Saturday, August 22, 2009
As a member of the second generation to speak “Film” fluently (Martin Scorsese’s was the first in America; the slightly older nouvelle vague in France was probably the real first), Tarantino does not approach the themes of his movies via the metaphors of the experiential world (as was necessary before “Film” had developed its own stock), but via the images that films have established in all of our heads by the time we’re thirteen. Take the “basterds” themselves: As Jeanine Basinger points out, combat movies contain “a hero, a group of mixed types, and a military objective of some sort” (The World War II Combat Film, 23). Tarantino crosses the expectation this engenders with a real bastard (played by Brad Pitt); a group all with the same hair, skin, and ethnic identity; and a goal with neither strategic nor tactical implications. He knows that most of us have come to think of war in terms of the movies we see (or the video games we play), and he recognizes that this is not enough for successfully evaluating war in a world where the pain of combat isn’t merely an experience on screen or one reserved for the “bad” guys. A world where evil isn’t the purview of only one side. He knows that war would be much harder to justify without the simplifications of the movies, so forces us into another intersection, that between the purposefully blindered vision of the world and the fully realized, the nuanced consideration of all aspects of a situation—and shows us that even one able to see things that way (like the movie’s Col. Landa) can be evil.
At this point, no one approaching a Tarantino film expects an easy two hours (a little more, in the case of Inglourious Basterds). A master of the styles of “classical” Hollywood, he understands the expectations we’ve been trained to bring to film viewing, and knows how to exploit them for his own ends. Like Stephen King, he starts with what we know and then leads us into situations unlike anything we could have imagined.
Unlike Defiance (Edward Zwick, 2008), the last war film I saw—and another Jews-fight-back movie—Inglourious Basterds won’t fade to the point where I have to do a Google search just to remember its title (as I just did for Defiance). Inglourious Basterds is unsettling, and was meant to be. That means, I hope, that it will become part of the language we use when we talk about war through film from now on, keeping us from the self-serving and smug images we use about death and destruction, far away though these latter may be (for now).
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Yesterday, a copy of the screenplay of Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, arrived in my mailbox, from Amazon.com. I read it today. I haven’t seen the movie yet (it opens in the US next Friday—and I will certainly be watching an early showing, popcorn on my lap), but I am ten times more interested in seeing what Tarantino does in filming his script than I was two days ago.
This has got to be one hell of a movie. Good? Bad? I don’t know, of course—and it could be either. For sure, it has to be interesting. Though I’m not sure I would want to call it “original” or “new,” there certainly isn’t anything quite like it that I’ve ever seen. Not, that is, if the screenplay is any reflection of the movie.
As of now, I don’t know if the film plays for laughs, for its farcical elements, or if the satire will come across more deeply and more black. The trailers do lead me to believe that the movie is angled towards comedy by its promoters. But, funny or not, this has got to be one serious movie.
Towards the end of the movie, Colonel Hans Landa (played by Christoph Waltz), a German SS officer known as “the Jew Hunter,” says to American Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), “At this moment, both Hirschberg and Donowitz should be sitting in the very seats we left them in…. Explosives, still around their ankles, still ready to explode. And your mission, some would call it a terrorist plot, as of this moment is still a go” (emphasis mine). If there’s an easily expressed point to this movie, it might be that old cliché, ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s patriot.’
What sort of picture is this? It’s an action picture taking the conventions of contemporary action drama to extremes. Take ‘revenge,’ for example… well, take revenge. Nazis, for the past sixty years, have been the easiest bad guys to portray for we have made them the easiest to hate. Just look: even now the quickest way to vilify an enemy is to paint them in Nazi colors. Do a search on “Obama’s Brownshirts” and you’ll get close to 20,000 hits. Give people reason to want revenge against the Nazis (Jews, for example) and you’ve got the easiest revenge/action movie situation possible.
But what do you do with it? And why?
I can’t answer these questions from the screenplay alone, but I am expecting a movie that is going to annoy as many people as it thrills—and probably for all the wrong reasons, in both instances.
This may also be the most political movie Tarantino has made. The parallels between the explosive ending and 9/11 are hard to miss. But what is the point? Again, I can guess, but don’t want to commit until I see what I have now read.
By way of full disclosure, I should admit that I’ve long been a Tarantino fan, even to the extent of writing a book, Quentin Tarantino: Life at the Extremes, that will be published later this year by Praeger. Even so, I have not been as startled by a screenplay—ever—as I have been by this one. I look forward to the movie with a combination of dread and excitement.
I am extremely interested to see how I will feel as I walk away from the theater—assuming, of course, that it doesn’t blow up.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Dim changes approached. He rolled over to see: faint colors crawling slowly under the corrugated-zinc door. Little light came with them, dull, sliding grays reaching tentative, translucent fingers through outlined cracks. He imagined that they were seeking sneaky purchase for pulling themselves into the room. Furtive, their movement were, certainly. He watched through slitted, sleep-encrusted eyes while, cautious and silent, they explored new means of encroaching upon the cinderblock chamber where he had been sleeping.
“But it’s just a false dawn, not real day, not so soon.” He closed his eyes again as his cracked lips mouthed the words that soothed him. “Nothing dangerous here, not for awhile.” A pause and a sigh. “It shouldn’t be so bad, anyhow: merely one more start; another aching morning.” But then he groaned, thinking ahead. “Cool, yes it is, for now, but calling the scalding sun.” Another pause, and an expelled breath: these prefaced a mumbled attempt at irony: “Just another coming day here in the Sahel.”
He stretched, then, and pretended to relax, turning his head away from the door, trying to recover the quiet he’d felt before hearing his own words.
But the world, oblivious, wasn’t going to allow that.
Merciless and unyielding, it sent the sudden sharp whoosh of a military jet roaring low overhead, jerking his eyes wide, demolishing any sense of quiet in the coming African dawn and shooting a spike of pain, a missile into his forehead.
Enough. He looked up toward the ceiling; just now it was beginning to appear through the gloom. Admitting again, yes, that certainly had been enough, he also decided he really was awake. And yes, as he had known it would, his head now really did throb. Yet, as though mounting a silent protest, he took a deep breath and tried once more not to think about the world outside.
But another jet followed. Coming so close on the heels of the first, it probably insured that even the heavy sleepers were now awake, such a roar being rare in a place as quiet and remote as Mopti. He wondered if the jets would return and immediately hoped they wouldn’t.
As he slowly turned his head back toward the door, another sudden, shooting pain pierced his left temple. It brought him back down to ground and inside, to his little life, or what was left of it, there in the little room.
And it listed for him exactly, just exactly how much he’d drunk the night before.
Though his eyes stayed slitted, they were slightly more open now, but his body still hadn’t the willingness to move. So he once more focused on those faint grays now slowly yellowing as they began to reach his woven-reed mat. He listened as well, grasping the silence as an excuse not to move, to stay still until he heard signs of life in the bush-taxi yard outside the shack. No one there yet; no use of his being there.
Yet, soon, he discovered he was hoping, actually hoping to hear something, anything that might provide him an excuse to stop lying there. The physical demands of his body were forcing themselves into his consciousness. From many, many mornings in similar circumstances, he knew he needed an additional forcing of him, a push getting him up and going. Without it, he remained still, sighing, and mumbling to himself once more. “Despite this hangover, a new day has come and I have got to get going.” But, of course, he remained still.
Later, some little, long time later, once the yellow light had begun to turn bright, he heard a new sound, a low rumble coming from far outside, soon recognizable to him as the throb of a lonely, poorly-tuned Peugeot engine growing louder out of that faint, distant hum. It churned rubber tires into the still-silent yard outside, over the dusty laterite ground—then died with a cough, a sputter and a slight squeak of brakes.
A signal this was, he told himself—this it had to be—that life of the morning was in fact beginning, that he would not be rising only to wait, to attend the waiting that he knew, with a groan, could follow that. And probably would follow that. This, after all, was Africa, where waiting was the game of life. Though it was also, he knew, just what he needed, just then.
“Yet I might as well move now, anyhow.” He grunted, jerked himself onto an elbow—careful. His head sharply reminded him that it required something more like gentleness than that, and much more sympathy.
Looking about him, he catalogued the occupants, now just becoming visible, of his austere little room. The ancient boy-scout backpack he’d bought—a find!—in the Ouagadougou marketplace some years ago sat slopped against the cinderblocks next to a couple of large, green beer bottles, both empty. His cheap leather sandals lay at the end of his mat, placed as though he’d been tipped out of them into sleep. The pagna cloth he normally slept under rested in a wad next to the sandals. Some dust and a few cobwebs hung on the rough beams below the zinc roof; otherwise, the room, which he had never before seen in the light, was empty.
“At least it won’t take much time to pack.” Grimacing, he heaved himself upright and into the sandals. Bending over, sighing with the pain in his head as well as from the effort, he stuffed the pagna into the bag, rolled up the mat, and strapped it to the top. No need to change clothes, he’d decided. No matter what he wore, after a few hours in a bush taxi he would stink just as badly as now. He grabbed the pack, opened the door and stepped outside, leaving the beer bottles where they lay.
