Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Art of Bob Peak

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.


Note: A coffee-table book, The Art of Bob Peak, retailing for $79.00 USD, was published in May 2012. For more information about the book, click here.

Bob Peak (1927-1992) was perhaps the greatest commercial illustrator active in the U. S. after World War II. He is an artist whose work can more than hold its own with that of such pre-WWII figures as Charles Dana Gibson, Norman Rockwell, and J.C. Leyendecker. A brilliant draftsman, he's noted for his superb command of figure drawing and portaiture, his strong compositional sense, and his masterful approach to color design. No illustrator has done more to integrate the techniques of such modernist schools as Fauvism, Art Nouveau, Cubism, and Futurism into the visual vocabulary of the broader culture. A characteristic piece is the one above from his series for the film Camelot. Peak layers multiple images, utilizes modernist rendering techniques for the various visual elements, and brings it all together with a flamboyant, decorative use of color.

An excellent example of Peak's use of modernist technique is his tribute to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (at left). The image owes a great deal to the effects found in the Cubist and Futurist works of such artists as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Marcel Duchamp. But Peak's approach is different; he isn't out to capture multiple perspectives or the simultaneity of movement in a single image. He's enamored with the geometric patterning generated by the earlier painters' techniques. He reproduces them, and he also recalls the monochromatic palette of several of those painters' works to brilliant decorative effect. The approach is especially suitable for a treatment of Astaire and Rogers; the Art Deco sets in their films derived their style from the same work Peak references. Peak pays tribute to Astaire and Rogers and acknowledges the "high-art" roots of their films' visuals in one fell swoop.

The covers of Time magazine, Sports Illustrated, and TV Guide were regular showcases for Peak's work in the 1970s and 1980s. A good deal of this material is just stylish renderings of celebrities, like his treatment of Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris, or Madonna in her "Material Girl"/Gentlemen Prefer Blondes mode. (Click the stars' names to view.) But every now and then, Peak would create a portrait that was nothing less than profound. His depiction of Mother Teresa (at right) recalls late Rembrandt in its evocation of the modern saint's dignity and nobility. He captures the sad air that always seemed to accompany her. Peak's approach is more caricatural than Rembrandt's, and his color design more ebullient, but the techniques create a resonance than can hold its own with the drama of the Dutch master's late-period works.

Peak is best known for his movie posters, and his work is widely considered the best that field of commercial art has ever seen. Many of them have become pop-culture classics (click the titles to view)--My Fair Lady, Camelot, Petulia, Funny Girl, Enter the Dragon, Equus, Superman, Excalibur--known and admired by people regardless of their interest in the movies for which the posters were produced.

The high point of Peak's movie-poster work is probably the piece he produced for Apocalypse Now (at right). Peak brilliantly epitomizes the film's ambitions and drama in a single image. With the scorching red-on-black color scheme, and the swirling flare lines emanating from the image of the boat, he captures the delirious, hallucinatory tone the film was seeking. The central portrait of Marlon Brando's Kurtz suggests rock melting into lava, an inspired depiction of a character who represents the acme of civilization degenerating into barbarism. The image of Martin Sheen's steadfast Willard hangs in the background. The concrete quality of the rendering suggests a stability distinct from the nightmarish quality conveyed by the rest of the piece, but the integration of the portrait into the color scheme suggests Willard is a part of the insanity as well. I can think of no other movie poster that has captured the dynamics of the film that inspired it so well.

Ultimately, Peak's work was what art critic Clement Greenberg would have derided as kitsch. For all his sophistication, Peak essentially assimilated the techniques of modernist innovators and other "high-culture" artists, slicked up their application, and utilized them in an unabashedly commercial context. But Peak's work is kitsch of the highest order. At his most accomplished, he made those techniques his own, creating imagery that is uniquely his. His work is popular art at its best: technically masterful, with an energy and verve that to many, makes "high art" look dull by comparison.

More examples of Peak's work are available for viewing at www.bobpeak.com, and at dozens of sites maintained by collectors and enthusiasts.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Film Review: Becoming Jane

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Becoming Jane, a fanciful treatment of the life of the young Jane Austen, is an entertaining little movie. It's not on the level of Shakespeare in Love, whose lead it is obviously following. It doesn't have that film's sophistication, to say nothing of its wit. But Becoming Jane is solidly written and handsomely produced, and the director, Julian Jarrold, keeps it moving at a brisk pace. It's a kitsch treatment of Austen and her work, but it's extremely well-made, and it certainly holds one's attention.

The idea behind the film was to interpret Austen's life in the terms of one of her magnificent romantic-comedy novels. We don't know much about Austen's life, and even less about its romantic side--she never married--but her letters contain references to a flirtation when she was 20 with the young Thomas Langlois Lefroy, a future Parliament member and judge. She completed her early drafts of Pride and Prejudice a couple of years afterward, so the screenwriters, Kevin Hood and Sarah Johnson, concoct an Austen-style relationship between her and Lefroy. Hood and Johnson couldn't end the story in the manner of Austen's novels--Austen and Lefroy went their separate ways before marrying--so they substitute Austen's embarking on her career. Along the way, we see the young lovers whose attraction to each other increases the more they push the other away, the complications to their relationship caused by family obligations, and observations into the social mores of late-18th century England. The film's only serious misstep is its epilogue, which tramples all over the known facts of Austen's life in the service of a hackneyed, sentimental ending.

Austen is played by Anne Hathaway, who's a surprising choice for the role, and not just because she's American. The film's Austen is arrogant and rude a fair amount of the time, and Hathaway's specialty in her other roles has been to smile, be charming, and otherwise ingratiate herself with the audience. When she's been called on to do something other than that, as she was in her later scenes in Brokeback Mountain, the energy drains out of her, and she becomes a cipher on the screen. It's clear Hathaway isn't up to some of the technical challenges of playing the film's Austen. The accent she affects doesn't match any of the other actors (not even fellow American James Cromwell, who plays Austen's father), and she has trouble with several of her line readings. The screenwriters chose to have Austen talk in the manner of her prose, and Hathaway turns the long, clause-heavy sentences into tongue-twisters. She has trouble pacing her delivery of the more complicated lines, and on the occasions when she pulls it off comfortably, she can't muster any conviction behind the words. Either way, the lines just hang in the air, stilted and unnatural.

