Monday, December 13, 2004

I heart America.

I wish to fangirl two things that I love inordinately and that have been reduced and slandered, to my mind, very unnecessarily, in spite of the fact that one belongs to a high modernist classic and the other just came out five days ago. So this is an I ♥ America post because it takes America. It really does. So the other, first.


Of course I think Ocean's Twelve is a highly flawed movie even if you compare it to Ocean's Eleven alone, and that's not saying much because Ocean's Eleven was fluff. I don't usually like fluff. And I always, always, hate Matt Damon movies. But it was snazzy, well-tied up fluff. Like an Oscar-Wilde-meets-the-Rat-Pack-meets-Steven-Soderbergh film. I really enjoyed it.

Ocean's Twelve was quite fuzzy and not at all well-tied up. The geometric dissolves, jump cuts, all the flashy Soderbergh stuff just didn't work for me this time around because the little G-string of a plot kept bunching and chafing between the buttocks of the film.

But they were nice, cocoa-buttered, suntanned and shamelessly springy buttocks!

This film is an outrageous celebration of everything that is a Hugo Boss-sponsored bachelor party: moneyed, smooth, suave, well-dressed, adventurous. It's made like a Page Six, and I have read enough celebrity gossip in the last three years to know that Ocean's Twelve is really one huge in-joke between George Clooney and Brad Pitt and Matt Damon and Julia Roberts. And Catherine Zeta-Jones who was annoying. I almost always find it impossible to dislike Julia Roberts, it's like she hypnotises me into liking her. I am a very weak creature that way.

Now where was I? Yes. Catherine Zeta-Jones is unfortunately whiney. The only reason I loved her was because she played a Europol cop in high heels and I am always ready to fangirl cops in high heels, especially when they take themselves seriously in a purposeful yet resigned way. 'Yes I am a statistical impossibility, what are you going to do about it? I have more smarts and a cooler trenchcoat then you will ever have. Fie.'

All the reviews of the film so far have ranged from virulent abhorrence to 'oh, it's moderately entertaining', 'oh, it's a huge in-joke, its funny'.

Why didn't anyone explicitly view it for what it was, which is a goddamn spoof film?

I mean the *pant* Entrapment! The James Bond! The every-single-Julia-Roberts-film-there-is! It was right up there, hitting you in the face. And there were levels of spoofery. Admittedly this was also imperfect at best and the film could have been a lot funnier. It fell flat more than once. But for once I didn't mind watching an experiment.

And I knew it was not simply for the male hotness quotient. (Me? Look at men's bodies in that way?) Brad Pitt is not beautiful in this film. Neck-upwards, he is the opposite of beautiful. He has a patch of carpet for hair. He dresses in silver. But he has what this film asked of all its actors, and all the actors (except ol' Catherine, imho) had it in spades, right from George 'do I look fifty?' Clooney to Elliott Gould. Charm, in its most technical, stripped-down aspect. That sense of timing. They all had it. They oozed it. I totally agree with whoever said Brad Pitt needs to do more comedy. He has a sense of the ironic that is impossible to ignore. I watched him in this movie and thought, maybe that's why he was so crap in Troy. He just knew it wasn't worth taking seriously! Ah! Brad, I am right with you baby! And I will go so far as to say - I like you! Perhaps even that - I think you are cute with the fuzz on your head! You dress like a gigolo!

Ya, so why it could only have been made in America: Charm on that scale takes money and audacity and a certain disregard for - things.

It really worked for me.

Funniest moment of the film: Everyone is saying incomprehensible things around a sleazy bar table in Amsterdam, ostensibly code for an engineered deal for very high-value art theft.

Sleazy Netherlands contact: *says seemingly marijuana-induced things about trees*
Danny (George Clooney): *makes disconnected observation about other elements of nature*
Rusty (Brad Pitt): *adds his own two cents about rivers or something*
Linus (Matt Damon): ...
Linus: Uhh.
Linus: *blink*
Linus: Don't let the sun beat down upon your face.
Sleazy contact: *blink*
Danny and Rusty: *blink*
Linus: And stars to fill my dream. I am a traveller of both time and space. To be where I have been.
Look on Linus' face: *priceless*

For those who aren't Led Zeppelin fans, those are the opening lines of Kashmir.