Squinting against the early light now making free about him, he saw that the vehicle he’d heard, a canvas-backed pick-up, had come to a rest amid a group of people gathered at the far side of the yard. Market women, wrapped in a riot of pagnas much more colorful than the one in his pack, were already handing parcels up to an apprentice standing on the rack above the canvas, high over the bed. A few meters from them, another woman had positioned a pushcart and was stoking the charcoal fire on it, heating a conical pot half filled with oil, preparing to cook the beignets she would soon be offering for sale. Further in the distance, a clanking of bottles announced the arrival of another cart, this one pushed by a young man and, the sound proclaimed, containing soft drinks and maybe even beer on ice. In Moslem Mali, the beer, if there at all, would be discretely placed beneath the soda.
A slight breeze, rising off the Niger River beyond the wall, began to push stray bits of paper across the yard, their movements distracting him. Even though his head hurt and his chapped lips cracked, he smiled, scanning the rest of the yard, eyes resting lightly on the browns, beiges, and tans that dominated the landscape before him.
As he continued to look around, over the wall to the flat tops of Mopti’s buildings by the river beyond the taxi gare, up to the bowl of dust that ended well above the horizon, just below the pale blue African sky straight above, he forced his mind to practical concerns. He tried, first, to remember what had happened the night before, to bring back the chain of events that had led him to sleep in the little room, not someplace he would normally choose, not even when completely drunk. He could recall that, after finding that his distance taxi to Bobo-Diallasso in Burkina Faso wouldn’t be leaving that day, he’d found a couple of Peace Corps Volunteers making the rounds of the few local bars and had joined them. That much he was sure of. The PCV’s had faded out at some point in the evening and he’d fallen in with a couple of—it seemed in retrospect—rather disreputable Malians. They’d gotten something to eat, then more to drink. And there things got hazy.
Something had happened after that, though, and he had a growing suspicion that it had been something he shouldn’t have been involved in. Or, at least, something embarrassing. He wished he could remember what it was.
Overhead, another small jet, likely a MiG from the Malian Air Force, moved high through the sky, well above the level of the two that had buzzed the town, heading east, Paul assumed, to patrol the disputed border with Burkina Faso. It provided a welcome distraction from his personal worries.
“What nonsense.” He squinted as he watched, muttering, again not aware that he was speaking out loud. “Two of the world’s poorest countries shaking their fists at each other. As if anyone cares. As if it could come to anything.” A pause. “All they are doing is messing up perfectly good lives…. ” As far as he had seen, the politics of West Africa were consistently squalid and corrupt; he hated the governments as much as he loved the people.
He shook his head, looked back down, and turned to walk around a long, cinderblock building on one side of the gare and toward the pit latrine behind it, again trying to figure out what had happened to him. A path of narrow boards kept his feet out of the muck and long habit kept him breathing through his mouth as he neared the facility. This latrine, he knew from a visit the day before, was a particularly bad one, full to within inches of the top, its maggots a clear, writhing presence, but it served its purpose if one didn’t look down or think about it. He didn't.
A few minutes later, he had made his way back around the building, where he took a deep breath and expelled it sharply, clearing his nostrils. It must have been bad, whatever had happened the night before, he told himself, once again trying to dredge up his memories of the earlier hours. Otherwise he certainly wouldn’t have come back to the gare. Who ever heard of sleeping here?
But he had.
Strolling slowly out into the yard, shading his eyes against the brightening sun and edging towards the drinks cart, he wondered if—and hoped that—there would be beer in the cart, and asked himself what the possibility was that any of the bottles in it had been on ice long enough to chill. Not that it would matter: the main thing was to get some alcohol into his bloodstream, to stop his hangover and jolt his memory. He reached into his pocket for the 100-franc piece that would get him one of the large, green bottles he hoped were there and headed toward the cart.
The beer, when the youth handed it to him, did feel warm. Just happy to have it, he shrugged and walked away with it clutched by the neck and open. A quarter quickly drunk, downed in one long swig, he wandered around behind the loading pick-up, bottle now dangling from his left hand, looking for one of the kids who sell cigarettes en detail, one at a time. The boy he found didn’t have any Marlboros in his little box, so Paul picked up a couple of Rothmans, dropped a 25-franc piece in, and flicked the lighter hanging from a string to the side. He took a long drag and stepped to an empty bench shaded by a mud wall and sat down, ready, now, to wait again for the route taxi to Bobo-Diallasso, the one he already had a ticket for, to leave. “Or for noon, if that comes first.” He was still mumbling, and still unconscious of the volume of his words beneath his hangover. The cigarette vendor glanced over at him, incurious, and returned to his own thoughts. “And to work it through, about last night, to figure out what had happened, and to decide if there is something I should be worrying about. Something unusual, that is. A new worry.” He suddenly wanted to close his eyes, but knew he would fall asleep if he did, and he couldn’t afford to do so, not now that he was outside. He shook his head to clear it, the pain having receded as the beer diffused through him, and once more looked around.
The Bobo taxi, a Peugeot 504 station wagon, stood where it had the day before when he’d left it to start drinking, unchanged but for the feet of a sleeping apprentice now sticking out from under it. No passenger had arrived, nor had the owner, whose cubbyhole in the cinderblock building remained locked and barren.
Obviously, no one expected the border tensions that were delaying them to ease quickly enough for immediate departure. The frontier would open eventually, of course: it was only a matter of waiting. And, for those in a hurry, Paul knew, other means for getting south could be found. One alternative he was considering for himself, if it came to that, would actually solve another problem, one of a motorcycle stored where it oughtn’t be, though it would require a more difficult journey than he had been counting on, and a visit to a place he had said goodbye to. But he didn’t really feel energetic enough to think about that right then or to plan possible moves. “Later. If I have to.” After he’d solved his more immediate mystery and had some idea of where he stood.
He cursed the sound of another distant jet. Over the years, he’d learned to cherish West Africa and its peculiarly reserved peoples—always more careful and competent than they ever let on to the odd Europeans and Americans passing through their lives—with its vivid landscapes, sharp lines, and a deceptive lack of color contrast. Besides its poverty, the only problem with the region was, as far as he was concerned, its imports from the developed world. The guns, the governments, the money. And, maybe he should add, the beer.
As he sat, smoking and drinking a second beer, other sounds and fresh activity—and the inevitable red dust it all stirred up—began to fill the taxi yard. The apprentice under the Bobo taxi awoke, rolled up his mat, and stashed it beneath a seat. A steady progression of filthy pick-ups roared in, almost all of them once white, just a few of among them of brighter color, many now painted with sayings in French or Arabic, all pulling up to where new lines of market women were forming. The words on one of the trucks passing in front of him could have been the region’s motto, so appropriate were they to that morning—or to any morning in West Africa: “On Ne Sait Jamais,” “One Never Knows.”
Yeah, he thought, his muttering aloud having receded, that was certainly true of bush taxis, and at any time, too. Their tires were ever bald, the suspensions and shock absorbers (if they existed at all) shot. The spark plugs had been cleaned and re-used beyond all rational possibility, and the batteries were often cracked and empty. He watched as an optimistic mechanic’s assistant spread his boss’s tools under one of the trees at the yard’s edge. Someone knew, at least, that a few of these trucks would not be leaving as planned. Not until a little more jury-rigging allowed them to limp to their next stop.
Over behind the Bobo taxi, he realized, other activity of a sort had begun. The cubbyhole door had been unlocked; the taxi’s owner, the patron, had dragged out his little stool and had now sat down upon it; and two people were sitting in the Peugeot’s back seat. Tossing aside his empty, Paul walked over to the patron and asked if the border were opening and the taxi might actually leave.
The man shook his head. Pas de change.
As Paul walked back to his bench, he had a glimmer of what had happened the night before. It was hazy, but it disturbed him—embarrassing, though, not lethal. He stopped, looked around, and wondered again if he should be sitting around anyhow, waiting, in this, a country where the police were never friendly to strangers, especially to drunken fools. “Exposed,” he whispered, privately embarrassed, “out for anyone to see.”
If what little he remembered was accurate, he shouldn’t be in any real trouble, not even if a policeman who just happened to know about it should come across him, but staying here could be made rather uncomfortable. He could be made a laughingstock. He’d certainly been completely abashed—he could now remember that—by the time he’d stumbled back to the taxi gare late during the night, anxious to get out of town as soon as possible. Of course, everything had been closed down. By some means, however, he had managed to rent that barren room and secrete himself away, ashamed, for the few hours of night remaining.
Beyond that, he could remember nothing clearly. Not even exactly what had led to what he had done—just the looks he’d gotten, afterwards.
The day was now getting hotter and brighter, but a little bit of shade from the wall still surrounded his seat. Though he felt slightly (and irrationally, he told himself) frightened and certainly rather worried about leaving, he sat down and rummaged through his pack for the mystery novel he’d traded for at the Peace Corps maison de passage there in Mopti two days before. After flipping through to find his place, he closed it. Reading, he’d quickly realized, really wasn’t going to work. He glanced over at the Bobo taxi one more time. He lowered his eyes, then quickly looked up again, slightly surprised.
An unusual black man—unusual for Mali, certainly no African—was approaching the taxi’s patron. Paul stared at him, wondering how anyone so clearly monied and foreign had found his way here, to a place generally reserved for Africans and the dregs of foreign tourism, a place created by nothing so much as by poverty. “Now, that’s an unlikely character to find in a taxi gare.” His mumbling returned with his surprise.