Hathaway has a great camera face, and she uses it far more expressively than she has in her earlier roles. The contrast of the ebony hair and eyes with the alabaster skin draws one's attention right away. In her previous work, Hathaway has relied on the easy rapport her features grant her with audiences in order to charm them. It's often made her an enjoyable presence in films, but it's also made her come across like a piece of fluff--she seems to avoid any opportunity for dynamism in her characterizations. But in Becoming Jane, one never catches her falling back on her charm. She maintains some emotional distance from the audience, and the tension it creates is striking. Hathaway's line readings may falter, but her facial expressions leave no doubt about Jane's feelings, and her timing with regard to them never goes slack. It's her most compelling performance to date.

Hathaway's Jane rarely seems relaxed, and the contrast with James McAvoy's easy presence as Lefroy results in a terrific chemistry between the two. The film's Lefroy is a happy-go-lucky rake when we first meet him, and McAvoy does a seemingly effortless job of embodying the character. One can immediately feel the joy Lefroy takes in his antics, and the further joy he takes in taunting Jane with them. As the film progresses, McAvoy's shifts from flirtatiousness to love to romantic loss are remarkably fluid; he takes what at first seems like a stock bad-boy role, and he provides the emotional depth to make the different sides of the character wholly believable as they're revealed.

One wishes Julian Jarrold had been able to bring out the other performances to better effect. Apart from Hathaway and McAvoy, the only actor to make a strong impression is the late Ian Richardson, who plays Judge Langlois, Lefroy's uncle and benefactor. Jarrold has gathered some first-rate performers, including James Cromwell, Julie Walters, and Maggie Smith, but he doesn't give them much of anything to do.

The screenplay has some problems as well. Jane's resentment over the status of women in her society is too modern and blunt to be believable. One can sense these frustrations in Elizabeth Bennet and the other women characters in Austen's novels, but it's usually more subtle and far less overtly angry. There's also a lack of sensitivity to the mores of the period. Jarrold and his writers apparently wanted to portray Jane as a New-Woman Gibson Girl a century before their time: she's strong-willed, independent-minded, and she's even good at men's sports. However, no woman of Jane's class would ever behave as insolently as Jane does towards Judge Langlois in a dinner scene with him, Lefroy, and others. She would certainly know better than to act like that when she was seeking the judge's favor. And as noted above, the epilogue is poorly conceived, and some key plot points aren't properly developed: a background character proposes to Jane late in the film. It's revealed that he's taken drastic action to disrupt her relationship with Lefroy, but there's been no indication that he's had any interest in Jane up to that point. One also wishes the writers had been able to include something of the wonderful sense of irony that drives Austen's novels.

But these shortcomings are trifling. The central story of Jane's relationship with Lefroy always stays on track. Quite remarkably, Jarrold includes many aspects of late 18th-century life that are extraneous to one degree or another, but he never loses the story's momentum. He also knows how to emphasize the picturesque elegance of Eigil Bryld's cinematography without getting bogged down in the imagery. The work of the technical crew, from the production design to the costumes to the editing, is first-rate. Becoming Jane isn't a great film, but it has its pleasures, and one won't feel the two-hour running time has been wasted. Sometimes, that's all a film needs to be.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Fiction Review: Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, J. W. von Goethe

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.


All references and quotations are from:

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. Trans. Eric A. Blackall. 1989. Vol. 9 of Goethe: The Collected Works. Ed. Victor Lange. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995.




Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, originally published in 1795 or 1796, is known to students of literary history as the first apprentice novel, or bildungsroman. Such works chart the protagonist's development from adolescence to adulthood. This prototypical effort is no exception: we follow Wilhelm Meister from his life as a theater-obsessed young bourgeois through his adventures and misadventures with the stage, and finally to his entry into German society and his impending marriage.

Goethe disliked tropes that called attention to their artifice; his preference was to find them in existing circumstances and develop them as much as he could without exaggeration. Eric A. Blackall, in the afterword to his translation of the Apprenticeship, identifies Wilhelm's interest in the stage from childhood as autobiographical for Goethe, and it's there that Goethe finds the defining trope for the work: the actor is his metaphor for one whose engagement with life culminates in adulthood.

An actor, like an adolescent, begins on the road to realization with unfocused emotion, passion, and drive. A written role and society's functions and structures serve much the same purpose: they provide a focus for that intensity, and the discipline they impose ideally expresses it to it's best advantage. The irony of the Apprenticeship is that Wilhelm, for all his passion for the stage, is a mediocre actor whose true gifts are for entrepeneurship and management. His failure as an actor leads him to an embrace of societal responsibility. He enthusiastically takes up his obligations to relatives and the family business. He also approaches marriage with a commitment to building a stable life, rather than following blind passions. As Goethe writes near the end, "[...] everything he built was to last for several generations. His apprenticeship was therefore completed [...] he acquired the virtues of a solid citizen" (307). As Wilhelm himself says, "Nature turns us, in her own pleasant way, into what we should be" (307).

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the Apprenticeship for modern readers is the theory of William Shakespeare's Hamlet that appears in its pages. Goethe depicts Wilhelm as utterly fascinated with the play, and he takes a surprisingly idealistic view of Hamlet as a character:

A fine, pure, noble and highly moral person, but, devoid of that emotional strength that characterizes a hero, goes to pieces beneath a burden that it can neither support nor cast off. Every obligation is sacred to him, but this one is too heavy. The impossible is demanded of him--not the impossible in any absolute sense, but what is impossible to him. How he twists and turns, trembles, advances and retreats, always being reminded, always reminding himself, and finally almost losing sight of his goal, yet without ever regaining happiness! (146)

Harold Bloom, in his chapter on Goethe in The Western Canon, identifies this view with Goethe's own, and he scoffs at it. Noting Hamlet's contemptible conduct with regard to Ophelia, Polonius, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he writes, "One hardly knows what play Goethe/Wilhelm Meister was reading; certainly not Shakespeare's tragedy [...]" (199). However, Bloom doesn't offer any support for his assertion that Goethe and Wilhelm's view of the play are the same, and considering it within the larger context of the Apprenticeship, one wonders if Goethe anticipated Bloom's oft-repeated dictum that one doesn't read Shakespeare so much as one is read by him.

