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Archive for July, 2011

Bl Pawelek is the jack-of-all-trades artist. His work has been featured in places such as Blood Lotus Journal, Curbside Splendor, Prick of the Spindle, Monkeybicycle, LITnIMAGE, decomP, and Dogzplot. Over the past few months, he has worked hard to craft the photographs and prose featured today at Plumb Blog. Below, he opens with an amazing shot of an oak paired with amazing prose.

Bl Pawelek

one definition of ‘plumb’ – ‘a weight at the end of line’

the plumb oak
the shortest route: a five-mile hike to get there. The last mile,
fields and stream. He is at the end of his line. I feel the weight on
me.

I have visited about every month since I moved here, sang him Leopold
songs and fed him purple coneflower dust. He gave prizes in return.

Deer Creek slides along, small trout in its water. On sunny days, I
hide still, jump and dive, splash about in the water. Come up with
nothing in my hands.

Dinner the found fruit. Nothing more sour, tart and delicious than a
not-yet ripe wild apple. Nothing as sweet as wild raspberries.

Dead branches, black lines in the sky I sleep under. I ignore the
memories of Maryland’s black rat snakes, waiting in trees.

Parts of him will stay on the line after winter. Others will drop off
the end. Like the movie, I rub the bark, whisper, “you can, you will.”

In addition, Bl Pawelek snapped a few other photos on his journey to that beautiful oak tree.

Bl Pawelek

Bl Pawelek

Bl Pawelek

Bl Pawelek

Bl Pawelek

Bl Pawelek

Bl Pawelek

Mr. Pawelek has given me the opportunity to to a bit of Q&A with him as well:

What came first? Writing, painting, photography?

Honestly, it all started with hiking.

I started to take hiking seriously in 1997, and everything else started to branch from that. I brought a camera with me everywhere I went; started to read books of places I hiked (Desert Solitaire, Wilderness Journals of Everett Ruess, Death Valley and the Country, etc); and started my hand in writing and painting what I saw. Most of my creative effort is still centered in that world.

You often pair photography and other artwork with a few lines of poetry. What is your process? Do you have a muse in mind that you seek out when you go out and snap photos? Do you write first then pair?

If I pair them, the artwork definitely comes first. The artwork is more intricate, takes longer and there is plenty of internal critique before I think it is “done.”

The lines that I typically add to them are based generally on the theme/tone/thought of what was happening during construction.

You have an MA in literature. How do you feel that’s shaped your literary voice and style?

Props to Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles!!

Although the university did not have an MA in Environmental Literature, I did my best to weave as much as I could. The professors allowed me to bring in texts from Carson, Eastlake, Stegner, Snyder while taking some “deep dives” into Thoreau, Muir and Emerson.

As for the “voice and style” – I was (and am) horrible in the technique and mechanics of writing/editing/critiquing. I am sure that I have some sort of voice and style, but hell if I could describe what it is. Maybe Ben Tanzer said it best …

“Poems of isolation and detachment, punctuated by blasts of color and a longing for nature.” – Ben Tanzer, author of You Can Make Him Like You

What is the best independent novel you’ve read?

I could never do one! How about these best ones of the last year-ish:

We Take Me Apart, Molly Gaudry (the writing is so elegant)

Normally Special, xTx (the writing has zero fat)

Inconceivable Wilson, JA Tyler (the story is only the tip of the iceberg)

Whose releases are you looking forward to this year?

I am checking my mail every day for: Finding Everett Ruess (The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer) by David Roberts.

Your kids are drop-dead adorable. Do you find that they are a source of inspiration in your art?

Sidebar: Many times I have been asked if writing or artwork was a “passion” of mine, or something that I felt I was “meant to do.” I have always said “no.” I have always felt that I could simply “stop” and move on to something else.

However, once I started a family, I knew I was meant to be a “dad” – nothing else.  So, my wife and kids are the cornerstone of everything. They influence everything. Sometimes they are included in different pieces that go public, but mostly only my Facebook family and friends get to see my dadliness.

