Sunday, December 30, 2012

800 Words: The Survival of Les Miserables - Part 2

I have now seen the new Les Mis movie, and can say with a reasonable degree of confidence that with the exception of two scenes, this is the worst movie imaginable that could have been made from this source material. It is not simply bad, or even a disaster, it is perhaps a once-in-a-generation cinematic apocalypse of poor judgment and bad taste.

There is one simple reason why this movie so bad. And that is because this movie insists on trying to make Les Mis into something good. I love the musical version of Les Miserables. I can’t help it, I memorized it when I was six years old and it was the first inkling to this precociously insufferable music lover that opera could exist in English and even in a non-classical idiom. At this point in my life, I can still sing virtually every song in the show from memory. But even in its best performances, Les Miserables has long since become a guilty pleasure for me. Les Mis is a decent musical whose runaway success is entirely disproportionate to artistic worth. The only thing about Les Mis which speaks to any kind of creative genius is the marketing which made it the most profitable musical of all time. And yet here is a movie that insists to us that the material behind this financial deluge is strong enough to support one final attempt to transform a solid musical into a work of immortal art.

The infinite ambitions of this movie are scrawled around every shot that gives you a good view of a singer’s larynx and every new scrap of plodding material written specifically for this movie. The stage show content has been edited hundreds of times for the movie, and as you see them, you marvel at how much sense these edits make. In all fairness, the musical direly needs editing. Not only does the musical sprawl, but at many points it’s downright incoherent. There are literally hundreds, perhaps thousands of edits, from the tenses of verbs to whole new songs and scenes. Some of these edits exist because they make more sense for a movie, some of them exist simply to correct the long plot muddle in the play. Just to take the most obvious example, in the play, we have no idea why Javert is still pursuing Valjean. To the best of my memory having seen four live productions in two different languages, two TV versions, and listened two cast albums, there isn’t a single line that refers to exactly how Jean Valjean broke his parole. So basically, we’re expected to believe that Javert harasses Valjean because he’s an a**hole who has some sort of Kafkaesque explanation for the fact that Valjean committed another crime even if he didn't. The movie solves this in one simple stroke – the first scene contains a line (from the novel) about how Valjean must carry the yellow ticket to any potential employer and landlord which says he’s an extremely dangerous man until the end of his life and has to report to a parole board thirty days after his release. The yellow ticket is in the stage play, but the contents of the yellow ticket are never revealed to us. At the end of the song (really just an ultradramatic monologue) “What have I done”, Valjean tears up the ticket – something he's too busy singing to do in the stage musical - thereby refusing to acknowledge his lifelong parole sentence. And thus twenty-five years of muddle was cleared up in two simple, ingenious edits. I could point out a dozen other edits that are similarly ingenious which make a more coherent plot. And yet nobody seemed to mind the fact that Les Mis was a muddle in the first place.

The problem is that the lyrics in these new edits are every bit as uninspired, and sometimes moreso, than what came before them. The stage show’s been honed for twenty five years, and even in the awful 25th anniversary concert (as seen every hour of every day on PBS for the last two years), it was still incoherent, but it nevertheless took you directly from one over-the-top flight of fancy to the next. This show is ridiculous, it knows it’s ridiculous, and it doesn’t care. Neither should you. But in trying to tie everything together for a coherent narrative, in hewing closer to the Hugo novel than the stage show ever dared, it loses the headlong momentum which made you forget for an hour at a time that the show was ridiculous. The great bulk of the new material is simply dull at the most fundamental level. Les Mis is grand opera, and every bit as ridiculous and stupid as the 19th century Auber and Meyerbeer operas which inspired it.

And then there are those close-ups.  I completely understand why Tom Hooper elected to use close-ups, as a movie version requires the kind of intimacy which the grand over-the-topness of theater does not provide. But why did he keep all the singers in extreme closeup when it was time to let their voices soar. The best directorial choice in the entire movie, coming in an otherwise risible scene, was to have Russell Crowe sing the famous belting aria “Stars” as he stares at Notre Dame Cathedral – no doubt to distract from the fact that Crowe can’t sing it. And that’s the moment when I realized… where is the landscape in this movie? The main character of Les Miserables is not Jean Valjean, the main character is France. And the moment the movie arrives in Paris, it completely loses whatever little interest it had in the surrounding landscapes and almost every scene takes place in an enclosed set. That may have been a choice made for budgetary reasons, but it ruined any chance of redeeming the movie in its second half. Rather than give us the epic view of French life which a movie of Les Mis desperately needs, it ruined the movie version’s most fundamental asset by focusing every song in the sort of extreme close-up that even Wayne and Garth knew was a terrible idea. Instead of showing real scenes of French peasant life, it opts this once to preserve the integrity of the stage show in the choice where it’s most crucial that it shouldn’t. Rather than showing the poor of France in all their misery, it shows the poor in the kind of highly stylized dance moves that alleviates us from the burden of taking their miserableness seriously. When it comes time for the prostitution scene, the prostitutes look like dancing zombies from A Chorus Line. 

And then there are all those unconvincing, sometimes absolutely hilarious set-pieces. The chain gang moving the galley ship (as we read in the novel) which looks like a pleasant day at the beach, the spontaneously singing and dancing beggars who seem like they should be get a scholarship to go to the high school from FAME, the aforementioned zombie hookers and the delivery of I Dreamed a Dream after having sex in her prostitution bed, the fake sword fight in the confrontation scene, the 1960’s style crowding of the cops by the revolutionaries, the barricade so small that it reminded me of This Is Spinal Tap’s ten-inch Stonehenge, Marius’s resolve to immediately leave his own wedding after finding out where Valjean is without even a word of explanation to his grandfather, or poor Colm Wilkinson playing the Bishop of Digne and forced to wear a 1000-watt grin as he welcomes Jean Valjean to heaven, and my personal favorite,…the endless river of shit in the Parisian sewers. Not even Paris can manufacture the smell which that much feces must give off. 

But the ultimate nadir of this movie was Hooper’s choice to have the singers record live in real-time. Tom Hooper makes costume dramas, and like most costume drama directors, he is charitably known as an “actor’s director.” But in this case as in very few others, the moniker seems to be deserved. The King’s Speech is an overrated movie, but Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush were both fantastic. The John Adams miniseries sprawled at times, but it had uniformly wonderful performances from every lead actor (Paul Giammati, Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, David Morse, Stephen Dillane, and John Dossett). But most amazingly, he coached Helen Mirren through what might have been the performance of her career. The (deserved) hype about The Queen overshadowed the fact that she played Elizabeth I in an HBO miniseries that has to stand as one of the very greatest TV movies ever made.  

Clearly, Tom Hooper loves actors and they love him. But his trust of actors proved to be the movie’s ultimate downfall. To make the movie more intimate and conversational, the singers recorded live in real-time, accompanied by a live piano. Singers could take their time on every line they wished, they could make any interpretive choice to mold every scene precisely as they felt it. As a G-list conductor who works with singers every week, I feel confident in saying that any competent musical director of a show will tell you the same thing – NEVER GIVE SINGERS A RUBBER STAMP! Conductors should be held accountable for their whims as well, but the nexus of narcissism for which this choice allowed boggles the brain. The sheer coddling it must take to indulge every egotistical interpretive choice in this cast is stunning. Tom Hooper obviously spent months patiently forming an interpretation of this show in which he corrected all the continuity errors, found ways to stage scenes which made far more sense than they ever did on the stage, and yet when it came time for big numbers, he indulged the singers to go as far into ham territory as they wished. And nearly every one of them took him up on his offer. Sometimes the actors inserted their own lines of spoken dialogue into songs that must have been improvised on the spot, and none more hilarious than the one towards the end in which Jean Valjean finally confesses his past to Cosette, to which the always gorgeous but not always the most talented actress Amanda Seyfried utters a superbly awkward and casually plot-changing “I knew.” Maybe it wasn’t her idea, but whoever came up with it will have probably earned a place in movie history’s hall of shame.