Maybe fifty, dressed in sparkling new black running shoes, expensive black designer jeans, and a moss-green perfectly-fitted, stylish shirt buttoned to the neck, he carried a huge and brand-new orange backpack. His hair was precisely cut. His skin was lighter than most Malians, as were his eyes. If anything, he looked like he’d just stepped out of an upscale boutique in a California mall, somehow finding himself teleported to the edge of the Sahara desert and quite confused to be there. Curious, Paul put his book in his sack and leaned forward, to eavesdrop as the man started speaking to the patron.
“Excuse me.” The stranger spoke loudly enough for Paul to hear without trouble—and in English.
“Oui?” The patron, though he probably spoke Arabic and three or four African languages in addition to French, did not speak English. He also did not look up.
As he watched, Paul saw that the stranger showed signs of strain, little streaks of stress marring his perfect complexion. He held out a handwritten ticket, his hand jerking rather nervously. “Will we be leaving soon? Will the border be open soon?” At least the man knew, Paul realized, that he was out of his element, and that he was in some sort of trouble. That’s always a good starting point in the middle of nowhere. But it didn’t make much sense. He watched on, now more curious. “Let’s see how the guy handles this.”
After a moment, the patron, who had pretended to be busy with the papers in front of him, looked up wearily at the newcomer. He sighed and scanned the yard until he finally spotted Paul. He waved him over.
“S’il vous plait, dit l‘homme que…. Tell the man, please, that…. Tell him that we will leave when the border is open again. It’s as simple as that. The gendarmes would not let us past Severé right now. There’s probably a dozen taxis already waiting at the border, anyway.” The newcomer watched Paul in surprise and relief as he translated.
“You’re an American, aren’t you? I wouldn’t have guessed before you spoke,” he said, when Paul had finished, surprising Paul, who was expecting, instead, a thanks or a response to the patron’s comments.
“Well, you look so….” The man hesitated, looked away, and quickly shut his mouth.
Paul suspected he knew what that was supposed to mean. “I am, though.” It was true; from this man’s point of view, he probably looked little like the normal American traveler. His clothes had been purchased used in African marketplaces; he wore locally-made leather sandals; he weighed about thirty pounds less than he had on arrival in West Africa some four years earlier; and his close-cropped hair and beard showed little interest in style. He was dark, too, thanks to his father’s Italian heritage, with features that could easily place his ancestry in Egypt or Lebanon, or in the Magreb, in Algeria, Tunisia, or Morocco. He’d been mistaken for a Berber and was occasionally flattered when told that he looked part Tuareg.
The stranger, perhaps only to make up for his small gaffe, extended his hand.
“My name is Sam Boudy.”
“Paul Cassamude.” He could easily forget the unintended slight, for he long since imagined to himself that he had moved beyond mere citizenship in his native land. His curiosity, anyway, was getting the better of him. “Tell me, why are you trying to get to Bobo by bush taxi? How did you get stuck here in the first place? I mean… you obviously are stuck, or you wouldn’t be trying this.”
Boudy swallowed hard as Paul watched, waiting for an answer. Clearly it had been a strain to keep his composure while talking to the patron, and he hadn’t calmed down all that much. He stifled a further look of frustration, trying to appear as collected as he had always imagined himself. “It seems the only way for leaving right now, and I’ve got to get out, to Abidjan as soon as I can.” He looked around him, appearing to Paul as though he were seeking an exit that he knew wasn’t going to be there—and very annoyed about it.
Paul sighed. It shouldn’t be too hard, though, to aid this guy. And he knew he would, in fact, assist him. All Sam would likely need, anyway, was reassurance, a little conversation in English, and instructions leading him to the right direction. They were headed the same way, anyhow, making it even easier. Paul could get Sam to Bobo, one way or another. Of that he was sure. At Bobo, Sam would disappear back into his own life. And Paul would be able to pride himself on his charity.
“There’s not much you can do right now but wait. Be patient. In the meantime, if you would like, maybe I can help you a bit, tell you about the place, at least explain some things to you, give you some suggestions. After all, I suspect I’ve been around here longer than you.” He motioned back towards his bench. “Let’s go over to the shade, where we can sit down and talk. Out of the sun.” Hell, if nothing else, helping this man would take his mind off his own stupid troubles; it was always nice to have someone to talk with, to distract oneself when one has been an idiot.
Sam briefly hesitated, but caught himself and moved quickly behind Paul, not wanting to appear reluctant. Paul, again, didn’t really mind. In fact, it amused him. Whatever the man thought of him, he told himself, didn’t matter. He really was almost as alien to Sam as the Africans around them; Sam knew too little about either to be judging anything. No matter: as there was no one else around he could talk to, he would follow.
As Sam did so, he still felt reluctance, wondering to himself about this skinny, filthy, wraith, this younger man walking in front of him. He knew he would take any help he could get right then and rationalized what he was doing by telling himself that, underneath it all, Paul wasn’t a bad-looking man. He might even be intelligent and able, after a fashion. At least he appeared to know something about Africa—could communicate with the people. And he spoke well in English, was certainly educated. Why, then, Sam wondered as he walked, had this guy Paul allowed himself to become such an obvious wreck? What had happened to him? What would lead someone, an American, to wander around Africa, nearly in rags?
Not that it mattered. Still, he wondered if there were others like this, or if Paul were some sort of anomaly. Nothing Sam had ever experienced had prepared him for anyone who had so clearly let himself go so unnecessarily (unless, he reminded himself, there were drugs involved), but he did need someone who could translate for him at least, someone who could help him get out of here, so decided to keep his doubts to himself, to see if Paul might, as he hoped, be able to point him to a way to get south.
For his part, as he reclaimed his seat, Paul looked back at Sam and wondered how in the hell this man had ended up alone in Mopti. It had never surprised Paul to find tourists wandering around lost in Africa, for this was an attractive area for traveling, though difficult. Some people he knew, ones who had spent years in Africa, looked down on tourists, as did many of those who saw themselves as ‘seasoned’ travelers. Paul, though, could still remember his own first experiences and how alien the continent had then seemed, and how grateful he’d been for the assistance people had given him. This guy, no matter how he had happened to get here, no matter how dumb he was in his expectations, had actually managed to make it on his own to the edge of the Sahara, and in the midst of an international border dispute, yet. He couldn’t be the complete fool he looked. He deserved a little respect, at least.
One of the things he had promised himself always to remember, Sam reminded himself as he shoved his bag under the bench next to Paul’s, was never to judge too quickly or too harshly. No, this was certainly not a man he would normally ever even talk with. But that didn’t mean that Paul lacked virtue or value—especially considering that he might be able to help Sam out, and was the first person in a day that Sam could actually talk to. Sam decided he would try to accept Paul as an equal, at least until he proved himself different. Not only could that be to his own advantage, but it was, Sam reminded himself, the ethical, honest route. He closed his eyes for just a moment of meditation, satisfied that he was doing the best he could, given the situation.
So, they sat there together on the bench. Paul looked over at Sam, who was sitting with his eyes closed, and considered just what, and how much, he should tell him, this man clearly so lost, so far from home, yet who probably had no idea what a dangerous situation he had gotten himself into. He didn’t want to scare him, after all, just help him, if he could, by getting him to Bobo and sending him on his way. Probably, though, the man would ignore anything he said. The taxi wouldn’t leave and he would end up stewing in Mopti for a week or so more, stuck until the crisis blew over. But that didn’t matter. That would be Sam’s problem, not Paul’s, for Paul was getting out, one way or another.
Monday, July 13, 2009
Somehow, I suspect, that’s related to ‘trickle down,’ even though the water’s going in different directions.
Some people do understand that a ‘jobless recovery’ is no recovery at all—not for most of us, certainly. Not for those burdened by student debt, over-leveraged overpriced homes, under-employment, family members in increased need of assistance, unemployment itself, credit-card debt, or the myriad of other financial problems or responsibilities threatening to drown them. Among those who do understand is (not surprisingly) Paul Krugman, who writes in today’s The New York Times:
At this point… the acute crisis has given way to a much more insidious threat. Most economic forecasters now expect gross domestic product to start growing soon, if it hasn’t already. But all the signs point to a “jobless recovery”: on average, forecasters surveyed by The Wall Street Journal believe that the unemployment rate will keep rising into next year, and that it will be as high at the end of 2010 as it is now.
Now, it’s bad enough to be jobless for a few weeks; it’s much worse being unemployed for months or years. Yet that’s exactly what will happen to millions of Americans if the average forecast is right — which means that many of the unemployed will lose their savings, their homes and more.
If this happens, no matter how much GDP goes up, our overall economic situation will worsen, with more and more people relying on catch-as-catch can possibilities just to survive (see Barbara Ehrenreich’s piece in yesterday’s Times for more on this), putting greater and greater strain on precarious family and friendship ties. This, ultimately, must lead to further breakdown of our social fabric, for it will not be able to stand the strain, leading to a new upsurge of crime, dislocation, and retreat into a gated ‘I’ve got mine; to hell with the rest of you’ attitude on the part of those who have managed to keep their heads above water.
What will that lead to?
Disaster. GDP up and markets through the roof notwithstanding.
