I came up with a new method for the blog which, after the great news I received this weekend (Give it a few months and you’ll hear more about it…how’s that for a reason to keep reading?) is now imperative: I write during lunch breaks and slow-as-molasses periods at my office. And this piece, which will attempt to connect various thoughts I’ve had since the year’s beginning, was begun on Tuesday the 24th, aka Oscar nominations day.
The 2011 Oscars actually nominated a lot of people I loved and all of my favorite movies from last year, The Tree of Life topping that list and also standing out.
Hollywood has become even more insular as it further consolidates its global domination. The first instance in which I use the expression of today’s title, “Everything Old is New Again,” comes from a willingness to resist innovation. The major studios have developed a formula for international success which discourages the daring or literate picture, and the social climate, unlike in the 1970s or the golden period of 2006-2008, is not conducive to confronting the sort of picture which paints human nature in all of its shades of gray. Yes, things are bad in America, but left-leaning Hollywood has a man in the White House who actually is getting things done (I almost regret my critical piece a few months ago on Obama, but I still believe it is my American duty to treat every political figure with skepticism and pressure…look at SOPA…until things are delivered.) and overseas box office explodes as never before. There’s no reason to risk even ten million dollars for an experimental or socially-conscious piece when it can be sent animating more giant robots. And because it is the aesthetically conservative Academy which votes, this year they’ve rewarded solid studio offerings which are well-made, but don’t challenge the audience or rock our emotional boats. Movies are still here, still solid and thriving when so much is crumbling, so the theme for this year appeared to be a self-congratulatory nod to the preserved classic tradition. Never mind that classics are born when people move beyond the tradition. (Took that thought from Clive James, I can’t stop copying him even if I wanted to stop.)
I caught two Best Picture nominees during New Year’s weekend, and they both reflected Hollywood’s celebration of its own continuity: Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, which is made exactly the way they used to make the old silents, and Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, a picture that could have been made sixty years ago with “Directed by John Ford” on the opening titles with barely a difference. The latter succeeds. The former, which appears to be the favorite for Best Picture, almost fails.
And I hate that it almost fails, because the parts of The Artist are better than the whole. I will cheer if Jean Dujardin wins Best Actor: without saying a word or aggressively mugging, he finds the right expression, movement and tone for every frame which his George Valentin appears in. Even with his back to the camera or lying on a bed, Dujardin makes you feel what he feels. It was one of my three favorite performances this year, along with George Clooney and Jessica Chastain.
In addition, Berenice Bejo HAD to have hopped into our decade on a TARDIS, because her intoxicating Peppy Miller could only have existed in the Fitzgerald age. The supporting cast is fine, especially the always reliable James Cromwell in his most sympathetic performance since Babe, Ludovic Borge’s music is a charming pastiche, and Hazanavicius is a superb director: with his framing and structuring, he makes a film which playing by its rules must necessarily be comprised of more static shots than otherwise move with flair. And you have to love Uggie. That’s self-evident.
But I walked out of the cinema worrying these great efforts had all been used on a film which didn’t deserve them. Hazanavicius, so intent on replicating the old silents with a film about the silent, makes a movie which would have been a mere curiosity if not for the talent involved. His rigid imposition of the 1920s technique keeps the film firmly locked and centered with nothing unexpected, no deviations from what we would see in either half of an old double-bill. The Artist hits the expected three-act beats pleasantly and tidily resolves itself, offering nothing meaningful and no experiments with the silent conventions. Only one sequence, the first of two which have sound, suggests what could have been if Hazanavicius had let himself dream a little bigger…a series of startled actions and reactions by Dujardin (impeccable) confronting a suddenly noisy world. I wish there had been more scenes like it. Otherwise, the film is interesting, emotionally comatose apart from Dujardin and Bero, and hovers on the edges of pointlessness. There is NO WAY this should be the Best Picture of 2011. Entertainment can be art, and it also sometimes cannot be art. I hate sounding like Joel McCrae before he learned his lesson on the chain gang, but we should not be rewarding films which have one or two great features and nothing else redeeming.
On the other hand, Steven Spielberg, who grew up at the altars of Capra, Lean, and above all John Ford, has made a movie which more than any other picture reveals how he watches The Searchers before shooting each new project. War Horse is pure Ford from the idyllic first act in the UK countryside, the physically sanitized but emotionally uncompromising portrait of men in action, and the values of community, loyalty, and honor which pulse through all two hours of Lee Hall and Richard Curtis’s script.
