Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Maximal Minimalist

Recently I went to some galleries with a young painter. The galleries didn't do much for me - how often they don't - but the afternoon yielded me some framed New Yorker covers I bought on the street. And it yielded me something he said: "Everyone's a minimalist or a maximalist."

One of the hardest things when you're young is knowing what you like. I think the young are often pretentious out of something of a good impulse: they don't know what they like so they try to like everything, or at least all the right things. We blame universities and over-intellectualizing for taking us away from what we like, from that natural state of love we once had for reading, or looking, or listening, or what have you. And maybe it's true for some. But for me, at 15, at 20, and sometimes even at 25, the question "Do you like it?" instilled terror. It wasn't that I didn't like things, it was just that there seemed to be no pattern, no way to describe it.

Like the best friends or the best partners, the best teachers hold up a mirror. I remember Anna Deveare Smith giving a talk at NYU, and she said, the best thing a teacher did for me was tell me I was funny. One of the most romantic pieces of writing I know is "He and I" by Natalia Ginzburg, which begins "He always feels hot, I always feel cold."

So, if ten or fifteen years ago, I'd been at a gallery and some had asked, are you a minimalist or a maximalist, I would have gone into a panic. Instead, now, when he said it I said "ah, so that's what Synecdoche, NY was really about! Catherine Keener and Philip Seymour Hoffman are doomed from the start because she's a minimalist and he's a maximalist."

This week, Poet Laureate Kay Ryan spoke at my school. She was a great reader and performer, and the students loved the way she slowed down her readings of her tight little puzzle poems. At one point she talked about how things like taste are pretty set early on, and read "After Zeno," which she wrote when she was 19 following her father's death, years before she started publishing, and which starts:

When he was
I was.
But I still am
and he is still.

Immediately I thought of Lydia Davis, who does something similar in "Grammar Questions," also about a father: "Now, during the time he is dying, can I say, "this is where he lives"?

So there you would seem to have it: two versions of the minimalist, in poetry and in sort-of prose, which nevertheless aspires to the condition etc. It is perhaps not accidental that in slogging through Infinite Jest (how the maximalists must announce themselves in their titles, as if we couldn't tell!) I keep thinking, look at all the hidden gems - you could have hundreds of beautiful poems here, if you pulled them out, if only they were fifty words on a page, where people could see them!

But I also think of this, another poet mourning a parent : "towards education marriage nervous breakdown, operation, teaching school and learning to be mad, in a dream - what is this life?" And later, this - "The key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight at the window - I have the key - Get married Allen don't take drugs - the key is in the bars, in the sunlight in the window. Love, your mother' which is Naomi - "

Which takes me back again to the same question: why not say what happened, why not say her words? What will it be: to say nothing (and everything) of a life, or to say everything (and nothing)?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Long-Ass Mad Men Post, In honor of Carla and not illustrated by a photo of Deborah Lacey

(Lots of spoilers)

As folks who know me know, I'm more than a little Mad Men obsessed. I wrote a whole honest to god essay about Betty Draper (Francis) at the start of the season this summer. I've had multiple dreams about the show (more about that later) . More than that, though I think it's probably permeated my thoughts over a longer period of time, and I've had more discussions, with more people, about how they've responded to it, often in a deeply personal way, than just about any other work of art in any medium that I can think of. That the thing this is true about happens to be a television show would have bothered me once upon a time, but it doesn't now.

Sunday, I had some folks over to watch the finale. As it unfolded, we started asking each other, "Is this really happening?" as if we expected Don to reassure us "It will surprise you how much this never happened" and Allison to insist "This really happened." Which it did: he really proposes to Megan, he really says all those gooey things with that glazed look that we've only seen when he was trying to sell furs to Roger in a flashback, things that he referred to in the very first episode as "invented by guys like me to sell you nylons." When Joan and Peggy shared their conspiratorial cigarettes, I was delighted, not only for a hint of solidarity to conclude this season of the rise of the working woman, but because after the long slog out in California, we finally saw that someone besides us thought this was ridiculous, that we're allowed to laugh at him.

