Tuesday, January 27, 2009

In Memoriam: John Updike (1932-2009)

A master has left us.

John Updike was, for me, the great American novelist of my lifetime, and the Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy is the great achievement of contemporary American fiction. No other books have depicted the realities of contemporary working-class and middle-class people (emphasis on the former) with such eloquence or grace. The United States is a country where people live on pride--pride of achievement, pride of maintaining what one has, pride in the belief that no matter low one may be, there is always someone beneath one's station--and Harry Angstrom's world, seen across the decades, dramatized and interrogated that like no other work. Updike was the rightful heir of Henry Miller: the voice of the man on the street, in the factory, or at the car-salesman's desk. In the Rabbit novels, Updike wrote about how life is lived on the ground, where men were "uncomplaining with their bellies and cross-hatched red necks, embarrassed for what to talk about when the game is over, whatever the game is."

Ironically, Updike is seen by many as the epitome of the patrician, northeastern establishment novelist--he was Mr. New Yorker magazine. There is something to that, mainly in that he was the most wide-ranging major figure in American letters over the last fifty years. In addition to his novels, he was a first-rate short-story writer, a fair poet, and the preeminent "Common Reader" literary critic of the era. It left a false impression with those who don't know his work. But for those who do, it spoke to how incredibly engaged he was with all aspects of writing and literature.

His most famous line (from Rabbit Is Rich) was, "The great thing about the dead, they make space." Maybe for some, but not for all, and certainly not for John Updike. I'll probably spend the rest of my life catching up with his immense legacy of work. His departure makes space for no one.

Addemdum: For more, read the the comments at Historiann. Click here.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Short-Story Review: Rose Tremain, "A Game of Cards"

Rose Tremain’s “A Game of Cards” is a study of lonely, wasted lives, presented as a confessional account. The narrator, Gustav Perle, a hotel owner in Switzerland, reflects on his life, particularly his friendship since childhood with Anton Zweibel, a local piano teacher. The portrait Tremain paints of Gustav is a profoundly sad one: he is incapable of intimacy and devoted to routine. His relationship with Anton seems more a pretense of a friendship than an actual one, and it too becomes defined by a routine--Anton exists for Gustav as a partner in daily gin-rummy games. Gustav has no family of his own and no dreams; his moment of crisis comes when Anton, late in life, is offered a chance to move into the world of recording and recital tours:

The prospect of Anton’s departure, the appalling idea that he would become famous, made me feel so utterly cast down that I found it impossible to move from my armchair. In this godforsaken hour, my life as a hotelier—from which it was far too late to escape—suddenly appeared to me as irredeemably mundane, shallow, and pointless.
This is as about as repellent a moment of self-absorbed reflection as one may ever encounter in fiction. There’s no happiness at the prospect of Anton finding fulfillment; the situation only serves to remind Gustav of the absence of dreams and ambitions in his own life.

This moment reveals the exact nature of the relationship between Gustav and Anton. They exist to reinforce the other’s justifications for refusing to engage with life. Both are anxious at the prospect of ever leaving Switzerland, and, as such, they stay put. Both feel threatened by the prospect of sharing and sacrifice that comes with marriage and raising a family; Gustav is even repelled by physical intimacy—he describes being French-kissed as a young man “as though some newly hatched blind eel had slithered its way inside my mouth.” The totem of their friendship is their constant gin-rummy games, and one comes to recognize the games as a shared means for Gustav and Anton to deny how lonely and empty their lives are.

The story doesn’t seem as affecting as it could be. Tremain structures it well. She firmly establishes Gustav’s feelings of anxiety about the unknown, carefully developing it from his trepidation about life outside Switzerland to his rather startling aversion to women and the prospect of starting his own family. (One infers from the story that Gustav is a lifelong virgin.) The “crisis” of Anton pursuing his musical dreams is also effectively developed. The problem may be that Gustav is too passive a character to keep the proceedings compelling. Anton seems a much more dynamic personality. If Tremain had told the story from his perspective, showing how his anxieties are confirmed and his aspirations are brought down by his relationship with Gustav, the story might have been far more dramatic. However, it must be said that making Anton the narrator might pose its own set of problems; his hanging around with Gustav--a wet blanket if ever there was one--might strain a reader’s patience. Loneliness and failure in life--particularly failure borne of the anxiety of making the attempt--are difficult subjects to tackle for a storyteller, particularly without resorting to the sensationalism that Dostoyevsky, for one, would have brought to such material. One can admire Tremain’s restraint, as well as the considerable craftsmanship she displays in this piece, but one can’t help but wish for something more dynamic.