You’re a very active member in the literary community. What are a few words of advice you could provide aspiring writers out there? What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned since jumping in?

I cannot say it any better. Aspiring writers should start with this – http://htmlgiant.com/behind-the-scenes/22-things-i-learned-from-submitting-writing/

If you could pair these marvelous images with a brew of your choice, what would it be? Why?

Take a long hike, get lost, get worried, pray frequently, get bitten by an animal and try to bite back. Forget your phone, your map, your way home, your watch, bug spray, sun screen, sun glasses. Forget to tell your loved ones where you were hiking, forget to tell anyone.  Thankfully, you remembered your journal and pen. Forget food and water, drink water from a stream, drink rain water, lick it off the plants. Try wild fruit, eat cobwebs, try to catch a rabbit.

Hike quickly at night when you can’t see a thing; hike slowly through the desert feeling the water leave you. Jump cliffs, balance on rocks, climb tall skinny trees. Get hurt, lose blood, get worried again and pray more frequently, do not see another person for days, and then remember the one beer in your pack. For me, it was a Boddingtons.

My sincerest thanks to Bl Pawelek for devoting the time and efforts to this Plumb feature. You can find more of his amazing photography, art, and writing over at http://blpawelek.wordpress.com/ and he can be reached at blpawelek(at)gmail(dot)com

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Endings

In college we were always told the best endings were those that wrapped up and elevated a story. We were also told the most important part of any story or poem or play or novel or essay were those last few lines.

In the midst of another summer session teaching Intro to Literature where it seems the only stories I’ve ever taught, and indeed the only stories I’ve ever read, are those concluding with some grand statement, some beautifully perceived epiphany. “Do the clouds open up for you?” I want to ask my students when I’m in the mood to criticize these endings. “Does the sun shine down and suddenly you understand your life?”

I think for the most part my students enjoy these stories about  the boys who quit their jobs for persecuted rich girls in bikinis or drunk men who draw on the floor together or young boys who promise to buy trinkets for the girl next door, but I don’t know if they’re terribly impressed by the endings of these stories–they find them mysterious in a bad way, false, and, surprisingly, inconsequential considering many of these endings seem designed to illuminate the consequence of seemingly inconsequential tales.

Do people still end stories with epiphanies? I don’t know that I’ve seen many new stories like this–other than the dozens I wrote in my early to middle 20s.

It seems to me the way you end a story or a novel or a film says something about your philosophy of art or life in a way that the beginning of your work maybe doesn’t do.

My favorite endings are the ones that project to some event outside of the story while relating to the story–like the dead letter office in Bartleby– or that project the outcome of the next fifty years in the space of 100 words–something like Young Goodman Brown’s conclusion or, jumping to novels, those in 19th century novels, the final years of Mr Bovary’s life, his fall into ruin and his death and the sad life of his little girl. Or the ones that seemingly have nothing to do with the actual story of the novel you’ve just read–some weird event or parable in italics –Cormac McCarthy, for instance, does this often and grandly although I wonder if these endings aren’t now all outdated or clichéd in their way. It’s hard for me to believe anyone ends their novels now with the last 30 years of a character’s life, for instance.

I don’t particularly care for endings to novels that are melodramas that attempt to elevate the story to some cosmic significance although when I was 21 I thought the ending to The Great Gatsby was pretty fine. I also rather enjoyed the endings to Hemingway’s novels, the understated walks in the rain, the perfect final line. I concluded many a clumsy manuscript with attempts at emulating those forms until someone finally suggested I was treading a well-worn path. Until I stopped asking: “How do you end a story?” and started asking: “What is the point of ending a story? What should someone attempt to achieve with that last page?”

As far as films go I like the ones like City Lights that end poetically and sadly and quietly or the ones that end with grand fevered madness like the monkeys on the raft and other outrages that conclude Aguirre or the bludgeoning by bowling pin at the end of There Will Be Blood or the ones that end with some ambiguity or strangeness like 2001: A Space Odyssey. We rewatched A Thin Red Line last night and I thought that ending was particularly strong, ending as it does with a voice over soliloquy and some beautiful images and the idea that nothing has really ended, that our characters will continue to do as they did within this film, until they are killed or until the war is over.

