Writing Too Strong, Too Talented, To Endure

In Koba The Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (Vintage International, New York, 2002, pp. 230), Martin Amis writes (on Maxim Gorky‘s relationship with Stalin and his death following his return from exile in Sorrento to a period of ‘recantation’ and self-debasement):

Writers were pushed, sometimes physically, sometimes spiritually, into all kinds of unfamiliar shapes by the Bolsheviks….Some more or less genuine writers tried to work ‘toward’ the Bolsheviks. Their success depended inversely on the size of their talent. Talentless writers could flatter the regime. Talented writers could not flatter the regime, or not for long….In general, writers never find out how strong their talent is: that investigation begins with their obituaries. In the USSR, writers found how good they were when they were still alive. If the talent was strong, only luck or the silence could save them. If the talent was weak, they could compromise and survive. Thus, for the writers, the Bolsheviks wielded promethean power; they summoned posterity and inserted it into the here and now.

 Amis’ description of the writer’s fate is romantic and optimistic in suggesting that a postmortem investigation into their lives and talents-by their erstwhile ‘audience’–is ever undertaken. Au contraire, sadly enough, even death does not rescue the writer from obscurity, it does not find the writer the readers he did not have while living. A great deal changes when a life comes to an end, but a writer’s anonymity endures. The few exceptions to this rule give us no reason to imagine that the stony silence which was the norm in a writer’s life will change to a clamoring reception in the graveyard; they merely highlight the fate of most.

This fact makes the possibility of an environment like the one Amis makes note of even more intriguing. It emits a reception so acute that it provides to the writer the most immediate, powerful feedback of all; it summons up the writer’s ultimate fate and makes it proximal. The proof of the writer’s talent lies in his ability to provoke a response, which such an environment provides: a gratifying confirmation–even if at some cost–that most other writers pine for. In such circumstances anonymity is precious, in ensuring the continuance of one’s life but it is also damning: every second of this stretched out existence is a perpetuation of a tale told by this world about your incompetence, your lack of talent, your inability to provoke a reprisal of any kind. Stick your neck out: this fame is the axe that does not fall. Imprisonment for the writer in such circumstances cannot be ‘enough’; he must be forced to stop writing, by death, or by solitary confinement. The restriction must be total; the freedom to be taken away must be the one that matters, movement of the mind, and not just the body, must come to an utter halt.

Here then, lies the most vivid confirmation of a writer’s greatness in his art: the enforced demand that it cease and desist.



Miranda July’s Little Gem

Miranda July‘s Me and You and Everyone We Know–she wrote, directed and acted in it– is a little gem of a movie. (I have no idea how I missed it for so long; it was released in 2005; thanks Netflix!) It’s the kind of film you could describe as a ‘quirky indie’–for it wears that genre’s aesthetic quite prominently on its sleeves–and you’d be right. There is a plot of sorts, some very talented young actors, and a wry humor–part visual, part verbal, part physical–that suffuses most of its frames. It begins slowly, finding its way tentatively, and the viewer struggles to find his bearings at first. A few minutes later, you realize you are watching a movie with great comic potential and heart, and you settle in for the ride.

It’s a gentle one, punctuated by moments that are ostensibly outrageous but which, because of July’s deft touch–both behind the camera and in the script–never  seem overstated. (Having once seen Me and You and Everyone We Know you’ll certainly never think of ‘back and forth forever’ and the brand new emoticon ‘)) <> ((‘ in quite the same way again; those that frequent chat-rooms for a little virtual sexual adventure or two might have their universe of ‘who could it be at the other end’ expanded.) These moments–which earned the movie an R rating from the unsurprisingly prissy MPAA “for disturbing sexual content involving children,”–are also quietly hilarious, because they tap into some simple, yet universal, facts about humans: that children, both teens and pre-teens, like it or not,  have a sexual sense and are infinitely curious about it, that adulthood does not always bring sexual satisfaction and completion. You will squirm a bit, giggle too, and in the climactic scene–no pun intended–laugh out loud.