So, Don. Don Don Don Don. Perhaps this says something about my level of cynicism, but I was more annoyed and angry with Don after this episode than ever before, including when he blacked out and forgot to pick up his kids. The problem is, I don't know if this is his fault, or the show's. I don't know if I hated it, like Amanda did. I do think it was crazy to dump the firm storyline so completely: I'm happy as anyone to see Peggy triumph, but panty hose ain't going to cut it. Overall, I have this weird trust in the show, that they're fucking with us on purpose, giving a finale that's not really a finale, making us wait to see exactly when Don is going to snap out of it. But why did he fall into it in the first place? Does the guy just go crazy every time he goes to California? (As one of my friends mentioned on Sunday, we never really found out what was going on with those international playboy types he ran away to in season two.) I get that it's kind of a twist from the earlier Don-almost-improves-but-then-runs-away scenarios, running away from a marriage and and running into one are almost the same thing. Exactly how did he get from mourning Anna to this?

But then I think, maybe this is why it's a brilliant show, maybe not everyone would react this way, maybe someone like Megan to take care of him is the best he can do, since he's certainly terrible at being single. And hey, once's he's married he'll have better luck scoring again. (When he's married to a brunette, will he start cheating with blonds?) I mean, I don't really think this, I actually want Faye to blackmail his ass. But I imagine how people might have a very different reaction, and how all throughout the California interlude, you're trying to see what Don is signaling, how deep the self-deception goes, or if an actor thinks of it in terms of self-deception in order to put it forward.

But here's what I'm thinking about the most: Betty and Carla. Peggy and Joan may be able to reach across the divide, but not these two, not in this life. How absolutely infuriating that Carla finally gets some lines but only when she's being dispatched from the Francis household and, presumably, the show? In one of my recent Mad Men dreams (yes, there have been more than one), I was pitching a show to Matthew Weiner, saying that he should do an episode that follows Carla home, and shows her teenage son, recently politicized, taking her on for working for someone like Betty. In a Times interview, Weiner defends the lack of black characters by saying that was the reality of advertising at the time, but I don't buy it: they showed us Peggy's family, which is anything but part of that world, why not Carla's? I find it telling that The Wire was so good at showing us black (male) characters, and Mad Men is so so good with white (female) characters, but never the twain presumably can meet, as if we're all like Peggy and Abe in the bar, arguing about who has it worse, unable to take in more than one injustice or struggle at a time. Then things got really weird: I was looking on IMDB, and Deborah Lacey, the actress who plays Carla, isn't listed on the full cast list. Just not there. And the only photos I can find of her won't upload onto the blog. Is the whole internet trying to play some meta-dark joke commentary? Forget one episode: as a commentator on this great post by Sady about Betty's sad silences puts it, "I want to know about the sadnesses and losses of Carla. That ought to fill up a few seasons. Or a few dozen." .

My other Mad Men dream? Jon Hamm with a Tom Selleck moustache representing himself in court in his divorce from Megan. It's going to be a long wait until the next season.

ETA: Here is a great piece by Salamishah Tillet on the show's "All of the blacks are men, all of the women are white" problem, complete with the photo of Deborah Lacey I can't upload.

ETA: Finding this picture of what Ida Blankenship really looks like almost makes up for everything.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Poetry Corner

The other day I wrote a long, intemperate post on the subject of Jonathan Franzen. (Short version: I think I know why Freedom is not the Great American whatever, which is, as Frank Norris once wrote, not extinct like the dodo, but mythical like the hippogriff, but I don't want to read it just to see if I'm right.) Then I thought better of it and deleted it. Then today, I was reading about how Freedom wasn't nominated for a National Book Award, and I thought, that's why I deleted it: ultimately you can't spend your time with things like that. So I looked instead at what was nominated: how great that Patti Smith's amazing Just Kids is in the mix. And then I noticed that Kathleen Graber was nominated for poetry. I used to teach with Kathleen back at NYU - I didn't know her very well, but she always had a stack of beautiful books that she'd carry around tied together with a sash or a rope, which I got a kick out of because it made me think about that scene in Rope, but it also because it's just a beautiful way to carry books. Once in a while we had readings in the program I taught at, and she'd read something just so breathtaking I can remember exactly the lines and how she read them. Stuff like this. So I looked up her new book of poems, the book that got nominated, and it turns out it was inspired by a Joseph Brodsky essay about Marcus Aurelius and that when she was writing it she would alternate between reading his meditations, writing a poem, and cleaning out her garage, inspired by Aurelius stoic injunctions against attachment. File that one away under the practical uses of poetry and philosophy.

