Anxious Encounters: "Carnet de Voyage"

Conceived as an intermezzo of sorts between "real projects," this is a travel narrative in fragments, in jottings of text and image, from a tour of Europe and Morocco Craig Thompson undertook to promote his book "Blankets" and soothe a broken heart. As with Joe Sacco's work (particularly the harrowing "Palestine," which I very much admire), the strongest moments are often born of the artist's anxiety about his own role in a foreign land. We are given access to a view (both internalized by a first person narrative and distanced by images which place us outside the artist-protagonist's body) of the gamut of touristic and, in Sacco's case, journalistic bad behavior, and we understand both its motivations and its wrenching trespasses.

It is Thompson's anguish that holds these fragments together, vivid as some of them, like his tales of a neverending four-star feast in France or a gut-altering camel caravan in rural Morocco, are on their own. He is caught in a limbo of paradox, desperately homesick, unable to attend to any of the extraordinary or mundane things that surround him, but also increasingly attached to the new acquaintances and environments that distract him, even momentarily, from his heartache. His reluctance to let go of anything he encounters is obviously the driving force behind his travel journal, and it ultimately extends even to releasing his narrative for publication: "I love you," he screams to the trees as the "Capitalist Printing Industry" arrives to chop them down for the printing of "Carnet." "I love you," he wails to girlfriends, places, and even one bewildered cat. His discomfort in the face of almost everything he meets abroad is coupled with this distress he feels at parting from any of it to form one of the most astute exact descriptions of the internal life of the traveler I have encountered.

"Carnet de Voyage" (2004) by Craig Thompson - ****

More Graphic Novelishness

"Why are you doing this?" by Jason (2005)

There is a moment in "Why are you doing this?" in which the hero, who has just been framed by a mysterious stranger for the murder of his best friend, is taken in by an archetypally trusting single mother. "Did you do it?" she asks him, recognizing him from the news bulletins describing the killing. When he denies being the murderer she looks him deep in the eyes before deciding that he is worthy of her trust, and the panel frame fills with his cartoon-dog eyes, enormous and completely blank.

In a way, this emptiness seems to be Jason's central concern. His narrative is entirely, purposively conventional, extensively worked over by Hitchcock and innumerable mystery novelists, and as his characters naively go through the expected motions their hollowness is always self-consciously evident. The characters are obsessed with narratives, determined to acquire enough stories to tell at dinner parties to prove (finally and irrevocably) that they have not lived wasted lives. It is only in the striking last page that the emptiness of narrative moves completely out of the realm of unsatisfying woodenness and into a fully fledged argument about the troubled nature of our addiction to stories. In its denouement, we can finally see the importance of asking the question of Jason's title: the last words of his narrative are "What happened?" but we know by now that the real story happens in the 'Why?".

"Why are you doing this?" - ****

"Fantastic Butterflies" by James Kochalka

This is the first of Kochalka's books that I have read, and I may need to acclimate myself to his unselfconscious melding of mundane realism and the oddities of science fiction. I find a lot of the whimsy (including the title) somewhat cloying, but in the final analysis, I have to admire (sort of) an authorial consciousness so broad and so fanciful that it even grants a burst testicle some measure of subjectivity.

"Fantastic Butterflies" - ***

"Peculia" by Richard Sala

Peculia is described by its enthusiasts and publicists as a hybrid, merging the dry gothic comedy of Edward Gorey with a sexy campiness. The substantial middle ground revealed by this hybrid draws in some surprising and delightful associations, not least with P. G. Wodehouse. Peculia is a rich young woman of considerable abilities who rebels against her quiet, confined life of privilege (and, by association, against her excessively private ex, Obscurus). In each (too too) short episode, Peculia ventures forth to be met with macabre peril (often instigated and more often resolved by the emotionally conflicted Obscurus) before being delivered (or delivering herself) unharmed into the competent hands of her impeccable butler, Ambrose. The episodes seem slight, and aren't always overly concerned with resolving the more intriguing plot points immediately, but they are carefully structured in the old comics tradition of serials like "The Spirit." By the end of this volume, I was totally enthralled by this charming group of misfits, both villainous and heroic.