But Me and You and Everyone We Know is ultimately a movie about love: the variety that goes bad and more importantly, that kind which seeks to blossom.  Because it begins with the former and ends with the latter–in not just one, but perhaps two venues–it is a hopeful movie. It showcases the central oddity of love: that it may blossom in the strangest of locales, bringing together odd pairs of fellow travelers in the strangest of ways. The awkwardness and gentleness of the encounters between the ‘couples’–Pam (JoNell Kennedy) and Richard (John Hawkes) (love gone bad),   Richard and Christine (Miranda July) (love coming good), and Sylvie (Carlie Westerman) and  Peter (Miles Thompson) (proto-love, maybe?)–are testaments to the way love can make fools and angels of us all.

A few days ago, I wrote a scathing review of an expensive, bloated, ponderous, big-budget, 3-D action movie–Prometheus–that wanted to claim for itself a piece of the cinematic philosopher’s pie and thus raise itself to the level of a serious intellectual statement. Me and You and Everyone We Know doesn’t aim that high but it still shows that that can be done for far less money and with much less pretentiousness if the essentials of good cinema and storytelling are followed.

Ridley Scott’s Promethean Stinker

I often disagreed with Roger Ebert‘s rating of movies. Sometimes, our disagreement would be a simple matter of Ebert being a little too kind, a little too forgiving. The latest instance of this discord may be found in our differing assessments of Ridley Scott‘s Prometheus. Ebert gives it four stars. I don’t.

I found Prometheus to be a failure as a horror film, a philosophical meditation, or an action movie.   A few visually striking images, some memorable set pieces and an interesting character–the android David–did not compensate for a movie that felt stale quite quickly.

My disappointments began early. Indeed, matters go rapidly downhill once the humans wake up from their hibernatory slumbers on the good ship Prometheus, Their motivations–despite the avowedly profound goal they declare themselves dedicated too–are not particularly interesting and neither are their resultant interactions. Try as I did, I found it hard to get worked up about their fates. So in a movie whose central characters frequently emphasize their soul-centric humanity to their android interlocutor, it is the latter is that is more emotionally affecting, a more compelling focus of our attention and interest. (I think I could have stood a version of Prometheus–shorter, of course–that features David navigating–by himself–the mysteries and attractions of  the LV-223 moon).

The central conceits of the movie–that it can simultaneously terrify, edify and entertain–are rendered false by its failure to address any of these goals with consistency and depth. The horror scenes strive, and fail, to put new spin on old, familiar tropes, sometimes drawn from close by in the director’s own oeuvre; the debates between science and religion–as ludicrously instantiated in human form in its characters– are sketchy; the central speculation–creation and design of humans by giant, really buff dudes who look like Olympians on ‘roids and live in a galaxy far, far away–isn’t particularly exciting; the action scenes suffer from a familiar modern failure: sound and fury with no heart. I am a little baffled by some of the critical acclaim the film has garnered; so impressed are the critics it seems by the overt claims of the film to profundity–the origin of man, the central epistemic and moral crisis of the science versus religion conflict–that they seem not to have examined the evidence presented to them.

Perhaps I’m being harsh. Perhaps. It might also be that when I am presented with glittering surfaces, I expect sublime depth will follow.  Prometheus fails because it seems to devote a great deal of energy in getting its stage to look good without bothering itself with the human-machine-creatures conflict supposed to play out on it. Strangely enough, by the end of the movie, so stricken had I become by the ennui dispensed by its central human characters, that I stopped caring about the human planet itself. I was curiously unaffected by any response approaching anxiety as the mighty Engineer’s spacecraft took off on its putatively Earth-destructive mission; and so, concomitantly, unafflicted by any pride or joy in Captain Janek’s Kamikaze-like ramming action.

Prometheus aspired, I think, to a kind of greatness; its failure is correspondingly larger.