I like endings by people like Woody Allen who emulate the great endings of the master filmmakers with similar endings of their own–repeating the great finishes of Chaplin, Fellini, and Bergman in various films–as if to acknowledge, yet again, his admiration for the great filmmakers of his youth and to say, again, how small he is compared to those greats.

I like the sort of endings that prompts most other people to say “What was that ending? Is that even an ending?”

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Learning from Faulkner

Lately I have been re-reading Absalom, Absalom! It is a book of such high brilliance that it seems almost impossible to relate to the person who wrote it. In fact, I have often shied from reading Faulkner biographies because his genius seems almost too vast–whereas when I was in my teens I would read Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Kerouac and Stephen King bios to pick up hints on “how to be a writer”–how long to write, what to write with, what to read etc. Faulkner hardly seems to offer any useful inspiration–even a writer as talented as Cormac McCarthy is criticized for failing to improve on Faulkner, or incorporate, so much as attempt to emulate.

Yet, I’ve become more and more interested with the idea of how geniuses are created or forged–so many great writers showed little hint of their greatness before making some unsuspected leap–Bellow, Melville, Proust come to mind, so too does Balzac who, upon conception of La Comedie Humaine declared “I am about to become a genius”–So, with this rereading of Absalom! I read also a biography, William Faulkner: His Life and Work by David Minter. Here were learn Faulkner was started early on great literature–by the time most readers begin reading “chapter books” Faulkner had mastered Dickens, Shakespeare, Balzac–perhaps more of a credit to his mother’s schooling than to his genius. Early on, then, a sense of the vast, and epic, and ornate, and interconnected was wound with his DNA. Still, for all the talent he clearly possessed, and there were those (his mother) who believed young Faulkner possibly a genius, his work through his twenties show little evidence of what he would become. From the time of his boyhood Faulkner had been a serious writer, a serious reader, and a serious watcher of people and listener of stories, and he was mentored by writers such as Sherwood Anderson, but it was not until he was liberated from the constraints of writing poetry, of literary rules, that he was able to recognize the voice he sensed struggling within–a sort of combination of influences: those authors he had read as a boy, those stories he heard on street corners and on stoops all his life. And when he became convinced he would never achieve literary fame or fortune, and that he should simply write for himself, that Faulkner tapped into his genius. Now, something heretofore unsuspected and brilliant emerged and, with this emergence came the confidence to become ever more original and ambitious–thus was born The Sound and the Fury and his subsequent masterpieces.

In this context, then, an awesome book like Absalom, Absalom! is more understandably the work of a writer who lived and worked like the rest of us. Less the work of dark arts or inexplicable genius, Absalom, Absalom! is but the combination of influences–a boyhood before Balzac and Shakespeare is apparent, and so too is the time spent listening to endless stories of the past, told and retold, from an endless array of strangers, parents, uncles, aunts, teachers. It is also a masterpiece which towers above other masterpieces, a book that stands as a culmination of a writer who gained ambition and courage and strength and wisdom from novel to novel. It is a novel that learns not from other novels, but from the experiences and authentic nature of its author. And then Faulkner, we learn, finally reached a point when he looked back, and he lost much of his greatness.

I think only a madman would assign Absalom, Absalom! to a creative writing class, but the works of Faulkner can offer a great deal to the young writer in the way of advice and inspiration. For all of its brilliance and the delight it offers the reader, then, I think a book like Absalom, Absalom! offers something of a roadmap by the route one writer took to learn how to write it, than anything a young writer should learn from its technique. For, ultimately, Absalom is an authentic work, the work of a combination of who Faulkner was and what he learned and what he heard throughout his life, rather than something he tried to copy or tried to write or tried to emulate.