"Peculia" - ***1/2

Comics Bonanza

After a long hiatus (which I will excuse by invoking my dissertation work- I just turned in a chapter draft - and travel), I return in a flurry of comics-reading, thanks to Jeremy's generosity and extensive library. A few first reactions:

"Seaguy" by Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart

This is a Dada world, a world that takes the conventions of heroism and reveals the mythological tendency towards absurdism and non-sequitur. Our "hero" (who finds it hard to conceive of himself heroically) pursues the love of the hirsute Amazonian She-Beard by aiding those in need (including an enslaved soft-drink and a megalomaniacal moon-dwelling pharaoh). At first the accelerated narrative and the delight in incompletion are unsettling, but eventually they become strangely delightful, yielding priceless dialogue like this one between Seaguy and a cynical snack vendor:
"No Pickled Orchid. We only have the Smokey Monkey, Duck and Nut or Bowler Hat flavors today."
"“Hmm. What kind of corn chip is Bowler Hat?"
"Harsh and ashamed...."

"Seaguy" - ****

"Crumple: the Status of Knuckle" by Dave Cooper

A squelchy exploration of the extremes of misogynistic paranoia. Cooper's self-awareness of this extremity is (happily) evident in every wince on his awkward hero'’s increasingly bruised face. A hybrid between a road trip narrative and a cult mystery, "Crumple" is inventive, but uncomfortable.

Crumple - **1/2

Shanghaied: "The White Countess"

I refer, of course, to the original, nautical meaning of the verb "shanghai" (and here I invoke the sainted assistance of the OED): "To drug or otherwise render insensible, and ship on board a vessel wanting hands." Perhaps this particularly springs to mind because I have just reached the point of Davie's abduction in my reading of "Kidnapped," but I tend to think that it was in fact inspired by the near-comatose state of boredom evoked by this tedious film. The movie is set in Shanghai at the particularly turbulent period just before the second World War, and we wait in vain (for a creaking, arthritic two hours and eighteen minutes) for the sort of politically-inspired anguish or even old fashioned adventurousness that time, place and cinematic precedent with both might seem to imply. But "The White Countess" manages to take the energy out of kidnappery; when someone is finally shanghaied the whole event seems to take place at an emotional crawl and have very few consequences. (It is interesting to note that MI:iii's Shanghai scenes also took place in a strange, claustrophobic lull in an otherwise, well, explosive and expansive adventure flick.)

How could so many talented people combine to produce this kind of cinematic sedative? Much has been made by defenders of this film (and even many of its critics) of the fine quality of the central performances. I can't see it. I have long been a devoted fan of Ralph Fiennes. What I normally enjoy about his performances, and about other Merchant-Ivory films, is the delicacy of the characterization, a pervasive sense of subtext that may have to do the literariness of the films' sources and the (somewhat) greater access to the interior life of characters we get in literature than on stage and screen. In "The White Countess," Fiennes is not in his normal, finely honed repressive mode, and his extroverted character (a blind, American ex-diplomat with a tragic past but a hopeful outlook) seems somehow messy, even hammy. It still makes me cringe to think of the scene in which he mimes riding a horse while at the race track. Eurggh.

"The White Countess" - **

Questioning "Kiki"

I just finished "Kiki's Delivery Service" (1989) and I welcome any and all who would champion its wonders to share their enthusiasm. I must admit that I didn't find it nearly as interesting as Miyazaki's other films. The cat was wonderfully observed, and the flying scenes were vividly and vertiginously rendered (in part because of the very effective use of complete, unsettling silence in moments of panic and suspense), but other than that the story was rather inertly conventional, I thought. I watched the film with my mother (we are both huge Miyazaki fans - I believe that this was the last American-released, Miyazaki-directed film that I had yet to see), and we agreed that by far the best part of the film occurred during the credits, when a number of storylines are whimsically wrapped up (the film having ended rather abruptly AT its own climax).

