Bellona Times
The Lonely Lamasu
. . .

Then am I / A happy fly, / If I live, / Or if I die.

One of the pleasanter aspects to being a critic rather than a pundit or preacher is that we, by definition, don't want everyone else to be the same as ourselves. Because if they were, we'd vanish.

It's odd how many of us want to throw that advantage away.

Let us follow instead the example of Musca domestica, who buzzes and infects without debate or enmity.

+ + +

PERSONAL to Phoebe from Seattle: Thank you for the lovely book. I will try.

. . .

Exit Poll
(conducted by Sherlock Jr. Assocs.)

Q: Would you prefer Rainer Wolfcastle or Troy McClure as Governor?

A: "If that's what they cut out of an appropriations bill, what they leave in must be pure gold!"

. . .


It's not funny.

+ + +

Read the post mortems, listen to the interviews, and you'll find no mention of what a governor might actually do for a living. According to our more reputable news sources, the California recall issues were those of "character" rather than work, of "coldness" and "groping" rather than conspiracy and sabotage; a political campaign is a wrestling match or star search or "Big Brother" poll, not a job interview.

Subvert democracy when it goes against you, then ensure it doesn't do so again; open Q&A, debates, and policy disclosures are for losers. Following on last year's election, we can declare such precepts thoroughly vindicated: California's provided as pure a test case as imaginable. Missile defense research should be so lucky.

If 2001 wasn't enough to teach voters that elections have consequences, I doubt I'll live to see the lesson learned.

. . .

Cholly's Prayer

Tom's New Commonplace Book IMproPRieTies has already quoted from "Of Vanity" by Michel de Montaigne. But these days Montaigne's continuation seems even weightier than his chamber pots:

This is no jest. Scribbling seems to be a sort of symptom of an unruly age. When did we write so much as since our dissensions began? When did the Romans write so much as in the time of their downfall? Besides the fact that mental refinement does not mean wiser conduct in a society, this idle occupation arises from the fact that everyone goes about the duties of his office laxly, and takes time off.

The corruption of the age is produced by the individual contribution of each one of us; some contribute treachery, others injustice, irreligion, tyranny, avarice, cruelty, in accordance with their greater power; the weaker ones bring stupidity, vanity, idleness, and I am one of them. It seems to be the season for empty things, when harmful ones weigh upon us. In a time when it is so common to do evil, it is practically praiseworthy to do what is merely useless. I console myself by thinking that I shall be one of the last on whom they will have to lay hands. While they are attending to the more urgent cases, I shall have leisure to reform.

. . .

Now it feels all lumped up again.. JAIL

Lawrence L. White writes that our recent serial on comic poetry glanced off a thought much on his mind:

What if the non-sequitur were a legitimate figure of speech?

I take this thought to be a lesson of Gertrude Stein's work. I'm sure Mr. Weinberger counts Stein among the better angels. "Cubist simultaneity" would be her invite to the party. But one thing perplexes me about his list of virtues: two of them are based directly on pictures, and maybe even the third (one creative writing teacher suggested to us that dreams were more like rebuses than stories). None of them are about language. & I thought the lesson we all got from Cezanne was that your medium was the truest path into the problem.

[...] I do mean the "what if" part seriously. There's an odd triumphalism to a lot of Language poetry proponence. As if it really did move mountains. Now I'm not saying that Stein wasn't one heck of a triumphalist, but the parts I like (there are plenty available) are when she's wondering if she's managed to get her latest contraption off the ground yet & if so how long it's going to stay airborne.

Seriously or not, I'm not sure a what-if is necessary. The non-sequitur, like other approaches to nonsense, is already "a legitimate figure of speech" in the living language. It only seems exceptional within the bounds of purposefully restricted discourses such as funeral orations, or shareholder reports. To bring it into those restricted areas isn't to overcome the quotidian but to enrich (or corrupt) with the quotidian.

True, the power fantasies of poets and theorists (and science fiction writers and superhero comics and hiphop MCs and so on) are laughable. But, far from being an attack or a defeat, deflation reveals the true nature of their achievements.