Anne Hathaway recently did a skit on Saturday Night Live which spoofed Homeland, in which she made fun of Claire Danes for giving precisely the sort of over-the-top hammy performance she gave here – only Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine is far more over-the-top than Claire Danes has ever been in Homeland’s most far-fetched scenes – with as many painfully awkward grimaces and diva pauses as there are syllables in the words of her role. Of all the awful performances in this movie, Anne Hathaway gave the worst, and to think that she’s being commended as the joy of the film is still more bizarre than her facial contortions. Hugh Jackman clearly had no direction as Jean Valjean, because his vocal performance stays on the same monotonous dynamic, one shade of vocal color, and bleating-like-a-sheep vibrato through the entire movie. He has as many portentious pauses as Anne Hathaway, but at least his acting is merely boring rather than Olympian-level bizarre. For all the complaints about Russell Crowe’s vocal performance, Hugh Jackman’s is far more inexcusable because he’s the professional singer. During his every scene, Russell Crowe seemed to have only one thought go through his mind: ‘Get me the f-ck out of here!’ Crowe’s Javert has all the menace of Paul Giamatti playing a tollbooth collector, and his vocal performance occasionally bore the subtle but unmistakable sound of an auto tuner.

It’s doubly a shame, because on Friday night I saw a truly great movie version of Les Miserables that is less than 15 years old which hardly anyone seems to have seen. The performances of Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, and Uma Thurman, are as wonderful as Jackman, Crowe, and Hathaway are risible. The direction of Bille August (best known for Smilla’s Sense of Snow), is as pitch-perfect as Tom Hooper’s is disgustingly wrong-headed.

If the movie can be said to have real strengths, it comes in scenes which the earlier movie either doesn’t  cover (the Thenardiers are in one scene and Young Eponine is simply an extra), or does a bit worse than the rest of the movie (Marius and Cossette). Both Sacha-Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are mildly funny and suitably slimy for the Thenardiers. And while the Master of the House sequence is nowhere near as fun or funny as it can be onstage, the staging is far more logical and coherent. But their performances wear badly as the movie goes on, and by the time we see them at the wedding, they’re simply an annoyance rather than funny. To my endless surprise, the best sequence in the movie is by far the sequence with the ingénues, which is usually the point when stage show sags the most. In My Life and A Heart Full of Love were almost downright moving, with the endlessly drab colors exchanged for the lush landscape of the Parisian spring and three young actors who can convincingly play young lovers. The rendition of On My Own was passable, but it suffered from all the same problems as the rest of the movie. Samantha Barks’s singing was decent, but done in immovable closeup even when it came time for Samantha Barks to belt the song’s climax, the belting of which could not erase memories of Eponine’s past, or even memories of how dumb the song is. Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried were both serviceable even if they’re not particularly great singers. Redmayne in particular is a very fine actor whom I’ve seen live onstage, but his rendition of Empty Chairs and Empty Tables was just plain dull.

The good intentions of all these choices are absolutely clear, and the result is that Cameron Mackintosh and Tom Hooper made a real movie instead of simply a filmed stage version. The only problem with this is that they made a tragicomically terrible movie, whose awfulness will become increasingly recognized with time like so many long-awaited movies. The only event in our lifetime that can probably compare to this is the arrival of the Star Wars prequel trilogy. When The Phantom Menace was first released to the American public, the reaction was simply lukewarm – the shock of seeing the badness of something so long awaited muted the first reaction. And yet the sense of outrage at the mind-crippling horribleness of what transpired only grew with time, and as the years wore on, it deservedly became known as one of the biggest disappointments ever to reach the screen. I have no doubt that this movie will have a similar trajectory.

(A fan video made from the musical with the far better movie. Compare and contrast if you like and mourn what might have been.)

Saturday, December 29, 2012

800 Words: The Survival of Les Miserables Part 1

I just saw Les Mis last night, and it is a truly great movie. Not the Les Mis out in theaters now, I mean the 1998 movie version. I will probably see Les Mis at some point this weekend. But I doubt this movie will be half as good as the 1998 Les Miserables – a movie so absolutely underrated as to be a scandal. Les Mis stars Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe, the latter of which is featured in more overrated crap than any movie star since Clint Eastwood or Robert Redford (it’s amazing how often boring movie stars make good directors…), whereas Les Miserables is not a centimes short of magnificent. It’s directed by Bille August, an Ingmar Bergman protégé, and stars Liam Neeson and Geoffery Rush – who between them seem to have made more great movies nobody but me and five other people remember than any two stars in Hollywood today. Geoffrey Rush is particularly great. Not that this should surprise anybody, anyone who’s seen Quills knows that he is the equal of any screen actor in movie history, and all he has to do to inhabit Javert as no one else ever could is to dim the wattage of his eyes. The terror implicit in that scowl is enough make viewers jump three feet out of their collective seat.  Claire Danes’s overacting notwithstanding, the rest of the cast is just as wonderful. Hell, even Uma Thurman is great as Fantine. To put it simply, I don’t see how  there can ever be a greater, more moving, more hallucinatory, or higher reaching cinematic vision of Les Miserables than what we got in 1998. And unlike the novel, it takes two-and-a-half hours to get through the whole thing.

As perhaps none of the other ‘loose baggy monsters’ of 19th century literature do, Les Miserables cries out for a movie. The story itself is nothing less than a primal myth about how humanity is kept wretched. Would that other novelists learned from Victor Hugo’s example and wrote novels about the world rather than their own navels. And yet, in my experience, this novel is much less than its parts. I realize that this is the view from 2012, but from the vantage point of our era, Victor Hugo seems to do everything he can to dull his story’s inherent drama.

Now I should specify, I have not read Les Miserables from cover to cover. But I’ve tried to dip into it many times, and I’m constantly struck by the woodenness of Victor Hugo’s writing. Whether in Les Mis or Notre Dame, Hugo is an amazing writer of descriptive prose. When the situation calls for action, he has the entire world of language at his disposal. But when it comes to the kind of repose that makes the characters truly breathe that illustrate his ideas, Victor Hugo seems rather hopeless.

That Victor Hugo was a great writer of action and an indifferent student of human nature shouldn’t surprise anyone. Action was his entire life. He was born in 1802, the year Napoleon was elected France’s Consul for Life. Hugo was the son of a Bonapartist general and raised in the milieu of the Napoleon's iron fist. Napoleonic self-belief and humorlessness also seems to have passed to the young writer, and it stayed with him all his days. Some French wag is said to have remarked “Victor Hugo was really a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo.” When the writer was in his seventies or eighties, a friend expressed to Hugo his belief that the soul dies with the body, to which Hugo replied “For your soul that may be true, but I know that mine is eternal.”

Whether or not Hugo’s soul is eternal, he seems to have done absolutely everything within his power to ensure that posterity would not forget him. By the end of his life, he’d written seven novels – nearly all of which are of Les Miserables length – he wrote twenty-one plays, countless numbers of polemics and pamphlets, and 155,000 lines of poetry! And that doesn’t count any private correspondence.  No one but a person of messianic inner conviction can create an output so large, and anyone who writes at such a frenetic pace for so many decades has neither the time to make sure everything is of equal quality nor the self-awareness to realize that the quality of his writing might improve if there were less of it, nor the leisure time to make a proper study of human nature.

And yet Victor Hugo is probably the most widely beloved writer in French history. His fictions are about very real issues, yet they make no real intellectual demands on the reader. Even if insipid, the prose is always crystalline, and when he was at his considerable best, the excitement of his plots carried his writing forward through whatever weaknesses they possessed. In both his time and long after his death, there was probably not a single person in France who did not have strong feelings about Victor Hugo. If you could read French, it’s likely you read every scrap of his writing you could find. If you couldn’t, somebody probably read it to you. In order to understand the importance of Victor Hugo to 19th century France, you’d have to combine Stephen Spielberg, Bob Dylan, Christopher Hitchens, and Norman Mailer. His only contemporary peer in this regard is Charles Dickens, who like Hugo, was the voice of his entire country: every region, every social class, every ethnic group, every background. There might be a few 20th century writers who served the same purpose to give voice to the stories of small nations, but none of them have anything resembling the enormous international presence which Hugo commanded as well. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

Guest Post: Best of 2012 - Der Miksic

I did, watched, and played so many great things this year, it's going to be tough to contain myself to a manageable list. I fear I don't feel as strongly about any of my "Bests" as Der Koosh did about his best TV show, but I have significant affection for lots of stuff I purchased and experienced. Every time you pick a leisure activity, you're gambling with your time, and often your money... and I'd say that in 2012, I came out way ahead.

