Friday, June 16, 2006

Book: "Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears?"

Many people like to write œuotes from books they particularly liked into a notebook. First time I was inclined to start one such notebook and write down a couple of articles was when reading Robert Coover's wonderful novel „Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears?“, it really contained a few memorable paragraphs and quite a bit of emotion that i wouldn't've expected from such cynic.
Coover belongs to the school of American postmodern experimental writers, shoulder to shoulder with Donald Barthelmy, John Barth, Guy Davenport and others. These writers made radical expiments with language, structure, and other traditional elements of writing during seventies and eighties. While Barthelmy esseyed about trash as a fodder for new, modern literature, Davenport was making up short ridiculous stories featuring Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, and Barth was intersecting story tissue with editorial comments of the same story, grammar and structuralules and, at times, explaining in details why the story was badly concieved inside the same story.
Coover might've been the most radical of them; my first contact with him was an excellent story "Babysitter" in which he allowed a mundane plot to branch into all directions, intersecting various story arcs, various branchs, and reality with character's fantasies and plots of movies going on tv; as the story goes on, chaos increases, storylines are harder to differ from each others, planes of reality promiscuously mix until it all comes down to a single spot, a sort of narrative black hole where nothing of it matters anymore and even the most eager reader doesn't care what just happened there. The story was one of the most intense reading experiences i've had.
„Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears?“ was, on the other hand, a novellette i found at the dustiest shelf of a local library and let me tell you, a good library in your neighbourhood is worth gold. This novel is one from later period of Coover's works, after he's already been praised for his well-known „Public burning“, and it's generally considered less important work, but I find in it so much of reality achieved, typically postmodernistic, by leaping from it.
What happened with Gloomy Gus is that he died in political protest, a day before the novel begins. His death is mentioned on first pages, before it turns around for a retrospective look at Gus's life. But he wasn't really supposed to die, maybe he wasn't supposed to be there either; he was dragged into it, he wasn't a protester. You could say that he wasn't really a human to begin with, that he was just dragged into a game of pretending to be one, or from the other perspective that he was a human whom following an iron-strong will made less and less a human, actually less and less capable to react to outside world humanly. Outside world turns into a set of triggers that start preprogrammed reactions – reactions which should lead to succes in given situations.
Yeah, Gloomy Gus might've been a machine, Coover's prototype of a man with all qualities of a robot, an allegory of a man led by his belief in an iron will. Which doesn't mean he has it bad, he is scarily succesful in fields he pursues and since success is an important factor in being human, so is he in pretending to be human actuall. Traditional interpreting of the novel is that it's an alegory about Nixon, in which Gus's dedication to achieving success in football and sex is parallel to the one Nixon had for political career. Mind you, interpretation that doesn't mean much to a person who didn't grom admist American cultural vortex, thus I choose to interpret it as different, more general metaphore or, if that fails, as an interesting character portrait, a wonderful exercise. What makes it all interesting is that he is paradoxal, conflicting creature, a system that works against all odds.
Take his high school days, for instance; he is succesful student in everything but in football and women, two not incidentally chosen fields. So he starts working on those two fields so hard that he starts failing in everything else. His approach is automatic, methodic. He learns entire procedures of picking up women, starting with pickup lines and ending with sex. He is incapable of stepping out of any of those procedures once he starts them, and there's even an amusingly unpleasant scene in which he and a shy local woman are caught during sex, at which he doesn't notice anything around him until he's finished. On earlier occasion when he mixes another football player for a date and is unable to stop a well-practiced routine, it all ends up with being beaten to a pulp by policemen.
Same for footbal. That's why he's not good after a while, he's a predictable player, once oponents learn all his procedures. he looks for new fiel and gets similarly involved into acting, then into leftist politics of America's 30ies. That's where he dies in fights on a street, leaving narrator to wonder over this man, this walking alegory, whether this new age man is the future, or is he doomed to die because he always repeats the same mistakes.