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Philip Martin

ARTIFICIAL SOUTHERNER: EQUIVOCATIONS AND LOVE SONGS

Like most people, I have certain books that I frequently pull down from my bookshelf and re-read.  Mostly these books are short story collections, philosophy and collections of essays.  I can open them up, read a few pages, an entire essay, a favorite passage and it’s enough to get my fill, to recharge me – which is often why I reach for them in the first place.  One of my favorite writers I reach for is Philip Martin.

Philip Martin is a primarily known as the long time movie reviewer for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.   I’ve read Philip’s work for years,  including the years before and after I resided in Arkansas.  Beyond his film review talents – I’ve heard from many people who have said they believe him to be one of the best and most underrated film reviewers in the country – he’s an astute cultural critic who consisently composes entertaining and sometimes brilliant social commentary.   He’s published two collections of short essays: The Artificial Southerner and Shortstop’s Son.   You can also find him blogging here. 

If you have trouble finding copies you might try contacting the University of Arkansas Press directly and see if they have any copies available.  And tell them that I sent you, and maybe they’ll give you a great discount? Maybe not? But it’s worth a shot.  However you get your hands on Philip’s books, it’s well worth it.

 

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Yesterday, while kibitzing at the inaugural Indie Lit Summit in DC, I saw the news that Reb Livingston has decided to shut down her enormously influential online poetry magazineNo Tell Motel after October and that No Tell Books would be going on hiatus after August. In a blog post Reb reassures us that this is a natural conclusion for a project that has required a lot of commitment to sustain:

Anyone who edits a publication knows the amount of time and energy required to start and maintain a literary magazine. After 7 years of channeling much of my time and energy into NTM I decided that I very much wish to channel it into new directions . . . I’m not sad about NTM ending. Everything has a lifespan.

Reb’s contributions as a writer and publisher of contemporary poetry cannot be over-estimated. I look forward to her future projects, should they be public ones. The body of work showcased at the elegantly designed Motel will astound you. If you have never been there yet, go now and spend the rest of 2011 getting caught up.

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Where Do We Go Now?

Two days ago I “finished” (as much as these things are ever finished) work on what I will call my first novel. There was a little joy, some anxiety, and then I looked around the room and I thought, now what?

Typically I am the sort of writer who writes every day, with whatever time I have. If the only time I have to write is during my commute then I write on my commute. Since summer began I have been working on my novel up to 10 hours a day–researching, rewriting, revising, read aloud. My novel has been, for the last 8 months, my all-consuming occupation and fascination. A few months ago I decided I wasn’t working on my book enough, that with classes and prep-work and commuting I didn’t have enough time in the day, so I began rising from bed at 5:30. Yesterday I rose at that time and I wandered the silent apartment, unsure of what to do with myself. I looked out the window for a while, I made a shopping list, I thought about doing the dishes, looked forward to doing the dishes, and the laundry, and then I decided to read.

Initially I vowed to not write a word of fiction for several weeks. My logic was that after working every day, and almost every spare moment, on one project, that I probably need time to reflect, to rest, and to gather new ideas. In a way I feel like the end of this project is the end of what has been my most creative and productive period–from April ’09 to this point–and there is some sense that now something else needs to happen–some new direction, some new goal. My thought was that all writers must take a pause after a large-ish project, and they must go around, doing things, and then after a few weeks or months they must return, reinvigorated,  ready to assault the next project.

Yesterday I read the last 200 pages of Madame Bovary with my new spare time and the first 80 pages of Kate Racculia’s This Must Be The Place (which I then finished today). I suppose I could keep on reading a 300 page novel a day through the end of summer break. But my arms are already a little itchy–up through my elbows, and my fingers are getting restless. There’s a little panicky catch in my breathing. I daydreamed for a couple hours, yesterday, about writing a new story. Today I opened a new word document and titled it NEW STORY and a wave of joy washed over me, even though I have no ideas for a new story other than the first sentence:

If not for the animal noises, I would have only the darkness.

I feel like I should take the break, and just walk around, doing things–whatever things it is people do. Yesterday, my wife and I talked about taking a vacation and, amazingly, I didn’t  immediately think “Well, I suppose I could write on the way, and in the mornings” and this was sort of nice. But then, of course, I think: What if I get lazy? What if that drive to write somehow goes away once I get used to not working all the time?

