Monthly Archives: May 2009

The fall and the falls


As Jeff reminds us, this lovely spot is where a notable Icelander threw his pagan idols after converting to Christianity sometime around 900 or 1000. Now that the bitter aftertaste of economic snake oil has kicked in, maybe contemporary Icelanders can come here and toss away their copies of Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose.

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The flight path not taken


It’s been apparent for a while now that Pixar operates in its own artistic sphere, so when I call its latest feature, Up, a bit of a letdown, bear in mind that I’m comparing it with previous in-house masterpieces like The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Toy Story 2. The trailers preceding the show were for computer-animated films that promise little beyond one or two gimmicks and some predictable gags. My problem with Up is that for roughly its first third, the film delivers something genuinely, movingly unique, then lurches off in a commercially safer direction closer to those unambitious, gag-laden movies that want nothing more than to move toys and Happy Meals. That’s not to say Up is a bad flick — even at its weakest, there’s plenty of imagination and wit on display — but it is one that leaves you wondering what might have been. 

Just as last summer’s Pixar epic, Wall-E, conveyed some pretty sophisticated science fictional ideas through purely visual means, so does Up use its beautiful cinematic palette to paint the love story of Ellie and Carl, Depression-era dreamers brought together by their vicarious longing for adventure and their admiration of a Lowell Thomas-style explorer named Charles Muntz. We then get images, in quick succession, showing their marriage, the thwarting of their hopes for parenthood, the little accidents that keep them homebound and unadventurous, the passage of years and finally, Ellie’s death and Carl’s descent into sour, dyspeptic old age, their lovingly refurbished house surrounded and overshadowed by looming condos and noisy construction work. It’s beautiful, heartbreaking stuff: imagery as pure and emotionally direct as anything out of Cocteau. And when Carl, cornered by circumstances, decides to break out by lofting his house with thousands of candy-colored balloons, it is a breathtaking moment — pure, childlike fantasy rooted in hard, adult emotions. Show me another animated film that not only has such ambitions, but achieves them with such artistry.

And then Up loses steam — gradually, because that first third has built up so much wonder and good will, but palpably as Carl floats his house all the way to South America in the company of Russell, an eager beaver scout determined to land his “assisting the elderly” merit badge. The long dreamt-of meeting with Charles Muntz goes drastically wrong, and suddenly Up becomes a grab-bag of ideas and gags. Talking dogs! Wacky looking animals! Aerial duels! The noisier and more elaborate Up gets, the farther it drifts from the sources of its charm.

Pixar leader John Lasseter is a self-proclaimed fan of Japanese animation genius Hayao Miyazaki, and he’s taken on the mission of marketing Miyazaki’s work in the U.S. I think Up would have benefitted from a closer study of Miyazaki’s storytelling. One of the qualities I appreciate the most in Miyazaki’s films is the absence of bogus conflict to keep plot gears turning. The storylines in Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro surprise and engage us without an eeeeee-vil villain who’s trying to take over the world, but when Miyazaki does stoke up conflict, as in Princess Mononoke, he makes sure the motivations are clear, so the clashes seem genuinely tragic. Yubaba, the witch in Spirited Away, is a hugely threatening villain because her malignity follows rules that are consistent but not immediately apparent, and the heroine has very little time to figure them out.

So when Muntz, the idealized image of adventure that sustains Carl’s dream, abruptly turns into a violent psycho, the switch feels forced and unbelievable — spurred solely by the need for a conventional action-movie climax. It is as though the Pixar crew toted up its original touches — grumpy geezer as hero, no conventionally attractive charatcers — and decided to cut off the supply of originality halfway through the picture. In other words, a cop-out.

Too bad. If Up had followed through on the originality and artistic daring of its opening scenes, we would be talking about something truly groundbreaking — a milestone in animation and film art. Instead, we’re left wondering about the road not taken. Or, in this case, the flight path not taken.

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Friday finds

Times Square 1940Here’s a cache of absolutely gorgeous black and white photos of New York, circa 1940.

Joni Mitchell on Raymond Carver and Alice Munro. Apropos of which, look who just won the Man Booker Prize.

One movie, four frames. Have at it, film buffs.