Bloom's point is that any interpretation of Shakespeare (and, by extension, Hamlet) provides far more insight into the interpreter than it does into the play(s). Freud's identification of the Oedipus complex as the cause of Hamlet's indecisiveness may seem ridiculously wrongheaded, but it says a great deal about Freud's preoccupations when he posited the theory. (He was working on The Interpretation of Dreams at the time.) T.S. Eliot's view of Hamlet is probably just as ludicrous as Freud's, but criticizing the play as an "artistic failure" because its action lacks an "objective correlative" to Hamlet's state of mind says a great deal about Eliot's concerns (and possibly insecurities) in his own poetry. In person, Bloom may not be able to go fifteen minutes without remarking on how much he hates Eliot, but he all but certainly agrees with Eliot's view that the most we can hope for in writing about Shakespeare is to be wrong about him in a new way. Certainly he would agree that Freud and Eliot lived up to the standard Eliot set.

While Wilhelm Meister may live up to the Eliot standard in commenting on Shakespeare, I don't believe Goethe does, or that he is even directly commenting on the play. He's commenting on Wilhelm, who is projecting his view of himself onto Hamlet. A few chapters before he makes the comments Bloom derides, Wilhelm and the company of actors he's gathered are beset upon by highwaymen, who steal a number of their possessions and leave Wilhelm injured. While recovering, he looks back on the incident with self-disgust:

As he thought over the past, one thing became ever more distasteful and intolerable, the more he pondered and reflected on it. This was his disastrous leadership in battle, the very remembrance of which filled him with dismay. [...] He had inspired confidence in himself and manipulated the will of others; and he had forged ahead, driven by boldness and inexperience. But these were not sufficient to cope with the dangers that had befallen them. (143)

Wilhelm is as insecure of his ability as a man of action as the melancholy Dane ever was. Aurelie, one of the actors in the company, listens to Wilhelm's interpretations of Hamlet and Shakespeare. She comments on how solipsistic the observations seem:

It seems as if some presentiment of the whole world lies within you, and this is brought to life and developed by your contact with poetry. for truly [...] nothing comes into you from the outside world. (153)

Goethe makes clear Wilhelm only reads and hears his own echoes.

However, Goethe also makes clear that the echoes of Shakespeare become Wilhelm's own. Hamlet's melancholy and indecisiveness are spurred by his feelings over the death of his father, and Goethe presents Wilhelm's feelings when confronted with the news of his own father's death as parallel: they "plunged him into even greater confusion about what he now had to do" (171). Goethe presents the similarities, but he also finds the contrast between his protagonist and Shakespeare's: Wilhelm ultimately finds redemption. He embraces the family he'd previously turned his back on, and he takes up the responsibilities he'd previously refused to acknowledge. Hamlet only finds death and damnation for those around him, including himself.

The passion for theatrics is what binds Wilhelm and Hamlet; both see the emotions of the stage as superior to their own. What divides them is the culmination of the roads on which that leads them after they leave that sentiment behind. Wilhelm rises; Hamlet falls. Wilhelm, in the production of Hamlet he puts on, gives the play a happy ending: Hamlet, in his dying breath, names Horatio the king (179). Left to his own devices, happy endings are what Wilhelm sees for all, and they're what he finds for himself.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Film Review: La Vie en rose (La Môme)

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Olivier Dahan's film about the life of singer Édith Piaf, La Vie en rose (titled La Môme in France) feels less like a European film than any picture from France I've seen. Continental filmmakers--even action directors like Luc Besson--tend to favor a deliberate, contemplative approach to pacing that's completely at odds with Hollywood style. (It's why most American audiences find European films almost impossible to sit through.) But Dahan always keeps things hopping. He uses just about every trick he can think of to keep the film's scenes active and lively. La Vie en rose is never dull. But Dahan's approach also points up what makes his take on Piaf's life so unsatisfying. He doesn't reflect on the deeper implications of what he shows us, and he ends up with a shallow, limited portrait of his subject.

Piaf's life certainly wasn't the stuff of dullness. She lived as a street waif, spent part of her childhood growing up in her grandmother's brothel, and nearly went blind from keratitis while living there. (She credited the restoration of her sight to a pilgrimage her grandmother's prostitutes took her on to the shrine of St. Thérèse in Lisieux.) She began earning money as a street musician at 14, had a baby at 17 that died in infancy, and spent her teens around the assorted derelicts, hookers, and thugs that populated the Montmartre section of Paris. At 19, she came to the attention of nightclub owner Louis Leplée, who hired her to sing in his cabaret. After Leplée was murdered, she became involved with the manager who turned her into a star. After World War II, she became internationally famous, had a notorious affair with the champion middleweight boxer Marcel Cerdan, married twice, suffered through alcoholism and morphine addiction, and died of liver cancer at the age of 44. One could make a score of movies from the facts of her life.

