Sunday, October 21, 2007

cardboard paper tigers

In one of the most lovely scenes in Jean-Luc Godard's La Chinoise, which I gratefully caught a rare screening of tonight at the Film Forum, Jean-Pierre Leaud and Anne Wiazemsky (I think it was her but my memory could be failing me; it could have been Juliet Berto in this scene) share a cup of tea. He comments, apropos nothing in particular, that he wishes they were blind so that they would pay more attention to words, listening and speaking. Somehow the fleeting idea sets off a chain of free word associations back and forth, Leaud and Wiazemsky throwing Maoist buzzwords and catchphrases at each other punctuated by Leaud's "tenderness" and--responding to her paper tiger--"rock..." (a dramatic sip of tea) "..and roll." The moment encapsulates Godard's wonderfully double-edged portrayal of his earnest student heroes: responding with great tenderness to their seriousness of purpose and youthful idealism and at the same time ironically aestheticizing their ideals, placing them in front of overwhelming color fields and confronting them with the deflating faces of older radical politics. It is a movie as much about age and time as it is about social change or group identity. Like so many of the French nouvelle vague movies of the time (like Jacques Rivette's Out 1 or, a latter day reenectment, Philippe Garrel's Les amants reguliers) is partly wonderful is the setting, always the most concerted regency chairs and ornamental wall moldings to appoint the revolution.

Filling the wall panels with chalkboards and painting old window shutters Chinese red, Godard gets this; his main argument is more with time than with culture as the serious worst imperialist. Or he would refuse to make the distinction. (Another key moment has Wiazemsky turning up the radio and staging a romantic breakup with Leaud to teach him the power of keeping multiple ideas in the air at the same time. Multiple fronts.) And yet the tenderness seeps through the ideas, the way in the middle of lexical association Leaud can't help himself from a little of the word. The tension of loving the culture one is sworn (somehow, anyhow) to abolish.

I am reminded of a time when, on a drive through quiet Massachusetts woods last summer, inspired by various online questionaires, Farrah and I played a word association game of our own, throwing random words at each other to see what would pop out of the other's mouth. One of us was supposed to be leading with the word prompts, the other with the telling stream of consciousness. In practice, though, we both thought the other was in the directing role and we were merely following. Then, for maybe twenty captive minutes, we went back and forth with words: response, response, response, swimming further and further along through the language. I learned an actor's exercise in summer camp in which, like Groucho and Harpo and Chico in Duck Soup, two people would mirror each other's gestures across an imaginary midpoint, slowly trading the phenomena of decision until like a ouija no one could tell who was in charge. Is that the real anarchy: no one in charge? Or is it, don't worry: someone is the director, maybe all of us this very minute?--but sorry, no one's saying.

Friday, October 19, 2007

dream songs

My central enthusiasm of the last few weeks has been Neil Gaiman's exceedingly rich series of graphic novels collectively called "The Sandman." It is a gift of a narrative, variously textured, with stories of horror, magic, wonder and myth as well as more practical concerns: love, mourning, gender, politics, religion. I haven't read much Gaiman before - only the nifty horror tale "Coraline" - but what is so striking here is his serious humanism, a willingness to accept various characters in their inadequacy and difficulty and by returning to them over and over again over the course of many years of work on the project, find a openhearted forgiveness for each. It is not moralistic in opting out of unhappy endings, but it is a moral universe he creates, in which there is serious goodness.

One of my favorite parts of the work is a scenario in the third volume which the hero, a punkish brooder who is the embodiment of dreaming, has commissioned Shakespeare to write A Midsummer Night's Dream as a tribute to the actual King Auberon and Queen Titania of fairyland. The play is then presented to an audience of fairies (Puck, in particular, objects to his defanged portrayal as a benign joker), presented in a pastoral stage en plein airas if it were the original summer Shakespeare-in-the-park performance. This radical notion re-envisions this fanciful comedy as something closer to one of Shakespeare's history plays, with all the associated baggage of politics and the patron who must be minded--as in the way Macbeth, for instance, implicitly lionizes the new King James. A Midsummer Night's Dream already has a certain self-reflecting quality; Gaiman doubles down the mirrorings and discovers new wellsprings of poignancy, beauty and depth in the play. Making it new, making it fresh.

I kept having to remind myself as I read The Sandman that it was a 'guilty pleasure,' mainly because it is easy to read, riding on the greased slope of visual storytelling and cultural association. I met with the poet Marjorie Welish this week to discuss my poetry manuscript in progress (depending on when you ask me it is coalescing, near finished, long completed, and/or scarcely begun) and her advice to me, regarding my own poetic output, was that if something comes easily, you're not making it hard enough.

In a way, I think this is the central problem for comic book experiences like the one I had with the Sandman--it is profound, challenging emotionally, complex narratively--and yet it necessarily flies by as all comic books do. Even as it engaged the question of pastiche and the introduction of soap opera superhero narrative elements, the Sandman seemed to use such a light hand and such a free associative delicacy that it is hard to see these as inorganic or shallow. And yet I'm chastened by Joshua Clover's peremptory criticism of Gaiman on his blog for what he sees as shallow, mealy spiritual mumbo jumbo Joseph Campbell mythwork, all pseudointellectual hero king quests. And there is something to that, though the meandering, mosaic approach of comic book narrative does much to disguise it as something more substantive. Clover dismisses Gaiman essentially as Napoleon among the dwarves and, when my girlfriend asks me why I'm reading so many graphic novels lately, I can't help but feel the sting.

Still, if I compare it with the equally redoubtable Y the Last Man, a very clever saga by Lost writer Brian K. Vaughn imagining the realistic aftermath from a worldwide plague of male hominids, the superiority (the pygmy giant indeed) of Sandman is obvious. Where most popular fictions derive their pleasure from the modulated spinning of the wheels of plot, Gaiman's dream stories excite through their nesting, their meandering, in a word their form. Gaiman is delivering form over content, which, for a story about dream and the wispy fabric of our lives, is just about perfect.