March 24th, 2014
Last night I was alone for several hours, slightly pulquedo, with the full choice of 20th century media options at my disposal (no computer and minus the stereo because I still have water in my ear from the puente). I spent the first hour reading seven chapters of a beautiful little leatherbound 1919 Modern Library edition of Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh. The book breaks that MFA workshop rule of show-don’t-tell: it’s all tell, wryly funny and engaging across the centuries, taking its time to deliver all the while giving you the strong sense the wait is worthwhile.
Under the influence of the maguey as I was, though, I felt I was reading a little faster than I’d wish I had later, so I turned to my audio-visual options, choosing out of curiosity a DVD which I have no idea how it entered the house, the 1978 Dunne-Didion-Streisand-Kristofferson second remake of A Star is Born. I can remember when this movie came out – repelled at eleven by its shirtless-and-shaggy poster image – and that’s why I’ll watch pretty much anything from the 70s: I can remember those years, and am consistently astonished at their current remove. It was blank, tacky, used-up modernity then, an Age of Brass, and it is astonishing to now see it antique and shadowy, a color lithograph. Screenplay by Joan Didion (and others)!
The movie is unwatchable. Kristofferson is believable as a washed-up rebel rock star, but his soul-crush on Streisand, in full eye-rolling wacky Jewish grandmother mode, is unintentionally hilarious. I finally had to turn it off at the scene where, at the AIM benefit that might salvage his career, Kris turns the stage over to Babs, who belts out her trademark corny, proto-Celine Dion scales practice that has in our time aged so badly, and the crowd goes wild. The Rock Generation just wanted Easy Listening!
So, the television. Saw several phenomenal hip hop videos and one by Miley Cyrus that made me think about getting an erection, finally figured out who the band Keane was, and settled into a back-and-forth between two fifteen-year-old extravaganzas of the American Gruesome: Red Dragon and 8MM. (I’ll assume, through remote-knuckling rumination, you know what these are by now.) Both, with commercial interruption, had me ambivalent enough to miss chunks of one while watching the other. When I finally settled into watching one of them, here’s the thing: I picked 8MM, though Red Dragon is clearly the better movie.
I had watched A Star is Born, though I had in my hands Butler’s novel (there were intervening factors), of which George Bernard Shaw wrote, “It drives one almost to despair of English literature when one sees so extraordinary a study of English life as (TWoAF) making so little impression that when, some years later, I produce plays in which Butler’s extraordinarily fresh, free, and future-piercing suggestions have an obvious share, I am met with nothing but vague cacklings about Ibsen and Nietzsche… Really, the English do not deserve to have great men.”
You don’t have to just be in a certain mood or state of inebriation to gravitate toward the easier thing. Movies and books are different animals, and it doesn’t take a genius to see that the great body of story-telling in our time and the one closest to the heart of our world culture is done on the screen. Watching this year’s Oscars with half the planet, it occurred to me that it would take a genius sociologist just to parse exactly what we were doing in that room and what it meant to us. It was beyond me. I did observe that for the first time I can remember, nothing that was complete trash won a major award.
Red Dragon – as much of it as I watched – worked in surprise, elaborated by talented actors. 8MM worked in cliché, stereotype and little-altered preexisting forms (though young megastars Joaquin Phoenix, James Gandolfini and Catherine Keener supplied rye, mustard and onions to Nicholas Cage’s leading thick slice of ham). Why then, was it preferable?
I have some thoughts. For one, I watched neither film all the way through, and with frequent commercial interruption. The rewards of slow, unrolling narrative would have been lost were they available. Film is a kind of dreaming – while also a fashion show, a distraction, a moving painting and many other things – and in dreams we exercise the demons we have already. And as my partner points out, I’ll watch anything after a little pulque: SyFy network movies with their bad scripts, found locations and sloppy digital effects, badly dubbed Polish or barely intelligible Spanish TV, public programming about artesanal dollmaking, whatever. There is that bread-and-circus factor, the sleep of the mind we obviously crave.
I’m not justifying the recent universal dominance of big and dumb at the multiplex – those movies are hard work in their own dull fashion -but watching 8MM go through the motions, I can see how this happened. We go to better, one might say more literary films, and on a whole other higher or deeper level to literature itself, for a different thing. Surprise, and a captivation which is active on the reader’s part. We are not there to work something out, but to live in a new territory.