Narrator is, incidentally, a syndical activist, social person and at tha spare time, as artist. Using found metal junk like screws, bolts, paperclips, he wields sculptures of sportsmen in movement; football players, most of all. One of those few memorable paragraphs comes from his explanation of the art that he finds in sport, the essence of footbal that is freedom of movement and not the possesion of the Ball, and that the freedom is what he's trying to capture. Narrator is, apparently, the more obsessed with flexibility and freedom as he meets Gloomy Gus and as he sees results of lack of flexibility and freedom on him. Narrator is concearned over his art, as it is not being politically charged and depicts mundane themes, it is trivial to his politically involved friends. It's not trivial, of course, and not art for the sake of art, but in times of big political changes, everything that isn't directly political seems so. So narrator suffers from same doubts as Coover does, between choosing his political view or esthetics of his art. I would like to quote the novel here, but i haven't got english (or any, right now) version of the book and i'd like to leave you as many reasons as i can to read the it.
The other memorable quote... Well, it comes from the very end where Gloomy Gus, dying, through haze mistakes narrator for his old coach and asks him why he's destined to always make the same mestakes... And just as narrator thinks he's reached the answer, Gloomy Gus dies before hearing the answer.
A real forgotten jewel, this is another example of what can be done when we step out of literary conventions which is why i lbelieve that postmodern literature gives better answer to modern man's problems than traditional literature. What surprises me is the ease of Coover's writing, the naturality of every alien element that makes me believe in them no matter how much fantastic they are. Note that here, we are talking about no known genre of fantasy, but about something that could make a new genre of „character fantasy“.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Book: East of eden

There are books that are, I strongly believe, pulp literature missplaced into the grand literature. Take "Gone with the wind", the book that owes fame to the fact that a very expensive film is based on it; Some will mistake this book for great literature though it's always been just a love story written for housewives to spend idle afternoons, with a bit of popular history thrown in to make it look serious. Historical setting gave enough impression of an epic scope to "gone with the wind", which many people believed is enough for a great novel.
I'm telling that because, at times, John Steinbeck's "East of Eden" seems to assume the shape of such missplaced pulp; at other times, however, it doesn't.
But that's ok, terature world often shunned this last work of author of "Grapes of wrath" and "Of mice and men" because of its melodramatic character and forced byblical mothives, though not as forced as in Scorseze's "Cape fear" or in popular anime "Evangelion". There seems to be a hunting season on on Bible while, apparently, more of really great art of this Century has been based on "1001 night". Perhaps Borgues's influence. Anyways...
I read "East of eden" while lying in hospital this spring and if i wasn't confined to bed i would've probably leave it after a few chapters (unlike films which i always watch to the end, i do leave books unfinished; they take too much time to spend on something uninteresting). In is first chapters already, it has shown characteristics of that dull writing of "great" novels that describe few generations of a family on canvas of historical events; novels that think that the grand scale of the theme is so self-sufficient that it doesn't need involving story, likeable writing style or any inspiration whatsoever.
"East of eden" tells a story of two families arriving and living in still barely inhabited California. These two families have barely any connection between them, they don't represent anything and, in fact, their roles are shared so unfairly that one of those two families seems to serve only as a set of supporting characters for the other family. And since they are the only important supporting characters, it seems, indeed, that the valley was won entirely by two families. Until the end i was waiting for something, some plot twist that would make relation between those families more meaningful and, in fact, something that would help me understand why these two particular families were chosen for main characters, But alas.
One thing that irked me all through the book is that romanticism with which people of the time were represented. Now, you'll agree with me that inhabitants of new lands were always simple, uneducated people running away from poverty, and not erudite philosophers and never accomplished poets. In Steinbeck's novel, all characters are farmers or sons of farmers, yet they are all uncharacteristically intelligent, well read, either poets or amateur inventors, innovators or financial geniuses. In "East of eden", the more simple and uneducated character is, the more likely he is to talk and discuss like a philosopher. In fact, it is surprising how little of the insight into human character one accomplishe
writer has shown in this book. His characters act and talk out of character all the time, their mothivations are always weak or unclear, and their accomplishments simply seem unlikely; Steinbeck rarely manages to convince us that his characters are real flesh and blood people who would act the way he described them to act, and the hand of a writer is always too obvious.
One of the more bizzare and unlikely characters is, for instance, a Chinese who is very well educated and intelligent man who'd likely be invited to various phylosophy circles (and if i remember well, he is at one moment) but he preferes to work as a servant because of oportunism, and also to play dumb in order not to attract attention. Not bloody likely. His employer is bound to notice Kierkegaard book on his bed sooner or later.