We need to do two things as a country, as a society, and we need to do them now:
- We have to create jobs, and do it now. And not simply infrastructure jobs (though ‘shovel-ready’ projects may be the fastest way to getting things moving immediately), but jobs that can improve the life of the comity now and in the future: jobs addressing the problem of global warming, focusing on renewable energy, making recycling and reusing central parts of our economy. Not simply make-work jobs, but jobs that will improve all of our lives and that will, in the long run, pay for themselves.
- We have to find ways of easing the burden of debt that too many are shouldering. Doing so will be a trip through a minefield, but we have to take it. Sure, there will be those who will benefit unfairly and others who will never change their behavior (and who will slide right back into their bankrupt ways), but there are many, many more who will make use of the opportunity and will return to positions of personal and societal responsibility. We might start by completely restructuring student loans, capping interest, forgiving penalties, and forgiving a percentage (half, say) of the loans across the board. Who pays? Ultimately, we all do. But young people burdened by loans they cannot possibly repay will cost us even more—and this is one area where, I think, we can achieve broad agreement. We will have to do something about home loans, too… not by simply propping up the banks which made the bad loans, but by assisting those who cannot, given the current housing market (and even the rosiest forecast for the future), sustain their mortgages. Here again, it will cost us all more if we do nothing than if we help out. Sure, some of the people who will be helped acted foolishly or even venally, but most did not. Sure, it does seem as though we would be rewarding bad judgment and punishing good, but the bad are being punished right not—and the good, as well—by the very state of the current economy.
There’s nothing radical or new about either of these suggestions, but they seem to have been passed by. The politicians, apparently, don’t believe there’s the ‘will’ necessary to get them implemented.
If we don’t try, however, we will never know… and the economy, GDP notwithstanding, will continue to tank for most Americans.
It’s going to be up to us, the people, to take the lead on this. Remember, the politician practices the art of the possible. That is, he or she will not act, even if believing in something passionately, unless it seems either possible or able to bring the politician some advantage. It is up to us, through our voices, to give birth to belief in that possibility.
Sunday, July 05, 2009
When my parents moved here to Brooklyn in 1970, they bought a house, an elegant townhouse, for $35,500. My brothers and I, in settling their estate, have sold the house for over 25 times that (20% less than it would have gone for two years ago, but a fine return by any standard). Seeing that type of return, others of the middle class have tried to gain the same way, by becoming gentrifiers (as my parents were called), buying some of New York's superb housing stock in not-so-stellar neighborhoods, renovating, and waiting for the housing boom to continue. They bought magnificent brownstones in Bed-Sty and Crown Heights that were in horrible condition and worked hard on their houses, generally renting the upper floor apartment to manage mortgages that could not be handled on salary alone.
Like the college graduates joining the workforce already hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, these homeowners had faith in themselves and America. Few had ever seen a sustained economic downturn (the worst most of us have lived through is the hyper-inflation of the 1970s and the economic chaos of that time—chaos that seemed to have ended for good by the mid-1980s) and fewer believed it could happen.
The advice was simple: spend now, for everything is going up, up, up. Get that education, no matter the cost—it will be worth it, in the end. And get the best: that will be worth even more. Don't be penny wise and pound foolish. Want to buy a house? Buy the most house you possibly can, even if the mortgage seems beyond your capacity. In a few years, after all, you'll be earning more—and the house will be worth a lot more.
Yeah, yeah... we all know what happened to that.
But (whew!) the economists are telling us that the worst is over. The economy has bottomed out and things will get back to “normal” (that “normal” was a chimera—but nevermind) quite soon. Unemployment may continue to climb, but we have weathered the storm.
Say what? Have any of these economists talked to anyone living in the middle economic zone of America? Do they have any clear idea of how close to the edge millions of Americans are right now? If they do, don't they see that there is no way to back away from the edge and that the rocks beneath their feet are crumbling?
None of what I am saying is new to anyone in America's middle class. When I take my dog to the park for a run, I mingle with small landlords, sanitation workers, postmen, cooks, teachers... the run-of-the-mill of New York or anyplace else. What are they saying? It's going to get worse. Why are they saying that? Because they know too many people who are trapped with no way out, people who can't pay their debts. We all do.
Those people who bought the brownstones have them on the market right now for enough to cover their debts, but no more. Building materials lie piled in the living rooms and back yards. Though the apartments, which they finished first, may be rented, rents are no longer going up like they were. In fact, they've been coming down. They won't get as much for the places next year—and don't have the money to cover the difference that will make towards the mortgage. Not to mention that prices continue to slide. Not as fast as they were, but they are still going down—and people are getting desperate.
I know someone who just consolidated his college loans. He has graduate degrees and a secure job, but the loans (he has discovered) eat up over half of his take-home pay—and the extra income he was expecting to make through moonlighting just isn't there. As rent takes up another half, he's losing money each pay period—even before eating a bite. He's going to have to move to a much, much cheaper place. Oh, and guess what? His landlord isn't going to get as much money from the next tenant (though he may not know that yet).
Our economy cannot get better as long as too many people owe more money than they can ever reasonably pay back. And there are millions who do. Most of these aren't bad people, or foolish. They merely believed that what they had seen happening would continue to happen.
What to do? I don't know, not really. But rash forecasts of recovery won't help. They will only further depress those who see themselves falling over the edge yet who, so far, are holding on for dear life. Talk won't help them.
We need to do something before they fall. Sure, they are partly to blame, but that's irrelevant right now.
Cutting spending and cutting taxes won't help. The impact on individual lives is puny, and it is individuals we are talking about here.
Massive programs showing faith in our cities, our industries, and our educational structures would help, but we don't seem to have the willpower. Developing a rational health-care system certainly would help (for that's another area pushing people closer and closer to the edge), but too many people are unwilling to look at a broad enough picture for that to happen.
A complete restructuring of our banking system, along with a massive re-evaluation of debt as it exists now in America, however, may be the only way out. The loans need to be taken out of the profit cycle, at least for now, interests rates capped, past payments applied to principle alone and past accrued interest above a certain low percentage forgiven (reducing the debt substantially).
As I said before, I don't know if even this can be the answer.
All I know is that rosy forecasts can't solve the problem of debt that threatens to push way too many of us over the edge—dragging the rest of us (ultimately) with them.
Sunday, April 05, 2009
"I don't see what the big deal is. Everybody steals from everybody; that's movies.” From Swingers (Doug Liman, 1996), that line comes just as homage to Reservoir Dogs commences. And it’s true, though the ‘if everybody does it, it must be OK’ logic is a little strained. It’s not the purpose of movies to be original, but to be entertaining. And to be entertaining, one must work with audience expectations, which means working with the successes of the past. Instead of creating something new, one must make the old new—itself an old piece of advice. ‘Make it new,’ ordered Ezra Pound, revitalize. That’s where art lies.
Seventeen years may not seem a long time in the larger stream of things, but Reservoir Dogs has been a focus for film students (in particular) as well as film scholars for what amounts to a generation. It’s old. We’ve fallen into assumptions about it, and about Tarantino, perhaps making the film stale in some eyes. ‘Everything’s already been said,’ one might complain as even another presentation on the movie appears. And that may be. Certainly, as James Agee reports Mack Sennett as claiming, “Anyone who tells you he has discovered something new is a fool or a liar or both” (Agee on Film, 398). But that doesn’t mean we should shut up, that we can’t contribute to the conversation. David Bordwell, after all, following Kristin Thompson, uses the concept of revitalization to change the focus on film from the past four decades from “post-classical,” signifying a break, to “hyperclassical,” a term of embracing the old—in effect, making it new. That’s what Quentin Tarantino does in Reservoir Dogs in respect to the motions of classical Hollywood.
The movies, of course, are all about motion. And about audience. And about relationships between parts. Think of the commode scene in Reservoir Dogs. We have a story on paper, an exposition of how the story should be told, a rehearsal, the telling, and the showing—all with motion and interaction between tellers and audiences. We have story and audience: a movie. Almost a century ago, the psychologist Hugo Münsterberg wrote about the viewer of film, “the motion which he sees appears to be a true motion, and yet is created by his own mind" (The Photoplay: A Psychological Study, 70). Good filmmakers, people like Edwin S. Porter, Mack Sennett, and D. W. Griffith, already knew this, of course. And we do, too, recognizing that the motion we see not only appears to be a true motion, but is the capture of a true motion, even while it is created in our own minds.
We can easily go back to Eisenstein, for his discussion of montage, to confirm this. Filmic motion is a creation of motion, a dance, a depiction itself in motion or an illusion that the audience helps create through its assumptions. Munsterberg wrote:
Everybody knows how difficult it is to read proofs. We overlook the misprints, that is, we replace the wrong letters which are actually in our field of vision by imaginary right letters which correspond to our expectations. Are we not also familiar with the experience of supplying by our fancy the associative image of a movement when only the starting point and the end point are given, if a skillful suggestion influences our mind. (66)
Adding the viewer to an already complex weave of filmmaking and you get, to mix a metaphor, pied type. Untangling it, or managing to return the letters to their appropriate bins, begins to feel as unlikely as solving Rubik's cube. The motion comes not just from the filmmaker or the film, but from the viewer, making even atempts at outlining it dangerous.