The amount of material may be what ultimately defeats Dahan. Thinking back on the film, it's hard to remember any character in it besides Piaf (played by Marion Cotillard from the age of 19 on). Even Leplée (Gérard Depardieu) and Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins) don't make much of an impression. Major aspects of Piaf's life are completely ignored, such as her experiences during the Occupation. (Watching the film, one would never know World War II had happened.) There's also nothing about her acting career, or her mentoring of the actors Yves Montand and Charles Aznavour. Dahan treats things like the death of Piaf's baby as an afterthought, and he gives a bizarre emphasis to extraneous bits, such as a prostitute being injured by a customer playing amateur gynecologist. The story has no structure, a failure made all the more glaring by the opportunities in the material. Piaf's early life had a remarkable number of parallels with her mother's; why not use them to give some thematic order to the story? Dahan appears to see the possibilities in using Piaf's prayers as a unifying trope, but he drops the idea almost as soon as he introduces it. The only approach to ordering the material that he adheres to is to not let Piaf's physical decline and death turn the latter section of the film into one long diminuendo. He takes the easy way out: he uses short scenes of the dying Piaf throughout to treat the bulk of the material as flashbacks. But he doesn't bother to hide the cheesy obviousness of that idea; the flashbacks have no relevance to the scenes in Piaf's future that prompt them. Dahan just doesn't think like a writer.

He does think like a director, though. The film is full of superbly realized setpieces. I was most impressed with his handling of the scene where Piaf learns of Cerdan's death. He begins by showing Piaf dreaming of Cerdan arriving in her hotel suite, and then, awake, driving herself crazy because she can't find a gift she wants to give him. Her entourage gathers and informs her that Cerdan has been killed, and, devastated with grief, she flings open a pair of doors to find herself onstage again. Using a Steadicam, Dahan films this all in a single take. One can almost imagine Brian De Palma, the master of single-take Steadicam scenes, jumping to his feet in applause. And there are many other examples of filmmaking savvy, such as the scene of Piaf's triumphant music-hall debut: we see the audience slowly go from skeptical to ecstatic despite Dahan's keeping Piaf's singing off the soundtrack. Visually, the film is extraordinarily well-realized. The cabarets and music halls, Depression-era Montmartre, late-1940s Manhattan--Dahan and his art directors and designers keep them dreamy and realistic all at the same time. The attention to detail is extraordinary.

And that extends to the performance of the film's star. Marion Cotillard does a masterful job of mimicking Piaf's surface mannerisms and, with the help of some ace make-up artists, her physical appearance. It's the kind of performance that in Hollywood films has Oscar written all over it, and earlier this year, Cotillard became the first French actor to win the prize for work in a French-language film. But it's not the sort of thing I'm impressed by. Cotillard's Piaf comes off like a nightmarish cross between Giulietta Masina and Liza Minnelli. She's waifish, but invariably loud, insufferably high-strung, and almost monstrously temperamental. The performance is also too one-note in most scenes; it's hard to reconcile the overbearing Piaf with the calm, almost blissful one we see in her moments with Cerdan, or in a beachfront interview with a French journalist. One doesn't object to these scenes; they're the only ones in which I enjoyed Cotillard's performance, but the failure to address the incongruity is troubling. It's not a well-rounded portrayal.

La Vie en rose makes one wonder if it's a sign of increased homogeneity in Western filmmaking. The French director approaches his work like a Hollywood one (an ambitious, imaginative one, but a Hollywood filmmaker nonetheless). The French star seems to take her lead from the negative example of the Hollywood prestige-picture acting of Meryl Streep: surface detail is all; emotional truth is secondary. (Cotillard is nowhere as boring as Streep was at her technically masterful worst, but the similarities in their styles are hard to miss.) Worst of all, the concerns of good writing, such as developed themes and solid construction, seem to fall by the wayside. And production values are, of course, first-rate. Several years ago, Terrence Rafferty described another Hollywood-style French film as "the death of French cinema." It's not dying, but, language notwithstanding, it may have entered a phase where it's no longer uniquely French.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Dolce stil novo Poets

This essay was originally published on Pol Culture.

The last and the greatest of the Dolce stil novo poets is Dante. It seems only fitting that he defined the school and provided its name. In Song XXIV of the Purgatorio, the Dante figure encounters the spirit of Bonagiunta da Lucca (c.1220-1290), a Tuscan poet who worked in the traditions of the Sicilian School. Through him, Dante defines his own work as a break and an advance on the work of Bonagiunta, Guittone d'Arezzo (a contemporary of Bonagiunta's), and the earlier Sicilian School poet Giacomo da Lentini. The Bonagiunta character describes Dante's work as "dal dolce stil novo ch'i'odo / that sweet new style that I hear" (Purg. 24.57). In Song XXVI, the spirit of poet Guido Guinizelli (c.1230-1276) is encountered. Dante describes Guinizelli as the father of him and those poets between them who wrote the "rime d'amore usar dolci e leggiadre / rhymes of love using sweetness and grace" (Purg. 26.99). He thus identifies Guinizelli and himself as the beginning and ending (although culmination is probably the more appropriate word) of the school. In his language treatise De vulgari eloquentia / On the Eloquence of the Common Language, Dante explicitly identifies Guido Cavalcanti (c.1255-1300), Lapo Gianni (c.1250-1328), and Cino da Pistoia (c.1270-1337) as his poetic peers (1.13.4). The Dolce stil novo poets wrote in the Tuscan vernacular, and their work (especially Dante's) so popularized that dialect that it is credited with making Tuscan the national language of Italy. In other words, Dante and the others gave us the Italian language as we know it today. They are inarguably the first school of European poetry to be of more than historical interest since the height of the Roman Empire.

After Dante, the two most famous Dolce stil novo poets are Guido Guinizelli and Guido Cavalcanti. Guinizelli's most famous work, the canzone "Within the gentle heart Love shelters him," is probably best known to English readers from the first four lines (translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti) that George Eliot used as the epigraph for chapter 61 of Daniel Deronda:

Within the gentle heart love shelters him,
As birds within the green shade of the grove.
Before the gentle heart, in Nature's scheme,
Love was not, nor the gentle heart ere Love.

These lines are remarkable; one can hear them echoing through the most famous passages in Dante, specifically in Francesca da Rimini's lament in Inferno, Song V ("Love, which the gentle heart quickly finds within" [Inf. 5.100]).