I assume that Steinbeck believed that the west was won by all sorts of geniuses who steered for the unconquered land because they could clearly forsee future of that land. I know that it is nice to believe that your ancestors are all great people; however, this is simply not true; it's a romantic delusion that most of people today won't bite into.
Similarly, Kol and Aron, two brothers who emerge as main characters in later third of the novel are shaped on Cain and Abel. Steinbeck puts effort to make biblical characters believeable and to insert their mothivations and tensions into the mind of modern men, but result is just as innapropriate as trying to shape a character by noah and his arc would be.
And the most debatable character of all, Cattie, at the beginning described as pure evil, practically as some sort of genetical glitch that deprived her of anything human. Through the novel, you can see writer's hand trying to steer her toward being evil and to make her avoid any humanactions, and, when the plot requires a human action from her (like birth of two sons) to "justify" that action by some devious mothives. Again i am surprised at how little insight into human mind steinbeck had; he should have known that ultimate evil is a pulp novel cliche that doesn't exist in reality, simplification of the world made for easy reading; he should have known that no genetic glitch can make somne evil; Kattie is too simple a character to be believeable. Serious writer should not make a character profile By just writing "evil" in big letters over it.
Most of complaints by critics of the time were based around the Kain and Abel reference at the second half of the book. Is Steinbeck trying to tell us that brother-killing urge is rooted deeply into american society? Or in human society? Or is he simply saying that there are genes for evil and that col inherited them from his oh so el mother Catty? I don't think i need to touch that one any further. With reason, people felt that this reference tells nothing, means nothing in the context, and it's there simply because of equation: "byblical references = great novel".
And actually i'm mentioning this term "great american novel" for a reason. Nalmey, Steinbeck was a succesful writer. He was already considered a great writer before "East of eden"; he had a nobel prize for "Grapes of wrath"; he was one of the favourite writers in conservatively-romantic Hollywood of the time, when making books into films in considered.
"East of eden" was to be his last novel. He decided that it was to be his masterpiece, his lifetime achievement, his "great american novel". He spent enormous amount of time on it, he used to lock himself in his room with his novel for days. He assembled all elements that should have made a great Novel, including: family chronicle, founding fathers, war, tear-jerking tragedies, shakespearian inner fight with evil inside of you, and last but not the least, biblical references. he isolated himself from the world and lost insight in it. He isolated his work and gave up on apparently neccesary second opinion.
He started to write with intention to write a great novel. You usually write because you have something to say. If you're writing simply to write a great novel, then you're writing for fame, and that often means that you have nothing to say. Therefore, i can see how this can be worst of steinbeck's work, and how an appreciated writer can be an author of such mess.
Post scriptum could say that the film was made by this novel too. It was one of three films James Dean made before dying, he played Col and it's curious how the role given to him was a continuement of what he started in "Rebel without a cause". Film was directed by Eliah Casan and deals only with second, more dynamic part of the novel.
I have to admitt, i am reclutant toward family chronicles. Writers write them when they want to be known as great writers and the true is that, though they're not always that bad, they often contain much more writing that material requires. One of the better i've read was Sholohov's "Silent Don", novel i've read in high school and fully appreciated only years after reading. Markes's "100 years of solitude" was intesting for first few Chapters after which it descended into boredom and repeating. The problem is, this boredom and repeating is intentional and is, in fact, part of the message of the book, which asks for a question: is message final goal that should maciavelistically beclivered even at the price of being boring (book's mortal sin no 2 or 3). Cover blurb cleverly stated that the key to the whole book was to be found in last ten pages, knowing that without that, many readers would quit long before finishing. Then there was "Adda or ardor", by Nabakov, writer whom i otherwise love very much; i left that book twice, after reading only one chapter self-indulged into cultural references and linguistic twists. And then many, many books that aren't even worth mentioning.
So down with great family novels and cheers for small but sublimed postmodernistic novels - and i just have one for the next article.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Royal Tenenbaums

Somewhere along the way of film history, violence, gore and bizarreness has been mistaken for break-through, originality and visionary. Just think of films that are popularly considered landmarks in past few decades: “Reservoir dogs”; “Pulp fiction”; “Lock, stock and two smoking barrels”, “Se7en”, “Fargo”, “Sin city”, “Old boy”, “Fight club”... All primarily oriented to breaking limits in violence, and only after that in actual filmmaking. Sometimes, even, the whole overstepping the gore level is enough to grant otherwise mediocre film a high place, if at least for a while (“Hostel”, “Slither”, “Hills have eyes”). Marketing campaigns are nowadays being oriented around the excess of violence in films, hinting that, therefore, those films might be “the new big thing”. And frankly, though I admire some of these films, I’m sick of it.
