often leads to integration in the prevailing social order, just as often it leads to a conflict with the existing social order, as in Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet....

What can be gained by explaining Forrest Gump or Mansfield Park with what lies beneath human culture and history? At such removes, "mirror neurons" add nothing to the already biologically-marked "monkey-see-monkey-do." At any remove, "lizard brains" add nothing to anything besides lizards. Why not read David Bordwell straight? Grodal answers by pitting his truisms against the falsehoods of ad-absurdum Derrida, ad-absurdum Focault, ad-absurdum Mulvey, and ad-absurdum Barthes, just as earlier critical fads attacked an ad-absurdum T. S. Eliot. We could call these strawmen arguments, except that the strawmen demonstratively were made and sent out onto the field. Let's call it a battle of scarecrows.

Grodal, to his credit, is no scarecrow. He cites Ramachandran's discovery that the universal standard of feminine beauty is an anorexic with a boob job but immediately points out why it's false. He's noticed that genres are ambiguous and that evolution is not a particularly useful concept to apply to them. He doesn't insist that narratives need a narrator other than the audience. He doesn't always remember that a significant number of human beings are not heterosexually paired and reproducing, but he remembers it at least once.

Sadly for the cause of sanity, banishing arrant nonsense from his shop leaves Grodal without novelties to peddle and leaves the book's first half undermotivated. A professional scarecrow like David Brooks strews fallacy wherever he flails, but he achieves a recognizable goal: to grab attention.

The second half of Grodal's book is less Movie-Goers Guide to Consciousness and far more compelling. Now here, for example, is a first-order mystery: How can generic signals such as by-the-negative-numbers continuity flips, an unlikely proliferation of masochists, and long takes with nothin'-happenin'-at-all reliably induce sensations of depth and uncanniness and individuality among film-festival audiences when it's obvious that the auteur's just slapping Bresson patties and Godard cheese on the grill? (I should emphasize that this is my problem statement rather than Grodal's.)

Periods of temps mort evoke a sense of higher meaning for two intertwined reasons. The first is that streams of perceptions are disembodied, insofar as they are isolated from any pragmatic concerns that might link them to action. Temps mort thus serves expressive and lyrical functions that give a feeling of permanence. The second reason is a special case of the first: since the viewer is unable to detect any narrative motivation for a given temps mort a given salient and expressive perceptual experience he or she may look for such motivation in his or her concept of the addresser, the filmmaker.... The perceptual present is ultimately transformed into the permanent perceptual past of the auteur's experience.
These excess features therefore activate particularly marked attention, switching on feelings and emotions which suggest that these features contain a meaning that the viewer cannot fully conceptualize. The viewer is therefore left with the sense that there must be some deep meaning embedded in these stylistic features, because the emotional motivation for making meaning out of salient features cannot be switched off. Style thus serves as an additional guarantee for some higher or deeper meaning, while at the same time giving rise to a feeling of permanence, since the perceptual, stylistic cues continue to trigger meaning-producing processes without reaching any final result.
...aspects of a film that are easily linked to the actions of one of the main characters are experienced as objective, but if there are no protagonists, or the characters' or viewers' action tendencies are blocked or impeded, this will lend a subjective toning to our experience of the film. This subjective toning expresses intuitive feelings of the action affordances of what we see: subjective experiences may be more intense and saturated but at the same time felt as being less real, because the feeling as to whether a given phenomenon is real depends on whether it offers the potential for action.
Subjectivity by default is much more obvious when it is cued in films than in real life. In real life, our attention is controlled mainly by our current interests. If we have exhausted our interest in one aspect of our surroundings, we turn our attention to something else. But when we watch a film, we are no longer able to focus our attention on the basis of our own interests because the camera prefocuses our attention. Provided that the film catches our attention by presenting us with a focused narrative or salient audiovisual information, this lack of control of our attention does not disturb us. Potential conflict over control of the viewer's attention surfaces only when the filmmaker confronts the viewer with images that do not cue focused propositions or that have no links to the protagonists' concerns. Most ordinary filmgoers shun such films, labeling them dull because they do not have the motivation or the skills necessary to enjoy what they see. More sophisticated viewers switch into a subjective-lyrical mode, seeking at the same time to unravel parts of the associative network to which the film gives rise.

Reviewing these sketches of frustrated drives, congested animal spirits, and spiritual afflatus, I'm not sure Grodal needs a scientific vocabulary younger than Nietzsche or William James. But if his solutions aren't quite as first-order as his mystery, they at least let me dismiss it for a while. Lunchtime!


fine thing, needling the haystack

Josh Lukin:

Reminds me of the election in the Buffalo English dept ten or twelve years ago, wherein there were something like eighteen votes for Professor Conte, twenty for Professor Bono, fifteen for Professor Dauber, and five for lunch.

The afore-and-oft-cited David Bordwell sketches how some individual quirks became genre markers.

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