I have always tried to avoid reading the stuff that comes under the very specific and precise definitions of Great American Literature. Anything that isn't John Berryman and Stephen Crane (and e.e. cummings when I'm in the mood) bores me to death. Don't ask me why. Hemingway, Steinbeck, even Salinger (although I love Franny and Zooey) have left me colder than a refrigerated cocktail. Every reader has their prejudice, at least I hope they do, and this is mine. So I've neglected The Great Gatsby for the last three years it's been on my shelf. Now this is where I eat my millinery. Consume a baked confection of humility. It may still be that I have no wish whatsoever to read any more Hemingway or Steinbeck. But I've fallen head over heels in love with F Scott Fitzgerald, who also stands, in Nick Carraway's words about Gatsby "for all the things for which I have an unaffected scorn."

Part of it is of course, his writing. I don't remember the last time I read a book and was simply blown away by how intensely beautiful it was: "We walked through a high hallway into a bright rose-coloured space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end, The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up towards the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-coloured rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea."

I don't ever want to write like this. I know I can't. Perhaps it's scented, taken out of context. But I've never read a more intense description of an ordinary upper-class American house.

Anyway, apart from sharing the Fitzgerald love, the point is just to rant about reductive readings of the damn book, which make me cringe. I understand it's widely thought that Gatsby is a tragic hero and Daisy is some kind of thieving, shallow bitch. And it gets my hackles up. It's bad enough that I vehemently disagree with the idea of Gatsby as any kind of tragic hero, because he really isn't that straightforward. And then to dismiss Daisy, who is to me the essence of the tragic heroine!

This would never do, I thought to myself, leaning on my hoe and chewing my blade of grass. Cue some cussin' and fussin'.

I love Daisy because she's the most complex out of all those characters. Even more so than Nick, who is obviously more than a little bitter about his genteel impoverishment among the genteel non-impoverished of his own class. Clearly part of the reason why he adores Gatsby so is because he can offer Gatsby something. But Daisy, that girl has issues. She's the caged bird, the quintessential trapped heroine, the inevitable Jocasta who everyone forgets because Oedipus blinds himself. (Although, Gatsby? Oedipus? Call me Helen of Troy, I say!) From the very first, she displays qualities of insight and intelligence, humour, warmth, and, fabulously converse, a shy, over-serious, awkward youthfulness. In the first forty pages there's more to her than there will ever be to anyone else in the whole novel.

Of course she's not a good person in the conventional sense of the word. I think it's fabulous that she is also very much like her own husband in that way: they both break people and discard them after it's over. But she's not a scheming seductress and she's not a giddy gadfly, at least not any more so than she requires to survive in her world. She's like Scarlett O’Hara without Scarlett's complete lack of innocence. So how come Scarlett is allowed to remain a "figure" among literary women (although that book is a fucking travesty in more than one place) and Daisy is rendered not even equal, much less superior, to her?

Daisy never takes matters into her own hands because she never has to. The narrator, her lovers and Fitzgerald himself are very much male. They're the windows through which we see Daisy, they're the frames that "fragilely bind" the rose-coloured space of Daisy Buchanan.

If she ever makes a mistake, it is to misjudge the extent to which she symbolises her class, her money, her privilege - in short, the American Dream - to Gatsby. I don't think that's Daisy's fault at all. That's Gatsby's fundamental lack of insight and knowledge. To me knowledge and doubt are the essence of a tragic hero. Doesn't his obsession prove that Gatsby doesn't really love Daisy, that he's merely objectifying her? So why blame Daisy for embarking on a tentative experiment to renew an older, purer love?

Then, when the end comes, she doesn't stand by her man. Well, boo. Did you ever tell her to? Daisy is not a girl from an Enid Blyton book. She belongs to a time and place in which men had just made a big success out of shooting Europe to hell and making a heap of money thereby. They bought women pearls and silk stockings and bound them to gratitude and dependence. Women had more than ever to listen to men and be helped by them. In a crisis, it's Tom, her husband, who is the first to reinforce this norm in Daisy's mind. Gatsby's lost his chance. He's become a criminal for her sake, of course, but now what of his promises and his ardent declarations that nothing could hurt Daisy anymore? How is she going to live if he goes to jail? Hasn't she just been told that his money's all dishonestly come by?