Let me say something about this script. It is a diamond of construction. Hall and Curtis introduce a number of disparate plot elements and images and keep threading them through the story, linking them in ways which don’t feel contrived, and have a theme which they never forget to include but is never blatantly obvious until the end when it hits you front and center.
The theme is nothing new, but it’s so timely. I have moaned over and over again in this blog about how our country is increasingly splitting among so many lines. With Joey the horse as the unifying character, the varied figures in War Horse‘s landscape are defined by what unites them: in a variety of settings and scenarios, Spielberg, Hall, and Curtis touch on familial love, aspirations to ideals, and the tenacity we all wish we had to cling to our values even in the most desperate hour. There aren’t even any real villains, just some unpleasant characters who stick too rigidly to being defined by class, position, or nationality and end up usually being taught a lesson. (Notice how the plot which dominates the first act is resolved at act’s end…a lesser writer or director might have milked it for all the melodrama they could muster for the duration.) This is a movie which carried enough pathos to have me weeping for three minutes after the final shot, but it’s really a celebration of just being alive, being able to care. We need to be reminded of that now and then.
I almost called Joey a device. That would be lying, for he is a character himself, forced to adapt to multiple situations but never deviating from the ethic of trust and will taught him by Albert, his young owner, played by the impressive young Jeremy Irvine with energy and charm. The structure requires all the other actors to have little screen time, but Spielberg has chosen his cast well: a ragged but luminous Emily Watson, a careworn, stoic Peter Mullan, Tom Hiddleston suggesting more with the movement of his hand than his dialogue implies, Niels Arstrup taking full honors as the an exasperated French farmer with a thumping near-breaking heart and a will of iron, and yes, a mustachioed Benedict Cumberbatch, on screen for ten minutes and justifying the aura building up around him. Though joining him in being impressive is David Thewlis, who plays the stock role of the evil countryside landlord in a realistic and not all that evil manner, and my favorite actor in the piece, Toby Kebbell, who has no more screen time than Cumberbatch and in that short piece hits every mark perfectly with the skill of a natural.
Spielberg, accompanied by his right-hand man Janusz Kaminski, is still at the top of his game, and a sequence of Joey running through the battlefields of France is almost as thrilling as Indiana Jones getting chased by the boulder…one of the most well-done moments of his career. But there are only touches of Spielberg here and there: his empathetic scenes with children and exploration of their relationship to a father or elder, his refusal to surrender to gloom, his love of sweeping spectacle when needed. In storytelling, mise-en-scene, the play of light and shadow, he is pulling every page from John Ford’s notebook and lets the old master’s spirit mix with John Williams’s most melodic and memorable score in years to carry the film.
I’m not surprised he was overlooked for Best Director. Of everyone who made War Horse, Steven Spielberg has the presence which nearly approaches absence. But in marshaling these forces, he’s made a reminder of how great old-school cinema lives on.
While we can sincerely recreate the style of movies made under the studio system, it’s hard to perform the same feat with the novels of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the period when the genre rose and defined itself so brilliantly. To write a novel with a length up to 800 pages or so with an omniscient and very present narrative voice, dozens of characters, and an intricate plot which usually leads to a conveniently happy ending will risk courting an absurd reaction from readers and critics, unless done tongue-and-cheek so that the very postmodernity takes over the project. But while we don’t write literature in the same style, we treat the same themes. Love. War. Money. The search for meaning. And the sheer comedy of human existence.
In my own “everything old is new again” spirit, I ended my books-published-during-my-lifetime year with a 750-page collection of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Punch articles and found that at their best, I was laughing out loud uncontrollably. I’m still in their midst as I take notes for a scholarly project, but the text got me thinking as I picked the first novels I would read this year. How, I asked myself, did authors from the days when the novel rose handle comedy? What connecting threads link their sense of humor to ours today?
Thus inspired, I kicked off my January with The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771) by Tobias Smollett, contemporary of Johnson and the Literary Club, and Dead Souls (1842) by Nikolai Gogol, friend of Pushkin, revered by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Both Smollett and Gogol are wonderful writers and complete originals, and their works, in their imperfections, teach lessons on how and how not to be funny which any humorist alive today should take to heart.
Humphry Clinker is especially ahead of its time, as it piles up the genres like Canter’s and Carnegie pile up the meat on their sandwiches. It’s an epistolary novel, as so many were in Samuel Richardson’s wake. It’s a family comedy. It’s a forerunner of the road movie. It’s got a bit of pre-postmodernity when Smollett inserts himself into the narrative. And most of all, it takes its greatest comic delight at skewering everything it can skewer…with targets still providing fodder for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to this day.
