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Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Some Kind of Monster

Recently my wife and I happened across the last forty minutes or so of the Encore mini-series version of Moby-Dick with Ethan Hawke as Starbuck and John Hurt as Ahab. This was the first I’d heard of this newest version and certainly I watched as I always watch these things: possessed by something like disgust and horror (plus, I’ve never watched Ethan Hawke without wanting to punch him in the face).  This trailer seems to confirm my initial impressions (I don’t think I’m capable of watching the entire mini-series): that this version is about Ethan Hawke’s tug of war with John Hurt’s obsession plus some action and some adventure and some period costumes and some guy with mutton chops playing the role of Ishmael. From what I’ve seen, it is another fairly literal translation of the novel onto the screen with some alterations made to appease Hawke’s ego.

And according to this review from the NY Daily News “For the first 10 or 15 minutes, the film lingers on the genteel life Ahab has built on Nantucket, heart of the whaling industry in 1850.Whaling captains were royalty then and Ahab lives accordingly. This is no ruffian who slouches around until he can climb on a boat and go kill something. Hurt’s Ahab is a man of culture and refinement. He lives in a grand, tastefully appointed house. He eats good food, drinks good wine and enjoys relaxing in his library with a good book. He has an obviously caring wife, Elizabeth (Gillian Anderson) and all the money he needs to live out a comfortable life.”

To me, these seem like perfectly reasonable additions to add background depth to Ahab’s character (even if I disagree with them). In general, I’m in favor of any adaptation that bends from the source material and creates its own logic and reality. If this were, say, Pride and Prejudice I would see nothing offensive in any of this. However, Moby Dick is not a perfectly reasonable book. It is not about period costumes and mutton chops. Moby Dick is a novel written in full fever. It is a little bit insane, in parts, and all parts are written by a writer of high ambition.

I’ve been on a Metallica kick these last few weeks. I have no idea why, but every so often “The Call of Ktulu” calls to me. Anyhow, I’ve been listening to the entire output, but the album that I come back to, and enjoy the most, is the much derided St. Anger, best described as a 75 minute bludgeoning although it is probably most commonly called “laughably bad.”   The 2004 documentary of the recording of this album, Some Kind of Monster, shows a petty, desperate, emotionally strained group of musicians with enormous egos and thin skins who spend as much time in group therapy as they spend recording the album. Most seem to use this documentary to illustrate the reasons why the album is bad. To me, it sort of explains why it sounds so good. To me the album sounds furious and unhinged and frustrated and confused but it also sounds like a band of great talent going all out to make a really good record. There’s something about this coupling of insanity and uncertainty and talent and ambition that, for me at least, makes a really nice sound. At the least, I suggest giving this youtube clip of Frantic a listen. I may be the only person who like this record.

Anyhow, for me, this is what all film versions of Moby-Dick are missing–the unhinged ambition and risk taking and fearlessness. This brings to mind an article (I’ve since misplaced where or when it was from) about Werner Herzog’s Hollywood adventure/ rescue film Rescue Dawn. While making the film the Hollywood crew and producers were horrified by Herzog’s approach–considering him no better than an amateur in his methods. Not surprisingly, Rescue Dawn is a very safe, button-down movie compared to Herzog’s non-fiction take, the slightly unhinged and risk taking Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Dawn only works when Herzog’s madness peeps through, fleetingly, here and there. Give me madness and ambition and risk taking over professional and safe and well done any day.

Certainly, as critics of his day were glad to point out, Melville’s great novels from Moby Dick on were not “well made” in many aspects. Potentially major characters and plot points are introduced and then forgotten, inconsistencies abound in the point of view and in the plots (to the extent that there are plots). And a few even accused him of having gone insane.

I’ve often said that Moby Dick should be made into a film–I’m all for our greatest literatures being translated into other mediums. But it would take a filmmaker of a certain greatness and madness to pull it off. At times I’ve thought the Wes Anderson of The Life Aquatic (probably the film closest in spirit to the true Moby Dick) is just weird and ambitious and fearless enough to pull it off. Other times its clear that the Paul Thomas Anderson of There Will Be Blood and Magnolia would make a masterpiece. What do you think?

 

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You don’t need to have read Moby Dick to enjoy John Minichillo’s witty, short re-telling, The Snow Whale. But does it help? Having spent my life in academic literature programs, somehow I never read Melville’s seminal work, so I have no idea. And given that I have smaller, prettier fish to fry, I’m happy to leave the Dick appreciation to my co-bloggers. But if I missed all or some of the referential nuances of The Snow Whale, it didn’t interfere with my enjoyment. Essentially a story about a man in search of identity, The Snow Whale is an accessible, smart satire that is full of snow, making it a perfect summer read.

(Full disclosure: John is a writer-friend, and I got my copy for free, so I may be biased, but honestly? So far? Everyone loves this damn book.  It’s got a great hook, real momentum, and relevancy.)

In a nutshell, John Jacobs, an office drone who sells corporate novelties for UniqCorps Plastics Division, has grown tired of his middle class suburban life and his stale marriage. Ripe for a mid-life crisis adventure, Jacobs’ imagination is stirred when he learns that a co-worker has taken a DNA test that suggests Mongolian ancestry:

“I need to be with my people,” Mike said. “To walk knee-deep in the Mongolian snows and breathe the free Mongolian air. Before this DNA test I was nobody. Did you know they drink oxblood and have seventeen varieties of yogurt unique to the region?”