”A Game of Cards,” by Rose Tremain, is featured in the Summer 2006 issue of The Paris Review. It is also included in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2008, published by Anchor Books.

Politics: Job Changes

Congratulations to Hillary Clinton on her successful appointment as the country's new Secretary of State. The permanent staff at Foggy Bottom appeared both delighted and relieved that she's their new boss, and I'm certain that with her assurance and command of issues and policy, she'll be nothing less than brilliant in the position. The 94-2 confirmation vote in the Senate was both surprising and welcome; it may signal that Clinton Derangement Syndrome may be a thing of the past with the Republican Party. Nobody apart from the desperate David Vitter and the looney-tune Jim DeMint (click here to understand that characterization) thought there was anything to gain politically by opposing her nomination. Now if only the press would follow suit.

Congratulations also to Kirsten Gillibrand on her appointment to fill Hillary Clinton's vacated Senate seat. I'm no longer a New Yorker, but I voted to reelect Hillary Clinton to that seat while I was living there, and I take a personal interest in how it's filled. Gillibrand was by far the best choice. A major problem for the Democratic Party in New York State is that the outstate population sees them as representing the interests of New York City and Long Island and no one else. It fosters a great deal of resentment towards both the city and the party. Hillary worked hard to be a representative for the outstate population, and I believe it was more important than anything for her successor to be able to fill those shoes; the City and Long Island already have Chuck Schumer as their go-to person in the Senate. Gillibrand, who represents the rural areas east and south of Albany in the U.S. House--and who defeated an entrenched GOP incumbent to there--was ideally suited to take over from Hillary. I mean no slight towards Andrew Cuomo or Carolyn Mahoney, who were also leading contenders, but it is best for New York that Kirsten Gillibrand was named in this instance.

And for those wondering, I think Caroline Kennedy would have been a disastrous choice. The one thing that never came up in all the blather about her was how good a representative she would be for the state's people; considerations of them were beside the point--for both her and her boosters. Her personal inadequacies as a candidate only fueled my opposition--Rudy Giuliani or Peter King would eat her for breakfast in an election campaign. Her dropping out was very much for the best.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Movies: 2008 Oscar Nominations

For my predictions, made in December, click here.

Here's the list of the finalists in the eight major categories:


  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

  • Frost/Nixon

  • Milk

  • The Reader

  • Slumdog Millionaire


  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, David Fincher

  • Frost/Nixon, Ron Howard

  • Milk, Gus Van Sant

  • The Reader, Stephen Daldry

  • Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle


  • Frozen River, Courtney Hunt

  • Happy-Go-Lucky, Mike Leigh

  • In Bruges, Martin McDonagh

  • Milk, Dustin Lance Black

  • WALL-E, Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, and Pete Docter


  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Eric Roth

  • Doubt, John Patrick Shanley

  • Frost/Nixon, Peter Morgan

  • The Reader, David Hare

  • Slumdog Millionaire, Simon Beaufoy


  • Richard Jenkins, The Visitor

  • Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon

  • Sean Penn, Milk

  • Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

  • Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler


  • Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married

  • Angelina Jolie, Changeling

  • Melissa Leo, Frozen River

  • Meryl Streep, Doubt

  • Kate Winslet, The Reader


  • Josh Brolin, Milk

  • Robert Downey, Jr., Tropic Thunder

  • Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt

  • Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

  • Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road


  • Amy Adams, Doubt

  • Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

  • Viola Davis, Doubt

  • Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

  • Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler

Forty nominations, and I picked 29 1/2 right. The major shocker here was how well The Reader did, picking up nominations for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay, which I don't think anyone anticipated. Many thought Winslet would get nominated for her performance, but she was being promoted for Supporting Actress, probably because the releasing company felt she had a better shot in the leading-actress category for Revolutionary Road, and they didn't want the performances cancelling each other out in the voting. Best-laid plans and all that, although it turned out even better than they anticipated. When in doubt, it seems the Academy always goes with the movie with the Holocaust theme.