Complexity is just the sort of thing Quentin Tarantino loves. Raveling and unraveling, and doing both at the same time, he plays with the audience—in all senses of the term—not just the film. He plays with dance, motion and violence, and with the conventions both of film viewing and filmmaking, constructing movies that end up like ships solid enough to withstand just about any wind blown towards them and with anchors lowering deep within the traditions of filmmaking in Hollywood and France, in particular.
But let’s step back away from his work for just a moment.
The rumble at the end of the first act of West Side Story, where Riff and Bernardo die; Balanchine’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” from On Your Toes, with the death of a woman and the threat of further killing coming from the audience in the film; Gene Kelly’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” from Words and Music, with an added death; the “Girl Hunt Ballet” from The Band Wagon, with slaughter aplenty at the end. All of these, from classical Hollywood musicals, are as violent as anything in Reservoir Dogs. Yet they don’t get the reactions that Tarantino does—and they never did. No one says they won’t go see a musical because of the violence, yet many refuse Reservoir Dogs. Yet all five of these movies use violence—and dance and music, though Michael Madsen’s Mr. Blonde moves in the amateur way any of us might—and do—to songs on the radio, unlike the professional, choreographed (and distancing) steps of the others where the music is non-diegetic. Of course, it is just this difference that creates, in part, the impact of the “ear” scene, making reactions to the violence greater than in any of those other movies I’ve mentioned—on the level of simple and visceral revulsion, at least. The fantasy element, represented by dance, has been removed—as has the joy of watching skilled artists—stripping away the distancing that we’ve learned to use to keep comfortable, the excuse for violence when the act is portrayed through art and explicitly as art. Here, the art comes through Madsen’s utilization of an apparent lack of dancing skill and the apparent artlessness of camera motion, yet the presentation has much in common with how dance is filmed in classical Hollywood musicals, with long shots allowing concentration on the skill of the performer.
Of course, all of the older dance numbers are sanitized in other ways, presenting the violence in the Hollywood manner de rigueur prior to Bonnie and Clyde and still influential today. Sure. There’s no sign of blood in any of them. But that’s not the point. All of these older films are stylized. Sure. Both in terms of dance and of film… but, even with its seeming artlessness, is Reservoir Dogs not stylized? We’re not talking realism here. Though the language of Tarantino’s characters may accurately reflect the way people talked at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, there’s very little else about this movie that rises to any level of realism, even as practiced in Hollywood. Look at the dress: those suits and ties. Look at the pseudonyms, Mr.’s White, Pink, Orange, Blue, Brown, and Blonde. Look at the plot: the whole heist is preposterous, as is the father/son team behind it. Look again at the plot: it’s so well woven that it screams (intentionally screams), ‘look at me; look at how well crafted I am! No loose ends here!’ That’s not even a feint towards realism. That’s tight artifice—and proud of it.
Yet there’s a lot else in the film that is loose: talk, motion (both of actors and of the camera), body parts, a door latch, and even a balloon on the street. And loose stories are told after the fact—or, at least, stories designed to give an appearance of looseness to the filmmaking. That balloon? Supposedly an accident captured and kept. That door flying open? Simply shows the brilliance of a cast that could keep on going in face of the unexpected and of the quick-thinking Harvey Keitel, who simply walks away from the camera and closes the door as the scene continues. Another story claims that the panning away from the ear-cutting was necessitated simply by inability to create a visually realistic cutting.
All three of these touches are brilliant, as are numerous others in the film, creating a tension between plan and execution, tightness and looseness, that’s reflected in action, in construction, and in unfolding. Each creates a sense of motion beyond the purposes of that tight plot, adding a counterpoint that reduces any message of control—a counterpoint that allows Madsen to produce a sense of insanity strong enough to make us forget, as we view, that we are being carefully manipulated by a writer/director with an almost obsessive knowledge of the minutiae of film. At the beginning of the sequence, for example, Madsen moves over to Tim Roth’s character, who has been lying silent and bleeding for quite some time, reminding us that Roth is still there. Why? Because Roth, Mr. Orange, is going to shoot Mr. Blonde quite soon, and conventional Hollywood continuity requires that the surprise, startling as it may be, immediately connects back in the viewer’s mind to a causal agent. Rather than the camera doing it gratuitously, Madsen can do it—gratuitously—and get away with it: Since the moment he pulled the straight-razor from his boot, our viewer focus has narrowed to him; if nothing else, his extra time with Orange serves to heighten the tension as we wonder just what he is going to do to Officer Nash, who sits tied to a chair and gagged with duct tape.
It is here, in the illusion of loose, almost random motion in a situation highly controlled, that the heightened tension of the violence—or the perception of violence—emerges. Along with it comes the power of the scene to evoke viewer reaction more powerfully than do most traditional Hollywood depictions of violence, where the impact is screened by convention, by dance, or by some other mediating factor. The spinning away from expectation (while actually heightening the expectation), more than the violence itself, generates the shock.
“Hold still, you fuck,” says Blonde as he cuts of Nash’s ear—but it is the camera that obeys, having glided away from the action. It now centers on the junction of two walls and the ceiling of the warehouse as Blonde completes his cutting. Blonde then comes into the picture that had moved away from him, holding his straight razor and the ear, examining both somewhat pensively before walking back out of the picture muttering, “Was that as good for you as it was for me?” After that comes the famous bit of Blonde talking to the ear: “Hey, what’s going on?” followed by, “Hear that?” to Nash. The “ear” scene, which runs about six minutes, has a long Average Shot Length (ASL) of 15 seconds, a number that would be longer still were it not for a couple of shot/reverse sequences showing the reactions of Officer Nash to Mr. Blonde's antics. The longest shot is the nearly minute-and-a-half of Blonde retrieving a gas can from his car. The shortest is just one second.
From the start of Blonde’s dance to his speaking to the ear, we only have nine shots, mostly shot/reverse between Blonde and Nash, wide on Blonde as he dances, close on Nash’s face as he watches (and as we watch with him). The longest shot is the hold on the blank walls as the ear comes off, nearly 30 seconds.
That, by the way, foreshadows the final shot of the movie, where Harvey Keitel’s Mr. White slides out of the frame, held still, once he is, well, shot.
Step back again for a moment, so we can set up the role of the camera and its motion, a Max Ophüls sort of role, and its importance here as a moving spectator—as one of the characters in the film, a Mr. Clear, if you will. There's no action at the start of Reservoir Dogs, though there's plenty of movement—by the camera, that is. It circles the table in the diner, eventually resolving into a shot/reverse sequence when Joe Cabot and Mr. White squabble over the address book and then again when the question of the tip is discussed, having already started to pounce on the traits that will be associated with each member of the group, all but two identified by color-related pseudonyms, and all but those two dressed in black suits, white shirts, and thin black ties. Traits we get: Mr. Blonde, devoted to Joe Cabot yet exhibiting a strain of happy, charismatic menace; Mr. White, sure of himself enough to be willing to risk the wrath of his boss Cabot, strong enough to have gained Cabot's respect—quite empathetic and emotional, he could be the perfect husband; Mr. Orange, quizzical, quiet, somehow out of place, a wife in need of protection; Mr. Pink, with little sympathy for others, strong-willed, but willing to put aside his own ideas to work as a team player; Eddie Cabot, strong but none too bright. Also present are Mr. Brown and Mr. Blue, but one talks stupidly and the other not at all—both clearly to be dismissed by the viewer as insignificant to story and plot.
In The Way Hollywood Tells It, David Bordwell suggests that one of the results of the ‘intensified continuity’ that has developed since the fall of the studio system is reliance on editing and camera motion for the dynamics of a conversation-driven scene. While Tarantino, as often as anyone, does draw attention to the camera here and elsewhere in the film (as I have said, almost making it a character as much as it is in Tony Richardson’s 1963 Tom Jones), he uses camera motion as only one of his means of constructing a scene, of providing its dynamic. In the commode-joke discussion between Tim Roth’s Mr. Orange and Randy Brooks’ Detective Holdaway, Brooks almost dances around the stationary Roth, himself becoming both camera (dancing around the subject) and action… a situation somewhat reversed when Roth rehearses the story before Brooks, who now is still (and still the camera) as Roth moves on an impromptu stage.
What’s most brilliant about Tarantino isn’t any one particular device or style or subject, but that he takes everything that the Hollywood tradition has to offer, mixes in what he has found in the nouvelle vague, Hong Kong cinema, and cheap genre pictures, and creates something out of it all that we, as audience, find refreshing. He does follow Pound, making him (in my view) much more a product of a modernist or, in film-studies terms, a classicist tradition.
Beyond that, but important to mention, Tarantino is a story-teller in a sense pre-dating modernism or movie classicism. Though some viewers don’t see it—and it is easy to lose things in a Tarantino movie, for much is always going on—there’s always a point he’s trying to make, or a number of them. In Reservoir Dogs, he explores the thin line between the professional and the psychotic and the relations between each and the personal. His characters, in other words, aren’t simply devices for furthering his plot; his plot, here and elsewhere, furthers understanding of character—and not just these individuals, but human character in general. The same is true of his use of motion. Next month, his latest movie, Inglourious Basterds, will premier at Cannes. If Tarantino’s past is any indication—and Tarantino is all about the past, or about making the past into the future—this movie, too, will fall squarely into the classical Hollywood tradition, but will again make it new—and will scare the pants off of the many people who will be unwilling to look beyond the surfaces to the pointed story, for the telling, for all its pyrotechnics, is never just the thing, not to Tarantino. The story is.