“You’re always eating yogurt,” Jacobs said.

 “I know!” Mike said. “Now it all makes sense.”

Inspired, Jacobs orders his own DNA test and discovers that his is “37 percent Inuit,” and so begins his journey to reclaim his heritage, an obsession that is almost irretrievably hazardous to his domestic life.  A turning point comes when he discovers an online  protest against the annual Inuit bowhead whale hunt:

Despite PETA’s complaint, Jacobs knew the hunt was for the continuation of his culture. . . . He imagined chewing the raw meat and using the whale oil for light and for heat. His mood improved immediately, and he called to his wife as he read on.

“Look,” he said, oblivious to her resentment because he’d threatened their marriage, “the Inuit are allowed to hunt whale.”

“I’m supposed to care?” she muttered to herself.

“I want to hunt a whale. It’s my right.”

She stared at the lanky pale man who had been her husband for over a decade. People thought she settled when she married him, but he at least held more promise then. All her old ballroom dancing friends thought so. They called him light on his feet.  They said he cut a nice figure. Now she was married to a desk doodle salesman and he was losing his mind.

This is by no means a bad thing, but I think a lot of readers will enjoy The Snow Whale for its appeal to their research interests, whether it be cultural studies, environmental issues, general Melville enthusiasm, etc. For example, I know of a folklorist who plans to use the novel in her “Xenophobia/ Xenophilia” class. It’s the same for me I guess–I can’t stop reading as a writer because Minichillo’s modulations are so impressive; the tone adjusts to the emotional development of Jacobs, and the variation in intimacy and attention results in a dynamic narrative. The first three chapters of The Snow Whale are essentially about the frustration of being trapped in white suburban mediocrity, and the satire is dry and contemplative. But when Jacobs leaves to join the whale hunt with a black teenager named Q enlisted to film the adventure, The Snow Whale shifts into a lively buddy comedy. By the final third of the novel, when the thing-we’ve-been-waiting-to-happen happens, the tone shifts again, this time to make room for a genuinely thrilling adventure to play out. And while we think we know what to expect from The Snow Whale’s conclusion, the final chapter manages to be quite surprising and moving.

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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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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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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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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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A painting on the side of a truck trailer on Town Branch Road in Floyd County, Kentucky. Artist unknown.

Snake handlers.  Drinkers of Mason jars full of arsenic.

And those are just some of the Pentecostals.

Eastern Kentucky is a plethora of religious denominations, all unique in at least some way, even those claiming allegiance.  No musical instruments for Old Regulars or female preachers.  Nothing but good old creek baptisms for some churches, while others of the same faith will allow baptisms to take place in the church in these big fish tank like tubs which have an actual name but slips my mind just now.

Still others hold firm to the belief that “where two or more are gathered in His name that He will be present” and have services every Wednesday and Sunday in their own homes with a dozen or so close friends and fellow members.

Growing up in this melting pot of faith, regardless of interest or indifference, you pick up on things.  You learn scripture from having heard it again and again.  You learn it so well that you can tell when someone is mistakenly quoting verse.  I once corrected a lady by explaining the phrase “God works in mysterious ways” was not actually in the bible.  I ducked, just in case a her purse was gun-heavy.

Let’s say your grandfather was a preacher for more than 50 years.  Let’s say that because of that you had full access.  By this I mean you were able to ask questions at a young age that you would not normally feel comfortable asking your preacher otherwise.  Well, that can expand the philosophical and religious field.  The answers are the same, but it is the freedom to ask that makes the difference.

They say to avoid conversations about politics and religion on first dates, but this isn’t our first date now is it?  And besides, religion is one of the big three of culture, anywhere you go on the planet.

My thoughts?  I’ve read the Holy Bible – as a writer, I admire most sections.  I’ve read The Tibetan Book of the Dead – creative and lively and intriguing.  I’ve read the Sufri poetry of Rumi – poetics of the highest caliber.  I’ve read the Koran – didn’t get most of it.  I’ve read a fair amount of the Torah – strict isn’t the right word, but it’s close.  I’ve read fanatical pamphlets – funny.  I’ve read the Book of Mormon – no comment.  The Tao Te Ching – a bit mind-blowing.  And so on.  I think people need what they need to get by in this world.  Call it a security blanket or whatever you’d like.

When my dad was drafted into the military during the Vietnam War they issued him an M-16 assault rifle.  He was ordered to keep the rifle with him at all times.  When he left the service and returned home, one of the first things they took from him before departure was that M-16.  He needed it to get through the war, but when all was said and done, it had served its purpose.

Life is hard in Eastern Kentucky and many other places around the country and world.  Sometimes people need a good warm blanket or a gun that can cut a man in half if comes to it.  If handling snakes or getting dipped in a creek in December so folks have to bust away the ice to do it is what it takes, then I say that’s fine and well.

Don’t forget to leave something in the plate.  Light bill’s due next month and the roof is starting to leak.

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