Perhaps this strength results from the fact that the characters are largely silent under the surging credits music, giving Kiki less opportunity for volcanic giggling and playing to Miyazaki's incredible eye for gesture. My mother and I have long observed that dogs are consistently delightful in animated films (consider "Howl's Moving Castle," "The Triplets of Belleville," "Wallace and Gromit"), because their silence enhances the inherent expressiveness of their bodies, augmenting our desire to see pets as capable of human complexity of emotion. Miyazaki's best characters, including Kiki's cat Jiji, excel at this expressive economy of gesture. Perhaps the best examples come from "Spirited Away": the strange relationship between the sack creature and the tiny bird, or the incredibly human bouncing dust mites who care for Chihiro's shoes.

How disappointing it is in "Howl's Moving Castle" when the delightful Turnip-head, who has up till now expressed himself very well through a language confined to hopping, turns into a handsome prince and can talk. I long for the Miyazaki's fairy-tales to be arrested in the world of metamorphosis, never to return to mundane human forms. Perhaps this is the problem with "Kiki's Delivery Service": it exists too much in the human world, a world of business start-ups and money worries, a world that is basically normal except for the existence of people who can fly and talk to black cats (sometimes), and not enough in the world of metamorphosis, of myth, of gesture.

"Kiki's Delivery Service" - *** 1/2

Word encounter

agelastic (adj. and n.) or agelast (n.)

"One who never laughs," "never laughing" (OED)

Marked as obsolete, but found in quite delightful current use in Jessica Milner Davis's "Farce," in which she defines slapstick as "physical but stylized beatings and the humiliation of agelastic targets" (3).

Wouldn't Agelast be a wonderful name for a somewhat Dickensian character (with a pun on a sort of unsmiling agedness or dusty agelessness)? What would it do to a child to be named "Agelast"?

Bleak House: "Open City" and "Gertrud"

(It should be noted that all of my posts are reflections on films and/or books in their entirety, and may not be suitable for the spoiler-wary.)

I have recently begun courting an unfamiliar movement, a movement that I probably would have quietly avoided had it not been for my religious adherence to the 1001 Movies project: Italian neo-realism. I started with Visconti's "Ossessione" (1943) several weeks ago and had a fairly neutral response, even to the famously odd operatic competition that comes in the middle of an otherwise grittily quotidian narrative. (The urban interludes of "Ossessione" strongly recall, for me at least, the rather surreal visit to the city in Vigo's "L'Atalante," which itself harkens back a bit to the giddiness of Murnau's "Sunrise.") Recently, I have progressed through my list to the first indisputably neorealist film, and the first film of the movement to reach American theatres, Rossellini's "Roma, Citta  Aperta" ("Open City," 1945).

What shocked me about "Open City" was how relentingly grim it is (to turn a critical cliche on its side). It hardly lacks the movement's trademark social earnestness and narrative of brutality, its response to years of fascist (and foreign) subjugation, but this bleakness of outlook frequently gives way before stories of love and an almost slapstick comic tendency (the key comic scene being the one in which a leftist, patriotic priest has to knock an old man unconscious to maintain the facade that he is performing extreme unction, rather than coming to the rescue of an insurgent). As a result, it was not nearly as grueling a viewing experience as I had come to believe neo-realism must be. Of course, as the film progresses, the idealism of our heroes does come gruesomely into conflict with the repressive practices of their German governors, and the narratives all come to their inevitable, patriotic, violent ends. "Italians of all classes have a weakness for rhetoric" says the creepy German inquisitor at the film's end, ironically echoing his earlier observation that Italians, as a people, are uncommonly given to melodramatic screaming under torture.

Despite the lack of good film stock, and the difficulties of filming in the upheaval of post-war Italy more generally, the film's drive towards realism in no way denies the power of carefully constructed, even beautiful images. The rebel Italians we follow throughout the film all live in a single apartment building, and a great deal is made of the triangular stairwell abutting their flats - people rush up and down it while unfolding various acts of resistance, with the camera peering at them curiously from all kinds of vertiginous angles. The scene where Anna Magnani is cut down by bullets while trying to reach her fiance, who has just been arrested as an insurgent on the morning of their wedding day, is somehow both unexpected and inevitable, a moment worthy of classical tragedy.