So, in such a spirit of detachment, godspeed, Jonathan Franzen. I meant you no harm. I'm sure you and Freedom and the great American whatever will be fine. In the meantime, I'll be reading The Eternal City.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality

Last night I ended up seeing Howl after messing up the times for the movie I actually wanted to see. It was one of those great unexpected viewing experiences. I'm sure a lot of people will hate it. There isn't really a script: the whole thing is made up of scenes from Howl's obscenity trial, Franco as Ginsberg talking to an unseen interviewer, and Franco reciting the text over a truly odd set of animations. It doesn't come close to passing the Betchel test, but it's hard to fault it for that when Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassidy and Peter Orlovsky get about three lines between them. There are also lots of great photos of the young Allen & friends, which are gorgeous and heartbreaking the way the photos of young Dylan in the Scorcese documentary were. When the real Ginsberg sings over the closing montage, you kind of start to weep a little. The closest thing to it I can think of was Chicago 8 from a few years ago. It's hard to know what to say about the animations: Moloch is a giant calf like the golden calf you destroy in Sunday School pagents. There are lots of phallic fields and the approaches to animating lines about the cocksman and Adonis of Denver or sweetening the snatches of the sunrise are not metaphoric, to say the least. But the whole thing made me kind of weepy. I mean, first of all, putting basically the entire text in a movie is gutsy. Why not team up with Oprah and have a whole series of movies that are nothing but animated recitations of great books? Maybe that will be Franco's next project, or his Columbia thesis, if he doesn't first get inspired by this role to throw potato salad in the face of professors who lecture on Dadaism.

If there is an idea that comes across here, it seemed to be something about the liberatory, utopic feel of the poem. What feels hard to recapture about 1955 was not why Howl might have been shocking or met an obscenity charge. (The trial part of the film was the least compelling - it's fun to see the expert witnesses make fools of themselves, but it's all too smug.) What you get from Franco's reading is the celebration of these men and their beauty. It's the sex revolution before there was a sexual revolution. In the interview Franco as Ginsberg says that the key thing about the infamous line about saintly motorcyclists is that it ends with joy, which the reader doesn't expect. And as Andrew O'Hehir points out in his review, despite all our progress, we still don't have a lot of unabashedly romantic and erotic celebrations of same-sex love in our culture (or, arguably, of heterosexuality either.)

The movie also made me think more about the idea of self-disclosure, which I contemplated in my last post. Why not just write what happened isn't quite the question for poets, of course. To the extent that the movie has any kind of a 'plot,' it's how Ginsberg comes to write the poem he doesn't want his father to read. The format of the film protects it from the paint-by-numbers Freudian 'find your voice' thing of most Hollywood biographies. But we get close to it when Franco as Ginsberg talks about learning to put the everyday in his poems, about how the best of us comes out when we speak to our friends, but writers hide that to try to sound better than they are. This took Ginsberg to his reinvention of Whitman, making his subtext text. It's a familiar revelation, but somehow Franco makes it work.

But here's what I was really left thinking about, of course: Jon Hamm. He doesn't have a lot to do as Ferlinghetti's lawyer. But when we get to "who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments if fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality" the animation takes us past billboards that look exactly like the opening sequence of Mad Men. There's no way this is a coincidence. Later we see Ginsberg in a San Francisco ad office, moving tag lines around the page, expressing relief that he can survive in a straight job "with several secretaries." All of which leads me to one inescapable conclusion: in the series finale, when Don finally drops acid, he's going to find out that his whole stint in adversing was a peyote trip and he's going to wake up in the apartment of Midge's bohemian friends from Season one. Roger was the ghost of his dead father, Bert Cooper is the shaman, and Ken Cosgrove is the angel-headed hipster." Then he and Sal run away together. (Sal as in Sal Paradise: coincidence? I think not.) Who's with me?