Well of course it isn't a feminist text. It's too delicate to be one. And it's made of F Scott Fitzgerald, the way Daisy's voice is made of money. Daisy isn't Mrs Dalloway. But Nick's last lines, which he hammers out so beautifully as an elegy for Gatsby, always make me think of Daisy, standing in turn on her terrace in Chicago or wherever Tom has taken her to, bleaching the grey out of her hair, developing crows' feet around her eyes, perhaps growing too dignified to bare her soul to cousins she doesn't know very well. Alone as always, full of her 'aching, grieving beauty', not even knowing for certain whether she's unhappy or not.

"And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue dawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther...and one fine morning -

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Weird names

I have decided that I love the Elizabethans. Sure and tis an easy thing to do. Yet, Martin Marprelate really did do it for me.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

What It Means to be an English Student, or, Roswitha’s Revenge

Written for Shloka, who is currently finding all English students very annoying because, quote, “I have had it upto HERE with hair-brained English students. Just because they read Dickens for a term paper doesnt mean no one else does. Or that no one else understands Christina Rossetti.”


Roswitha was a nun in a convent in medieval Gandersheim, Germany. She was one of the earliest people to note that life got boring if all you had to read was the Bible over and over again. Being so full of inconsistencies, shifts in style and glaring lacunae, it wasn’t very easy on the critical eye that lacked a good education in postmodernism, either. Yes, there were critical eyes in the Germany of the Dark Ages. In the words of T S Eliot, “Every nation, every race, has not only its own creative, but its own critical turn of mind.” (see “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism 1922.) So Roswitha noted, in her journal, incidents of herself and like-minded nuns sitting in the dark cavernous belly of their little abbey, tummies all “with good capon lined” (Shakesepeare, "As You Like It", 'All the world's a stage' l.17) thanks to the tremendous wealth that medieval German widows donated to the convent when they came there fleeing lecherous male relatives, and they all drank beer and conducted readings of the early 2nd cent. A.D. Latin plays of Terence. She went on to write a bunch herself. Anyway, that’s all you need to know about the re-introduction of literary study in the Western World.

On the poetry front, the Anglo-Saxons were doing fantastic things with their limited consonants and frankly unpleasant-sounding language in alliterative verse that consisted mostly of ridiculous riddles, which posed a real problem only to very drunk dragonslayers like Beowulf. He went on to have a fine poem about him altered and written down to conform to Christian ideology. As for prose, of course, the Revd. Bede and Alfred the Great did what they could to preserve memories of the history and culture of the island people in between the incessant wars and ritual disembowelments.

But we digress. This happens all the time in an English class. Still, one must understand the history of a monster to comprehend it in entirety, or so would say the Leavisite critics. To separate a student of English from English itself could result in a potential misunderstanding of both creatures, besides earning the student of English low grades in an exam. So without further ado, let us blow the cover off the mystique of the English student’s identity.

1. Unoriginality.

The English idiom is a gluttonous mix of a number of languages including but not limited to Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon and other Northern compounds and French. That’s not even counting the other foreign languages it milks shamelessly whenever someone happens to plant a toe out of Isle soil in search of a good bargain for silk and spices or vice-versa. It has a character of its own; unfortunately this has been buried under all the mega-tonnes of picking off other tongues since time immemorial. It’s all very well to say that English has “resources”; it has an embarassing history of filching is what it has. [Cf. AS. feolan to stick to, OHG. felhan, felahan, to hide, Icel. fela, Goth. filhan to hide, bury, Prov. E. feal to hide slyly, OE. felen.]

The English student, I am sorry to announce, is also a magpie. These term papers that you always see them in a flurry about, these critical appreciations, and, above all, those horribly esoteric ideas that they inject into the most normal of conversations? You might be led to believe they have a spark of original thought behind them. The English students might be led to believe they have a spark of original thought behind them. They can bite Originality’s arse.