Those interested in Rossetti's complete translation of the poem can find it here; it's the second poem down. One sees all the key features of Dolce stil novo poetry. Dante may have used some of them for tragic effect in the Inferno, but he and the others used the language and thinking in this poem as conventions in their lyric work. Among those conventions are the trope of the "gentle heart." There is also the personification of Love and the resultant emphasis on allegory. Additionally, one has the portrayal of the woman who is the object of the poet's longing as an angelic or divine figure. Guinizelli even recognizes the potential blasphemy of viewing a woman in this manner, a problem that became perhaps the defining aspect of Dante's greatest works.

"Within the gentle heart" also sets the stage for the richer use of figurative language among Guinizelli's followers. The poem is especially rich in simile. The temporal analogy between Love and the gentle heart is expanded upon in a second simile that compares their simultaneity with that of light and the sun. In the second stanza, Love's passion in the gentle heart is likened to the virtues of a precious stone. These are further likened to the woman whom the heart falls in love with. The woman is also identified with a star, with the sun overtly used as a trope for God. Guinizelli, as can be seen here, is not content to leave a figuration alone after introducing it. He works it through several stages of conversion. In the third stanza, he compares Love to a lamp's flame, and branches out to an ironic analogy of fire and water to discuss the effect on Love from evil. From there he shifts to a comparison of Love to diamond veins in iron ore. It's a remarkably complex poem, and of much greater sophistication than anything seen from the troubadours or the Sicilians.

Guinizelli may have been Dante's poetic father, but Guido Cavalcanti (at right) was most definitely his mentor. In chapter III of La vita nuova, Dante calls Cavalcanti his best friend. He relates that Cavalcanti saw the promise in his earliest poems and provided the guidance that set him on the poetic road he travelled. Cavalcanti's own poetry established him as the greatest of Dante's predecessors. He apparently saw himself in opposition to Guinizelli, as his pieces interrogate--often pessimistically--the ideas present in Guinizelli's work. On a technical level, he avoids the trippy twists and turns of perpetual simile conversion one finds in Guinizelli. Poetically, Cavalcanti keeps his feet on the ground: he begins with a single controlling concept, and everything that follows refers back to it.

Cavalcanti's predilection for a strong conceptual foundation can be most easily seen in the sonnet "A woman's charms, her perceptive heart." (Click here for a translation.) The central idea of a woman's charms and heart is present from the first line. The remainder of the sonnet's octet takes this idea and creates one simile after another, with vehicles as disparate as "Men-at-arms filled with courtesy" to "A flowing river, meadows all of flowers." In the sestet, he presents a superb rhetorical reversal: as wonderful as a woman's charms are in general, they pale before those of the writer's lady, who compares to them as the heavens compare to the earth. Cavalcanti presents one vividly realized idea, and then uses it to develop a second, opposed idea. Elegantly hyperbolic and ironic, it's and extraordinarily concise piece of work, with an exceptional sense of how to engineer effects.

Cavalcanti's skill is also on fine display in the dark, pessimistic "You who reach my heart through the eyes." (Click here.) He begins with the title line, and every subsequent line in the octet refers back to it, shading it with sadness. Cavalcanti has a strong sense of drama. In the octet, he establishes a premise and a developing conflict: the woman's gaze is presented as the catalyst for the injury Love inflicts on the writer's morale. In the sestet, he gives the reader crisis: the woman is no longer seen as the catalyst; she is Love's accomplice in this assault. The resolution comes with the soul's realization that the heart is dead, and the terror that it is next. This critique of the notion of the edifying nature of Love could not be more effectively presented.

His most famous work is probably "Donna me prega / A lady asks me" (click here), which combines the dark, pessimistic view of Love found in "You who reach my heart through the eyes" with, to a certain extent, the rhetorical--rather than dramatic--exploration of subject matter found in "A woman's charms, her perceptive heart." Love is treated as dark and elusive figure, though ultimately a contradictory one. Cavalcanti sees Love as a destructive force ("Poor in discernment--so vice is his friend. / Oft from his power then death will follow," [34-35]), but he also recognizes Love's virtues ("Yet far from all deceit--I say, worthy of trust, / So that compassion is born from him alone." [69-70]). The style doesn't quite match that of "A woman's charms"--Cavalcanti catalogues contrasting ideas rather than structuring reversals between them--but his juxtapositional approach here creates its own sort of dialogue. The style anticipates modernist techniques, and it's not hard to see the appeal the poem had for Ezra Pound. He reworked and expanded a translation of it into Canto XXXVI of The Cantos.

But in spite of the accomplishments of "Donna me prega," Cavalcanti's rigorously logical style of poetry failed him completely in his treatment of Love's nature. It was perhaps so reductive that he felt compelled to abandon it altogether. The task fell to Dante to meet the challenge of developing a coherent, rigorous theory of Love through poetry, and his La vita nuova was both the result and culmination of the Dolce stil novo's concerns.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Film Review: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.

I can't say Julian Schnabel has been a favorite among contemporary painters. Any artist who would proclaim himself "as close to Picasso as you're going to get in this fucking life" is so insufferably arrogant that one wants to dismiss his work before even seeing it. And one finds the paintings easily dismissable: Schnabel's major achievement as a painter was turning the "openness" aesthetic of the great Robert Rauschenberg into kitsch. Rauschenberg profoundly challenged a viewer's sense of perception and meaning. The ordering process of one's mind takes the chaos of the outside world and systematizes what it finds into patterns of associations and meaning. Rauschenberg reconfigured objects and images into groupings that exist outside the mind's systematizing process, and this reordering carries a jolt. It shocks one into a more "open" quality of perception, and it calls one's attention to the beauty of the randomness of everyday experience. Schnabel degraded this into gimmicky rendering techniques, like using fragments of crushed plates to create images on canvas. (Click here for an example.) Like his contemporary Jeff Koons, he's the sort of artist one loves to hate: the only pleasure to be had from his work comes from scoffing at it.