Today I’ve been thinking about the writers I admire–what was their post-project mode? Did they take time off? Did they wait for the next project to dawn on them? Or did they immediately rise the next morning and wander again into the white screen, fearless and uncertain? For all of the author bios I’ve read over the years I don’t know that I’ve ever paid much attention to the time they spent in-between projects, and I don’t know how much of a focus it has been in those bios.

What about you? I’m curious about your habits (and the habits of your favorite writers). Do you take the time to recharge? Or should those writerly muscles, those gained through repetition and rigor, be kept in shape, no matter if a large project has been finished, and the next is yet to appear on the horizon?

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Thomas Williams’ novella The Mimic’s Own Voice is nothing short of extraordinary. It details the enigmatic life of Douglas Myles, a mimic, in his rise to the spotlight, the tours of his talents, his death, the ignition of awe and greater fame postmortem.

What stood out the most was the intellectualism of the writing. Where the hell did this guy come from and how has he managed to craft such an artful and clever production? Williams packed a kick in every single line, not just in detail but also style. Think the formal approach of Shakespeare crossed with the class of F. Scott Fitzgerald, something immediately illustrated in a potent opening line, “In the halcyon days of professional mimics, shortly after they’d outpaced their predecessors, the vernacular storytellers, who had, a decade earlier, wrested the comedic throne from the one-liner royalty, it would have been difficult to name a town of ten thousand souls that didn’t possess some venue where performed those artists who made their fame and fortune with stunning mimicry of the period’s political leaders and actors, athletes and musicians, scholars, and men of science.”

It’s not easy reading, and it takes a great deal of focus to wade through the complexities of his narration. Take this string, “Had any other comedian been enlisted to provide Myles’s comeuppance, the last line of their exchange might have eventually faltered, as most, when surveyed by The Jester, replied that they’d have avoided the stage for a week, allowing the public to forget Myles’s prediction (our national attention span as short as it is). But King David Blum was not called king for nothing. Few had a mild response to his act, so he was met at every concert by fans and detractors alike, all of them now turning out to see if the upstart from, as Blum called it, ‘the fucking prairie,’ knew more than the comic’s voice and routine, but as well the workings of his mind.”

There’s definitely a heaviness in the novella’s lengthy passages (sometimes it read like an encyclopedia), but by far this writer has one of the most unique styles I’ve come across in today’s indie contemporary market. Definitely check it out, you will be awed.

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Code Blue

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The Borrower

I love unreliable narrators.  I’m excited by writers who explore the playful subjectivity of human experience.  Because, really, as human beings, we’re always telling ourselves a story – a narration of our own consciousness, our life.  

Rebecca Makkai’s narrator, a librarian, in her debut novel The Borrower , is tender, hilarious, impractical, dishonest, selfish and just a bit of an oddball no matter how you look at it, all things considered.  You see, she kidnaps a boy, but in a good way. The writing is seamless; the story is rambunctious.  Makkai is a cross-genre ninja, employing the majestic tone of a children’s literature’s wonderous big-eyed adventure, and utilizes young adult (YA)-esque momentum and evolving plot, and fills in with plenty of grown-up adult pathos. 

You can also read her wonderful story “The Briefcase.”

 

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A month and a half ago, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made something of a stir when he complained about his lack of a statue in front of the Staples Center; after all he had been a multiple MVP and a major part of 5 LA Laker championship teams.  This is a remarkable complaint, and maybe incomprehensible display of self-importance for anyone who is not a famous athlete, although I think most people could relate to the fear of being overlooked and forgotten.