Other surprises: The Sundance favorites Frozen River and In Bruges picking up screenplay nominations, and Michael Shannon's supporting-actor nod for Revolutionary Road. I'm also surprised to not see Clint Eastwood and Sally Hawkins in the final five in the leading-actor categories. Hawkins won every other major award, so perhaps her fellow actors felt she'd been honored enough, given the difficulty in finding a theater that was showing the film. Also, Woody Allen was denied an expected screenplay nomination. It's probably the first time that's ever happened, but, as the saying goes, there's a first time for everything

As for the other discrepancies between my predictions and the final list, well, I'm not that surprised. The Dark Knight was always the weakest candidate in the picture and screenplay categories, and I didn't think Happy-Go-Lucky was looking at a picture nod, so a directing nomination for Mike Leigh only had an outside chance at best. Beyond Michael Shannon, everybody in the acting categories that I didn't anticipate for the final five were considered possible spoilers. My big disappointment was that Rosemarie DeWitt didn't get a supporting-actress nod for Rachel Getting Married; her performance was the foundation the entire film was built around.

Yeesh. Now I'm going to have to put The Reader near the top of my to-see list. It's a story about a fellow who, as a teenager, has his first affair with Kate Winslet and grows up to be Ralph Fiennes. It just stretches credibility, you know?
(That was Anthony Lane's joke, but it's worth repeating.)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Comics/Portfolio Art: "Always Trump"

There's a saying that goes, "Those who can't do, review." I don't think there's much truth to it. More often than not, the saying or words to that effect come from an artist or entertainer who is annoyed with his or her notices. There have been any number of individuals who do both. One name that immediately comes to mind is John Updike, whose "Rabbit Angstrom" novels are among the great achievements in American letters, and whose literary criticism has enriched the lives of readers for several decades.

However, there are reviewers and critics whose love of the arts exceeds the compulsion to create their own works. Pauline Kael was an aspiring playwright in her 20s and 30s, and Harold Bloom has written at least one published novel. Their love of the arts, though, has found its greatest expression in criticism. Explicating a work and their reactions to it is where figures such as Kael and Bloom have found the most fulfillment.

I identify with that impulse. I'm certainly more comfortable exploring other people's work than creating my own. I've produced short fiction and poetry, with results that aren't entirely wretched. I've also done some cartooning, and one effort in that area can be seen below. The reason I don't pursue it further is that the inner compulsion to do so isn't there to a strong enough degree. I find it difficult to muster the patience to execute comics, which are unbelievably labor-intensive, and I'm not encouraged enough by the results to keep at it.

The story below, "Always Trump," was from the projected third issue of a mini-comic series called Close Quarters. The series characters are college students, with the two main ones, Allie and Beth, residence-hall roommates. ("Always Trump" takes place entirely in their dorm room.) These were done over a decade ago, and looking back on the three installments, I'm inclined to find them all embarrassing to a certain degree. One reason is that I deliberately wrote the scripts while drunk. I was looking to challenge myself as much as I could with the draftsmanship and breakdowns, and I didn't want to consciously or unconsciously shy away from something because I wasn't sure of how to draw it. By design, there was no editing. The result was the sort of meandering narrative that I frequently castigate in my reviews. I also cringe at some of the dialogue, which at times was goofy and gross in a way that most adolescents would probably consider beneath them. (Like most things, it was much funnier while intoxicated.) The worst of it in "Always Trump" has been blacked out, although one can pretty much tell what was said from the context. I'm just not going to put the actual language out there with my name on it.

Anyway, here goes. Make of it what you will. Click the images if you want a larger view.

As for me, I think I'm better off reviewing.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Poetry Review: Charles Simic, "Listen"

Charles Simic's "Listen" is bewildering at first. One doesn't know what to make of the key simile, which at first glance seems both eccentric and undeveloped. It reads:
We are like a couple
working the night shift
in a bomb factory.
One doesn't see the relevance to the rest of the poem. The succeeding stanzas describe a couple going up to a rooftop late at night to view the city from above. They can hear a fire truck in the distance, its sirens blaring, but they cannot see or hear the fire or its victims. Simic's notion of the couple seems odd as well. One infers that they are a man and a woman from the rooftop passage, but the poem's opening line identifies them as "make-believe and real."

Upon reflection, though, one realizes that the couple is a metaphor that builds upon the simile of the bomb factory. The experience of working in the factory is analogous to the couple's experience on the rooftop. The poem then begins to make sense. Simic is likening working in the bomb factory to being aware of a fire without seeing it or its consequences. An employee in a bomb factory knows, at least in theory, what bombs are used for, and that people in the midst of a war are grievously injured or even killed by them. However, the awareness of a conflict and its attendant casualties is entirely abstract. It has nothing to do with the direct experience of making the bombs.