But how do I pick, goddammit? Take film... I've got a list of 50 or 60 movies I saw, and genuinely enjoyed, and it's tough setting my filter to exactly the right granularity. How much is enough enjoyment to qualify? And once it qualifies, is that enough? I think, in order to narrow it down, I'm going to write this as a list of discoveries... things that made -- not just a strong impression -- but an unexpectedly strong impression, things that I ran across while scanning outside the standard frequencies. That way, I'll avoid repeating the top entries in everybody else's top ten lists and best-of-in-history lists.

So that makes for a slightly more manageable question: what were my best discoveries of 2012?

The strongest, freshest cinema memory I have is Skyfall (discussed here), which destroyed most of my other in-theater viewing experiences this year. But that's not really a discovery, is it? I knew I liked Sam Mendes's eye for photography, and it was getting excellent reviews long before I got to see it. There's been enough tribute-writing on Skyfall. Same with the rest of the tentpoles... The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers, Cloud Atlas. I guess I "discovered" a lot of older films, like Reds, Boogie Nights, and House of Flying Daggers, but generally, I appreciated them without really falling in love with them. To really qualify as a discovery, I needed to pick a film I'd loved unexpectedly, a film that stopped me for a second to ask for the time, and then charmed me into going home with it. It can't just be a film that the critics and the marketing teams threw at me like a mortar shell... I needed to think of a film that had discovered me. The only one that really qualifies is:


Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (Guy Ritchie, December 2011)

In his second installment of the RDJ-as-Sherlock-Holmes series, Guy Ritchie found his stride. I wrote a whole blog post on why I think it's a strangely wonderful popcorn action flick, a sort of theater-of-the-absurd superhuman Victorian burlesque. I've thought about it from time to time since then, and I'm continually impressed by the way they handled the final showdown between Holmes and Moriarty: a whole physical exchange playing out in their heads, like they're supercomputers playing chess, anticipating every possible move, and computing every inevitable outcome. They treat choreographed martial-arts combat like a strategy game... an elaborate match in Starcraft or Risk... where the player that can anticipate the other's actions most accurately, project furthest ahead, and logically outflank their opponent is destined to be the victor. It's a stroke of genius that Holmes knows he can't win this fight, and a further stroke that he's only saved by the unexpected intervention of Watson (the kind of event that simply couldn't have been anticipated) -- in a way, this is an argument that friendship and the loyalty of his comrades is the wild card Holmes holds that breaks his stalemate with the evil Doctor.

Sherlock Holmes is the kind of under-the-radar discovery that I treasure as a niche media connoisseur. I didn't fall into it wholeheartedly, like I do with some highly-regarded films, TV shows, and video games... the merit of the film crept up on me and busted through my natural skepticism toward post-T2 action flicks. Few franchises can boast of that kind of hooking power, because so many franchises are already pre-judged by the blogomediajournosphere, and I just get to relax and watch for the things that other people really like about them.

For instance, take Game of Thrones and Skyrim. I had a wonderful, sublimely self-indulgent weekend over the summer, during which my wife and I watched the entire first season of Game of Thrones, in one straight shot. That's... what... 12 hours of dark, cynical fantasy produced by the nigh-insurmountable talent at HBO? And then, the next day, I spent the whole day playing Skyrim, which was one of the richest, most immersive interactive fantasies I've ever made the time for. That was my exhilerating, violent, escapist, clangy medieval weekend of 2012, and when I came out into the real world on Monday morning, it felt like a Jules Verne novel of the future compared to the Tolkienesque reality I had just left behind.

And yet, I'm not going to cite either of these as Best of 2012, because again, I didn't really discover them. The World discovered them. Skyrim has been a meme-factory and an outsized video game award winner, and Game of Thrones has everyone breathless for Season 3. You can't open a browser window without tripping over a Game of Thrones recap. Both of these were already tidal waves of enthusiasm... I just had to ride them into shore.

Nay, for Video Game, I'm going with something older, a sleeper hit that I'm still playing. It's been a fresh, rejuvenating balm for my couch-sitting time at the end of the day, and I've ripped through the game in a mere 10 days or so. My wife and I are addicted to it like you get addicted to a fun, cheesy anime series, so that you look forward every night to another couple episodes. It's not award-winning or iconic, but the people who have run across it love it, and I count myself among them. Ladies and gentlemen, it's...


Valkyria Chronicles (Sega, 2008. For the Playstation 3)

I'm currently in the middle of watching Band of Brothers, and I'm ashamed to admit: it's competing directly with an under-the-rader video game for best war-themed thing in my life right now. Valkyria Chronicles is a cinematic anime-style war game that takes place in an alternate-universe World War II, a clash between The East Europan Empire (the generic communo-fascist autocratic bad guys) and the Allied Federation of Western Europe. Err, Europa. Or whatever it is. You are a native of Gallia, a small country in the North, that's bearing the brunt of the clashes between the two world powers. You are a lieutenant in the Gallian militia, commanding a small squad of soldiers from your tank-cum-command-HQ, and of course, your personal quest to defend your homeland becomes bound up with the war that's swept over the continent. The whole thing is romanticized as a war of tyrants versus freedom-loving natives, but there are also overtones that this is a war of natural resources. This whole world runs on something called Ragnite, and as luck would have it, Gallia is rich in the stuff.

The plot is fluff, with all the subtlety and gritty realism of Shonen anime, which is to say, none at all. Lots of primary colors and simplistic emotional cues... you don't consume this type of stuff for its psychological depth. What Valkyria Chronicles does that's so fantastic is very primal, just like that anime-style storytelling... it provides a buoyant cinematic experience as we follow the characters through their heroic journey, and it provides a visceral, often frustrating tactical combat experience, padded with extensive cut-scenes. The gameplay combines leveling and inventory management (a concept familiar to RPG players) with turn-based overhead war simulation, giving it the feel of the Warcrafts and Starcrafts, or the Warhammer tabletop games, but with a more intimate, microcosmic feel to it.

There's a KEY difference between those games and Valkyria Chronicles, though. In all the War-(etc) games, you generate troops by the dozens or hundreds and send them to war in droves to be mowed down by war machines. Each figure is a generic plastic or pixellated copy of some standard type. In Valkyria Chronicles, you assemble a 20-person regiment from among 50 or so recruits, and every single one of them has a unique face, body, name, and brief backstory, including variations on skills, merits, flaws, and relationships with the other cadets. You then send these 20 hand-picked soldiers into battle in groups of 4 to 10, and try to coordinate their battlefield maneuvers under heavy artillery and sniper fire.

If you're like me, you'll spend a few hours just browsing through your troops and reading their short biographical snippets. Then, when you send them into combat, you'll start developing relationships with them... you'll rapidly identify Catherine as your best sniper, you'll find Rosie and Ted effective but annoying with their snarky banter, and you'll be shocked and happy when Dorothy manages to pull off an objective without stumbling into enemy fire. When you're deploying these soldiers to their positions, you will call them by first name. And then, rarely but occasionally, they will DIE ON YOU, on the field, and you'll never be able to use them again (without starting the game over from scratch, at least). Most annoyingly, this often happens with your favorite characters, because they're the ones you feel you can rely on... the first you put into dangerous situations.

It's not the game of the century. Skyrim is a vast, bold, complex, and intensely immersive experience, and if I was magically forced to choose one game to play for the rest of my life (WHAT CRUEL GOD WOULD MAKE SUCH A DEMAND?!?), I'd choose Skyrim over Valkyria Chronicles. Still, Valkyria Chronicles has been a refreshing discovery, and from here on out, it will serve me as a go-to example of creativity and elegant execution of a video game experience.

As long as we're talking about the continuum of reference to reality... wait, you didn't realize we were talking about that? Band of Brothers as drama via pseudo-documentarian reenactment? Valkyria Chronicles as fantasist revision of 20th century military history? Anyway, it leads me pretty directly to my next choice for this list, which is: Best Literary Discovery in the wide world of Fiction, wherein I happen to have chosen another drama of characters and emotions known to recorded history. I ran across this book via the NYRB Classics list, and picked it up because it related to some academic interests of mine. It was everything I could have asked in a random book choice.