There are three strands to Lincoln’s thinking about race. (1) There is opposition to slavery, which could (but need not) free him from racism. (2) There is the belief that blacks are inferior to whites in intelligence and “civilization.” (3) There is the belief that blacks must be kept apart from whites, so far as that is legally and logistically possible, which is usually but not necessarily a racist position (some blacks held it). These three points of view jostled along together through Lincoln’s life, sometimes tugging against each other, sometimes reinforcing each other.”

A sad resolution to the Craig Arnold story.

Elizabeth Wurtzel is enough to give no-talent narcissists a bad name.

The Republicans have been getting their freak on in a big way since a bachmann-comic-coverdark-skinned guy took possession of the White House, and it’s only getting worse now that a Hispanic woman appears bound for the Supreme Court. But even in this Bedlam, Michele Bachmann stands out as a legislator who can really bring the crazy. Now the clever people at Dump Bachmann have found the perfect way to chronicle the wacky winger’s career — a comic book. Click here for a preview.

Everyone’s gone to the movies — and Steely Dan’s picking the program. The first summer movie I actually want to see is hitting the cineplexes. And are you ready for the first Kung Fu vampire flick?

Liberals aren’t coming to take O’Rourke’s precious cars. Barack Obama, in a transparently last-minute insertion as O’Rourke’s straw-filled bogeyman, isn’t really going to mandate that new cars run on wheatgrass sprouts. Recreational access to anything Americans want to drive all the hell over—streambeds, mountains, meadows, national monuments, too-slow bunnies—isn’t under threat. It’s O’Rourke’s long-established shtick to champion fun, in all its messy impropriety, as a synonymous stand-in for freedom. But to stand at the tail end of a disastrous SUV boom, with three gas-guzzlers in his driveway and a lifetime of professional coddling by the automotive industry under his ever-expanding belt and complain that the government begrudges us our cars is just dumb.”

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The knight’s trail

One of my favorite poets, Simon Armitage, is having quite a year. Following on the success of his recent translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he’s  done a documentary about the poem for the BBC, in which he tours some of the places associated with Sir Gawain’s adventures and engages in activities above and beyond the call of poetry:

Of course, there’s no more historical evidence to suggest that Camelot existed than there is for Arthur himself, but that hasn’t stopped Arthurians (Trekkies in chain mail) and tourist officers putting pins in the map from Winchester to Carlisle. Few places, however, have embraced the Camelot legend more than Tintagel, in Cornwall. On camera, I read some of the poem in Merlin’s Cave and stride among the castle ruins on the clifftops as poetically as a pair of elasticated over­trousers will allow. I also meet two latter-day knights, Gandalf and Gary, and voluntarily take a punch in the stomach to test the protective properties of a metal breastplate.

Gary: “How was that?”

Poet (swallowing blood): “Well . . .  I felt it.”

Upon reaching Staffordshire, Armitage spent a night at the Roaches — which, despite its unappealing name, sounds pretty cool — and seeks out the most likely provenance for the Green Chapel:

Several locations have been suggested for the site of the Green Chapel, but for me it has to be Lud’s Church, near Gradbach, Staffordshire. Like an English version of the Grand Canyon, it’s a fissure in the rocks that reaches backward into the hill and is overgrown on all sides with luminous green moss. The clammy air feels as if it hasn’t been refreshed for several centuries, and it’s the perfect setting for the poem’s finale, as the terrified Gawain calls into the echoing cavern and hears above him the grinding of a giant axe. I’m wearing a green sash round my anorak by now, just as Gawain wore the gift of the temptress’s green girdle to ward off death, and I feel a bit like Miss Ireland circa 1976.

Next stop, Afghanistan. Oh the sheltered life of a poet.

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Quark, linkness, and charm

3 Quarks Daily has launched a series of annual prizes in four areas of Internet writing. The competition for best blog post in science is already open; Arts & Literature, Politics, and Philosophy will follow. I’m not suggesting that anybody nominate any of my posts — not suggesting it too hard, anyway — but I applaud the thinking behind the contest, and I’m happy to publicize it.

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The Wednesday Westie


Clan-Westie-in-Sculpey-modeling-clay edition.

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The Wednesday Westie


Valiant-guardian-of-the-backyard edition.

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Ghost of a doorway

IMG_0266Around the corner from the Hoboken train station.

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That sudden recognition

As I write this, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun has fallen to the second tier of the New York Times bestseller list, having debuted on the tenth rung of the list only the week before. That’s a bit of a comedown, considering that the previous manuscript exhumed from Tolkien’s papers, The Children of Hurin, debuted at the top of the list in May 2007. It’s also a pity, because The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun is far and away the more valuable of the two books.