In short, consciousness is divided between abstract awareness and the knowledge of direct experience--the "make-believe and real." One's sense of this dichotomy is heightened by tonal contrasts in the poem . The opening sentence has the air of a romantic pronouncement, and the feeling of romance--a state of mind shared between two people that excludes the surrounding world--is further emphasized by the nighttime visit to the rooftop to look out upon the city. In a place like Manhattan, if one is high up enough, the feelings the view gives are ones of awe and delight; the spectacle overwhelms one's consideration of the human dramas for which the city provides a stage. And those dramas can demand one's engagement; it's hard to imagine anything that could insist one's attention more than Simic's image of a child in burning bedclothes. There's nothing more difficult for most than idly standing back in response to such a thing. However, unless one is right there, the situation becomes less real, and one can be so far removed that one's only awareness of it is the metonymy of a fire truck's sirens, a trope that, for Simic's rooftop couple, lacks a tenor. And a trope without a tenor means nothing.

Simic highlights, but he does not judge. One might think there would be a question of complicity on the part of the factory worker with a bomb's devastation, but Simic doesn't develop it. The worker seems as innocent of the bomb's destruction as the rooftop couple is of the suffering of the fire's victims. The poem appears to ask that one simply be aware that there is a larger world beyond what one is immediately wrapped up in. One needs to recognize that life is a marriage between what happens in our mind and what goes on outside it. What people do with that knowledge is up to them.

"Listen," by Charles Simic, was originally published in the May 14, 2007 issue of The New Yorker. It is included in The Best American Poetry 2008 anthology, and in Simic's book collection That Little Something. Click here for the poem's text.

Reviews of other poems by Charles Simic:

  • "Carrying on Like a Crow"

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Comics Review: Julius Schwartz, Alan Moore, Curt Swan, et al., Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, click here to buy it from Powell's Books.

If there was ever a story that Alan Moore could be considered a pair of hands on, "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" is the one. By all accounts, the story concept was worked out in advance. In the mid-1980s, DC Comics had hired a popular cartoonist to reboot Superman, and the outgoing editor, Julius Schwartz, decided to leave with a bang. His final issues of the two ongoing Superman series, Superman and Action Comics, would feature a two-part series finale. The story would tie off every continuing narrative thread in the strip. Superman's relationships with Lois Lane, his friends, and his assorted enemies would be resolved once and for all. According to Schwartz, Moore, whose quality scriptwriting was fast making him an industry darling, lobbied hard for the assignment and received it. It was a story written to specifications, and given Schwartz's reputation for hands-on editing of scripts, it was probably substantially rewritten after Moore turned his draft in.

As such, the story is not a piece one comes to with high expectations. The likely writing-by-committee aspects of its creation aside, it was intended as a going-away present to fans of Schwartz's run, and that sort of thing usually has an in-group quality that makes a story alienating, if not incomprehensible. The surprise of "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" is how accessible and affecting it is. One may not be familar with many of the characters, or the assorted references to preceding stories, but one finds it doesn't matter. Schwartz and Moore quickly and deftly lay out the relationships of the various characters, and they find the pathos in the material as well.

The story begins with Lois Lane, now married and with a baby boy, giving an interview to a reporter. It's several years in the future, and she's asked to recall Superman's last days. The events she describes are a whirlwind of tumult and death. Superman is revealed to the world as Clark Kent, both friends and enemies turn up dead or are killed, and Superman must face the realization that these are his final days. He soon discovers that everything that has happened has been manipulated by his most dangerous enemy, and their final confrontation forces him to make a choice: abandon his principles as Superman, or see Lois Lane die. He saves her, but Superman can be no more.

As can be seen in another story, "For the Man Who Has Everything..." (review here), Moore sees Superman as an odd, even unhealthy personality. He's incapable of embracing happiness or becoming close to others. His emotional commitments are to abstractions, such as the legacy of Krypton, the homeworld he never knew, or the "ideal" of Superman. He's all about aggrandizing himself, not finding fulfillment in his relationships with others. The drama in "Whatever Happened..." comes from the conflict between the two impulses. It's implicit that Superman has always fancied himself as a savior to others, but the events in the story challenge this view of himself, and he has to face the fact that being Superman has opened his loved ones to the danger they presently face. This leads to him acknowledging the emotional pain he's caused by keeping them at arm's length. In the story's most poignant moment, he calls himself a coward, berating himself for letting others waste their love on him and messing up their lives. He's chosen the ideal of Superman at their expense. It's a powerful set-up for the climax, where he chooses to save Lois, the person he loves most, at the price of that ideal. Schwartz and Moore give the character a fittingly ironic ending: his heroism comes when he casts the ideal of Superman aside.