The film is marred, I am sad to say, by the most infuriatingly minimalist subtitles I have ever encountered, and my measly year of Italian was just not sufficient to fill in the difference between what was said by the characters and what was translated at the bottom of the screen. Again and again long monologues would be distilled into a single, uninformative sentence while I struggled with the few words I could understand aurally.

It is worth mentioning another film which traffics in bleakness, albeit in a significantly more humorless way: Dreyer's "Gertrud." Dreyer's film is an exploration of the freedom of sexual and amorous choice, and of his heroine's utterly unrequited need for an all-consuming love, a love which eclipses all other interests and values. Its approach to bleakness is utterly different from "Open City'"s: its striking style consists of long (impossibly long), stolid shots, allowing the intensive impassiveness of the heroine's expression, as she encounters the various lovers who compete for her attention, to wash over us across a span of several minutes. Whole scenes go by in which the characters chant unemotively about the love that has been lost while staring past each other into space. This is a drama of disconnection.

Watching "Gertrud" is like watching a Strindberg play in which the sex has been drained of all appeal and threat, or an Ibsen play without any narrative of familial conflict. Which is to say that Dreyer imports the theatrical idiom (particularly the claustrophobic domestic space we have come to associated with these Scandinavian playwrights) of these writers without any real interest in what drives their narratives. I don't mean to imply that "Gertrud" is dull or unimpressive, because it certainly leaves you with a feeling of the power of Dreyer's vision and the cleverness of his techniques. But it is an aesthetic of alienation applied to a quest for love, so it is hardly surprising when the heroine's tale grinds to a somber conclusion.

Open City - ****
Gertrud - ***1/2

Playtime in Poisonville: Hammett's "Red Harvest"

(It should be noted that all of my posts are reflections on films and/or books in their entirety, and may not be suitable for the spoiler-wary.)

"'Plans are all right sometimes,' I said, 'and sometimes just stirring things up is all right - if you're tough enough to survive..."
-Dashiell Hammett "Red Harvest"

Just finished "Red Harvest" (1929), the second of two Dashiell Hammett novels I have read in the last month. The first was the more predictable (for a noir-neophyte) "The Thin Man" (1934). Assuming (quite weakly) that a pattern or preference can be established on the basis of two experiences, I would say that Hammett's trademark lean prose is perhaps too spare for my taste. Particularly in "The Thin Man," the simplicity of the sentences has a plodding quality completely at odds with Hammett's charismatic characters.

In fact, the two novels differ largely in the nature of their heroes. The sleuth of "The Thin Man," Nick Charles, is as reluctant a participant in the gruesome events of the novel as a protagonist can viably be. He is drawn in by his history as a private detective, a career which he abandoned in favor of a life of professional drinking and partying when he married the rich Nora, but he protests his disinterest at every opportunity until he actually solves the case.

The hero of "Red Harvest," by contrast, is self-destructively determined to insert himself into the business of a town where he is not welcome, a zeal for worsening the situation that he attributes to the contagiously "blood-simple" nature of the town itself. Unlike Nick Charles, he is still a professional detective, a noirish type made so self-abnegatingly anonymous here that he is never named (he is referred to by fans of Hammett as "the Continental Op"). He has been called to corrupt Personville (pronounced Poisonville by the people of the town) by a reformer who is promptly killed, and he eagerly takes up the role of scourge, staying in town and whipping up criminal discontent until the bloodbath has washed all notable villains out of town and into the afterlife (I have heard that "Yojimbo" is based on "Red Harvest," and this seems completely plausible to me). This transformation from Personville to Poisonville charts the progress of the hero himself, whose personhood is quickly erased by the venomous duplicity and bloodthirstiness of the town.

The novel has a certain serial quality to it (the hero, like a worker in a particularly gory assembly line, solves a bevy of murders and mysteries in the first half of the novel that are almost completely self-contained), and this, combined with a ruthless sense of the expendability of all the characters besides the protagonist, makes it hard to subsume yourself fully in the world of Poisonville. All in all, an intriguing portrait of a rotten community, although without much sense of mystery, suspense, or even narrative structure. But is that what we really go to noir for?

"Red Harvest" - ***