Thursday, April 02, 2009
Collaboration depends on acceptance of certain assumptions, of course, including that both parties bring something of value to the effort. Given that and my title, you might think that I am going to argue against collaboration, saying that the amateur journalist just doesn't bring enough, that he or she isn't needed, even in the contemporary atmosphere of change and expansion in journalism. But I am not claiming that. In fact, I am not going to propose anything about collaboration at all, for I don't know what the best route for the future is, or if collaboration might be part of it. What I do know is that the amateurs, right now, carry the power in interactions with professional journalists; it is they who control the situation. So, instead of arguing that amateurs are the ones in need (though they may well be), I am going to suggest what many bloggers and citizen journalists have already suggested, that it may be that the professional is no longer be needed, that the fears of journalists over the past decade concerning the future of their profession are justified. Collaboration in reporting, as many see it, may merely be a way of keeping on life support a profession that has seen its day. Perhaps we should, as some have suggested, lay it to rest along side carriage-makers, milkmen, and Linotype operators. Starkly put, what may be feared by journalists for their careers may not be something that the general public need find troubling. The reporter running around shouting “The end is near” may be rousing up nothing more than a yawn. And the public may even be right to yawn.
Though journalists like to take it back a century further, in the United States their profession is not even two-hundred years old. It began with the “correspondents” of the 1820s but only became something distinct and recognizably so from the 1840s, with the rise of the penny press, developing on through the Civil War. The “freedom of the press” of the First Amendment does not, in fact, refer to a particular profession. Bracketed by freedoms of speech and assembly, it was meant, like those, as a non-specific political freedom—for newspapers, in those days, were inherently political creatures. That is, they weren't about politics, but were involved in politics. Only later did the idea of the disinterested observer in the press come into being, an idea that, as we know, never really took hold, ballyhoo for “objectivity” notwithstanding.
What do we lose, if we go back to a situation like that of the America before the advent of the journalism profession, one solely of “citizen journalists” reporting the news? Do we lose self policing by trained specialists? It could be argued that journalists have done little of that, and poorly, even embracing into the profession people with no training and no respect for the ethics of journalism... recently even going so far as to leave it to a comedian like Jon Stewart to take the profession to task, as he did with Tucker Carlson on Crossfire soon before the 2006 election, and as he did with Jim Cramer of CNBC just recently. Sure, it can be argued that neither Carlson nor Cramer is “really” a journalist, that they just play one on TV, but most of the profession certainly has accepted them, even embraced them. And it took bloggers to draw attention to Jeff Gannon, who had been attending White House press briefings for a year on day passes before anyone called attention to this male escort posing as a journalist. Members of the press corps, who had been rubbing shoulders with him for months, had either said nothing or were incurious. Not much gatekeeping going on there!
Do we lose the research skills of the professional if we turn to the amateur? The first response might be, “What research skills?” Yes, I. F. Stone spent hours a day sifting data, but he was well outside of the mainstream of professional journalism; few are willing to spend the time and effort delving into something that might turn out not to be much of a story anyway. Rudy Giuliani, on hearing complaints about the closing of the New York City Hall pressroom, responded that the reporters should be out gathering information rather than waiting for someone to bring it to them from his office. And he had a point: too much of modern journalism has been that waiting for someone to give something or for something to happen—and then spinning it for the purposes of impact. Is it any wonder that journalists are seen by the general public as little more than ambulance chasers? Is it any wonder that the play The Front Page has been filmed three times?
It's not the research that thrills many journalists, if we are honest, but the ballyhoo. Walter Burns, in The Front Page remake His Girl Friday, presents the real draw of journalism to a recalcitrant Hildy Johnson: “You've kicked over the whole City Hall like an apple-cart. You've got the Mayor and Hartman backed against a wall. You've put one administration out and another in. This isn't a newspaper story—it's a career!” The question the rest of us outside of the profession have been asking, silently, for the most part, is should this be a career. We're not convinced.
When access to information was limited, when only a few could view an event live, perhaps it was important that there be designated professionals to bring news to the rest of us. By the 1990s, however, many had come to see the transporters of information as a filter as well, and were starting to feel more than a little discomfort with the quality of the information delivered—a feeling that, in part, led to things like the first attempts to bring about collaborations between journalists and their public. A few journalists, having seen what was happening, attempted to bridge the gap that was growing between themselves and their audiences, to break across the custodial moat that had been dug around the news.
These attempts failed, through no fault of the journalists involved, but because the journalism business quickly found itself facing challenges whose nature could not have been imagined at the beginning of the decade, challenges growing from technologies that were suddenly providing information and making it available to everyone at an astonishing pace, challenges that diverted attention from just about every prior attempt by journalists to bridge the gap between journalist and public. Suddenly, the directional force was reversed: it was the public swimming through that moat, the shaky rope bridges earlier thrown over the gulf by journalists ignored as people sped through the water using technological devices that, they had recently discovered, were theirs for the asking.
For journalists, a tactical retreat (at least) was necessary. They couldn't control what was happening at the edge so backed up, some of them digging in to fight, others (realizing the futility of the battle) trying to find paths to a truce, some way of merging forces, of convincing these people who have invaded their territory not to wipe them out completely. To convince them that, yes, the journalists still do have a role to play.
Unfortunately, when people start whining that they are still relevant, they generally aren't.
But it's too easy to make the case for the irrelevancy of journalism these days, to say that collaboration is nothing more than a way to preserve a few careers while an entirely new and non-professional paradigm for journalism emerges. To do so would be to ignore the realities of our society and our economy, both of which are money driven, and both of which cherish professionalism. We can see this today: the blogs are providing a springboard to professionalism in journalism and financial reward, not to concerted and sustained amateur effort. Even young and well-trained journalists, those who have not yet broken into the field, are recognizing that it is through blogging and “citizen journalism” that they can make their marks. Energetic and confident, neither they nor the amateurs now on their way to professional status will ever be satisfied with a collaboration where they don't have either free rein or equal status with the older professionals.
In other words, they have little reason to want to collaborate.
There needs to be a reason for collaboration, not simply a desire—and certainly not simply a desire to protect jobs and careers. In the 1990s, when civic or public journalism was first broached, it was ignored or sloughed off by many journalists, by people who saw no need to share the professional responsibilities they felt they were upholding. Why should they have done otherwise? Few people worthy of note were criticizing the news media—and those who were could easily be ignored. The signs of incipient failure were there, of course—declining revenues and readership, listenership, and viewership—but there was nothing yet actively invading the world of journalism. The moat, deep and wide and serene, seemed uncrossable.
That has changed, of course, and now it is the amateurs and those trying to break into the field who have the upper hand. But they aren't approaching the professionals for collaborative projects, not very often. It is the professionals, for the most part, who are doing the approaching, hoping to be noticed, hoping to make a positive contribution in this new world.
But what are the professionals offering, in their moves towards collaboration, that the so-called amateurs really want? The professionals know—or think they know—what they amateurs need (writing, editing, and research skills, and understanding of the legal and ethical considerations important to journalism, etc.), but have they really considered what the invaders want? That's the question, probably the most important a journalist can be asking about the field today.
If professional journalism is to survive—and I do think it will—it has to start seeing itself comprised not of leaders but of followers, acting as the caterers and not as the hosts. Only then will collaboration really begin to work, with the “people” in control and the journalists in a service role. Few journalists are going to like this, but I do believe that collaboration, with the journalist the junior partner, may just be the key to the survival of the profession. What that will look like, I don't know—but I am sure that the possibility is one that today's decision-makers in the profession need to face squarely, even though doing so may bruise their egos. If not, the profession may, in fact, become nothing more than a curiosity for historians.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
There are, of course, similarities between the Appalachian college student and the Brooklyn one, but you won’t find them if you go looking for racial or ethnic parallels, religious ones, or even economic similarities. There may be a few superficial racial relationships, but these will prove about as significant as lumping together the Basque and the Belgian. Some of the Christian denominations may share names, but the individual churches struggle with problems distinct to their environments. And poverty in the city and in the country mean completely different things. The similarities, instead, lie in traditions of trouble and struggle, of loss, of the internal battle between desires to give up and push on, of fatalism that somehow still pushes one to fight against fate, of a ‘borderer’ toughness that Appalachia has retained and new immigrants must develop—at least until they assimilate or establish a strong enough enclave to maintain themselves by themselves—and, sadly enough, of failure. Oh, and one more: All of the groups have found themselves on the receiving end of stereotyping, insult, and discrimination.
I don’t know much about the ethos of teaching in Appalachia these days but, among educators in Brooklyn, there’s certainly one of liberal condescension towards my students—students outside of the elite, private schools, that is. There’s a distancing, reinforced by choices of the literature to be studied, for instance, literature that the teachers assume can “reach” the student through identity, primarily racial or ethnic identity, or through poverty, which is assumed to be a blanket bad, no different in Delhi than in Duluth. The choices are justified by the argument that they reflect a student-centered orientation. Else, why choose them? The fact is that these are not the works the teachers (for the most part) read themselves, or would choose for their own children. These are not works the teachers can generate much enthusiasm for within themselves. The works are “for” the needy, not for those who are clearly going to “make it.” So, I avoid them.