It's a remarkably subversive treatment of the character, and it may seem more typical of Moore than Schwartz, whose approach to costumed superheroes was about as traditional as they come. (Hell, Schwartz was a key definer of the traditions.) But if I had to choose between Schwartz and Moore as the principal author of the story, I'd choose Schwartz. The plot-heavy, first-this-then-that story structure is a Schwartz hallmark, as is the elegantly composed, cleanly rendered art (provided by Curt Swan with inking by George Pérez and Kurt Schaffenberger). The only thing about the story that's typical of Moore is the against-the-grain treatment of Superman, but Schwartz was too fastidious an editor to let something like that through if he hadn't been sympathetic to it. He certainly wouldn't have otherwise let a character say, without challenge, "Superman? He was overrated, and too wrapped up in himself. He thought the world couldn't get along without him." The story was conceived as Julius Schwartz's swan song, and that should be its legacy.

Other posts in the Comics Renaissance--Alan Moore series (click to read):

Politics: The Clinton Confirmation Hearing--and the Press

The dominant news story of the day was Hillary Clinton's Secretary of State confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I skipped the opening series of pontifications from the committee members. I sat down to listen when Hillary began her opening statement, and I stayed with it through the rest of the morning session and all of the afternoon one.

I was reminded all over again why I voted for Senator Clinton's reelection in 2006, and why I passionately supported her presidential bid last year. She is nothing short of remarkable, possessing a full command of the facts on a mind-boggling array of subjects, and never failing to be anything less than eminently sensible on the subject at hand. I would enthusiastically back her for any position she pursued. The members of the committee seemed almost as impressed as I was.

During the lunch break, though, I listened to the commentary on MSNBC, led by Chris Matthews and Andrea Mitchell. I could hardly believe we watched the same hearing. They obsessed over some remarks made by the committee's ranking minority member, Dick Lugar, that were a low-level harumph over the negotiated disclosure schedule regarding donors to the Clinton Foundation. From the way Matthews, Mitchell, et al. were talking about the charity (and this the way they've talked about it for over a year now), one would think that it was a suspected money-laundering operation for organized crime, instead of a stunningly effective relief organization for third-world health crises and other international blights.

I recognize that the press operates under Clinton Rules, the premise of which is that anything the Clintons say, do, or become involved in is inherently sinister and corrupt, but it was clear throughout the morning hearing that none of the committee members (for good reason) considered it to be of much concern. They invariably wanted to know about Hillary's views on their own pet issues, which ranged from Iraq to the treatment of women in Afghanistan to the effect climate change is having on Alaska and its impact on border questions with Canada. However, the supposed conflicts of interest represented by the Clinton Foundation were the fixation the press had going in, so that's what they focused on, not doing their job and reporting on the substance of the hearing.

The questions about the Foundation played a larger role in the afternoon, but I doubt it made the press people happy. David Vitter, in a bout of desperate posturing that was obviously intended to get the Dittohead crowd behind his futile reelection bid, boorishly went on and on about the ethics issues "raised" by it. However, Diaper Dave was clearly grasping at straws, and he didn't even have a basic command of the facts: Hillary and committee chair John Kerry became so annoyed with his ignorance that both spent a good deal of time correcting him. (When senators make a point of correcting a colleague on the floor of a hearing, you know something particularly asinine was said. As a matter of decorum, contradicting a fellow senator in this fashion simply isn't done.) When the only official the press can get to act as a proxy is one who's grandstanding to overcome a scandal about his involvement with fetish hookers, I think it's best to just let the issue go.

The press was able to get their hopes up just a little, but it wasn't enough. Lugar was clearly appalled at what a mockery Vitter made of the disclosure issue. He went into a long, rambling disquisition on the issue on the pretext of asking Hillary questions about it; his obvious lack of preparedness indicated that he originally had no intention of discussing the matter beyond his opening remarks. He wants a different disclosure schedule than he's going to get, but he knows it's a minor matter. He again reaffirmed his intention to vote for Hillary's confirmation, and he certainly wouldn't have done that if the disclosure schedule was a big deal. Once the afternoon session was over, Matthews and company (most conspicuously Norah O'Donnell) essentially admitted that this impasse wasn't an impasse at all, and that Hillary could expect easy confirmation.

