Sunday, March 27, 2011
Free Association Post I had been thinking about doing a Proust questionnaire here; however I didn't like any of the ones I found because I had no ready answer for most of the questions, and these exercises are by nature not interesting if you have to consider them for more than a couple of seconds, which I would have to do because my immediate answers are all pretty bad. For example, to the query What is your idea of perfect happiness? what immediately comes into my head is "to be able to wield unassailable power over other people" which of course has nothing to do with perfect happiness per se. I also refuse to reveal my greatest fears, lest somebody should come upon that confession someday and decide to visit them upon me; and questions such as What trait do you most deplore in yourself? are I think covered adequately in the rest of the site. So I have to give a variation on the old State-of-the-World-as-I-see-it-post. I have a fetish for tracking the length and depth of the winter. This one is lingering. It is now March 29. The high temperature is still in the 30s, low 40s at most, still going down to 18 at night. I still have to keep the heat on and there is still a decent amount of snow cover in my sunlight-deprived front yard. Most of the rivers are ice-free, and the lakes left with a rapidly thinning cover with lots of open water. So we are inevitably, albeit gradually (very gradually) moving into spring however. Pessimism seems to consist of two different aspects, one being pessimism with regard to one's personal capacities and prospects, the other pessimism regarding the greater society, be it tribal, national, global, what have you, with which one is most intimately invested, the form that it takes in each instance being the result of the strength, both relative and quantitative, of each of these strains in combination. There is a good deal of both varieties at work in the present cultural environment. While I lean more strongly towards the former--I am sure society will carry on fine according to the needs of its strongest and most substantial individuals regardless of whether I am counted among their number or not--but the latter is certainly dominant in a great many people who generally consider themselves to be both personally substantial and alert to what is happening but perceive that they are doomed by the multitudes of hopeless morons all around them. Here is a well-written blog from England (I have linked to this guy before) that has a thoroughly laid out and exceedingly grim view of what the future holds there. There is a long tradition, certainly going back as far as Gissing and Wells, and Hardy for the rural life, and perhaps back to Crabbe, of depicting life for the common man in England as variously overcrowded, expensive, dreary, joyless, vulgar and generally hopeless of substantial improvement--in any event there is something in the English circumstances that seems to make it more difficult to retreat from the brutal reality of one's position and ensconce oneself in consolations or even fantasies. My own situation, at least as far as job and income potential are concerned, is probably even bleaker than that recounted in the above link, yet I do not yet regard it in quite such discouraged terms. My angst generally focuses itself around my disappointing personal qualities. Mostly through good luck, but with some credit to a consistent, if increasingly stultifying prudence, my expenses are to this point fairly manageable. Also, compared to much of the world, I live in an uncrowded area which, due to its demographic makeup (rapid aging of the population, consistent decline in the number of school age children), seems even less populated than it actually is. When I go to the house in Vermont I can easily wander off into the woods and not come across another person outside for many hours, which probably has a beneficial effect on the nerves. This has its downsides of course. One feels far removed from the mainstream of any cultural and intellectual energy. There are towns like Brattleboro, and Portland, and Portsmouth, and Hanover where Dartmouth is, that are islands of activity and high-achieving people, but even these are almost used as bases from which to launch or refuges in which to recuperate from serious enterprises whose scenes of action are actually quite far off either geographically or cognitively from terrain familiar to the typical inhabitant of this region. Should I mark the occasion of Elizabeth Taylor's dying? I've always been kind of ambivalent towards her, but she was one of the last major living links to an era of American cultural life for which I obviously have an affection (by major I mean as in dominant figure/symbol of the period; Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds, Ernest Borgnine and so on for example are still alive, but I think they are decidedly minor stars [Day may be a mid-major]. From the prewar and wartime periods you still have Shirley Temple [major], Mickey Rooney [I'm leaning major], Lauren Bacall [probably major] and Deanna Durbin [minor, but a personal favorite] still kicking around as well, which indicates that the stars of the 50s are not turning out to be an especially long-lived group), and it is always kind of sad, if one is of a sentimental nature, when anyone like that finally passes on, even though Elizabeth Taylor had been a pretty bad parody of herself going on 40 years now. I wrote some about my feelings for her as an actress in this old post about A Place in the Sun and do not really have anything to add to it at this time. One of my main blogging crushes weighs in on Liz and many other topics of interest on her much-lauded page (See the gushing testimonials in the top right column--'sophisticated...knowledgaeable...brainy...funny...writes like...Noel Coward'--just like what people say about this site. She hosts films forums in New York City under her nom de blog. Now that is blogging!). Here's an article I didn't like by an especially annoying-looking New Yorker writer. I'll let the remark about the army of video-drones pass, because, even though I'm one of them, I can sympathize with the idea that, like many things, film culture was more vibrant when it was generally less accessible, i.e., required more effort and physical commitment, such as living in New York or Paris, devoting a sizable bulk of one's evenings to attending screenings, pounding out essays on a typewriter or dabbling in actual filmmaking itself using cameras that required a more calculated approach to shooting footage, etc. I didn't agree with some of the other premises however, to the point that I actually was rather surprised to read them stated so matter-of-factly. The first was that the work of the masters of Hollywood romantic comedy past "reflects the effects of social tensions and pressures that, I think, most of us are glad to have escaped". These tensions and pressures in this instance mainly seem to refer to sex. Judging from his photograph, our author, Richard Brody, looks like a creature whose key sex years (roughly age 18-25) coincided strongly with the decade of the 1970s, an era in which, as we all know, old restraints were abandoned and America was awash in horny young people as the Baby Boomer generation hit their 20s. The men coming of age in that period, while thinking of themselves as enlightened, or liberal or what have you, had still been deeply marinated in the old chauvinist mores, still had the decided upper hand in