The World As I Found It (Bruce Duffy, 1987)

The World As I Found It is a rich retelling of the life and times of Ludwig Wittgenstein, weaving together his younger days as a brilliant student at Cambridge, his troubled relationship with his father in the context of his brothers' suicides, his aesceticism and eventual service in World War I, and the professional and academic relationships that shaped his life. Bertrand Russell becomes a key POV character, acting as a mentor and a foil for Wittgenstein, and G.E. Moore is the third player in this philosophical trio.

The historical arc of The World As I Found It is epic, weaving through London and Vienna and Paris as Europe swings from optimism and enlightenment to war and self-destruction. It is the breeding ground for heroes and villains and soldiers and sadists, people driven by ambition, moral righteousness, compassion, and love for their homelands. What makes Wittgenstein such a fascinating figure against this background is the fact that he is a creature -- indeed, a behemoth -- of ideas: pure, neuron-twisting, intensive treatments of the fundamental meaning of truth, and existence, and knowledge as a determining factor in the human condition. I have read a lot of cerebral literature, and I've never read any book that demonstrated so viscerally the obsessive, gut-wrenching power of philosophy in the mind of its luminaries. If you ever wanted to know what it takes to be a true pioneer in philosophy (and, by analogy, in any field whatsoever), this book will show you: you have to be able to cheer, weep, and rage against nature because you've found some clever solution to some arcane paradox, or because that paradox has reemerged as a knot in your most elegant proof.

The history and power of ideas was really a thing for me this year, I guess, given my pick for my next category. It's a series of lectures that described a broad cultural movement in European intellectual history, which I knew was interesting, in a detached academic way... but I didn't realize it could FEEL so interesting in words. That is, until I discovered:


The Roots of Romanticism (Isaiah Berlin, 2001, adapted from his 1985 lectures)

I played another excellent game this year, Team Ico's classic Shadow of the Colossus, and as I was playing, I had an intuition that this game sort of mirrored the way Romantic thought in European culture was turned inside-out into the pseudo-heroic military aggression of fascism. So I picked up some books on the subject and started reading. The best one, by far, was a series of lectures by eminent cultural historian Isaiah Berlin, transcribed and edited into six chapters by Henry Hardy, called The Roots of Romanticism. I was excited to read up on this, but I didn't anticipate discovering one of the most engrossing non-fiction books (at least for my tastes) that I've ever run across.

In these lectures, Berlin was tackling an incredibly complex topic. Romanticism was a movement that developed over 150+ years, spanning all types of art, and seeping into the values of all of European society, to varying degrees based on the locality. It's full of contradictory impulses, and its implications have burrowed so deep into Western culture that it's hard to separate the Romantic ideas from basic conventional wisdom about creativity and individuality. Berlin starts with an incredible historical knowledge, an understanding of all the core thinkers and marginal critics of the Romantic movement, including its precedents and eventualities, and he takes this ridiculous volume of facts and names and dates and generalizations and shapes it into something like a silhouette. After reading through a few chapters, we can step back and see where the Romantics came from -- the frustrations of German intellectuals, the resentment towards French vogue, the historical trauma of the Thirty Years War -- and we can see how this developed into something that was simultaneously transgressive and traditionalist, soaringly hopeful and morbidly cynical and paranoid. Berlin weaves his history from the words and accounts of a whole cast of intellectuals, and he renders Romanticism in both its complexity and its comprehensibility.

Berlin's prose is kept very conversational, and this is part of the book's appeal. His digressions and elaborations play out like a measured soliloquy, and he capers deftly between hard facts and informed interpretations. Like some of my other list-picks, Berlin expertly evokes the subtle life of the ideas he is exploring, convincing me every step of the way that they were both personal and universal, resonant and disruptive enough to shake the whole world at the outset of the 20th century, and echoing even into our own time. It was what I needed for my paper (let me know if you want to read it), but it was also just a great, edifying read.

Finally, following awkwardly behind all my self-consciously offbeat choices for the other categories, I've got a fairly obvious pick for television. I've watched a lot of good TV... some Mad Men, some Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, Dexter, the 1994 ABC miniseries of Stephen King's The Stand, and whole seasons of Project Runway, American Idol, The Voice, and The X-Factor. There were high points and low points in every show, but none of them really called out to me or worked much seductive magic. For this category, I have to give a fairly predictable shout-out, and it's almost as much a nod to last year's season as it is a genuine endorsement of this year's:


Homeland (Showtime, 2011-2012)

I've been a little hot-and-cold on Homeland in recent weeks, but the show's first season and a half were so brilliant, it has an enormous amount of credit to burn with me. The show exhibits a lot of the same merits as Louie, its "comedy" counterpart: it keeps a genre in its purview (in this case, the spy thriller genre), but it defies convention so aggressively, with such grace and self-awareness, that it becomes a category unto itself. I know lots of people who kept wanting Homeland to give them big twists or shocking reveals, and this expectation ramped up as the final episode of the first season approached. Would we learn the identity of a mole in the agency? Would Carrie turn out to have been faking her illness? Did Brody have multiple personalities? And Homeland just laughs at us: in real life, these official mechanisms are so complex, the loyalties sorted out and anticipated so far in advance, that there are no redemptions or sudden twists or moments of catharsis. Instead, there are unplanned contingencies and bad decisions and lucky breaks, everything with its procedure, all depending on the relationships and professional commitment of a network of well-connected people.

In this byzantine bureaucratic universe, the characters of Carrie and Brodie and Saul get to emerge in all their grace and inadequacy and doubt. Carrie herself is a beautifully-rendered high-level operator who draws on a sort of intractable confidence at pivotal moments, and her bipolar disorder is written with sensitivity and subtlety. Like any disease, it affects her performance in unpredictable ways, occasionally giving her what seems like a distinct cognitive advantage... but the writers know that it's not the mania that makes Carrie a brilliant analyst, but her deep, sensitive knowledge of her subject area, and her ability to focus and communicate. Carrie's bipolar symptoms are something she has to work through, a wild card in her interactions with people around her that she has to accept and control to the best of her ability, knowing it will always push her to the margins of her community.

The laser-like focus of the first season was trained on the bureaucracy of military intelligence in all its (paradoxical) clumsiness and subtlety... and on the quiet turbulence of a soldier whose convictions have been entirely upended... and on the jarring cycles of bipolar disorder and the way it affects goal-seeking and social behavior. This focus has waned in the second season, and the veneer of plausibility has chipped away a bit. That's why some of the show's most ardent defenders are now talking about how it should be read as a "character show," instead of a wet dream of realism in plotting and suspense. The writers have allowed the drama to bloat into more fantastical territories, with moments of contrived irrationality and unlikely contingency, but they are still doing two things right. First of all, they are still trying to evolve their characters and the situations they're faced with to reveal new dimensions of the show's primary personalities (frankly, I think Quinn is about to supplant Carrie as the most interesting and dynamic character). Second, they are still resisting the tiresome plotting and pacing and emotional cliches that plague the rest of screen entertainment. In particular, the development of Brody's situation in episodes 16 through 20 are some of the most convoluted and unpredictable of the show so far. Season 1 won the show a permanent place in my entertainment annals, and I'm content to sit back and see how long it can go before it implodes or loses my interest.

As I read my list of prospective media for this accounting, I can see that I had a really solid 2012. I hope some of you know these media artifacts, and I've given you a chance to smile and nod and understand why I thought they were so great; and for those of you who haven't experienced them, I hope I've given you something to enrich your 2013, or 2020, or 2050... or whenever you get a few minutes away from your amazing job and beautiful family to engage in some blissful media consumption. Now, onward! my friends, for more sights and sounds and moving pictures await us.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

800 Words: The Continuing Problems of Homeland

Read absolutely no further if you don’t want to know what happened at the end of Homeland’s second season. But in a shot that’s clearly intended to mirror that most Goyish of movies, Gone with the Wind, Saul Berenson – the most Jewish character on television since George Costanza – stood in the midst of a couple hundred bodybags, the contents of which include the remains of virtually everyone he’s ever worked with over a period of thirty-five years. And as he intones the Mourner’s Kaddish like any Jew would in such a situation, he hears the voice of Carrie from behind him. We know that Carrie’s voice is real, but Saul doesn’t. For just a second, he stops the incantation as if to register that he’s heard the voice of a ghost, and then keeps going, before Carrie calls out to him again, and he turns around – forced to acknowledge that the one person he most and least wants to be alive is very much so. During that moment, we knew that Carrie was real, but Saul didn’t.