Of course, making of history is closely attached to excess, ever since first horror films and “Andalusian dog”, through “Taxi driver” to “Blue velvet”. But one gets to wonder whether there is something nicer going on. Are there also nice, small, emotive films being made, and whether some of those films are just as important, influential and, let’s say, cult, as those more violent.
I suggest a young director Wes Anderson. His first film, “Rushmore”, has been frequently found on lists of cult films, which means that this story about a young student, loser of his kind and, then again, a victor of some other kind, found a strong niche in people ready to dedicate themselves to this films. “Royal Tenenbaums”, his second film, has proven consistency in Anderson’s approach, and that he already has a style, he doesn’t need to search for it, just has to, perhaps, iron it a bit. Third, recent film, “The life aquatic with Steve Zissou” is a film that you cannot put your mind around, you cannot really figure out whether it’s underwater fantasy (with imagined underwater creatures animated by veteran animator, director of “Nightmare before Christmas”, Henry Selick) or an unresolved family relations drama, as film unsurely tries to balance between the two.
Anderson usually shares script credits with the actor Owen Wilson; his brother Luke and friend Ben Stiller almost come in the package. But Anderson’s favourite actor is Bill Murray, who is a master in acting by not saying anything, in subtle vibrations that he emits while seemingly doing nothing. And that’s the perfect kind of actor for Anderson’s films, as we will see in the next paragraph.
Wes Anderson seemed to have a formed vision that he intends to follow through ever since his first film. I made the intro the way I did because this vision is so different from what is usually offered: excess, aggressive approach, in-your-face, sharp objects flying across the screen as if they are there to amuse a baby in the cradle, not to entertain a grown up person. Anderson’s films are quiet, deadpan, even slow. His soundtrack is always consisting of acoustic music, slow, atmospheric numbers, mood music. His characters talk quiet and the importance is given to what they say and the viewer is left to interpret the meaning and motives of what they say – if they want, of course. Camera is most often static, with a lot of establishing shots, sometimes even subtly lensed to get the panoramic effect - staying away from the characters and not giving any speed or additional cinematic emotion to what is going on in the frame. Details are allowed to sneak into the frame and stay there. To that, Anderson often adds other element that increase deadpan tone of the films: detached narration, explanatory segments that look like some kind of tutorial in “Life aquatic” or excerpts from film’s script in “The Royal Tenenbaums”. This approach gives Anderson’s films unseen tone, the light care for his characters, unwillingness to mix into their lives, to try to analyze them or no intrude them in any other way. Anderson’s works are like picture books of lives, letting stories tell themselves and not telling audience what to think or how to feel, except, perhaps, for persisting melancholy. Cult films are the ones that somehow stand out in the bunch, that can’t really be compared with the rest of cinema, and in those terms Anderson’s films really have a potential for cult status; The achievement is, they get it not by being too weird, aggressive, outrageous, but by being everything the opposite. That’s why I think that, though still rough around the edges, Anderson is one day going to be big, and how.
Now, when I say “rough around the edges” I mean that even though stylish on their own terms and unique, his films don’t always quite fit together as a whole. I didn’t really like “Rushmore” all that much, as I felt it sort of lacked substance. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what the film was all about, what the point was, why the director sat down to tell the story. I had the same impression with “Life aquatic”, again, but this time instead of having no ideas, I had one idea too many. I believe, for all the pieces to fit in place, you do have to know, when exiting the cinema hall, what is it that the director wanted to do, and whether he did it. The second question answers to whether the film was good or bad, but when I’m not certain what it was that director wanted to do, the film is just confusing. It creates an uneasy feeling with me, and I’m not even sure of my own opinion about the film. Sometimes, as in case of Anderson, in the end I get the feeling that the author was simply rambling about the things that interest him, that the film didn’t hit any aim because it was wandering around aimlessly, from character to character, from one plot arc to another, in the end, not scoring with either of those characters or plot arcs. Wes Anderson, perhaps, before all, needs more classic drama structuring, or perhaps he and Wilson need more discipline when writing the script. In any case, he’s still able to get over those faults.