That’s because The Children of Hurin, cobbled together from notes and previously published excerpts, merely showed Tolkien imitating one of the sources of the inspiration that led to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, on the other hand, shows the old philologist grappling directly with one of those sources, on its own terms, and if read in that spirit it could start other readers on the same scholarly quest that animated Tolkien’s life and work. 

The sources of Tolkien’s inspiration are well known: echoes from the Elder Edda, Old English verse (notably Beowulf), and the Icelandic sagas run through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. For me, the biggest selling point for The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun was the chance to read one of the old don’s own lectures on the Elder Edda, and get a glimpse of the scholarly passion that drove him:

It remains true, all the same, that even robbed of their peculiar and excellent form, and their own tongue whose shape and peculiarities are intimately connected with the atmosphere and ideas of the poems themselves, they have a power: moving many even in school or pre-school days in filtered forms of translation and childish adaptation to a desire for more acquaintance.

There remains too the impact of the first hearing of these things after the preliminary struggle with Old Norse is over and one first reads an Eddaic poem getting enough of the sense to go on with. Few who have been through this process can have missed the sudden recognition that they had unawares met something of tremendous force, something that in parts (for it has various parts) is still endowed with an almost demonic energy, in spite of the truin of its form. The feeling of this impact is one of the greatest gifts that reading of the Elder Edda gives. If not felt early in the the process it is unlikely to be captured by years of scholarly thraldom; once felt it can never be buried by mountains or molehills of research, and sustains long and weary labour.

This is unlike Old English, whose surviving fragments (Beowulf especially) — such at any rate has been my experience — only reveal their mastery and excellence slowly and long after the first labour with the tongue and the first acquaintance with the verse are over. There is truth in this generalization. It must not be pressed. Detailed study will enhance one’s feeling for the Elder Edda, of course. Old English verse has an attraction in places that is immediate. But Old English verse does not attempt to hit you in the eye. To hit you in the eye was the deliberate intention of the Norse poet.

I experienced my own faint echo of that “sudden recognition” years ago when I had to translate a story by Jorge Luis Borges, “The House of Asterion,” for a Spanish class. After weeks and months of See-Diego-Run grammar exercises, to have a genuinely great story come into focus under my pen was a rare thrill — something akin to having a statue I’d walked past for weeks suddenly turn its head and call out to me.

I envy anyone who has that experience on a regular basis, though I don’t envy anyone the amount of labor it takes to get there.

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Blue Monday

As Michael Gray reminds us, last week saw the 40th anniversary of the death of Coleman Hawkins, who did more than any other musician to give the tenor saxophone its place as a preeminent jazz instrument. As the star performer in Fletcher Henderson’s big band, Hawkins perfected a powerful style characterized by long, flowing solos in which every note was surprising and inevitable at the same time. His 1939 recording of  “Body and Soul,” which you can hear above, is considered a landmark in the development of jazz. The popular tune had long been a favorite with jazzmen because of its surprisingly complex chord changes. The Hawk’s version, recorded as an afterthought at the end of a session, briefly states the melody and then dives deep into the very harmonic structure of the song, moving with such elegance that the recording became a commercial success.

Below, Hawkins leads a 1958 performance of “Indian Summer.”

The Hawk made his bones during the swing and big-band era of jazz, but despite his traditional orientation he kept his ears open and his mind working. This endeared him to the young turks of bebop, and Hawk’s sidemen included such young boppers as Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie, all of whom cited him as a crucial influence. (Miles Davis, for one, said he learned to play ballads by studying Hawkins.) The Hawk was happy to join in when the young turks started leading sessions of their own in the Forties and Fifties: he went toe to toe with John Coltrane on one of Thelonious Monk’s finest records, and when drummer Max Roach composed his watershed We Insist! Freedom Now suite in 1960, the Hawk provided some blistering horn parts. The story goes that when Hawkins listened to the playbacks, he kept leaning over to Roach and asking, “You wrote this? My my!”

Here is the Hawk trading parts with none other than Charlie Parker on “Ballade.”

The Hawk’s technique began to decline as drink took its toll, and he ceased recording in the mid-Sixties. He died in 1969 at the age of 64.

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