The considerable strengths of Homeland come from such scenes – when the line between what is real and what is unreal is straddled with the virtuosity of an Olympic gymnast. The war in Homeland has nothing to do with the War on Terror; it is a war to achieve a sense of self and home fought by two people who have no sense of either. On one side of this war is a man with absolutely no self-possession, his self-esteem rent in a different direction by everyone with whom he comes into contact. Sgt. Nick Brody is a hollow cipher in a man’s body, forced to maintain the appearance of a submissive Muslim to his captors, forced to maintain the appearance of a war hero to his liberators. Is he either, neither, or both? And will there ever be any way of knowing the truth of who Brody is by the end of the show? Does Brody himself know who he is?

On the other side of this war is a woman with nothing but self-possession. Carrie’s self-esteem is often inflated to delusional levels by her own delusional mind. Whereas Brody never makes a movement without racing through a thousand possible consequences in his head, Carrie races through a thousand movements before thinking about a single consequence. Brody’s entire persona is constructed around limiting himself to the minimum of fuss and obtrusiveness - were Brody ever to exhibit a single sign of an independent mind, he would have been killed a thousand times over. But Carrie’s entire personhood involves causing the maximum possible obtrusiveness – she’s the only woman in a man’s profession, often twenty years younger than her peers, if she were not so completely impulsive and utterly ‘masculine’ in the way she shoots first and asks questions later, she’d have never been allowed into the profession. Both of these characters were born into a culture too drunk on John Wayne movies, and must deal with the difficulties of reality against the heroic image to which they’re forced to live up.

Was it ever anything but inevitable that these two people would fall in love? Both Brody and Carrie are so completely self-divided that they long to possess the thing they have to decimate. If both of them did not achieve a state of love for the thing they most hate, there would be no show. And yet, the show must go on. If Homeland were to reach its logical conclusion, Carrie and Brody would simply form a suicide pact in episode 8, carry it out in episode 9, and the show would then start over a la Wire with a completely different issue and set of people. So because they can’t simply die together, the show must put them into every possible artificial convolution so that Brody and Carrie can continue their cat and mouse game in which they both love each other and yet remain potentially lethal enemies.

It is amazing that critics are only now waking up to Homeland’s artificiality. There isn’t a single issue of Homeland’s plausibility that was not clear after the first few episodes. None of the other characters are anywhere near as compelling as either Carrie or Brody, they all exist as an engine to drive the plot forward at the expense of any more meaningful exchanges; the show has always suffered from a crippling lack of humor (even dark humor), and it’s obsession with cat-and-mouse means that no other character can grow into its own independent life out of the plotline’s demands. And nowhere is this last problem more apparent than in the character of Saul Berenson.

Two seasons into Homeland, Saul Berenson is still the most prominent Achilles’ Heel (or leg) of this show. Homeland is amazing enough that it can contain amazing flaws. And there are few shows that have a bigger flaw than Saul Berenson. Why is he there? What does he add? He’s just a series of unnecessary Jewish quirks (hell, he even looks like a dead ringer for my Zaydie) which hide the fact that he has no life as a character except to be the all-purpose engine through which the plot keeps moving. He’s the sympathetic ear that sifts through Carrie Matheson’s insane delusions to find her golden nuggets of brilliance, he’s the moral compass who fights against the cynical cowardice of Estes so that the CIA will do what Carrie tells them to, he’s the pugnacious dirt-digger who has to find Peter Quinn’s real idenitity. And in addition to all this, he’s also the show’s intellectual and moral referee. When Carrie convinces Saul of something, we know that Saul will move the necessary strings to let Carrie get her way. When Saul has doubts about a CIA operation, we know that something’s fishy. When Saul has doubts about a person, we know what he’s going to find. The one thing Saul isn’t is a character of his own. He’s simply an ingenious all-purpose plot device that keeps the story moving. In many smarter-than-average but less-than-great pieces of TV and fiction, there are just such characters as Saul Berenson, whose entire raison d’etre is to keep the wheels of the plot turning: without a strangely omnipotent supporting character like Data, Spock, Josh Lyman, Dumbledore, Gandalf; who’s conveniently around to solve any plothole the writers have, how can Carrie live long enough to jump through the next hurdle?

For what it’s worth, I have my own theory for what Saul is. This incredibly Jewish character is both a standin for Homeland’s three creators (at least two of whom are Jewish and one of whom is Israeli) in the incredibly goyish world of Washington intelligence bureaus, and also a standin for all of us viewers, who feel as adrift as Saul in the world of espionage. The CIA is the very nexus of the world of WASP's (as seen in The Good Shepherd and Charlie Wilson's War), populated by Americans whose families, whether white or black, never knew what life was in another country, and therefore regard enemies with the suspicion that only comes from understanding nothing about any world but their own. As a Jew, and particularly as a Jew of a previous generation in the extremely WASP-y world of the CIA, Saul does not rise up according to his abilities because he seems like an ‘other.’ For White Anglo Saxon Protestants like Vice-President Walden, most of whom hail from the South, even black people like Estes have more in common with them than Jews whose families came to America within living memory. Saul is neither liked by his superiors, nor is he any less hated by the radical Muslims against whom he works – perhaps moreso because he’s both Jewish and therefore put into all the uncomfortable assignments which more privileged CIA operatives don’t have to take. He may yet turn out to be, even more than either Carrie or Brody, Homeland’s most divided character of all. But because we still don’t know what he is except as a plot point, he’s nearly as damaging to Homeland’s quality as Carrie and Brody are uplifting.

So don’t be too astonished if we get a cheap surprise at the end of season 3 or 4 like many have been speculating; that Saul Berenson is in fact a mole in deep cover for Abu-Nazir or some other terrorist, waiting for the moment when he can work the apparatus of the American government against itself, with only Carrie and Brody to work against him or attempt turn him back to the forces of ‘good.’ It would be a brilliant piece of plotting, and the most manipulative turn in the wheel of all which ties the entire plot of the show into a neat little bow that causes you to say ‘Wasn’t that clever!’ while it excuses you from examining the fears about the world which Homeland threatens to examine so well and so often before being distracted by its latest plot twist. …If this all strikes you as too fanciful, too elaborate, to close to this particular blogger’s own biography, it should tell you how much of a cipher Saul is that so much can be read into a character about whom we know so little. At least with Brody, we know why we don’t know him. But aside from the fact that he’s the spoke around which the show’s wheels turn, we still know little to nothing about Saul.

And that is, ultimately, why Homeland has thus far failed to reach the very highest echelon of TV shows. There are times when it’s fooled me into thinking that it would become a completely different, character driven show; but every time it seems to reach some sort of greater truth about its characters and plot, it runs back back into the more banal comforts of the cat-and-mouse game.  Every time it appears to reach that point of deeper poetic truth, a heavy-handed plot twist wrenches Carrie back into the CIA and Brody into Abu-Nazir’s clutches. Even with two absolutely compelling main characters, Homeland still feels like an ingenious puzzle which sometimes touches on deeper cultural fissures. And like all puzzles, even the best ones, Homeland’s problems are solved only through manipulation.

But the pieces being manipulated are us. Whereas Mad Men or The Sopranos will put us through our paces as a way of drawing attention to its characters, or to its setting, or to its inner world of historical, philosophical, poetic meanings, Homeland continuously trades off its ability to burrow deeper into the lives of its best characters for the easy ride of the cheap thrill. Homeland is still a great show, done with an amazing amount of excitement and intelligence, but it should be much better; and every time Homeland threatens to be something deeper than mere excitement, the writers pull a cheap shot. Homeland could have been The Wire for United States foreign policy (could it still be?), which examines everything about how the sausage gets made in at the ugliest possible levels. Instead, like The West Wing before it, it made a conscious choice to settle for the thrill of being a trivializing fantasy which white-washes the reality of the world we live in. Like The West Wing, it is to Homeland’s credit that it gets as many things right about the process of governance as it does. And Homeland does better, sometimes leagues better, than The West Wing. But nobody should assume by now that Homeland is likely to be the great fiction about life in Washington which the world needs. 