Not to discredit term-paper-people: everyone wants to start out believing that they will illuminate this next essay or conversation with something no one else in the world has ever done. Not happening. Let’s face it, Jung pretty much discredited the idea of originality a long time back with the idea the unconscious mind contains memories and behavioral predispositions that all humans share because of our common ancestry, thus making sure that he was pretty much the last person in the world to have thought of something for the first time. So of course all English students reconcile themselves with a sour smile and a quote from Pope. This gives rise to yet another characteristic of Discipulus Anglicus -

2. Dilettantism.

Even the word gives it away. French, naturellement. Dilettantism is all about dabbling in a little bit of everything because it’s fun and easy, just like the secret life of Oscar Wilde. Now, don’t get me wrong. I have the greatest respect for dilettantism. As Shakespeare, un dilettant extraordinaire, famously said, ‘Dabble, babble, toil and trouble…’ Dabble enough in continental literature, Platonism and the medieval worldview - you could write all his plays. English literature has never done a day’s honest work in its life.

To be very honest, the English student, too, believes that there are better things to do with a day. Shloka insists that “I know more Eco students who read for fun than English students who do.” It’s true! Not only do English students not read for fun, they’re hardly allowed to read for work. Too much to assimiliate. The way of the English student is not to read. It is to read about, or pertaining to. Take the student who will be able to recite the main themes and mythical allusions in a single work of James Joyce pat without ever having opened Ulysses to read beyond the flyleaf. Actually that’s a lot of students. This has a direct bearing on –

3. Bravura.

This is a very, very good Italian word for pretentiousness.

Now, now, I can hear all the screaming and shouting from the gallery, my pets. Half of you are saying “THAT’S the right of it!” You are the half who has been told at some point or other, “Don’t talk to me unless you’ve read William Empson.” The other half of you are quoting Eliot’s passage about the need for difficulty and intellectual dislocation to infuse meaning into language in modern times back at me. Well, I’ve read that passage, boys and girls. A good one it is, too. Which brings me to point four of What It Is To Be An English Student.

4. T.S. Eliot.

Anal-retentiveness abounds.

To be completely obsessive/truthful, there used to be a (very brief) time when Byron and his less flashy contemporaries formed the focal point of literary studies. That was the opposite of anal-retentive. No one in modern memory has liked to talk about Byron. No, its all TS Eliot. Rumour has it that a former student of Literature is writing a potboiler (only not really) novel based on the conspiracy theory that T S Eliot had unlocked the secrets of the universe and was known by certain circles in inter-War Europe to be the Messiah Himself. Unfortunately for the fledgling novelist, he buried himself in The Annotated Waste Land looking for clues and has not resurfaced in the last twenty-four years. *

5. Cultural Imperialism.

In “Culture and Imperialism,” Edward Said defines imperialism as "the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan centre ruling a distant territory" (1993: p. 8). Cultural imperialism is the pervasive spread of the dominant (and sometimes geographically distant) culture through the production, trade and use of goods, language and ideas.

Up until about fifty years ago, the sun never set on the British Empire. And so it is with the ego of the EngLit student. With minds as dense as the African landscape of Joseph Conrad and as broad as the scope of Dante’s Divine Comedy, we will always seek to convince whoever lies in our path that Literature is the binding discipline of all the liberal arts – why study 18th-century Irish economy when you can read Swift’s essays instead? Why study the Russian Revolution when you can read Bulgakov’s work instead? In fact, why even bother with quantum physics when its principles are so clearly delineated in the features of Modernism? The mind of the literature student impinges upon every field of study and sows it with the seeds of its own obsession. If you’re not convinced, you only have to look up the reading material for any course in Renaissance Literature worth its salt. In the fine print you will see, relegated to background reading, the King James Bible.

So, this is what Roswitha sparked off, more or less. No one knows why the silly bint kept a record of play-readings when she might very well have been caught and tonsured for a) reading aloud b) Latin comedy, even. Boy, were those Romans not moral. And c) being a woman and bride of Christ and not knowing better. Maybe she was, and the later ages of the world are having her spirit-hosts visited upon them as punishment. Maybe she was just like the silly bint who threatens you in library corridors with her copy of The Joyce Carol Oates Casebook. Maybe you can carry around one of those anti-geist symbols and flash it at her, like a wooden cross or something. Also tape, because you will need to shut her mouth when she notices the underlying neo-Gothicism of the gesture, even if your mascara isn’t all that heavy.

*It’s interesting, really; Eliot was twenty-four when he published The Waste Land.