educational and occupational attainments almost across the board, still had, even many of the weaker, or somewhat lesser ones, what we would consider to be a bit of a swagger around women, and this confluence of circumstances led to almost everybody who came of age in that time seeming to think of themselves as highly sexual people who accumulated lots of great experiences. They naturally look upon the sexual restraints of the pre-1965 era--which as everyone knows hardly affected everybody, and at least to read the literature of the 1920-60 period seem to been primarily confined to the premarital relations of weak-chested men and "good" girls--as horribly confining. In our time however, it is clear that a more normal sexual order has been re-established under the new conditions of freedom and other developments, in which the weak chests enjoy very little good-quality sex during their youth or any other time of life and the desirable women, of whom the numbers remain as yet plentiful enough have to openly contest, frequently by the accessibility of their bodies, with hordes of other women for the few desirable men, whose own numbers seem in our time to be dwindling as rapidly as the bat and bee population. Needless to say, a great many young people are most unhappy with this state of affairs, and it is not surprising that among some the romantic comedies of the 1930s and 40s would hold an appeal; it is not simply the lack of sex that is frustrating to people, but the lack of under the surface but still palpably excitable sexual tension, or of any possibility of it in one's own life, that is such a cause of despair, especially in one's youthful prime. I have written on this topic before however. The other thing I really found shocking in the article was his assertion of that the work of certain contemporary directors holds up well vis-a-vis the classics. I would give him credit for being bold if I felt either uncertain or confused about the works in question but I'm not seeing it. I haven't seen anything of Judd Apatow but (the aptly-titled) Superbad supposedly came out of his stable of writers, and it was as thoroughly stupid and pointless of a movie as I have seen in 20 years. Noah Baumbach tries hard, and I actually liked Kicking and Screaming, at the time anyway, but The Squid and the Whale was joyless and too doggedly faithful to realism--I don't want to see my actual life depicted on screen, I want to see the basic circumstances of my actual life stylishly jazzed up and infused with a little magic (kind of like The Grapes of Wrath did for the Okies). Greenberg just was not interesting and impossible to care about. And Wes Anderson's shtick has been played-out ever since Rushmore, which was an admittedly exuberant, goofy young man's movie the obsessions of which one would expect the maker(s) of to leave fondly behind and move on to other concerns, which my generation apparently is incapable of doing. In short, I don't think they are particularly good. What contemporary movies have I liked lately? Inception was cool, and was interesting to me for its depiction of the mental and physical world that the more advanced members of our society apparently inhabit, which I like to think I have some sense of even if I could not comfortably begin to inhabit it myself. I've also been hyping up the Romanians, whose cinematic strength at the present moment is probably that their sensibility is still in the mode of the interesting films of twenty or thirty years ago. I finally got around to seeing one of their movies, Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days, which is set in 1987 at the end of the Communist era. It moves and develops slowly and in a very old-fashioned seeming manner but when you get to the height of the crisis (the whole movie is one ongoing crisis) it really waps you and you also see how smartly the story is set up and held together. It is about a hundred times more effective of an argument in favor of legal abortion--a subject on which I confess I have always been rather queasy--than anything Hollywood has ever managed to serve up. What I take to be the main point of the movie is another thing that Eastern European writers and filmmakers are good at that Hollywood is terrible at, which is depicting the rottenness of society so as to show that every ordinary person in it is a victim of it but is also at the same time poisoned in their soul by it, for which they do not escape personal responsibility. Neither Hollywood nor their right wing moralist enemies are seemingly capable of producing this effect. There always has to be some totally evil force--racists, capitalists, pornographers, socialists, etc--set apart from another group of completely virtuous, innocent victims, as well as some near-flawless hero who struggles tirelessly against them, which is certainly not what I perceive actual life to really be like. Time and space limitations mean I am going to cut the article short here and post without getting to all the topics I had hoped to cover. These could be possible topics for future essays though. Briefly they are: 1) the odd belief that facing death by firing squad or some other atrocity stoically would make up somehow for having led a largely ineffective life; 2) my complete lack of interest in relocating elsewhere in space and carrying on the human race there, which some people feel to be our ultimate destiny, if Earth becomes uninhabitable. I'm not leaving. 3) My desire to see somebody run against Obama in the Democratic primary so I can cast a protest vote against him; 4) In contrast to the relentless drumbeat of doom and or mendacity, possible realistic optimistic scenarios for life in the West and the United States going forward (i.e., for my children, and perhaps even old me. Someone I went to school with died in a drowning accident last week. He was 41 or 42, depending on which account you read. I can't say that he was a great friend of mine--I didn't really know him at all--but he was a big presence, or seemed a big presence, in my life when I was 20 and 21 years old. He was the sort of guy guys like me are always jealous and a little afraid of, because they have the capacity to make us look bad very easily, mainly because they have figured out how to show up for life at every instant, while we have not, and usually never do. Another old schoolmate commented on Facebook that the news was especially shocking to him because he had always thought of this guy as indestructible, which sounds phony but did accurately express the impression a lot of people had, namely that he was stronger than most ordinary people, including themselves, and that it seemed somehow impossible he should die in a freak accident. I probably would not have written anything but the media accounts seemed to keep emphasizing that he was just an ordinary, nondescript guy, which bothered me because whatever one might say about him, he certainly was nothing of the sort, and seemed to have continued being so long after his school days were done. His life was one that seems to have been really worth having, from start to finish, and considering how the world is drowning in people for whom such an assertion would be dubious if not flat-out laughable, the loss only seems to be amplified. Addendum: I tried to go back & add paragraph breaks here, but for some reason it won't let me. I apologize for this mess of a post. Addendum 2: I have gone back and put into bold type the 1st few words of where the paragraph breaks should be.