When Schnabel branched out into directing films in the mid-1990s, my disdain for him led me to avoid them. This was despite my interest in the 1980s New York art world depicted in Basquiat (1996), and the acclaim and honors accorded actor Javier Bardem for his work in Before Night Falls (2000). But Schnabel received, among other honors, a Best Director Academy Award nomination for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, even though the film wasn't nominated for Best Picture. I've long observed that a film that gets a directing nomination at the expense of one Best Picture nominee is often better than all of them, so The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, despite my opinion of Schnabel, ended up on my must-see list. And I was more than pleasantly surprised.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is adapted from the short memoir of the same name by Jean-Dominique Bauby. In 1995, Bauby, the 43-year-old editor of the French edition of Elle magazine, suffered a massive stroke that left him unable to speak, and unable to move beyond blinking his left eye. Working with a frequency-alphabet card and a secretary, he dictated the book letter by letter, word by word, by blinking yes when the secretary read the correct letter off the card. The book told of his experiences in his condition (called Locked-In Syndrome) and the joys he found or rediscovered in life. The book was published in March of 1997, ten days before Bauby died of pneumonia.

Schnabel's anything-goes approach to rendering may make his paintings seem gimmicky, but working with story material appears to discipline his imagination. He presents Bauby's narrative in a beautifully poetic and expressive manner. Filmmaking techniques are used expressionistically. The film begins when Bauby (Mathieu Amalric)awakens from his coma, and it takes the point of view of Bauby's good eye. Schnabel, as he does in his paintings, throws everything but the kitchen sink at the task of dramatizing Bauby's awakening and disorientation: the camera pans reflect his eye's movements, and his wooziness is rendered by blurs, superimpositions, and such unusual effects as reflecting light off of water onto the characters. Everything is juxtaposed with Bauby's voiceover on the soundtrack. Bauby is taught to blink once to say yes and twice to say no, and Schnabel uses the flashes of black to create a visual vocabulary from inside Bauby's perspective. The viewer comes to automatically register Bauby's emotional state from the tempo of the blinks, and eventually, one can tell that when the screen blurs Bauby is crying.

Schnabel never belabors his effects. He's consistently inventive, and he builds on his establishment of Bauby's perspective by using it to introduce the viewer to a number of the other characters, including his former partner Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner), his speech therapist Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze), and his physical therapist Marie (Olatz López Garmendia). Schnabel makes them all distinct by dramatizing Bauby's attitude towards them; the physical therapist, for example, is presented as an object of lust for Bauby: he can hardly look away from her breasts when they first meet, and the therapy session we see makes her seem almost brazenly flirtatious. After about forty minutes, Schnabel moves outside the exclusive perspective of Bauby's eye, and the film then shifts back and forth between Bauby's first-person perspective, third-person objectivity, flashbacks, fantasy sequences, and daydream collages. The picture is often one dazzling visual trope after another.

These wonderfully expressive visuals all grow from a simple, powerfully dramatic story: Bauby, who has lost everything, learns how to regain and redefine his life. The tragic loss of his body leads to the triumphant realization of his soul. Ronald Harwood's script initially presents Bauby as a man who wants to die. One can sympathize: he cannot move or speak, he cannot wash himself, and he's fed through a tube. The story's turning point comes wheh he tells this to his speech therapist. She becomes furious with him, upbraiding him for wanting to so completely turn his back on his friends, his family, and even herself. Shamed by her reaction, he realizes that memory and imagination can provide a lifetime of pleasures, and he's further completed by the joys and pleasures that his love for those in his life can bring. He hits upon writing a book as a way of embracing them all, and exploiting an outstanding contract with a Paris publisher, he gets them to provide a secretary (Anne Consigny) for transcribing his eye-blink dictation. Early on, Bauby despairingly thinks about all the "lost opportunities" taken from him by the stroke; the film is about him getting them back.

The picture has flaws. In a flashback showing the healthy Bauby with his invalid father (Max von Sydow), the father looks into the mirror, and we see the reflection beside a black-and-white picture of Bauby. The half-smile in the photo echoes his paralyzed self's half-frown. The juxtaposition is a far too obvious ironic identification of Bauby's paralysis with his father's condition. And in an absolutely ghastly scene--one completely fabricated for the film--Bauby is sitting with Céline when his girlfriend calls. She refuses to visit because she can't bear to see him in his condition, and Céline is forced to translate his side of the emotional conversation over the phone. Having to translate Bauby's words of affection to the woman who stole him from her--not to mention having to listen to the girlfriend's outpourings in return--Céline ultimately feels compelled to leave the room. One wants to go with her. The scene is an embarrassing, humiliating ordeal for the characters, and it's unbearable. One could also do without the gratuitous homage to the famous eye-slitting scene in Un chien andalou.

But these missteps aside, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an powerful story full of visual wonder. Schnabel redeems himself for those who recoiled during other periods of his career. With this film, he succeeds where his paintings failed. He lives up to Rauschenberg's example. The "openness" aesthetic is brought to narrative filmmaking, and with marvelous success. The film recreates and reconfigures our understanding of the world around us; familiar sights and objects sparkle with the magic of discovery. One can easily imagine the late Rauschenberg beaming his memorable smile after seeing this picture. It's a great film.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Film Review: Juno

This review was originally published at Pol Culture.

With her tiny stature and narrow figure, Ellen Page might seem an unusual romantic fantasy for teenage boys and young men, but she's a potent one nonetheless. She's not the ideal arm-candy trophy girl, like Anne Hathaway, or a plush sex fantasy come to life, like Scarlett Johansson. The girl Page projects is the one a fellow would want around when he puts the hormones and the outside-world façades aside--when he wants to kick back, hang out, and smile.

Juno is a lovely showcase for Page's charm. This high school comedy gives her the best role she's had to date, and she delivers a terrific performance. In the opening scene, the 16-year-old character is walking around her suburban Minnesota neighborhood, swigging from a jug of fruit drink, all the while displaying the faux bad attitude some women affect to make fun of themselves when they're having their period. Juno, though, isn't having her period; she's several weeks late, and the mock-bitchiness masks her terror over what's happened: a spur-of-the-moment decision to seduce her sheepish pal Paulie (Michael Cera) has left her pregnant. Page's deadpan style lends itself beautifully to irony, and while she nails the character's sarcastic bravado in the film's opening, she also conveys the fear and dread underneath.