I for one wish that the press would get over their stupid fixations and just report on the matter at hand. Hillary Clinton has a profound command of just about any issue that is set before her. The members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, regardless of party affiliation, clearly hold her in the utmost regard. That and the substance of her answers were the news out of the hearing today. Baseless suspicions about the Clinton Foundation, its donors, and potential conflicts of interest aren't.

The only heartening aspect of the press's performance today was their abandonment of the nonsense on the evening shows. Keith Olbermann treated the hand-wringing over the Clinton Foundation as idiocy, and Chris Matthews spent most of Hardball praising Hillary's performance as "masterful." (Yes, Matthews did this.) David Shuster tried to get a stink going again on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, with carefully chosen clips of Vitter, not to mention having the perpetually inebriated Clinton slanderer Christopher Hitchens on to opine, but the effort was half-hearted. Vitter, Hitchens, and blather about the Foundation were essentially gone after the show's first segment. One can only hope the press's stupidity about the Clintons is gone as well.

I'm not betting on it, though.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Music Monday: The Smiths, "I Started Something I Couldn't Finish"

I always think of The Smiths as the great rock band that American audiences missed out on, at least in their heyday. The time together of Morrissey, Johnny Marr, and company coincides with my years in high school (1983-1987), but the only mention of them I ever heard back then came from a schoolmate who was into alternative rock and pop more than anyone else I knew. And the only reason he mentioned them to me was because I was getting into movies hot 'n' heavy at the time, and I was talking up Paul Morrissey's Dracula and Frankenstein films for Andy Warhol, which I had seen (in heavily edited) versions on the USA Network's late, great, long-lamented Night Flight program. The commonality of the Morrissey name aside, The Smiths featured an image of Joe Dallesandro, the star of the Warhol Frankenstein and Dracula films, on the cover of their first album. I never heard a song by them until I was in college, a couple of years after they broke up.

I've never come across a decent explanation of why The Smiths were locked out of commercial radio back then. The only thing I can think of is that their guitar-driven pop sound went against the grain in terms of the popular styles. The English pop bands that got airplay at the time were heavily keyboard-centric, and the guitar-based acts were almost exclusively heavy metal. Despite The Smiths' popularity in the UK, if you didn't have access to a college radio station (or listen to a late-night public radio DJ who played alternative rock), you had no idea who they were.

That's certainly changed now. Like me, the people who missed out on them in high school caught up with their albums in college, and The Smiths are now considered one of the key groups of the 1980s. And it's hard for anyone, of any age, to get through a week these days without hearing the hook to their most famous song, "How Soon Is Now?" Listening to them now, I laugh even harder than I did then at the tongue-in-cheek self-pity of the lyrics, and I still marvel at the razor-sharp guitar hooks the songs were built around. My favorite recording by them comes from their final album, "Strangeways, Here We Come. It's called "I Started Something I Couldn't Finish," and it's the focus of today's Music Monday.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Fiction Review: F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"

The story can be read by clicking here.

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a minor though entertaining short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is enjoying renewed interest because of the film adaptation directed by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt. (The late Pauline Kael once wrote that if one is going to see a movie based on something one thinks might be worth reading, read the source material first. Following that dictum, I’m reading “Benjamin Button” and writing about it before seeing the film.) Fitzgerald’s story features the characteristic elegance of his prose, and it has a rather gaudy conceit: it presents the life of a man who is the equivalent of about seventy years old when he is born, and who ages in reverse. The tone successfully shifts from the farcical to the romantic to ultimately one of pathos, with Fitzgerald hitting the notes of laughter and sadness with the various characters’ preoccupations with appearances. Everyone confronted with Benjamin’s incongruous aging pattern treats it as a joke, and those who must accept the truth of the situation, such as his father, wife, and son, treat it as a black joke on them. Benjamin’s only happiness comes as an adult, the only time when looking older when one is younger and looking younger when one is older is an advantage.