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

800 Words: Friends-In-Law

I am such an insider to my place of origin that I’m a complete outsider to it. I grew up among a 90,000-strong 90% Jewish community, yet I sometimes wonder if I’m now the only secular Jew under the age of 55 raised to speak Yiddish. While seemingly all four grandparents of everyone I knew became the first in their American families to go to college, two of mine were among the less than 20% of Jews to survive Twentieth Century Europe’s meat grinder. Rather than go to public school, I was raised in small Jewish parochial schools until I was sixteen, where I grew up among a miniature community-within-a-community of extremely like-minded families whose one fervent belief was that the fine line between religion and secularism could be negotiated with no tension. The only non-Jews I ever knew for more than in passing were those with whom I played music, and the Jews I grew up with thought of themselves as being no different than the goyim of the larger world… so why didn’t we ever associate with them?

The milieu in which my compares and I grew up was extremely, perhaps even claustrophobically, small – in which everyone knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses much as they knew their own, and never hesitated for a moment to point them out. What right to privacy was there? We didn’t even have the capacity for privacy. Whether you were a child or a parent, home was a constant barrage where the music or TV had to always be on at deafening volumes lest another relative shatter your five minutes of successful reverie with a random question being yelled over to your room that could have as easily been about some piece of trivia to answer a crossword puzzle question as it could have been about the latest test I failed. And yet regardless of which it was, it absolutely could not wait to be answered until you came out of your room. Whether you were a parent or a child, teacher or student, pack leader or pack follower, to not interrupt everything which you were doing until the demand was met was the most extraordinary breach of etiquette imaginable. And for a kid with learning issues, there was absolutely no hiding behind a false identity, or a different one. To many, America may have been a place for self-reinvention, but in our little corner of Pikesville, Maryland, self-reinvention was something for the Goyim.

As such I suppose I developed a rather extreme example of a dual personality – on the one hand I’ve always been extraordinarily frank and forthright about nearly every thought I’ve ever had as an adult, as though I possess an inner monologue with a megaphone attached to it.  Yet on the other hand, I have an extremely private side that requires at least a day in seclusion among music, books, youtube videos, and movies for every day I spend around people – particularly when it’s been an enjoyable day.  

Except for family members, there are extremely few people from my pre-college years with whom I keep in close touch. My closest childhood friends don’t live in Baltimore, more than half of them moved to DC after college to pursue better opportunities than our dying childhood metropolis offers. But by the time they moved to DC I’d developed closer friendships than I’d ever had with them, so there wasn’t much need to see them too often. And frankly, there are too many forgettable memories from high school – particularly the second – to keep tabs too close on people from that era. I seem to hear so often of kids I knew from High School #2 that die, or succumb to drugs and depression, or go to prison, that the emotional investment of revisiting relationships from that era is simply too painful to have too often. I know it’s a fool’s errand, but I’m still not quite ready to face up to the fact that that era of my life actually happened.

I often think to myself that my life began around the time I turned 19 or 20 – and everything which happened beforehand was the unfortunate life of some thinner person whose rather painful memories were inexplicably deposited into my brain. There’s a famous quote from Stravinsky in which he declared ‘My childhood was a period of waiting for the moment when I could send everyone connected to it to hell.’ It can’t be denied, there’s something amazingly immature about that sentiment – everyone has their reasons for acting as they do, even if those reasons are unjustifiable to anyone but themselves. No matter how angry you may (still) be about things which are fifteen or twenty years in the past, you're much better served by trying to see things from the point of view of those who made you angry. But I can’t deny that there were all too many moments in my twenties when that was precisely how I felt about everything which happened in my teens, and all too many moments of my twenties when I obsessed over the worry that my teens were going to happen all over again.

My family seems to indulge my incessant grumblings about the problems of my childhood with the acceptance that any family would tolerate in their most entertainingly crotchety relative. Over the years, I’ve had ample occasion to observe that if you have distasteful things to say, you’d damned well better say them with wit lest you go from tolerated dissenter to pariah. I suppose that in this way, I’m now the court jester of the family (seemingly my inevitable role in every social circle), able to say things seemingly in jest which nobody else could ever say in public because everything about me seems otherwise so eccentric that people can rationalize that what’s true for me can’t possibly be true for them. I’m probably still a few years at very least from being the weird uncle, yet the weird relative who gets away with saying the things no family member is supposed to is precisely what I’ve become, even if there won’t be any nieces and nephews for a while.

My closest friends are, almost to a (wo)man, still either people with whom I went to college, or people I met through people with whom I went to college. College was the first time in my life in which I felt like I had breathing room, and I was determined to use it to the best of all advantages. For the first time in my life, I had friendships in which I felt accepted as myself, rather than as some other fantastical self into which I was supposed to fit. Over those four years, I collected a veritable battery of close friends who are still the closest friends I have. It would surprise me greatly if these friends are not still close friends into old age (providing my out-of-shape self makes it anywhere close to that), and the greater technological knowhow of our era provides that even as we move away from each other, long-distance friendships can be kept up to a level impossible in prior ages.

It is therefore both hugely meaningful, and also hugely surprising, to go visit those friends in their places of origin and to see just how different were their formative experiences. My place of origin is so unbelievably specific that I have no one to share it with. On Rosh Hashana and Pesach (never mind Christmas or Easter), I’ve long since no longer had old friends whom I go out of my way to see – and have therefore a decade-long tradition of bringing college friends (as often as not, Gentile college friends) home with whom I can celebrate holidays. Meanwhile, I’ve developed networks of friends-around-friends with whom I’ve celebrated all manner of holidays and simches, I suppose the only word for them is ‘friends-in-law.’

Many of those friends-in-law networks are in places you’d expect – New York, Boston, Houston, Providence, Denver, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Paul, Phoenix, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Chiang Mai, Tokyo, and increasingly as time works its distance, … Washington DC – and I think most people have similar networks of friends-in-law, people whom you may not have seen for a decade, but whom you can use your closer friend as an intermediary for when you’re in a strange city and can usually rely upon them for an evening’s worth of engaging company. But I think it’s far rarer for people to have such extensive networks of friends-in-law as I have in locations as randomly placed as Toms River, New Jersey; Biddeford, Maine; St. Mary’s, Pennsylvania; Westborough, Massachusetts;  Cady and Hannover, Texas. I don’t know how many other people have so many networks in remote places for whom one usually plans a weekend’s getaway with your closer friends in such a remote spot once every few years, just so you can see these old friends-in-law and have a catch up conversation. Like any relative of a relative, it would probably be awkward if you talked to many of them for more than a couple hours every other year, but it’s nevertheless reassuring to see them again to remind yourself that that particular part of your life still exists, and had life turned out differently, you all might have been able to grow much closer. And even so, occasionally these friend-in-lawships grow into their own independent friendships whom you’ll visit without the original friend, see just as often, and in two or three instances, even live with. I've had friends-in-law whose friendships grew as strong as the original friendship through which we'd met. I've had friends-in-law who met through me and resulted in long-term relationships (I only demanded they get married under a giant picture of me). 

In most of these above remote places, one goes to visit the town because the town is the place of origin for a particularly close friend – and you had occasion to go there for a holiday, or a wedding – usually you’ve already met all the most important people, because they’ve come to visit your friend in the place where they go. And if you haven’t yet met each other, you’ve usually heard all about each other for years.

And when you go to these places of origin, all sorts of things about your friends begin to make more sense. The friend from Toms River, an extravert and political official seemingly comfortable in all social environments, becomes more understandable when you realize that life in central New Jersey is so diverse and carnival-esque that New Jersey life is it’s own non-stop movable feast – close enough to New York to be culturally knowledgeable, far away enough to not be taken in by the more noxious forms of New Yorker intellectual bullshit. A New Jersey resident lives in an America-in-miniature that has every aspect of American life crammed into its small borders, and so tightly packed that no one aspect of its existence can ever be avoided. New Jerseyites have to acclimate to any social milieu within an instant, and to work overtime simply to avoid being submerged by the social demands of the carnival.

The life of a friend from Biddeford, a liberal policy wonk with an inexhaustible reservoir of knowledge and passion for his subjects, becomes more understandable when you realize that everything around his town breathes through two lungs – the right lung being the national political figures who vacation near the home where he grew up, the left lung being the seemingly inescapable Catholicism of his area and its attendant passion for good works. With a backdrop like that, it’s possible to speculate that a Mainer (along with a New Hampshireite) stands less opportunity becoming cynical about the political process than any other American would.