As “Royal Tenenbaums” show. “Royal Tenenbaums” is a story about a family, once filled with individuals each successful in their fields, nowadays shattered, each by their own frustrations, depression, lack of communication. Even though the word “Royal” is there to suggest the image of a family tree, it is actually a name of the head of the family Royal (Gene Hackman) who’s been living out of the family for two decades, ever since the divorce with Etheline (stone-faced Angelica Huston), mother of the family. Olders son Chas (Ben Stiller), once a genius for business, is nowadays suffering from the recent death of his wife, this suffering materializing in fear that he’ll lost his two sons prematurely too, in any kind of accident; this fear of everyday accidents descends into phobia. Daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), once a successful playwright, is deep in depression which might have something to do with the fact that she was adopted and that she always felt neglected. Youngest son Ritchie (Luke Wilson), once a successful tennis player, is secretly in love with Margot, letting this unspoken love ruin his career (the scene in which he drops a racket and simply gives up on his terminal match, after he’s heard Margot has married, might be one of the most touching in film). To add to this, nowadays top list cast, is Ely Cash (Owen Wilson), neighbour and friend since childhood, very profitable author of pulp fiction; his complex is that he always wanted to be Tenenbaum; he looked up to that family; he regularly sends letters to Etheline, as if she was his own mother and lived far away; Yet the family has been consistently rejecting him, no surprise as they’ve been rejecting each others as well. Danny Glover plays Etheline’s long time coworker Henry Sherman, who she considers marrying, and Bill Murray plays a small role of Raleigh St. Clair, Margot’s confused husband.
This mish-mash of troubled characters works in a certain way like a squeaky machine, where everyone is unhappy, but that’s ok since noone knows the others are unhappy; At the beginning of the film, Royal is forced to ask Etheline for forgiveness and, driven to the idea of belatedly getting back close to his children, he fakes a deadly cancer. His move drives other characters to move and try to change something, as Chas and Margot move back into the family house and Ritchie returns from a long adventurous trip. And that’s basically the setup, bunch of screwed up characters in a relatively small space, trying to work out old unresolved issues, mostly failing and, despite that, doing quite well. There is no heart-ripping drama here, no big fights, no theatrical acting, everything is so laid back that we have a feeling of watching the entire house and all characters at once, as if the front wall is missing and we’re watching from the street at those funny tiny characters, mostly estranged but sometimes weirdly moved.
The key scene of the film happens near the end, just before Etheline’s wedding. In drug-induced euphoria, Ely Cash arrives and crashes into the front wall of Tenenbaums house. Keeping the desired pacing, Anderson prefers to show Margot’s detached observation “Ely just crashed his car in front of our house” rather than the actual crash. Chas arrives at the place of the crash scattered with papers flying around, to find out that Royal moved his two sons (but not their dog) out of the way at the last moment. Ely peaks through the window from the room he fled in to say “Did I hit anyone”, but seeing expression Chas’s face, just starts to run. What follows is a chase through narrow hallways of Tenenbaums house, ending with Chas hitting Ely against the wall of the backyard; he only calms down after taking the fight over the wall, into a small Chinese garden. Lying next to each other on a pebble ground; Ely says “Did I hit the dog?” “Yeah”, Chas replies. “Is he dead?” “Yeah?” “I need help.” “So do I.”
What follows is a long pan over the accident scene, with all characters in the film involved; While Ely is being listened by policemen, Henry Sherman and his son are calculating a possible tax reduce on the house and Royal is finally starting to communicate with Chas again. Chas says “I had a rough year, dad.” Royal replies “I know, son.” Simple words, but you can feel that there’s a whole world of feelings that these characters can’t find words for. Again, film works because of all the things that aren’t said, but still exist there, and you can feel them as well.
So with this scene you can see many things falling back to pieces. In the end, none of characters are any better than they began, but now they are communicating with each other, and they all realize that others aren’t just selfish bastards they thought but just simple people with all good and bad sides that go with them. From the beginning, in prosperous careers that are described, in official tone of narrator and inserted strip clips, in tone, there is an underlying potential greatness, but then, they are all still just people.
This is a loveable little film, both touching and very easy to watch. It could also one day turn out to be a piece of film history, an overlooked landmark film. There are a lot of reasons to pick it from DVD shelf rather than most of “new big things” that we’ve already forgotten about.