Fitzgerald handles the shifts in the story with remarkable skill. He begins with a terrific comic set piece, as Roger Button, Benjamin’s father, is faced with the shock of discovering his son has been born an elderly man. And Fitzgerald makes full use of the comic possibilities in having a child look and act like a man of advanced years. There’s one fiasco after another: in the nursery, in kindergarten, and even at the Yale registrar’s office when the eighteen-year-old Benjamin attempts to enroll. But Fitzgerald also prepares one to anticipate that Benjamin’s adult life will be a disappointing one, all the better to heighten the sense of happiness those years actually hold. He makes the transition with an observant irony: Hildegarde Moncrief, the town beauty who becomes Benjamin’s wife, is attracted to older-looking men. Their marriage is the icing on the cake of the first part of Benjamin’s adulthood, in which he sees the family business become more prosperous than ever, and he even becomes a war hero.

But where irony leads, it leads away from as well, and the pathos of Benjamin’s growing younger takes over. As time passes, Benjamin and Hildegarde’s relationship becomes increasingly strained. In both appearance and temperament, Benjamin becomes more like the bon vivant young men Hildegarde expressed disdain for when they first met. She ultimately deserts him to live abroad. And other disappointments follow as time goes by. He becomes too “young” to enjoy what life offers him. His second try at attending college fails because his intellect is losing the sophistication necessary to do the coursework. He can’t accept a senior officer’s commission decades after his war service because the brass can’t believe this apparent teenager is the same person. His only happiness comes when he joins his grandson in kindergarten, when his mind and body are such that he can enjoy the activities he shunned when he was five. His life ends in the senility of infancy, when he becomes increasingly unable to remember anything, even the smell of food. Fitzgerald never makes it explicit, but he suggests that the old end where the young begin. Losing the knowledge of one’s experiences, and with it one’s identity, may be the saddest pathos of all.

It’ll certainly be interesting to see how David Fincher and the screenwriters, Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, handle Fitzgerald’s material. From the trailer clips, they’ve clearly modernized the story. Brad Pitt is shown riding around in a motorcycle looking like an ‘80s or ‘90s yuppie, so the character probably ages to infancy in the present day. (Fitzgerald’s story begins in 1860 and ends in 1930 or so.) And unless Cate Blanchett agreed to make an extended cameo, the love story between Benjamin and Hildegarde (or her equivalent) has been heavily altered and/or expanded. (The Blanchett character is shown to be fascinated by Benjamin’s condition, not repelled by it the way Fitzgerald’s Hildegarde ultimately is.) I’ll also be curious to see if the film maintains the comic tone of the first half of the story; Fincher, best known for Se7en and, more recently, Zodiac, is not a director I associate with comic material or the deft sense of pace required to pull it off. However, he does have a feel for the sort of darker ironies that Fitzgerald presents in the latter sections, and I do expect that, whatever liberties are or aren’t taken, his attention to detail will be obvious in every shot. The man does not skimp.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Comics Review: Alan Moore & Brian Bolland, Batman: The Killing Joke

Batman: The Killing Joke is perhaps the most famous of Alan Moore’s shorter works in adventure comics. It was first published in 1988, when Moore’s post-Watchmen stardom was at its height, and it certainly rode the crest of that wave to commercial success. It enjoyed an even bigger sales boost the following year, with the release of Tim Burton’s first Batman film. The Batman and Joker characters became phenomenally popular with the general public, creating an enormous demand for anything and everything featuring them. The hype surrounding The Killing Joke as the definitive Batman-Joker story was still fresh, which made it the go-to Batman comic for fans of the film. And the book didn’t make those readers feel like they were slumming. One reason was that the level of violence in the story made it completely inappropriate for children. Another was that the book’s artwork is nothing short of outstanding, successfully combining bravura draftsmanship with nuanced dramatizations. It deservedly established Brian Bolland as one of the finest illustrators in the history of adventure cartooning. A special hardcover edition, featuring new coloring by Bolland, was released last year, and the more restrained palette makes it look better than ever.

However, despite The Killing Joke's success, both Bolland and Moore have publicly taken an ambivalent and even disdainful view of it. In the new edition’s afterword, Bolland expresses discomfort with several aspects of Moore’s script, including the decision to include a back-story for the Joker, as well as the extremes of the violence. As for Moore, he looks back on the book with embarrassment. In an interview published in the October 1990 issue of The Comics Journal, he said:
I didn’t think The Killing Joke was a very good piece of work; I think it was a very bad piece of work in some respects. Not Brian [Bolland]’s artwork; Brian’s artwork was as flawless as ever, but my storytelling wasn’t very good. It wasn’t a very good story. The meaning was too slight to merit the nastiness or brutality of the approach. There were lots of things wrong with it.
Moore is right, although one is tempted to say his assessment of his contribution to the book is too kind. The Killing Joke is a poorly crafted and remarkably ugly effort on his part, and it’s perhaps the worst story he’s ever put his name on.