My friend from St. Mary’s is a resolute introvert whose reluctance to be loquacious conceals a capacity for unfathomably deep contemplation, the results of which comes out only to those with the patience to wait for them. In order to understand him, all one has to do is to go to look out through his front yard into the wide open spaces of Pennsylvania mountain country, where a person could dwell within the space of his thoughts for weeks at a time should he so choose.

Life continues at its own pace. I suppose such a weird melting pot of social networks is only possible because I no longer have hometown friendships about which are much worth remaking. I neither have children nor am I married, and it will frankly surprise if I’m either married or a father at any point in the next twenty years. I have a not particularly stressful job, and a no doubt too endless reservoir of leisure time. The time in my day which I have for building friendships is probably too numerous for any kind of  healthy lifestyle, yet all the same, the rewards which such a life has given me are rather remarkable.

As my thirties begin to take shape in Baltimore, the beginnings of a new collection of friends are manifesting themselves. It will be a long time before any of them can equal what came before them, but last week, I had a Channukah party where the inevitable work of introducing one group to the other began. Sooner or later, these Baltimore friends will become friends-in-law to my DC/college friends, some of them will forge friendships independently of me, and perhaps understand me in all sorts of ways I can’t anticipate, both good and bad. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

800 Words: My Inner Hypochondriac

Evan’s Inner Hypochondriac: You’re having trouble writing because you’re having a stroke.

Evan: I’m having trouble writing because I can’t sleep and it’s really, really late and I put this off for a long while…and I might need a glass of water. Maybe I’m dehydrated.

EIH:  Aha! Moderate dehydration can result in short-term memory loss. But why can’t you reorganize  thoughts from both your last two posts? You must be having long-term memory problems! Perhaps the lack of water’s given you a stroke.

Evan: I’m not having a stroke. I can still type coherent thoughts and identify every tone I hear in this Eric Clapton album.

EIH: But why do you feel lightheaded all the time with lots of occasional dizziness?

Evan: Well the lightheadedness might be a result of listening to too much early-70’s rock.

EIH: Cue the sad trombone.

Evan: Seriously, I’m probably just still dehydrated.

EIH: But you drank four Gatorades today!

Evan: I’ve eaten almost nothing but Cholent and Matzoh Ball Soup leftovers for the last five days since the party and I had two glasses of whiskey last night. Counteracting that level of salt will take a while.

EIH: And yet your #1’s are still coming out clean as a whistle.

Evan: OK, that’s TMI even for this blog.

EIH: And last night at the bar you felt really dizzy halfway through your second whiskey. Oh my god, you had an ALCOHOL INDUCED STROKE! MUFFIN TSHIRT BOAR PINE DIPLODOCOUS!

Evan: Calm down, the alcohol probably just worsened the dehydration a little. Now I just have to keep drinking water and eating fruit through the weekend.

EIH: Yes but you’re going to New Jersey this weekend for a night of what will no doubt be heavy drinking whether you want it to or not.

Evan: Oh…my…god… I’M GOING TO HAVE A STROKE!!!! …. PANIC!!!!!

Evan’s Inner Rationality (opens the front door do Evan’s apartment with his left hand, in his right is a tray with four tall glasses of water): Here Evan, drink these right now.

(Evan gulps down each in quick succession)

EIR: How do you feel?

Evan: A little better.

EIR: You need to drink water after all that Gatorade in order for it to have the proper effect.

(EIR goes into the kitchen to refill the glasses)

EIH: If you drink too much more water you’ll die of water intoxication.
(EIR returns with one glass filled)

EIR: Alright, drink just this one glass.

(Evan drinks the fifth glass, he starts to burp uncontrollably and continues to do so for ten seconds)

EIR: Alright, don’t drink any more water for the next twenty minutes. How do you feel?

Evan: Less dizzy, but my stomach feels like it’s about to burst.

EIR: Well at least it’s from water this time.

EIH: If you keep feeding him water, his intestines might distend and burst.

EIR: That’s what peeing keeps you from doing.

EIH: I hate you.

Evan: Well I do still feel dizzy but I think I might have felt a little better for a little while. There’s inevitably a head rush when the dizzy spell is over, like the part of my brain that’s missing has come back to me. But I didn’t get the full head rush and I’m mostly feeling light-headed again. And now that rib is acting up again.

EIH: You see?! You’re already too far gone! Every attempt to prevent a stroke ends up with a broken rib!

EIR: He’s not having a stroke!

EIH: Well maybe it’s Early Onset Alzheimer’s!

EIR: He’s not having Early Onset Alzheimer’s either. He just eats too much salt.

EIH: Maybe salt causes Alzheimer’s Disease.

EIR: Salt causes you.

EIH: Well now you’ve just hurt my feelings.

EIR: I’m sorry.

EIH: I’d forgive you if I weren’t feeling sick.

EIR: What have you been eating the last few days?

Evan: Lots of beef stew and chicken soup. I ate a lot of pistachios this morning.

EIH: Have you thought about Mad Cow Disease?

Evan: I think of little but.

EIR: You may have salt sensitivity, but this is likely simple dehydration.

EIH: Oh dear god. Salt sensitivity is the diabetes of the salt family!

EIR: 75% of all Americans live in a state of perpetual dehydration.

Evan: How existential.

EIR: This dehydration can result in short-term memory loss caused by a slight lack of oxygen that the brain needs which can build up over time into occasional short-term memory loss. Not to mention, you just turned thirty and your bad living is now catching up to you.

Evan: Oh jesus, I’m suddenly feeling more dizzy than ever.

EIH: Water poisoning! I REIGN TRIUMPHANT!

EIR: That can be a number of things. It can also be oxygen returning to your brain. See how you feel in thirty seconds.

(everybody silently counts to thirty)

Evan: Actually, not too terrible. The light-headedness is definitely still there, but there are a few seconds at a time in which the fog feels like it lifts. Suddenly I feel like I have more energy too.

EIR: All you have to do is keep drinking so much water and you’ll feel fine.

(Evan’s Inner Laziness walks out of his bedroom)

EIL: Screw you guys! I’m leaving for New Jersey early. I’ll see you when Evan’s seven drinks into his bender.

Evan: See you there.

(EIL opens the door and leaves)

EIR: What's his problem?

EIH: You. And you'll be my problem in a second too if you don't stop giving advice.

EIR: I'm just trying to do the right thing.

EIH (to Evan): And you let him walk all over you like this?

Evan: I'm only following orders.

EIH: Alright Eichmann, let's get one thing straight. You're going to spend the rest of your life in a disease ridden cesspool of bad health, and if you don't like that, you can simply go to 7/11 and eat more Ben & Jerry's.

Evan: I haven't had any Ben & Jerry's in six months.

EIH: How dare you!

Evan: I've been trying to exercise and even to eat well, but that's tough to do in a world in which there's so much good food. The rewards of eating till you loathe yourself are awesome.

EIR: What are they?

Evan: Ersatz endorphins, general dull stupor, the sensory pleasure of eating.

EIR: We live in the absolute Golden Age of world cuisine, and you're still bingeing your way through giant cans of cashews and frosting. God knows how much overtime I'll be working after the inevitable day you turn into a foody.

EIH: Oh how I long for that day.

Evan: I'm trying, really I am.

EIR: Well who knows. It's probably time to find a real dietitian and trainer.

Evan: Can I try asking friends to serve as those?

EIR: Sure. Can't work any worse than the last few ideas.

Evan: Anybody out there good at supervising diets or exercise regimens?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

800 Words: The Golden Age of Non-Fiction - Part 1

In case you didn’t know already, most contemporary American fiction sucks, most contemporary American poetry sucks, most contemporary American genre fiction sucks, most contemporary American theater sucks. Virtually any attempt to keep up with all the developments of modern American writing will result in a battery of colossal disappointment. It’s the nature of the beast that very few writers (or artists, or musicians) are worth the time you put into them to know their work well. And in the world of the internet, there isn’t a person in the world who can keep up with every writer who is championed as the ‘new big thing’ without feeling some level of bitterness at the time wasted.