One of the things that has always been important to me is the enthusiasm I can show for the literature I teach. I’ve had great success, for example, with Nabokov’s Pale Fire in sophomore survey classes. Why? Because I love the book, and am always finding something new and sneaky in it. I haven’t found that it “works” only for sophisticated students from good schools and families with libraries. Quite the opposite; it can work for any group as long as I am able to bridge the student/teacher gap with my enthusiasm.
As we all know, it is hard to maintain the appropriate level of zeal for a particular work or works year after year. I haven’t taught Pale Fire since 2007, for example, and may not teach it again for another year or two; so I am always looking for new books and genres to explore, so that my discovery can be relatively immediate in relation to that of my students.
A couple of years ago, after posting a rant against Jane Smiley who had, in my view, besmirched my own Appalachian roots through use of David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, portraying us as the cause of all of America’s troubles, I heard from one Rodger Cunningham, whose book Apples on the Flood I soon devoured.
I was hooked; I felt I had come home.
My growing interest led me to apply for an NEH summer seminar last year at Ferrum College organized by Peter Crow. Though I had to leave early due to the illness and death of my mother, I learned enough to give me the confidence to construct a syllabus for the course in the Appalachian novel that I taught last fall.
The students didn’t know what they were getting into. We have an umbrella sophomore grouping of literature courses with rather generic titles. Mine was Introduction to Literature I: Fiction. Most students end up in a section of that, or of the poetry or drama courses, more by chance than anything else. So, as I walked in with a stack of books by Lee Smith, Denise Giardina, John Ehle, Charles Frasier and James Still, the students had no clue that I wasn’t saddling them with, say, Edwidge Dandicat, V.S. Naipaul’s early work, and Jean Rhys—all of whom I could easily and willingly teach under the same umbrella had I a different geographic focus.
At City Tech—our shorthand for New York City College of Technology, one of the campuses of the City University of New York—the sheer diversity of the students makes the task of attempting conclusions about them and their cultures daunting. Of those responding to one survey, 46.6% said they were born outside of the United States (representing 134 countries), 60.6% said a language other than English is spoken in their home, and only a third listed a parent as having graduated from college. Almost half of the students have African ancestry, through generations in the United States, through the Caribbean, or through recent immigration. Very few have any conception of Appalachia. In my particular class, only one had even visited any of the core counties of the region. An African-American woman, her father was born in West Virginia and she occasionally returned with him for family reunions.
Back to that first day: As I quickly discovered, few of my students knew of “Appalachia” as anything more than a vaguely familiar word representing mountains somewhere. For a survey I conducted towards the end of the semester, I asked the students what the word had meant to them at the beginning of the course. Only one, the woman with a West Virginian father, said it had meant much more than “mountains.” Her attitude, clearly coming from her father, was much more akin to my own nostalgia and that of others who have left the mountains: “I always think of beautiful landscapes. There truly is a relaxing, laid back lifestyle to be had there.”
When I asked, “What does the word ‘Appalachia’ mean to you today?” most of the answers dealt with culture instead of landscape or geography: “an undiscovered culture that is perceived as a ‘dumb’ culture through today’s society”; “People struggling and being looked down on. A very hard life with a lot of secluded ideas and perceptions”; “Appalachia is a culture that needs to be acknowledged”; “it is not just the mountains with mountain people, it is a place just like any other that has real people with real feelings and issues.” The general tenor was one of a movement from alien landscape to familiar culture—or to culture understood to be analogous to the students’ own—for many of the comments, clearly, could have been made about the people in the New York neighborhoods where these students live.
One of the questions whose answers would, I knew, fascinate me was, “’Hillbilly,’ ‘cracker,’ ‘redneck’: what do these words bring to mind?” The answers showed that, over the course of the semester, the students had, among other things, begun to break up what they had perceived as the “white” monolith. Not all groups of white people, they were beginning to understand, are alike or successful or powerful: “It brings to mind a person that is not intelligent to ‘white’ standards only because it is ‘white’ brainwashing with shows like Dukes of Hazzard, etc.”; “It’s a racial insult against whites from the culture”; “Racism! Well some people who come from different countries, they tend to be called names representing their culture”; “It makes me angry because they are meant to be a put down”; “Racism, I hate those words!” Admittedly, a high percentage of the students still associated those words, without any sense of irony, with people they have contempt for—racists, bigots, and people who live in trailers. Overall, however, they showed more cognition of the impact of these words than have many of my colleagues, one of whom actually said to me (when I called her on her use of “hillbilly”), “I’ve nothing against your people. I’ve seen them when they come down from the mountains, pasty skin and bad teeth, and I feel sorry for them—I don’t dislike them.”
[Which reminds me of the groups my students liked best in the movie Matewan: the blacks, the immigrants, and the “real” (actually, stereotype) mountaineers who appear for only a moment. They understood completely the reply of one of them to a union-buster who tries to make fun of his rifle, asking if it came from the Spanish-American War. The mountaineer just smiled and replied, “The war between the states.”]
Living in a situation where the whites they encounter are generally people of some authority, many of my students imagined white culture as the homogeneous monolith of TV depiction—even those with troubles having houses and cars, good jobs and security. So, the last question on my survey was, “Has this course changed any of your attitudes towards Appalachian culture?” Responses included, “I see that people who are in the Appalachian culture had the same struggles as any other American who was not ‘privileged’ as some other Americans”; “I came here 3 years ago and I can say that first time I realized that there is a division between white cultures in the U.S.”; “This course has changed my entire attitude towards Appalachian culture because it has exposed me to the individuality that they possess”; “Yes a little bit. I now see that all are not the same just like all Spanish people are not the same.” Many others said that their attitudes hadn’t changed—simply because they hadn’t had “attitudes” before the start of the term.
Though my specific purpose in planning the course had been to teach what I like, what interests me, so that the students could benefit from my enthusiasm, I took away quite a bit more from the experience. First, I saw how parochial my students were becoming through the narrow universe of text choice based on the rather condescending assumption that they cannot find interest in anything outside of their own immediate experience. The lack of exposure to cultures outside of the city, outside of minority and immigrant experience, had allowed many of them to fall into a belief that white culture is some privileged, gated estate that they could never enter, a powerful and alien, undifferentiated monolith.
More important than that, however, was the pleasant surprise that my students were able to use exploration of Appalachian culture to achieve greater understanding of their own. On the last day of classes, one student, the child of immigrants, came up to me and told me, wonderingly and surprised, that reading about Appalachia had made her better able to understand the stories her parents told about her grandparents’ lives back in China.
There may have been a reason, thirty or forty years ago, to try to find readings that did reflect the cultures of the students. But there is reason, also, to show them that, quite often, cultural differences can hide basic similarities, that the markers we use to distinguish ourselves from others are often little more than masks. When we manage to take them off, we often find that looking at others is not so different from looking in a mirror.
From my experience, studying the literature of another culture, especially one that shares essential—not superficial—features with that of the students, allows students whose own backgrounds have been limited by circumstance to begin to contextualize theirs and their families’ experiences in ways that texts chosen because they somehow reflect something within the specific cultures of the students can never do. It also avoids the sorts of condescension we often see in choice of text for students whose backgrounds have been deemed “disadvantaged.” Perhaps, then, were I teaching in Appalachia, I would attempt a course featuring the Caribbean literature of Dandicat, Naipaul, and Rhys. After all, our job is to expand our students’ outlooks, not to cater to the worlds they are already in.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
In today's New York Times, he writes:
When we go online, each of us is our own editor, our own gatekeeper. We select the kind of news and opinions that we care most about.
Nicholas Negroponte of M.I.T. has called this emerging news product The Daily Me. And if that’s the trend, God save us from ourselves.
He worries about this because "we generally don’t truly want good information — but rather information that confirms our prejudices" and implies that the situation is new to the Web--conveniently forgetting that New York City, a century ago, had more than a dozen major newspapers (not to mention all of the smaller ones, the newsletters, the magazines, the flyers) and that readers were feeling exactly the same then, and acting exactly the same.
Before the explosion of news possibilities on the Internet, it is true, the choices among sources of news and opinion were dwindling, the remaining ones falling under a "collective wisdom" that excluded most opinions. The "gatekeepers" also served as shepherds, keeping media sheep in their pastures and charging the rest of us to view them there.
Yet it does remain true that most of us (and I include myself as much as Kristof does himself) stick primarily to sources we fee we can trust--that is, sources that share our prejudices.
The thing to do, however, is not to blame this on new-media possibilities. The problem doesn't arise there, but from a population that has not challenged itself to learn and to communicate (which means being more than the object of someone else's desire to communicate).
And that brings us back to Dewey, who writes
Society not only continues to exist by transmission, by communication, but it may fairly be said to exist in transmission, in communication. There is more than a verbal tie between the words common, community, and communication. Men live in a community in virtue of the things which they have in common; and communication is the way in which they come to possess things in common. What they must have in common in order to form a community or society are aims, beliefs, aspirations, knowledge--a common understanding -- like-mindedness as the sociologists say. Such things cannot be passed physically from one to another, like bricks; they cannot be shared as persons would share a pie by dividing it into physical pieces. The communication which insures participation in a common understanding is one which secures similar emotional and intellectual dispositions -- like ways of responding to expectations and requirements.