The book begins with Batman arriving at the insane asylum where the Joker is imprisoned. He’s haunted by the possibility that their perpetual conflict will someday end with one or the other dead. He wants to talk things over in an effort to avert that outcome. The Joker, though, has escaped. His scheme this time out is an effort at self-justification. As he sees it, the only difference between him and sane people is one bad day. So, to prove his point, he kidnaps Police Commissioner Gordon with the goal of driving him mad. Gordon is subjected to all sorts of torture, with the worst of it coming from what the Joker does to his daughter. She’s shot through the spine, leaving her paralyzed, and then stripped naked for the Joker to take photographs to assault the commissioner with. The story, though, ends with Gordon safe and still sane. Batman captures the Joker, and he has the conversation with his nemesis that he sought at the beginning. However, the Joker rejects Batman's offer to help rehabilitate him. He and Batman then share a laugh over a dumb joke about trust, their laughter signifying their acceptance of where their antagonism may lead.

The most immediate problem with the story is the absurdity of the ending. Batman is shown to be friends with both Gordon and Gordon’s daughter (she even knows he’s Bruce Wayne), but he responds to their being maimed, tortured, and sexually assaulted by treating the perpetrator with sympathy? One would think Batman, after witnessing the depths of the Joker’s depravity, would regard him as an irredeemable monster. Batman might even regard killing him as the only sensible option. It’s implicit in the story that the main question about incarcerating the Joker is when—not if—he’s going to escape again. What’s worse, having his death on one’s conscience, or the brutality and deaths that will inevitably result from letting him live? The question would be especially stark for Batman given how people he cares for were the victims this time around. However, Moore never raises the issue. The Batman of the story is a completely undeveloped character. There are no tensions in his attitude despite a situation that demands them. Unbelievably, he’s the same at the end of the story that he was at the beginning.

The Joker isn’t effectively developed, either. Moore works hard to make the character sympathetic through flashback scenes that show his life in the days leading up to his disfigurement and breakdown; Moore even takes the step of incorporating autobiographical details in the portrayal. The man who becomes the Joker starts as someone very much like Moore himself: an aspiring entertainer who quits his day job to pursue his dreams when his wife becomes pregnant. However, unlike Moore, financial stresses drive the character towards crime: he agrees to help some mobsters burglarize a company adjacent to the chemical plant where he used to work. The day of the burglary, though, turns into the worst day of his life. His wife and unborn child are killed in a freak household accident. The burglary is foiled, and in the process of escaping, the future Joker ends up immersed in chemicals that permanently bleach his skin pigment and turn his hair green. This disfigurement, coming when it does, proves to be one more defeat than he can take. He suffers a psychotic breakdown and becomes the cackling maniac known as the Joker. However, for all the pathos of this, Moore neglects one crucial thing: he doesn’t create a significant link between the present-day character and this flashback figure. There’s nothing about this fellow that suggests he’s capable of the sadistic violence the Joker inflicts on others. They might as well be two different people.

Moore also doesn’t develop the flaw in the flashback figure’s personality that leads to his breakdown. During their fight, Batman taunts the Joker with the fact that Gordon, despite the torture, is still sane. He says, “So maybe ordinary people don’t always crack […] Maybe it was just you, all the time.” That’s a perfectly reasonable point to make with the story, but Moore doesn’t give it any resonance. He doesn’t dramatize that going insane was a path peculiar to the Joker. The story doesn’t take the time to develop any significant contrast between the flashback figure and Gordon, either. We never see what it is about Gordon’s personality that enables his sanity to survive the “one bad day” that pushed the Joker over the edge.

The overwhelming problem with The Killing Joke is that Moore didn’t find a fresh angle on the material. He started with a basic good-guy-catches-the-bad-guy story, and that’s all he ends up with. There are no significant ironies, reversals, or counterpoints; the epiphany the two main characters share at the end--the preposterousness of the scene aside--is banal. Yes, Batman and the Joker will be antagonists to the very end. That’s not much of an insight; in fact, it’s an assumption one makes going in. The only substantial irony to be found with this disjointed piece of nastiness is its commercial success. Moore’s muse failed him, but he ended up with what may be his most widely read work. The best thing to be said about The Killing Joke is that, in the context of his career, it proved to be a tangent instead of a sign of things to come.

Other posts in the Comics Renaissance--Alan Moore series (click to read):