Much has been made of Page's terrific comic timing; her delivery of the stream of one-liners provided for her by screenwriter Diablo Cody is indeed superb. But the low-key, at times laconic manner that makes the sarcastic lines so effective also allows Page to put across the character's emotions and attitudes with a dazzling economy. The depth,as well as the tensions,in her relationships with Paulie, her father (J.K. Simmons), her stepmother (Allison Janney), and her best friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) are quickly apparent. When Juno meets the baby's prospective adoptive parents, Mark and Vanessa (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), one can immediately feel her wariness of Vanessa and her immediate rapport with Mark. And Page maintains Juno's quiet transparency throughout. In the film's most emotional scene, when she realizes that Mark and Vanessa aren't the happy couple she hoped them to be, Page may leave one feeling slightly stunned: the discordant emotions are dramatized by broken speech rhythms, uncertain movements, and a brief view of tears. The contrast of these with her usual cool helps dramatize her emotional quandary more vividly than any yelling or flailing about could manage. Juno's feelings are often only implied by the script, but Page never fails to clearly put them across; she transforms the words on the page into a fully realized character on the screen.

This is not to say Diablo Cody's screenplay is lacking. Besides the cleverness of the dialogue, the story is beautifully constructed, with the characterizations and relationships concisely integrated into the action. The film occasionally engages in time-out exposition to explain a character or situation, but Cody makes a point of writing it flip and funny, and the film never gets bogged down. She ably builds the story to a climax. The dramatic crux of the film comes from the fact that Juno's decision to carry the baby to term has largely alienated her from the life she led before the pregnancy, and she relies more and more on her idealized view of Mark for a sense of security. The story's crisis point occurs when the problems in Mark and Vanessa's marriage boil over, and Juno realizes that they are not who she thought they were. She has to decide what to do with the baby, and Cody skillfully blends audience suspense over the decision with the emotional scenes of Juno's giving birth. The revelation, when it comes, is extraordinarily artful; one knows in an instant that Juno has intelligently reevaluated the decision and the people involved. This wiseacre teenage girl has grown up; her greatest pleasure in life may be singing and playing guitar with Paulie, but she approachs decisions like a responsible adult.

One wishes Jason Reitman's direction did more to mirror the no-muss, no-fuss approach of his star. The film has a lovely sense of pace, but some of the staging ideas are a bit too self-conscious, like the repeated motif of having the high-school track team run across the frame, or showing Juno repeatedly walking against the flow of students in the school halls. And Reitman tends to linger too long over telling details, such as Juno's hamburger phone, Paulie's racecar bed, or that the interiors of Mark and Vanessa's home look like the photographers from Better Homes & Gardens will be arriving any minute.

However, all is forgiven when one sees the beautiful work Reitman gets from his ensemble. The always terrific J.K. Simmons gives Juno's father a lovely warmth: after Juno has given birth, the father tells her that one day she'll be there again on her own terms, and it's the most touching moment in the film. The straightforward, no-nonsense manner Alison Janney gives the stepmother leaves no doubt where Juno's sardonic nature comes from; it might make even more sense if she was the character's mother. Olivia Thirlby is all friendly, supportive energy as Leah, and Michael Cera's Paulie is like a big, floppy stuffed animal--if you understand that girls sometimes love 'em dumb, you can see why Juno likes having him around. Jason Bateman effectively plays Mark as a man who's never really grown up, and while I wish the film had shown more of Vanessa's control-freak side, Jennifer Garner does a fine job of conveying that, despite her anxious and off-putting qualities, she is a thoughtful, responsible woman.

And, of course, there's Ellen Page. Her work in Juno is delightful, but her performance is so well-realized that one can't help fear that, like Molly Ringwald and Winona Ryder before her, she'll be so identified with teenage roles that she'll be stuck in a niche, and then discarded as time passes her by. But one can't worry about what we may not get from a performer in the future, one can only enjoy the work we can see in the here and now. Juno is one of the finest comedy films of the decade, and Ellen Page's performance is the icing on the cake.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Sicilian School

This essay originally appeared on Pol Culture.

Historically, the Sicilian School was the most significant of the early successors to the troubadour movement. It was a group of poets based in the court of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, and after his death, his illegitimate son and successor Manfred. It was at its peak between 1230 and 1266.

The Sicilians differed from the troubadours in a number of respects. They could not play music, so a greater emphasis was put on the sound of the poetry when read. The women in the poetry tend to be far more idealized, and due to the poets being notaries and other officials, the poems tend to be structured like arguments. Arbitrary structural forms, such as sestina, were done away with.

The most famous of the Sicilian poets is probably Pier delle Vigne (c.1190-1249) (at left), although his fame is not primarily because of his work. Most know him from Dante's portrayal of him in Song XII of the Inferno. He is the affectatious, self-pitying courtier condemned to the wood of suicides. His work, however, is different from what one would expect. Most commentaries on the Divine Comedy identify Pier's pretentious manner of speaking--he often sounds like Polonius in Shakespeare's Hamlet--as typical of the manner of Sicilian School poetry. However, the belabored wordplay Dante depicts doesn't seem to be a conspicuous feature of Pier's poetry. Consider "Love in whom I hope and desire." (Click here.) The only place where the constant word repetitions Dante mocked appear is in the first stanza, and the use of "hope" is hardly as stilted as Dante would seem to have it.

A striking aspect of the poem relative to the troubadour pieces is the reduced emphasis on hyperbole. Arnaut Daniel's use of the sestina seemed to have led the way the use of tropes, particularly similes, and Pier relies on them for the poem's key expressive moments. His likening his preferred manner of coming to his lady to that of "a secret thief" (9-10) is a throwaway, but the imagery of the sailor and the ship at sea is more developed. In the first stanza, Pier analogizes his hope to win his lady's love to a man at sea endeavoring to return home (4-8). In the fourth, he creates a metaphor from that simile, implicitly likening a harbor to the comfort of his lady's love (29-32). It may seem quite a modest poetic achievement, but this harkening back to Odysseus's quest to return to Penelope in the Odyssey is a key moment in the development of Western poetry. Pier's imagery finds its own echoes in some of the best and most influential work of Petrarch. Figures such as Thomas Wyatt were entranced with Petrarch's handling of these and similar tropes, and brought his work to England, thus setting the stage for the likes of Shakespeare, Donne, and almost everyone else who followed.