And if we’re going to be this honest already, let's add that the idea of a novelist, or poet, or playwright, or painter, or composer, being able to capture the essence of the the 21st century world using a 19th century genre is hopeless on its face. What's the point of trying to 'capture the world' in a novel or symphony during an era when TV shows can take the place of novels, movies can take the place of plays, popular music can take the place of both art music and poetry, and music theater can take the place of opera? I know, I’m a pretentious snob who loves to generalize (and I really do, it gives me pleasure), and not only that, but I’m so pretentious that I even give up on the chances of finding modern equivalents to the ivory-and-stone carved gates of the past. But my pretension is in favor of dis-guarding the old in favor of the new, at least if the new is better than the old. So give me at least a few more paragraphs before you dismiss this completely.

The truth is, there are plenty of places in the world where truly great fiction, poetry, plays, art, art music, and opera are being created. But for the most part, it’s not written in America, or certain parts of Western Europe, or any place wealthy enough that overwhelming technology can create new means for creativity. All you have to do is to look at the artistic literature of small nations, of the developing world, or even ‘regional literature’ to see an output that puts the greatness of our time's 'big names' to shame.

The reason for this is deceptively simple. Creative people cannot improve their work unless they are given feedback. Writers have to be read, music has to be listened to, art has to be viewed, and the more feedback the creator gets, the more chance an artist has to improve. Yes, it’s absolutely true that some talented artists will wilt under the pressure of attention (I don’t doubt I’d be one of them, but that’s assuming I’m either talented or an artist…), but there is no true accomplishment if we don’t run the risk of failure.  Artists have to express not only their own feelings, but the feelings of their audience, and if audiences do not recognize themselves in what they see and hear – either positively or negatively, there is barely any reason for the creator to create.

To be sure, there are scores of examples of artists who did great work in something resembling isolation – from Emily Dickinson to Leos Janacek, there are people of genius who can create extraordinary work by exploring the world on no terms but their own. They do so by imagining the public which they lack, and having faith that eventually someone will come along to understand their work in a way which no one yet does. But most artists have neither the gift nor the internal strength for such a struggle, and require the company of others to debate, to spar, to criticize, and to be understood, so that they might be spurred to new ideas,  technical improvement, and a greater will to succeed.

But then there are those artists who try to have it both ways – aka, most of us who try to create something of lasting value. Most artists have neither a reliable public or complete privacy. They belong to a clique which tells them precisely what they want to hear, and spend their creative lives in a sterile environment, protected from the aspirations of an audience with aims more diverse than the narrow crowd to which they cater. It’s perfectly legitimate to like cultural things which cater to a less than universal audience, God knows I have more than a few of those myself; but in such a case, no person should take umbrage if other people decide that such a pursuit is not worth their time, and ultimately destructive to culture if taken too seriously. It’s one thing to appreciate the greatness of various separate ‘scenes’ in the art and music worlds, or to appreciate genre fiction for what it is, it is entirely another to pretend that this stuff is worthy of consumption for everybody just because it caters to the things you particularly like.

Truly great music is classical, popular, improvisational, and dance music all at the same time. Great fiction is simultaneously mystery, realism, conceptual, horror, and romance. The best art satisfies all your urges, both high and low. It’s perfectly legitimate to say that some art within your particular genre of choice may satisfy all those various emotional needs in the universe, but you should never take offense if other people disagree. There is a very high chance that even our children will look at the things we love with baffled incomprehension. In art, as in life, we have to accept that we're wrong most of the time.

Ultimately, what each of us thinks doesn’t matter except to be as yet another voice in the great debate over ‘what doesn’t suck’ that’s existed since at least the Athenian theater. Posterity will decide for us what’s great and what isn’t. In every civilization, there are late comers so saturated with cultural material that they try to claim posterity as a useless concept because everybody can cherry-pick whatever they particularly like. But because everybody can cherry-pick,  there are many people who choose to cherry-pick the most absolutist, authoritarian, fanatical choices on the menu, and because they’re within their niche, they are utterly cut off from more rational voices which tell them that it’s preferable to work for a better world with openness and tolerance.  Posterity still exists, universal standards still exist, aesthetic greatness still exists, even if we deny them all. We on the coasts of the West grow ever more tolerant and unsure of our values, yet the most dogmatic forms of Christianity and Islam thrive everywhere from Middle America to Africa to East Asia. We are not exceptions from history, and eventually the iron will of these holy warriors will conquer us, convert us, or exterminate us, just as their spiritual ancestors did the same to our spiritual ancestors. They will create new standards, far narrower ones than what had existed just a few years previously. Much will be destroyed in the process, and culture will begin anew from right above ground. In a well-maintained society, there will always be universal standards which balance tolerance with rectitude, and this balance is what upholds any culture and prevents collapse. We neglect those universal standards at the gravest imaginable peril.

But purely speaking from the aesthetic part of these universal standards, some books and pieces music are simply better than other books and music in ways that are 99% objective, and even if you find that 1% hole which lets you disagree about what makes those creations great, there are objective facts about great art which you have to argue against. Why is Shakespeare still a great writer, perhaps the greatest? There are a number of reasons, but a few of them would include the fact that the Shakespearean vocabulary included somewhere between 17,000 and 25,000 words at a time when the English vocabulary was extremely limited and varied chaotically from hamlet to hamlet. Whereas today, when the Oxford English Dictionary has over 600,000 entries,  the average modern English vocabulary is generally thought to be somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 and includes many words that are rarely if ever used in conversation. He also coined roughly 1,700 common English words – which ties him with Charles Dickens for second place as the great linguistic inventor in the English language after Chaucer (against whom there are very few other texts, so we can’t know with nearly the same degree of certainty), whom scholars speculate invented 2,000. By comparison, John Milton coined 600, the King James Bible only 40 (I couldn’t find statistics on James Joyce or Lewis Carroll or Tolkein, but I’d imagine the words they invented are far less common in our lexicon, at least not yet.) Shakespeare was the first writer, without exception, to create characters who contradicted themselves in their behavior – thereby creating personages who seem as three-dimensional as us. Polonius is a stupid father to Ophelia, yet a sensible one to Laertes – such an innovation did not happen before Shakespeare. He was also the first to juxtapose these three-dimensional, ‘real’, civilized, and modern characters against forces of the irrational, the superstitious, the barbaric, and the natural. If, as a seemingly intelligent person, you are going to dispute Shakespeare’s greatness, then you must dismiss these facts as either untrue or meaningless – or else your arguments against Shakespeare’s greatness are useless.

And because of this limitedness which I find, there’s a lot of fiction, both highbrow modernist and middle/lowbrow genre fiction, that doesn’t speak to me as many people feel it should. And yet therea are other writers read by very few people I know who completely blow me away. While I have grave doubts about the greatness of novels I’ve tried (and failed miserably) to read by writers as different as Thomas Pynchon and Terry Pratchett and George R. R. Martin and Stephen King and David Foster Wallace, I can’t for a moment doubt the greatness I’ve read in novels I’ve read by Orhan Pamuk, or Amos Oz, or Jose Saramago, or Bohumil Hrabal, or J. M. Coetzee, or V. S. Naipaul, and those are just the great novelists, it doesn’t even begin to speak to the great playwrights or (more importantly) poets working in the obscure corners of the earth. Each of these writers usually write about their obscure country of origin, and nearly as often in an obscure language, and the uniqueness of their material, their alien experience from the demotic beef stew that is modern Western culture, means that the issues of the culture they cover are just small enough to be contained within the experience of a novel, and just large enough to hold our attention firmly.

This sort of writing can certainly be found in America, but it’s to be found in less fashionable writers – writers who don’t try to contain an entire country’s experience within their pages. I don’t think there’s a single book that’s successfully understood the condition of America at large since Invisible Man, at least that I’ve read. But there are plenty of great American writers who’ve cut out their particular swath of the American experience, and even if they don’t contain the entire world within their pages, they cram enough of it to create great books. Perhaps the books are about the neuroses of New York/New Jersey Jews after the manner of Philip Roth, or about the venality of Washington powerbrokers like Gore Vidal, or the mean-spirited strangeness of southern families which you find in Flannery O’Connor, or the tribulations of life in the Great Plains which you find in Willa Cather. Great books are even possible about the failure of old-fashioned stick-in-the-mud intellectuals to come to terms with the full richness of modern experience, Saul Bellow wrote a few of them.