Smollett’s main mouthpiece is the wealthy, cantankerous, secretly huge-hearted, and above all sensible squire Matthew Bramble, who starts feeling the effects of middle-age body weakening and plans a trip to Bath and the other fashionable health-oriented resorts, tacking on visits to old friends in London and Scotland. At this point the United Kingdom was less than 75 years old, but it had already taken the first steps towards becoming the political and economic superpower of the next century. This increasing prosperity led to effects all too recognizable to Americans today: a concurrent rise in the individual’s spending power (including for the downright unnecessary), a government expanding to meet this growth which somehow remained out of touch with people, and a multitude of new opinions as cultures within and without converged on the tiny island.
If that seems too broad, let me point out some of the things which prompt Bramble and Smollett’s derision..
-the surreal atmosphere of Bath and the other resorts, where people pay through the nose and mouth to banquet on mush one night and rich food the next, drink spring water which appears to come from the same source as the toilets, and submit themselves to a variety of treatments which never quite seem to cure anyone of anything…it’s a world of conspicuous consumption for consumption’s sake
-a government dominated by an aristocracy whose members cannot remember anyone’s name and who can commit all sorts of potentially detrimental acts out of greed or ignorance
-a celebrity culture, complete with hangers-on and a press devoted to scurrilous attack and counter-attack
-and all sorts of people trying to copy the fashions of other countries or bringing back takes from other lands, none of which are authentic, all of which hide a level of idiocy
Part of the humor comes from Bramble ripping these people to shreds in his letters to his confidant Dr. Lewis, especially in the Bath sequence where every doctor and patient is summarily derided, or publicly insulting them with a dry-smiling sarcasm which no one picks up on. The other part comes from the letters of other characters expressing different points of view, the funniest coming from Bramble’s harridan, husband-hunting sister Tabitha and her young maid Winifred Jenkins, both of whom affect a grotesque and misconceived sophistication and fill their correspondence with misspellings and malapropisms.
Humphry Clinker, who enters the story one-third of the way through, is a poor laborer in his twenties who becomes Matthew Bramble’s valet, and his entrance into the story also launches the flaws which sink it. Clinker’s domineering traits are a religious enthusiasm which turns him into a Methodist preacher wherever he goes and a fawning devotion to Bramble. This is funny exactly twice: a long scene in London which sees Clinker wrongfully imprisoned for theft (during his trial, in a fit of faith-based confession, he declares himself innocent of this crime but guilty of so many others, prompting imprisonment without bail) and a short scene in Brighton which sees our eponymous hero think Bramble is drowning when Bramble has really cried out from the cold North Sea temperatures, prompting a “rescue” which allows the beachgoers to see a naked Bramble. Otherwise, Clinker is not funny. There may be some contextual comedy I haven’t fully picked up on in his Methodism-dominated dialogue…but Smollett has a sincere regard for religion and is not willing to turn Clinker himself into an object of total satiric targeting.
But the entrance of this genuinely pious man starts a gradual tonal shift which takes over the novel by its conclusion and crushes the verve and energy of the early parts. This long, slow burning out taught me a lesson for any future attempts at comedy on my part: if you’re writing something humorous and you have too much respect for what you’re writing about, the book will stop being funny. And if your book stops being funny after the level of wit has been well-established, your book is dead in the piss-filled waters of Bath.
Bramble unleashing intellectual bombs over the ridiculous and pretentious is incredibly entertaining. Bramble in Scotland admiring the virtues of thriftiness, diligence, and common sense displayed by the populace turns the book into an unending sermon which, unlike Clinker’s exhortations, has no trace of humor. The introduction of Lieutenant Lismahago, a veteran of wars in America and elsewhere who takes a deliberately contrary position to whatever anyone says, almost saves the book, but the deliberate scattershot quality of Lismahago’s attacks offer no way to refocus the hilarity.
The ending is given over to the resolving of an interminable subplot involving Bramble’s niece Lydia and her beloved, a (gasp!) actor, of all things, and turns on multiple coincidences and no less than three marriages, plus a long instructionally tale on careful financial management. I waded through close to fifty pages of this muck as a mark of respect to Smollett. I will return to the great parts and maybe one day find a way to tie to the horrid parts together. But for now, this is definitely a proceed with caution title.