And, as you say, worrying aloud about the impression one's making while in the midst of purposefully restricted discourse is a deflationary technique mastered by Gertrude Stein as well as Robert Benchley. (Which may hint at why my readings of Derrida have been unusually benign.)

I'm aware of my tongue! Unable to stop fretting about one's own place in one's own medium -- doesn't that send us back to Cézanne's school?

Before and beyond any other response they might elicit, Manet's paintings (like Stein's writings) were funny, mocked (more-or-less warmly) even by friends and supporters. Accordingly, the affections of caricaturists and parodists often sided with their irresistible target rather than with their hostile employers. Marcel Duchamp said that when he was a cartoonist hanging out with other cartoonists (not to insinuate that Duchamp ever stopped being a cartoonist), "The conversation centered above all on Manet. The great man that he was." Or, in Baudelaire's reassuring words, "the first in the decrepitude of your art."

I'm trying to avoid terms like "Postmodernism" -- John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, found the lyric stance as distressingly risible as Frank O'Hara or Jack Spicer ever did. But I suppose it might be true that one would need ever higher doses of delusion to avoid self-consciousness after the printer's devil has stopped tapping at the casement window for new installments. Just us and the medium, all alone by the telephone.

. . .

Comics comment: Acme Novelty Datebook, Peepshow, Yummy Fur, Fancy Froglin, Blab!, Zero Zero, LowJinx, Maakies, etc.

The expression of the face becomes coarse, and the movements slow; the eye is sunken, the face bloated and pale, and the disposition is fretful and irritable; the appetite is capricious, the throat irritated, and the patient makes frequent attempts to clear it, in order to speak distinctly. There are pains in the chest, wakefulness, and during the night lascivious thoughts and desires. The relish for play or labor is gone, and a growing distaste for business is apparent; there is a determination of blood to the head, headache, noises and roaring sounds in the ears, the eyes may be blood-shot and watery, weak or painful, the patient imagines bright spots or flashes passing before them, and there may be partial blindness. There is increasing stolidity of expression, the eye is without sparkle, and the face becomes blotched and animal-like in its expression. The victim is careless of his personal appearance, not unscrupulously neat, and not unfrequently a rank odor exhales from the body.

The People's Common Sense Medical Adviser, R. V. Pierce M.D.

. . .

Comics comment: Acme Novelty Datebook

Nick Lowe summed up a tour with Van Morrison: "He's completely mad. But he sings like a fucking bird."

Robert Crumb draws like a fucking bird sings, and so his sketchbooks tend to contain his best work. The structural labor of comics narrative cramps him; heedless of beak and plumage, he lunges for the easiest way out.

Chris Ware is no fucking bird. Instead, he's driven by structural concepts.

The structural concept of his sketchbook is that he wishes he were more like Robert Crumb.

+ + +


Regarding the earlier group review, a reader comments:

i don't get it. why?
Future art historians will surely describe our era as the Golden Age of masturbation portraits.

Yay us.

. . .

The 2003 Census of the American Soul
(source: Johnson Smith Company catalog)

(including farting clock)
Crazed conspiracy theories18
Dancing objects2
Farting objects25
Fat Elvis2
Flames pattern5
George W. Bush
(including farting George W. Bush)
Insulting motivational phrases2
Iraq wars2
Martial arts14
The Matrix2
Military tributes
(including dancing hamsters)
Mystic powers
("Unleash The Genius Within You")
(including farting NASCAR driver)
The Simpsons5
Star Trek3
"the trendy Stars/Stripes pattern"4

. . .

I'll wring the neck of any fucking bastard says a word against my bleeding fucking king

Ron Silliman has been writing again about poetry and politics. And a very sensible job he does; until the Justin Timberlake crack, anyway. (I'll take Atmosphere over Bob Dylan. Over Bob Hass, too.) But the most instructive aspect of his series may be the sidetracking of his comment thread onto the purported snub of one poet's weblog.

That's why, if anything, we need less poetry in politics: it's a bad example. San Francisco is likely to get a rich right-wing mayor because none of the three leading liberal candidates will give up the mic. If CNN thinks of politics as a football game and Fox as pro wrestling, the Greens think of it as a slam. The petulant is the political.

