A Riff on William Gaddis’s The Recognitions

Art, Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

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1. I finished reading William Gaddis’s enormous opus The Recognitions a few days ago. I made a decent first attempt at the book in the summer of 2009, but wound up distracted not quite half way through, and eventually abandoned the book. I did, however, write about its first third. I will plunder occasionally from that write-up in this riff. Like here:

In William Gaddis‘s massive first novel, The Recognitions, Wyatt Gwyon forges paintings by master artists like Hieronymous Bosch, Hugo van der Goes, and Hans Memling. To be more accurate, Wyatt creates new paintings that perfectly replicate not just the style of the old masters, but also the spirit. After aging the pictures, he forges the artist’s signature, and at that point, the painting is no longer an original by Wyatt, but a “new” old original by a long-dead genius. The paintings of the particular artists that Wyatt counterfeits are instructive in understanding, or at least in hoping to understand how The Recognitions works. The paintings of Bosch, Memling, or Dierick Bouts function as highly-allusive tableaux, semiotic constructions that wed religion and mythology to art, genius, and a certain spectacular horror, and, as such, resist any hope of a complete and thorough analysis. Can you imagine, for example, trying to catalog and explain all of the discrete images in Bosch’s triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights? And then, after creating such a catalog, explaining the intricate relationships between the different parts? You couldn’t, and Gaddis’s novel is the same way.

I still feel the anxiety dripping from that lede, the sense that The Recognitions might be a dare beyond my ken. Mellower now, I’m content to riff.

2. I read this citation in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human, Part II the other night, mentally noting, “cf. Gaddis”:

188. The Muses as Liars. —“We know how to tell many lies,” so sang the Muses once, when they revealed themselves to Hesiod.—The conception of the artist as deceiver, once grasped, leads to important discoveries.

3. The Recognitions: crammed with poseurs and fakers, forgers and con-men, artists and would-be artists.

4. To recognize: To see and know again. Recognition entails time, experience, certitude, authenticity.

5. Who would not dogear or underline or highlight this passage?:

That romantic disease, originality, all around we see originality of incompetent idiots, they could draw nothing, paint nothing, just so the mess they make is original . . .

6. In many ways The Recognitions, or rather the characters in The Recognitions whom we might identify with genuine talent, genius, or spirit (to be clear, I’m thinking of Wyatt/Stephan, Basil Valentine, Stanley, Anselm, maybe, and Frank Sinisterra) are conservative, reactionary even; this is somewhat ironic considering Gaddis’s estimable literary innovations.

7. Esme: A focus for the novel’s masculine gaze, or a critique of such gazes?

8. The central problem of The Recognitions (perhaps): What confers meaning in a desacralized world?

Late in the novel, in one of its many party scenes, Stanley underlines the problem, working in part from Voltaire’s (in)famous quote that, “If there were no God, it would be necessary to invent him”:

. . . even Voltaire could see that some transcendent judgments is necessary, because nothing is self-sufficient, even art, and when art isn’t an expression of something higher, when it isn’t invested you might even say, it breaks up into fragments that don’t have any meaning . . .

Here we think of Wyatt: Wyatt who rejects the ministry, contemporary art, contemporary society, sanity . . .

9. Wyatt’s quest: To find truth, meaning, authenticity in a modern world where the sacred does not, cannot exist, is smothered by commerce, noise, fakery . . .

10. The Recognitions conveys a range of tones, but I like it best when it focuses its energies on comic irony and dark absurdity to detail the juxtapositions and ironies between meaning and noise, authenticity and forgery.

11. (I like The Recognitions least when its bile flares up too much in its throat, when its black humor tips over into a screed of despair. A more mature Gaddis handles bitterness far better in JR, I think—but I parenthesize this note, as it seems minor even in a list of minor digressions).

12. Probably my favorite chapter of the book — after the very first chapter, which I believe can stand on its own — is Chapter V of Part II. This is the chapter where Frank Sinisterra reemerges, setting into motion a failed plan to disseminate his counterfeit money (“the queer,” as his accomplice calls it). We also meet Otto’s father, Mr. Pivner, a truly pathetic figure (in all senses of the word). This chapter probably contains more immediate or apparent action than any other in The Recognitions, which largely relies on implication (or suspended reference).