Less incomprehensible, to me at least, was Jack White’s complaint during a 2005 interview with Charlie Rose about the lack of appreciation afforded Orson Welles in this country, suggesting at the minimum Welles should have a statue in Manhattan for his early productions of Macbeth and War of the Worlds, never mind Citizen Kane. And yet, it seems unlikely Welles would ever receive a statue in Manhattan or that you would find many people who would believe he deserves one—unlike Kareem, Welles is still often considered a career loser in this country—more famous for never directing a hit film or for getting fat or for his association with commercials and the Muppets and the Transformers. His early brilliance tainted by his disgusting fall—in some ways he’s seen as more of a Shawn Kemp than a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Welles was certainly aware of this impression, and it caused him much agony over the later 40 years of his life (and no small stress when attempting to fund a new film).

With this in mind it’s pretty remarkable how many writers with monuments or statues dedicated to them. In the case of the Jack Kerouac Memorial in Lowell, Mass, it’s all the more remarkable considering how badly and out of favor Kerouac ended. In many ways, Kerouac followed something of a similar trajectory to Welles (and many American artists)—the break out hit, and then years of failures, obscurity, ridicule, and money problems. I remember thinking about this when I first visited that memorial about six years go: how I regretted Kerouac died so long before his city honored him.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was another writer who died young and out of favor and he has a statue in St. Paul. I tend to think of Fitzgerald in Paris or, more sadly, in Hollywood, where he was unable to find copies of his books in print, but I like the idea of a major city paying tribute to a native son.

Nathaniel Hawthorne has a statue, and several sites dedicated to profiting off his memory, plus a hotel named after him in Salem, Mass. I wonder how Hawthorne would feel about the tribute paid to him by a town whose major industry is exploiting the same witch trials he so abhorred.  Still, as with Kerouac and his writings on Lowell, Hawthorne does claim fairly frequent association with Salem and the surrounding area in his work.

While Kareem’s complaint is obviously thin-skinned, there’s something quite nice about a town going out of its way to pay tribute and to make immortal their appreciation for the contributions of some cultural or artistic figure. I wonder now how many other writers or filmmakers or artists have monuments and bronze statues dedicated to them in various towns and cities along the country. I can certainly think of a few who deserve them—most prominently, I believe Saul Bellow deserves something, Bellow who so memorably wrote of Chicago in The Adventures of Augie March and Humboldt’s Gift (and elsewhere). I think Bellow, who did worry over the lasting importance of his works (although his writing is certainly at the very top of our literature), would have greatly appreciated the gesture (or even the gesture of suggesting the gesture).

Who else?

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The Smittle Band

The Smittle Band.  Give this beautiful song a listen.


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I believe finding a balance between art and financial stability, or rather, security remains one of the biggest conflicts in generations past and present. Victor David Giron displayed dissonance well in his debut novel Sophomoric Philosophy.

The protagonist Alex Lopez tells the tale of growing up with an abusive father while navigating through an ethnic identity crisis of sorts: “I also struggle with the fact that I’m Latin American, but hang out mainly with white people. I can speak Spanish pretty well, can read it ok, but I always think in English. I worked so hard to assimilate in high school that I almost destroyed any linkage to my heritage.”

Giron also touches on the perils of aging out of adolescence, leaving behind artistic passions and aspirations in exchange for mundane reality: “Or maybe I’m just the one that’s fucked up. Maybe raising a family like that is perfectly fine—a valid dream in and of itself. And in order to focus on raising your children, you have to abandon any wishes and goals you had as a selfish adult. But abandoning all creativity, adventure, just seems like a nightmare to me.” Often, Giron’s prose read like a stream of consciousness laden with detail.

At times, Sophomoric Philosophy felt like Giron’s personal philosophy on life, death, religion, politics, art, and the balance between art and security. He’s laid out his content systematically, each chapter introduced with geometrically brilliant designs.

I am happy to see that Giron himself has found his balance between life as an accountant and the world of indie lit. He’s built small press Curbside Splendor from the ground up, and it is currently thriving. I look forward to its future releases.

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Lately I’ve been rather fixated with the popular reaction to Terrence Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life.  Other than the booing at Cannes, most articles and blog posts about the film have focused on audience members who were drawn into attending based on Brad Pitt’s name and high reviewer “scores” at sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. I will agree, this is one of the last movies most audience members would want to be unprepared for: in an over two-hour film there is very little dialogue or what would be considered a traditional “plot.” More importantly, the films makes two radical leaps–early on and then at the end–from a succession of images focusing on a family in 1950s Texas to extended portrayals of the creation and the end of the universe.