Dead Souls is an unqualified recommendation, even though it possesses the same flaws as Clinker, for two reasons. First, Gogol had the foresight which I’m crediting him with right now to clearly split the great part of the book off from the lousy part. Second, the comedy is on the same intelligent level as Smollett but relies less on topicality and much more on human nature. If Smollett’s world was culturally recognizable as our own, Gogol’s world ups this ante by documenting the lives of the people we have to deal with on an everyday basis; in reading Dead Souls, I recognized traits of people blaring at me from the TV screen, but even more the traits of co-workers, fellow scholars, friends, and family, all charmingly and hilariously dissected and shown up. I should add that I include myself, because Dead Souls is a guaranteed way to remind you that you’re not as smart or as virtuous as you’d like to think you are.
Let me push this even further: I would strongly recommend reading the first volume of Dead Souls before you do things like start a new job, or invest yourself in a presidential election. Because it also reminds you of what kind of almost unbelievable things people are capable of and how they are permitted to succeed. It’s a cautionary tale of how our powers of perception and critical thinking can wane. Thankfully, we fully realize how much depth Gogol put into this novel after we’ve stopped laughing so hard at it.
I didn’t know too much about the plot going on, and I don’t want any unfamiliar readers to know much about either, because half the fun and importance of the story is being swept up in the action just as the characters are. Basically, it’s the story of one man with a plan so outside-the-box, so unconventional, so crazy, that IT JUST MIGHT WORK. Here’s the catch: as part of the absurdity of the novel, we never know just what that scheming government official Pavel Chichikov, a man with no apparent backstory who isn’t thin but isn’t fat, is actually going to DO if the plan succeeds. And in a world where the motivations and goals of others are often a mystery, this murkiness is easily intelligible to us.
Gogol finally clues us into Chichikov’s appropriately entertaining past in the climax of volume one, after he’s spent 200 pages executing the plan. By then, our attentions have been distracted by a new question: why does everybody keep going along with the plan? The opening chapter which lays the groundwork by showing Chichikov’s arrival and acceptance by the people in this new town is a great slice-of-life depiction of social life but doesn’t hit a smidgen of what’s to come. Chichikov proceeds to act like a master politician, getting what he wants by tapping into what everyone else wants or needs. He wins the most pretentious social-climber imaginable over with promises if friendship. He deal with a superstitious old widow by cutting through her idealism and taking to her bank account. He spends weeks with a young aristocrat who’s become an ultra intellectual to the point of uselessness and fixes the aristocrat up with the general’s daughter the younger man loves, all in the name of furthering his goals. The shrewdest man of all goes along because Chichikov keeps quiet: shrewd man loves the thrill of bargaining and playing a double game. The only person who sees through Chichikov is the alcoholic gambling addict with a mountain of debts, who is so in-the-moment that Chichikov’s careful procedures don’t work. And if course, who believes this guy?
Tellingly, everyone is happy as long as they’re being satisfied and they don’t have to do anything to increase their happiness. A parallel can be drawn with the recent Occupy events. It’s been easy for us to ignore certain measures going through Congress which might be detrimental to human rights as long as they don’t affect us. But when legislation which could change the Internet was brought up, it seems the whole world swung into protest. Here was an action moving against them. Similarly, Chichikov’s run of success is not jeopardized until he embarrasses himself in public on a purely social matter (to this day the death knell for any politico) and then has the right people spread doubts about HIM, not the plan itself.
There are two kinds of coincidences in fiction. The obvious contrivances such as those used by Smollett, and the everyday coincidences we’re familiar with, when the crucial word is innocuously dropped into conversation or the person we don’t want to see turns up. The end of Dead Souls Vol. 1 turns on these coincidences, which happen in such realistic conversation that we accept them so easily. Well, apart from the really long story which makes everyone believe that a guy with no limbs…oh, wait, not spoiling that one!
In summary, Dead Souls works so tremendously because Gogol creates a situation which brings out the excesses and faults of humanity, but not to the point of caricature. There’s no Dickensian mass plotting or moralizing. Gogol paints on a Homeric canvas where fully-fledged people come and go, just like life itself, and emerge as all sort of likable and familiar, if only they wouldn’t do THAT. Then we catch ourselves as to how many times we’ve done THAT, or given support and a leadership position to people so clever they control us by making us do THAT. It doesn’t matter if THAT is giving in to our vanity, our greed, our desire for power or vengeance or love. We can be manipulated by having our flaws used against us, and we can manipulate others by knowing their flaws and exploiting them. Dead Souls is the case study for such behavior.