13. More on Part II, Chapter V: Here we find a savagely satirical and very funny discussion of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, a book that seems to stand as an emblem (one of many in The Recognitions) of the degraded commercial world that Gaddis repeatedly attacks. The entire discussion of Carnegie’s book is priceless — it begins on page 497 of my Penguin edition and unfurls over roughly 10 pages—and the book is alluded to enough in The Recognitions to become a motif.

I’ll quote from page 499 a passage that seems to ironically situate How to Win Friends and Influence People against The Recognitions itself (this is one of the many postmodern moves of the novel):

It was written with reassuring felicity. There were no abstrusely long sentences, no confounding long words, no bewildering metaphors in an obfuscated system such as he feared finding in simply bound books of thoughts and ideas. No dictionary was necessary to understand its message; no reason to know what Kapila saw when he looked heavenward, and of what the Athenians accused Anaxagoras, or to know the secret name Jahveh, or who cleft the Gordian knot, the meaning of 666. There was, finally, very little need to know anything at all, except how to “deal with people.” College, the author implied, meant simply years wasted on Latin verbs and calculus. Vergil, and Harvard, were cited regularly with an uncomfortable, if off-hand, reverence for their unnecessary existences . . . In these pages, he was assured that whatever his work, knowledge of it was infinitely less important that knowing how to “deal with people.” This was what brought a price in the market place; and what else could anyone possibly want?

14. I’m not sure if Gaddis is ahead of his time or of his time in the above citation.

The Recognitions though, on the whole, feels more reactionary than does his later novel JR, which is so predictive of our contemporary society as to produce a maddening sense of the uncanny in its reader.

15. Even more on Part II, Chapter V (which I seem to be using to alleviate the anxiety of having to account for so many of the book’s threads): Here we find a delineation of (then complication of, then shuffling of) the various father-son pairings and substitutions that will play out in the text. (Namely, the series of displacements between Pivner, Otto, and Sinisterra, with the subtle foreshadowing of Wyatt’s later (failed) father-son/mentor-pupil relationship with Sinisterra).

16. Is it worth pointing out that the father-son displacements throughout the text are reminiscent of Joyce’s Ulysses, a book that Gaddis pointedly denied as an influence?

Ignorant of Gaddis’s deflections, I wrote the following in my review almost three years ago:

Gaddis shows a heavy debt to James Joyce‘s innovations in Ulysses here (and throughout the book, of course), although it would be a mistake to reduce the novel to a mere aping of that great work. Rather, The Recognitions seems to continue that High Modernist project, and, arguably, connect it to the (post)modern work of Pynchon, DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace. (In it’s heavy erudition, numerous allusions, and complex voices, the novel readily recalls both W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño as far as I’m concerned).

17. But, hey, Cynthia Ozick found Joyce’s mark on The Recognitions as well (from her 1985 New York Times review of Carpenter’s Gothic):

When ”The Recognitions” arrived on the scene, it was already too late for those large acts of literary power ambition used to be good for. Joyce had come and gone. Imperially equipped for masterliness in range, language and ironic penetration, born to wrest out a modernist masterpiece but born untimely, Mr. Gaddis nonetheless took a long draught of Joyce’s advice and responded with surge after surge of virtuoso cunning.

18. We are not obligated to listen to Gaddis’s denials of a Joyce influence, of course. When asked in his Paris Review interview if he’d like to clarify anything about his personality and work, he paraphrases his novel:

I’d go back to The Recognitions where Wyatt asks what people want from the man they didn’t get from his work, because presumably that’s where he’s tried to distill this “life and personality and views” you speak of. What’s any artist but the dregs of his work: I gave that line to Wyatt thirty-odd years ago and as far as I’m concerned it’s still valid.

19. And so Nietzsche again, again from Human, All Too Human, Part II:

140. Shutting One’s Mouth. —When his book opens its mouth, the author must shut his.

20. And if I’m going to quote German aphorists, here’s a Goethe citation (from Maxims and Reflections) that illustrates something of the spirit of The Recognitions:

There is nothing worth thinking but it has been thought before; we must only try to think it again.