For over a century, English poetry has been marketed as self-expression, a category which comfortably includes the self-congratulation of repeating-what-all-right-people-believe. Silliman's counter-example -- early 1970s lesbian-feminist presses -- confirms poetry's selling-point: the (rarely so politically useful) inflation of the individual ego. So although poetry's political limitations can be glaring, I don't believe it can have any direct political influence.

What happens when poets try?

"Political poetry" wasn't oxymoronic for William Langland, but Langland's readers aren't John Ashbery's. Even the coat-turns of Wordsworth and Southey facilitated little but their own careers and own embarrassments.

Pound's propaganda found its most avid audience in his judges and its most tangible result in his incarceration; maybe Fascist profiteers would've been grateful for the distraction, but I doubt the case was important enough to be brought to their attention.

A political artist is a scapegoat deluded into thinking it's a Judas goat.

Poetry does nothing. (Except kill poets.)

Nobody listens to poetry. (Except in a deposition.)

. . .


Corrected Nick Lowe quote:

Well, it was good fun except old Van is such a miserable old fucker.... I just think he needs a good clip around the ears, that's what I think he needs, actually. Stop taking himself so bloody seriously. Coz it ain't that hard to get up in front of a crowd of people that really groove on you, and sing a couple of tunes, which comes naturally -- he sings like a bloody bird -- so it's not that hard for him to do it. If it is causing that much pain, why doesn't he go and bolt fucking wheels on Fords? It's just, it's just so... rude, y'know.
We regret any inconvenience this may have caused.

This was from the same issue of CREEM that ran "the world's shortest (no pun intended) Bob Dylan interview":

DYLAN (on stage): This next number is a song I once did with The Band. You remember The Band, don't you? It was on an album called Planet Waves. It sold twelve copies.
CREEM (Jeffrey Morgan, sitting in the front row): Why?
DYLAN: Get this guy out of here.
Looking again at this crap, I can't help but be impressed by an incidental benefit of hip-hop's ascendency: articulate interview subjects.

. . .

Movie comment: Bubba Ho-Tep

Bruce Campbell re-asserts his position as the Peculiar Man's Kurt Russell, but Ossie Davis could've worked a bit harder on that Massachussetts accent.

. . .

Francis Joins a Feral Herd

Does it seem to you that there's been a distinct lowering of tone round here lately?

Well, it's not going to get any better for a sentence or two, as one of my favorite readers, Lawrence La Riviere White, encounters one of my favorite writers, Henry Adams:

I have been reading Education for about a year now as my bathroom book (a format that certainly effects one's interpretation). One quick thought on the foibles of academic literary criticism. I am now in the chapter on the Dynamic Theory of History & finding it the least interesting part of the whole thing. I agree w/your assessment of the main lesson of the book, something like the life-long development of a comportment toward one's ignorance. I think it relates to what Adorno and/or Benjamin might have (it's a memory fragment I have yet to patch) called "hopeful pessimism": despite the truth snapping you in the face (or worse, in the case of Benjamin) at every turn, keep trying. Adam's point seems to have occurred as well to Emerson: "The grossest ignorance does not disgust like this impudent knowingness."

But as I read the dynamic theory chapter, I think of the thousands of students preparing for PhD exams who made a precis of that chapter's argument their main notes for the book. Because it's the one thing he spelled out. & professional academic lit-crit has to go w/what's spelled out. When you have so many books to account for, you have to fall back on shorthands.

It's true: Adams's weakest point was misunderstanding science as requiring some "rule" or "law" of history. I can forgive it because it sets up the heartbreaking conclusion of The Education and because an intelligent person's foibles can be instructive in themselves.

It's harder to forgive the later writers (also often a little wobbly on science) who build on such weak points. The weight of the work is in passing insight and self-limiting aphorism while what gets cited is the grandly gassy theory, with Adams as with Nietzsche -- and, come to think of it, as with many poets and novelists foolish enough to wax pundit once or twice in their lives. (One word for Joyceans: "epiphany." He didn't even publish that one himself.)