A post at The Film Experience collects various tweets detailing comments “over heard at The Tree of Life” (my personal favorite is the “Old Lady Yelling: CAN ANYONE TELL ME WHAT THAT WAS ABOUT?”) while a post at the New York Times Arts Beat recently touched on all the people who have walked out of the film (and in some cases demanded their money back). I’ve seen the film several times and cannot really report much for a disturbed audience (I’ve attended during the day when the crowd is pretty thin) other than a gentleman who, after arriving 45 minutes late (and thus missing the extended creation sequence), greeted the sudden cut to the end of time sequence  with a very loud, and apparently startled, “What the fuck?” (followed by snickers from several other audience members).

I can’t help but think of an interview I saw years ago where Frank Stallone discussed the moment he felt his brother, Sylvester, had become too self-important for his own good. At that time Sly was working on Staying Alive, the sequel to Saturday Night Fever, and Sly’s coffee table was stacked with books about myths and symbolism and Dante’s Inferno. Sly insisted these were his research, and inspiration, for the film. Frank’s response, of course, was (to paraphrase): “What the fuck does this have to do with Saturday Night Fever?” No doubt, this is what goes on in someone’s mind at The Tree of Life. And I think that’s a good thing.

I always liked this idea of Sly Stallone becoming a little feverish and insane, and drastically, ridiculously, hilariously overreaching with his material. I’ve never seen Staying Alive, and I can’t imagine I ever will, but a 1983 article in People magazine describes how Sly concluded his picture with “a nine-minute, million-dollar dance sequence staged as a one-on-one bout. There’s even blood. Billed as “Dante’s Inferno,” this grand finale features Travolta dancing his way out of hell and ascending to heaven on a spaceship-like platform that resembles the one in Broadway’s Cats. Stallone originally planned to cap his movie with a musical rendition of The Odyssey, but he opted for heaven and hell ‘because more people know about it.'”

Has anyone seen this movie? Is it as ridiculous and bizarre as it reads? And yet, while I readily grant it seems like the sort of meltdown that could have cost Sly his career (and probably did cost him the gig of directing Godfather III with Travolta in the starring role) I would also argue that a Saturday Night Fever sequel with a journey to hell and an ascension to heaven is more memorable and significant with one than without one. And I think those people who snicker at The Tree of Life probably see the two films in similar terms.

The movie Tree of Life is most compared to is 2001: A Space Odyssey, a comparison mostly based on those ambitious narrative leaps. I’ve always wondered if audience members thought they had entered the wrong movie during the first 20 minutes of silence and primitive yelping in 2001. Film history has confirmed the brilliance of Kubrick’s  jump cut from those primitives to the reaches of space, but I can imagine, and appreciate, that even as some early viewers must have been exhilarated, many must have thought: “Wait… what? What does this have to do with apes?”

I’ve often wondered if a literary experience can equate to the “mind-blowing” jump cuts in that film (and now in Tree). The most literary example of an artist suddenly pulling the rug from the audience comes that I can think of comes some 60 pages into Moby Dick when Ishmael (or Melville) writes: “It is the systematized exhibition of the whale in his broad genera, that I would fain put before you” and from then on the sea adventure the reader has to that point been reading becomes something much grander and stranger and, to many readers, far more boring. And yet, its hard to imagine any reader having the same response to that transition as my fellow theater goer had at The Tree of Life that day. I’ve wondered if there’s something about the visual nature of film that allows movies to make really bold cuts in ways that do not seem so bold in literature–the reading experience necessarily slows down any such impact.

So, what do you think: what literary work has had that kind of impact on the reader (or attempted to)? Is it even possible? What did you (or fellow movie goers) think of those cuts in The Tree of Life? Have you seen Staying Alive? What can you tell me about it?

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