21. And if I’m going to quote Goethe, I’ll also point out then that Gaddis began The Recognitions as a parody of Goethe’s Faust. Peter William Koenig writes in his excellent and definitive essay “Recognizing Gaddis’ Recognitions” (published in the Winter Volume Contemporary Literature, 1975):

To understand Gaddis’ relationship to his characters, and thus his philosophical motive in writing the novel, we are helped by knowing how Gaddis conceived of it originally. The Recognitions began as a much smaller and less complicated work, passing through a major evolutionary stage during the seven years Gaddis spent writing it. Gaddis says in his notes: “When I started this thing . . . it was to be a good deal shorter, and quite explicitly a parody on the FAUST story, except the artist taking the place of the learned doctor.” Gaddis later explained that Wyatt was to have all talent as Faust had all knowledge, yet not be able to find what was worth doing. This plight-of limitless talent, limited by the age in which it lives-was experienced by an actual painter of the late 1940s, Hans Van Meegeren, on whom Gaddis may have modeled Wyatt. The authorities threw Van Meegeren into jail for forging Dutch Renaissance masterpieces, but like Wyatt, his forgeries seemed so inspired and “authentic” that when he confessed, he was not believed, and had to prove that he had painted them. Like Faust and Wyatt, Van Meegeren seemed to be a man of immense talent, but no genius for finding his own salvation.

The Faust parody remained uppermost in Gaddis’ mind as he traveled from New York to Mexico, Panama and through Central America in 1947, until roughly the time he reached Spain in 1948. Here Gaddis read James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and the novel entered its second major stage. Frazer’s pioneering anthropological work demonstrates how religions spring from earlier myths, fitting perfectly with Gaddis’ idea of the modern world as a counterfeit-or possibly inspiring it. In any case, Frazer led Gaddis to discover that Goethe’s Faust originally derived from the Clementine Recognitions, a rambling third-century theological tract of unknown authorship, dealing with Clement’s life and search for salvation. Gaddis adapted the title, broadening the conception of his novel to the story of a wandering, at times misguided hero, whose search for salvation would record the multifarious borrowings and counterfeits of modern culture.

22. Is Wyatt the hero of The Recognitions? Here’s Basil Valentine (page 247 of my ed.):

. . . that is why people read novels, to identify projections of their own unconscious. The hero has to be fearfully real, to convince them of their own reality, which they rather doubt. A novel without a hero would be distracting in the extreme. They have to know what you think, or good heavens, how can they know that you’re going through some wild conflict, which is after all the duty of a hero.

23. If Wyatt is the hero, then what is Otto? Clearly Otto is a comedic double of some kind for Wyatt, a would-be Wyatt, a different kind of failure . . . but is he a hero?

When I first tried The Recognitions I held Otto in special contempt (from that earlier review of mine):

Otto follows Wyatt around like a puppy, writing down whatever he says, absorbing whatever he can from him, and eventually sleeping with his wife. Otto is the worst kind of poseur; he travels to Central America to finish his play only to lend the mediocre (at best) work some authenticity, or at least buzz. He fakes an injury and cultivates a wild appearance he hopes will give him artistic mystique among the Bohemian Greenwich Villagers he hopes to impress. In the fifth chapter, at an art-party, Otto, and the reader, learn quickly that no one cares about his play . . .

But a full reading of The Recognitions shows more to Otto besides the initial anxious shallowness; Gaddis allows him authentic suffering and loss. (Alternately, my late sympathies for Otto may derive from the recognition that I am more of an Otto than a Wyatt . . .).

24. The Recognitions is the work of a young man (“I think first it was that towering kind of confidence of being quite young, that one can do anything,” Gaddis says in his Paris Review interview), and often the novel reveals a cockiness, a self-assurance that tips over into didactic essaying or a sharpness toward its subjects that neglects to account for any kind of humanity behind what Gaddis attacks. The Recognitions likes to remind you that its erudition is likely beyond yours, that it’s smarter than you, even as it scathingly satirizes this position.

I think that JR, a more mature work, does a finer job in its critique of contemporary America, or at least in its characterization of contemporary Americans (I find more spirit or authentic humanity in Bast and Gibbs and JR than in Otto or Wyatt or Stanley). This is not meant to be a knock on The Recognitions; I just found JR more balanced and less showy; it seems to me to be the work of an author at the height of his powers, if you’ll forgive the cliché.