The other major figure of the Sicilian School is Giacomo da Lentini (c.1200-1250). His main contribution to the development of poetry is formal; his imagery is nothing particularly significant. His most famous work is "I have placed my heart in God's service." (Click here to read.) In terms of expressive language, there's not much beyond the implicit hyperbole of the poem's view that true salvation comes from finding one's lady love in Heaven. There are no tropes in the poem. But one can see the argumentative structure identified with the Sicilians. The first eight lines state the poet's proposition of wishing to be with his lady in Heaven, and the final six implicitly answer a criticism of that proposition, namely that in Heaven, earthly desires have no place.

Giacomo's achievement in "I have placed my heart in God's service" was to create the first sonnet, a poetic form employed by such later poets as Guido Cavalcanti and Dante, perfected by Petrarch, and epitomized by the lyric poetry of William Shakespeare. It is a fourteen-line poem, and the traditional Italian structure follows Giacomo's example. The first eight lines, called an octave, either present a narrative, state a proposition, or raise a question. The final six lines, referred to as the sestet, enhances the content of the octave by providing commentary on the narrative, applying the proposition, or answering the question.

Pier delle Vigne and Giacomo da Lentini's achievements were aesthetically modest but historically momentous. Building on the foundation provided by the troubadours, they set the stage further for Western poetry. One thing that is important to remember about them and the other Sicilians is that poetry was a secondary concern to them, a form of recreation. Like the troubadours, they were primarily entertainers. But entertainers who practice an art almost inevitably give way to the self-conscious aesthetes, and the first group of those, known as the Dolce stil novo school, were the next major step in Western poetry's development.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Fiction Review: The Road, Cormac McCarthy

This review was originally published at Pol Culture.

In both prose and film, post-apocalyptic narratives are almost exclusively the province of science fiction. At their best, such works function as allegory and satire, as with Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Liebowitz. At worst, they devolve into middlebrow cautionary tales, such as Nevil Shute's On the Beach.

Beyond the general tag of science fiction, Cormac McCarthy's superb 2006 novel The Road stays outside these categories. It combines a downbeat Hemingway-style adventure story with a depiction of a devastated future landscape seemingly inspired by such British Romantic writers as Lord Byron. The narrative follows an unnamed man (possibly a doctor) and his young son as they travel south years after a cataclysm has leveled civilization and apparently ended most life on the planet. The description of the event in flashback is brief and vague: "The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions." The air is choked with ash, and despite the masks the man and his son wear to filter their breathing, the man's lungs have become contaminated, and he knows he will soon die.

As is common in Hemingway, the man's resourcefulness and mettle is tested throughout. His knowledge and ingenuity are always at work, whether he is scavenging for food, finding shelter in the cold and often wet weather, or evading the marauding cannibals who appear to be almost all that's left of humanity. The dialogue is terse in the Hemingway manner as well. Here's a typical exchange between the man and his son, occuring after they find a supply of canned food:
Is it okay for us to take it?
Yes. It is. They would want us to. Just like what we would want them to.
They were the good guys?
Yes. They were.
Like us.
Like us. Yes.
So it's okay.
Yes. It's okay.
Life for these two has been reduced to a quest for survival. However, unlike much (bad) Hemingway-influenced adventure fiction, the story never devolves into an excuse for depicting violence. The pair's encounters with other survivors are brief, and when violence occurs, there's no sense of catharsis; one's only relief comes from knowing the confrontation is over.

McCarthy isn't hitting Hemingway notes for the sake of doing so. The style has an appropriate resonance, as it suggests that the meeting of basic needs is about the only meaning life has left. And it lends a powerful sense of understatement to the fact that, for the father, life does have meaning beyond the basic demands of survival: his love and the need to raise and provide for his son. He always tries to keep the boy hopeful, whether it is how good the food they find will taste, or the promise of reaching the seashore. The boy wants to reach out to the various people they encounter, and the father cares enough to tell him no. As the story progresses, we see the reasons why: the marauders are shown keeping young boys as sex slaves, warehousing living people for food, and, in one particularly horrific moment, roasting an infant on a spit. The father's love for his son has its dark side; he oftens thinks of shooting the boy to spare him such a dreadful end, and he tries to acclimate the child to using the gun for suicide.

McCarthy's rendering of the apocalyptic landscape appears heavily influenced by the work of British Romantics. It's especially reminiscent of Byron's 1816 poem "Darkness." McCarthy's depiction seems epitomized by these Byron lines:
[...]The world was void,
The populous and the powerful--was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless--
A lump of death--a chaos of hard clay.
William Wordsworth is recalled, too--the portrayal of the deserted communities echo Wordsworth's own poem of devastated lives, "The Ruined Cottage." And McCarthy turns Wordsworth's principal poetic technique upside down. Wordsworth would contemplate the landscape as a spur to memory and the path to inspiration. McCarthy's protagonist also contemplates the landscape around him, but it's a doorway to horror--the stoic acceptance that life around him has given way to desolation and death.

However, there is hope in what otherwise might seem a single, prolonged note of despair: the son. He always looks for ways to embrace life, whether it's in his enjoyment of the modest food, or his compulsion to help the derelicts they encounter, or even his hope that a dog they see will one day accompany him and his father as a pet. And the book leaves us with the knowledge that, after the father's death the son will survive with his dignity intact. In The Road, McCarthy depicts humanity at the extreme of experience, and despite the horror and all the examples of people falling in the face of the challenge, the decency of the father, his son, and others like him prevail. All is not lost, and as the son might say, the good guys win.