Well, for Volume 1. By the time he decided to get to Volumes 2 and 3, this being the era of the three-volume novel after all, Gogol had gotten so caught up in spiritualism that he now claimed Volume 1’s unflinching brilliance was a mere prelude to the two final parts which would include ideal pictures of how society should be and conclude with Chichikov’s moral and religious redemption. The stunning characterization and realistic plotting were gone. At one stroke, the book stopped being organic, and Gogol lost the ability to finish it. He spent ten years working on Volume 2 and burned two entire drafts. Only sixty pages of fragments survived his death, and they culminate in even worse moralizing mush than Smollett was capable of. However, knowing this means you can just stop reading after Volume 1 and dream of what’s going to happen next. Well, no, read enough into Volume 2 for the last moment of brilliance when Chichikov visits a farm which proves to be a nightmare of bureaucratic organization and laugh out loud one last time. Then move away. Slowly.
One last note before I conclude this long, rambling piece. (My next ones will be much more focused, I promise.) The other reason I picked up Dead Souls is that I’m giving myself a crash course in Russian Literature using the Lectures on the subject by Vladimir Nabokov, a figure whom I see as the scholarly equivalent of my father.
The complete me, everything someone could call “Andrew Rostan,” loves my father dearly, and the scholarly me loves Nabokov as both the supreme artist and an extraordinary critic and man of letters who surpassed so many in cracking the meanings in books which can be found solely through the analysis of structure and style. And as the complete me is sometimes frustrated to the point of distraction by my father and our dissimilarities in temperament, so the scholarly me frequently goes insane in reading Nabokov’s criticism. Because in his opinion, art was art and nothing else, and a truly great novel could tell you nothing about real life.
I just went and banged my head against the wall for five minutes. Now, let me explain why I respect this opinion and why I disagree and find it dangerous in our society.
What Nabokov did, he did very well, and his evaluations of the classics are superb up to this one point. And he was sincere in his belief; his novels have little to do with he would call reality, the social world around their setting, and everything to do with his protagonists’ states of mind, resulting in highly individualized structures for each book.
The frustration comes from how Nabokov doesn’t take what appears for me to be a very logical step. He stresses over and over the quality of “individual genius” which produces literary masterpieces. I’d be the last to argue against there being such a quality, but does any genius who creates a structure and style all their own come up with it overnight, from nothing but their own head? Art is not formed in a vacuum no matter what Nabokov thinks. We absorb ideas from everything in the world around us: current events, pop and high culture, our family, friends, and acquaintances. We don’t have the capability of grasping any ideas from which to build new ideas unless we can articulate the original. We need outside sources, real life, to create.
Nabokov is right in saying that if we read Dead Souls or Gogol’s miniature masterpiece “The Overcoat” or Madame Bovary, we won’t really know about the time and the place of the story. But we will know about human nature, and that is the most timeless of realities. And think of the artists who did accurately reflect their time and place, their society and its philosophy, while creating inimitable styles and ambitious structures! Balzac, Dickens, Trollope, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Foster Wallace, I could go on.
Nabokov, in my opinion, commits the fallacy of grafting his own preferences onto his criticism. He didn’t enjoy writing books about reality as he saw it…and considering his life of exile, deaths in the family, witnessing mass horror, I don’t blame him. But even Lolita, concerned as it is with his magnificent gamesmanship and wordplay, would never have been considered a masterpiece if he hadn’t made Humbert such a compelling figure with real human emotions…the man who acts on our desire to taste forbidden fruit. Nabokov was grounded in reality whether he liked it or not
The danger of Nabokov’s point of view is that when we claim books are purely art and have no relationship to reality, it becomes easier to classify them as purely cultural artifacts, and harder to stress why people need to read them. In this era of declining humanities studies, to say that books have no value beyond the aesthetic kills generations of readers…people will not wish to study something without use, and the inspiring teachers and well-rounded figures of the future are lost.
In my mind, literary criticism and scholarship must mix the utilitarian and the aesthetic by thoroughly exploring what these books say about the world and how their meanings are inextricably linked to structure and style. They must neither regard the book as a mere work of creativity nor as a work infused with politics in every line. They must strike a middle ground. And in doing so, they must be rigorous in logic and passionate in sensation; a great scholar’s love shines through even the driest monograph.
I know from experience that the right book at the right time can change your life. Criticism needs to encourage the sensation of exploring, interpreting, and getting lost within the magic of the pages, so the right time could be any minute…and from that, the right book is out there waiting.
(Postscript: Nabokov’s inconsistency is equally annoying. He calls Fathers and Sons one of the greatest novels of the 19th century after spending ten pages writing the most mixed review possible of Ivan Turgenev’s corpus, then praises the novel for one paragraph before taking fifteen pages to pick it apart for flaws and weaknesses. I despised the book and agree with the latter approach.)