There is actually a point to going to where the like-minded are, as long as the like-minded aren't walling others out or blocking the windows to the outside. There's a point to exploring and understanding one's own beliefs instead of pretending to be a tabula rasa waiting to be written on. The end result of Kristof's contention that we go read the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal if we don't want to be served only by The Daily Me is confusion and cacaphony. It would mean that I should continually read David Horowitz, the anti-Darwinists, the writings from Focus on the Family, Red State, and any and everything else I have already determined are based on faulty logic and poor thinking.
Sure, there's a point to looking at the opposition, and in learning from it. And, sometimes, even in being convinced by it. But what Kristof is advocating is a return to the news-media of objectivity, something that never did exist (except in its proponents' minds) and never will.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
Rather than an extension of our old texts of granite, solid and unwavering, what we have gained, through new media, is a 'book of sand.' As in the Jorge Luis Borges story, it is now impossible to find the first or last page, or to return to a page one has found before. Or, at least, to be sure it is exactly the page we saw before. Text has lost its solidity, textual scholarship its underpinning. You may think I'm stretching the analogy, but think again—by the time you do, the world will be different. And text will be different, too.
Not that text, even in pre-Internet days, was ever as stable as we like to imagine. The 'urtext' was always something of a chimera, at best. Today, not only is it illusory, but it may well have been shown to be irrelevant. Remember the 'intentional fallacy'? Maybe that will soon be married to a 'textual fallacy,' a belief that text itself has an unchanging aspect to its identity. If “author” once seemed to fade in significance, so may “text,” as we have long understood it, also fade and then reconfigure.
Be that as it may, even deciding on the primacy of a particular text has always been difficult. The science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick authored a short story, “The Unteleported Man,” that appeared in 1964. A longer version became as a book in 1966. In 1983, an “uncensored” version came out—after the death of the author. A fourth version, called Lies, Inc., was published the next year. Which to focus on? The question was relatively or comparatively simple, pre-Internet. Today, for new-media era texts, it can be a monster.
Not only is Dick’s book rather unstable, but it contains in it a most peculiar fictional book. Freya Holm, on being handed it, “at once she turned to the index and sought out her own name. Two citations in the first part of the book; three later on” (168). A couple of lines later, one of the people who had given her the book says, “'Better get the book back from her again... I still think she's reading too damn much” (169). That's from the later version of The Unteleported Man. In Lies, Inc., another character also consults the index—or, as we would do today, Googles himself: “After the entry Ferry, Theodoric, he found virtually unending citations” (182). After reading a bit, “'Listen,' he said severely…, 'my private life is my own business; there's no valid reason in the galaxy why my doings should be listed here.' I ought to bust this outfit, he decided. Whoever these people are who put together this miserable book. Eighteenth edition? Good lord” (183). The book is up-to-date and constantly changing. Like Borges' 'book of sand,' it may be a more accurate vision of what a text is today than just about anything else we have—even in new media. Not surprising, the book's title claims it as “True and Complete.” It is this ‘truth’ that we grapple with today. To succeed in our struggle, we are beginning to understand that we have to develop a vision of text different from that which grew, post-Gutenberg.
In 1971, as a young man at loose ends, I contracted to print a small book for a literary magazine. I had access to an old Chandler and Price clamshell press, sufficient type fonts, and a saddle-stitching device—and knew how to use them. All I needed was ink and paper, readily available.
The process wasn't simple. I had spent years learning and practicing typesetting—taking each single letter from a job case, transferring it to a composing stick, filling in the line, justifying it with variable spacing for the necessary consistent tightness, inserting a line spacer, and then starting on the next. When each page was completed, I ran proofs using a small flat-bed press specific to that purpose. Changes were made, lines re-justified, and a new proof produced. When the proof-reader was satisfied, I locked two completed pages into a chase specific to the press using variously sized wood blocks and tightening quoins. Once again, a proof was made—this time (generally) for the editor (even the author) and not just my composing room proof-reader, for this was the last chance for change before production of the product.
Next, the chase went onto the press. After adjustments made using pins to insure that the placement of the ink on the page would be correct, I took an initial impression to determine if the type was hitting the paper evenly and with the requisite pressure. Adjusting this was a tedious and time-consuming process. Not only did it involve the look of the final product, but its consistency. If pressure was uneven, the type wore at differing rates, changing the look of the page later in the run. Printers want to keep wear to a minimum anyhow, for the fonts need to be protected for re-use.
On a press such as the one I was using, the actual 'run' takes much less time than composing, especially for an experienced pressman. Decades after my last print job, I can still feel the motion of paper to platen to product and could probably still feed a Chandler & Price 10x15 press at a reasonably high speed without injury—a key component, by the way, for the press is unyielding and can easily destroy the fingers and hands of the careless or unwary.
Once this process is repeated for every two pages of the book (running each sheet through twice, for front and back, each representing four pages to the reader), the pages and cover are collated and run through the saddle stitcher for stapling and a paper cutter for trimming. Only then is an actual finished copy available—anything done before is nothing more than a mock-up, a vision of what the actual book is supposed to be.
It is important, today, to understand the complexity and finality of this process of the past if we are going to comprehend the attitude towards that printed text that grew in European culture from the time of Gutenberg to the dawn of our own era, a shift from orality to literacy of profound impact. Making changes, clearly, was difficult, the process lengthy and expensive. Through this, the text, the product, was raised to a height unknown before and unequaled since. Necessary care in production had led to veneration of product. As Walter Ong writes:
The orality-to-literacy shift throws clear light on the meaning of New Criticism as a prime example of text-bound thinking. Writing, it will be remembered, has been called 'autonomous discourse' by contrast with oral uterance, which is never autonomous but always embedded in non-verbal existence. The New Critics have assimilated the verbal art work to the visual object-world of texts rather than to the oral-aural event-world. They have insisted that the poem or other literary work be regarded as an object, a 'verbal icon'. (157)
Structuralism and deconstruction, following on the heels of New Criticism, have retained the centrality of 'text.'
Though veneration of text does remain to some extent, the care in production that led to it is gone—or no longer necessary. When a 'press run' can be of one, when change can be made at the click of a mouse, when composition contains flexibilities unimagined even a generation ago, there's no longer reason to view the product as 'the final word.'
The cultural change in our attitudes towards 'text' this portends is tremendous. The central place of 'text' as 'thing' in literary theory, for example, will surely change, with 'text' no longer elevated to a level equal to (or above) author and audience.
Journalist and professor Jeff Jarvis explains why:
When something is published on a blog and distributed over the Internet, it’s not finished. That’s just the beginning of the process. When I write something on my blog, oftentimes somebody will come after me and say, “No, you’ve got it wrong.” And maybe they’re right that I do have it wrong, so they copy edit me, which I well need….
So the blogosphere offers a much speedier cycle of correction than traditional media do. That happens because the audience is so much more involved in creating, fact-checking, and improving the content than they are with newspapers. (282)
Poets have always hated handing their work to the printer, feeling it is then calcified. Though changes were possible and new, revised editions frequent, the poem remained, an artifact available to anyone caring to find it, carrying with it the authority that printed product had attained. Today, as our reliance on static, paper product continues to decline, the poem becomes both more plastic and more within control of the poet (and not the producer of printed product). Lack of a 'paper trail' significantly changes the way a poem is presented and even studied.
More significantly, new media technologies both increase and narrow possibilities for consideration of audience. As Ong, again, writes:
Unlike members of a primary oral culture, who are turned outward because they have had little occasion to turn inward, we are turned outward because we have turned inward. In a like vein, where primary orality promotes spontaneity because the analytic reflectiveness implemented by writing is unavailable, secondary orality promotes spontaneity because through analytic reflection we have decided spontaneity is a good thing. (134)
Spontaneity, as my recounting of one of the more extensive processes of printing should indicate, is not something we find when the orientation is towards text-as-independent-object. In a new-media context, however, a text has the flexibility to be tailored to individual communication and/or to be presented differently to a broader or alternate audience. And change can be immediate.
The revolution we are experiencing today point towards an entirely new type of literary criticism, one that does not view the work of art as product, as a final and finished (for the purposes of the criticism) artifact but, in some way or another, as process. Some new framework, whether those of us born before 1990 like it or not, will be adopted. Our job, as scholars of literature and language, will be to develop the new paradigm, a foundation useful to us in a milieu where the text, the rock we used to stand on, is proving to be nothing more than sand.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Book of Sand.” Trans. Norman Thomas Di Giovanni. The Book of Sand. New York: Dutton, 1975.
Dick, Philip. Lies, Inc. London: Granada, 1985.
-----. The Unteleported Man. New York: Berkley, 1983 (1966).
Jarvis, Jeff. Interview with David Kline and Dan Burstein. In Blog!: How the Newest Media Revolution Is Changing Politics, Business, and Culture, David Kline and Dan Burstein, ed. New York: CDS Books, 2005.
Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge, 2002 (1982).