Similar inclinations are shown by anthropologists of my own (that is, popular) culture. How many more university-funded volumes will be devoted to The Matrix than to Pirates of the Caribbean just because The Matrix speaks in familiar soundbites? Madonna strapping herself into a whalebone corset has less to do with either sexuality or transgression than with Madonna's none-too-revolutionary preconception of what her public thinks of sexuality and transgression, and in that, she's thesis-friendly. As I've demonstrated here many times, it's easier to launch a discourse on preconceptions than on the needle-pointed hæcceities of object, person, and experience.

I've sometimes expressed surprise at so much attention being devoted to that which needs neither elucidation nor perpetuation. But it makes evolutionary sense that monkeys should prefer low-hanging fruit and that we don't feel compelled to scrape our evolutionarily-valuable groins up the tree to the hard-to-reach stuff.

To switch totem species, having been trained by stick and low-hanging carrot-fruit to publicly confirm, as quickly and directly as possible, the learning of a lesson, why should the student turn against that training and insist on a slow, indirect, and uncertain route?

Some mules are just born bad, I reckon.

. . .

Movie comment: Fingers at the Window, 1942

This busy little B is powered by ridiculous story and clever script (sole movie credit of Rose Caylor, Ben Hecht's collaborator and wife), enthusiastic acting (notably Lew Ayres, about to be interned as a conscientious objector), and gorgeous urban cinematography.

Holding special interest is a scene in which Ayres crashes a professional meeting of psychiatrists, quickly slips off his hat and slips on wire-framed glasses (the disguise, I fear, is thin), and introduces himself as "Dr. Stephen Dedalus of Ireland. And this is Mrs. Dedalus."

As far as I know, that throwaway is the first reference to James Joyce in a commercial film, with The Third Man a far second in 1949.

It's bound to be the first reference to James Joyce in a commercial film about axe murderers.

. . .

Movie comment: Lost in Translation

After the California recall I didn't think it was possible to feel any more alienated, but seeing this movie did the job. Now I feel alienated from New York, too.

Imagine Larger Than Life devoting half its running time to the elephant, solo. Now imagine the elephant, solo, shot full of tranquilizers and stumbling around in pink panties. Well, Lost in Translation's not even that good, unless you find Gap ads more entertaining than elephants.

Doesn't anyone remember Bill Murray's Rushmore interviews? When he said he took a salary cut because Wes Anderson's screenplay assured him he wouldn't have to work as hard as usual? Whereas he was usually paid to pump life into otherwise barren scenes? Haven't any reviewers noticed that their favorite Lost in Translation moments are precisely what Murray was talking about? "OK, Bill -- do karaoke!" "Stupid Japanese commercial -- take fifty-four!" No wonder he looks trapped.

Aside from leaving improv room for Murray, the script is only what you'd fear from a comfortably wealthy arts major, complete with a voice-of-authority encouraging the protagonist to keep on writing, she'll be great someday. Very much Life Without Zoe, Part Deux, and almost enough to make me watch Storytelling again -- now there's an unwelcome impulse.

Sofia Coppola wants to make herself look good the way Woody Allen used to make himself look good, but she's unable or unwilling to provide her stand-in with any distinguishing marks. Scarlett Johansson's dialog is just as vapid as Anna Faris's, her stare even more vacant. The movie's one attempt at wit is so clumsily executed that it took a minute to work out the point: The heroine's Hollywood rival says merrily that she's registered under the pseudonym, "Evelyn Waugh." (OK, so the rival has a sense of humor.) Sofia/Zoe/Mary Sue looks sulky and objects, "But Evelyn Waugh was a man." (OK, so Sofia's got no sense of humor...?) Then Sofia's husband complains that Sofia is too aggressively intelligent and well-educated, having gone to Yale. (OK, so... uh... we're supposed to have assumed that someone would use the name "Evelyn Waugh" without knowing who he is? And shouldn't Yale have warned her that English isn't the official language of Japan?)

Coppola's blind faith in our blind faith in her POV's superiority puzzled me, but here's my tentative solution: Having been told all her life she's a genius, she interprets lack of interest in her ass as a sign of intellectual shallowness. "Daddy doesn't act like that."

At this point the only future I see for humanity is if the entire species goes sterile except for Kimberly Chun and some guy who hasn't yet expressed his opinion in print.

As for Sofia Coppola, call me when she remakes The Furies.

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
All other material: Copyright 2003 Ray Davis.