I’ll finish this riff-point by quoting Gaddis from The Paris Review again:

Well, I almost think that if I’d gotten the Nobel Prize when The Recognitions was published I wouldn’t have been terribly surprised. I mean that’s the grand intoxication of youth, or what’s a heaven for.

(By the way, Icelandic writer Halldór Kiljan Laxness won the Nobel in lit in 1955 when The Recognitions was published).

25. Looking over this riff, I see it’s lengthy, long on outside citations and short on plot summary or recommendations. Because I don’t think I’ve made a direct appeal to readers who may be daunted by the size or reputation or scope of The Recognitions, let me be clear: While this isn’t a book for everyone, anyone who wants to read it can and should. As a kind of shorthand, it fits (“fit” is not the right verb) in that messy space between modernism and postmodernism, post-Joyce and pre-Pynchon, and Gaddis has a style and approach that anticipates David Foster Wallace. (It’s likely that if you made it this far into the riff that you already know this or, even more likely, that you realize that these literary-historical situations mean little or nothing.

26.Very highly recommended.

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“The Charade of the So-Called Free Market” — William Gaddis on What Moved Him to Write JR

Books, Literature, Writers

From William Gaddis’s 1986 Paris Review interview:

INTERVIEWER

What moved you to write JR?

GADDIS

Even though I should have known from The Recognitions that the world was not waiting breathlessly for my message, that it already knew, and was quite happy to live with all these false values, I’d always been intrigued by the charade of the so-called free market, so-called free enterprise system, the stock market conceived of as what was called a “people’s capitalism” where you “owned a part of the company” and so forth. All of which is true; you own shares in a company, so you literally do own part of the assets. But if you own a hundred shares out of six or sixty or six hundred million, you’re not going to influence things very much. Also, the fact that people buy securities—the very word in this context is comic—not because they are excited by the product—often you don’t know what the company makes—but simply for profit: The stock looks good and you buy it. The moment it looks bad you sell it. What had actually happened in the company is not your concern. In many ways I thought . . . the childishness of all this. Because JR himself, which is why he is eleven years old, is motivated only by good-natured greed. JR was, in other words, to be a commentary on this free enterprise system running out of control. Looking around us now with a two-trillion-dollar federal deficit and billions of private debt and the banks, the farms, basic industry all in serious trouble, it seems to have been rather prophetic.

Post-postmodern Satire and More Juggalo Wonder

Post-postmodernism

Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece about the Insane Clown Posse and Juggalo culture where I argued that ICP’s project, so heavily distorted in the tropes and defenses of postmodernity, is essentially resistant to ironic satire and even parody. My piece was prompted largely by ICP’s newest video, Miracles,” a mawkish, sweetly dumb anthem brought to life as a mutant Spencer’s Gifts blacklight poster. A day or two after I posted, a friend sent me Daniel O’Brien’s article in Cracked, Learn Your Motherf#@kin’ Science: A Textbook for Juggalos.O’Brien’s piece seeks to correct ICP’s notion that “rainbows,” “giraffes,” and “magnets” are somehow unexplainable “miracles”; he uses Juggalo vernacular to address the myriad questions (and misapprehensions) expressed in “Miracles.” O’Brien juxtaposes Juggalo-speak against the schema of school texts to point out that “Miracles” is insanely, almost heroically stupid. He does this to be funny, of course, but I think that there’s a sense of exasperation to his parody. It buckles under the strain of mocking something already so radically open to an ironic viewpoint as to render said viewpoint null and void.

About a week after O’Brien and I ran our pieces on “Miracles,” Saturday Night Live attempted another parody of ICP (see my first post for more on their first attempt). Here’s their spoof of “Miracles”:

Again, it’s not very funny. There’s no insight or satirical value, no allegorical leap–it’s just an ironic viewpoint. But what else could it be? What’s left to a satirist when his subject is literally a clown in oversized shorts rapping about the magical mysteries of magnets? In her review of the episode at AV Club, Claire Zullkey wondered, “if SNL should get much credit for a near line-by-line parody of an Insane Clown Posse video that is already ridiculous and ironic,” and Annie Wu at TV Squad noted that “it quickly became obvious that the real Insane Clown Posse video was funnier. Sorry, ‘SNL,’ but no matter how hard you try, you cannot top unintentional ICP hilarity.”

But are ICP unintentional? As I argued in my previous post, they clearly tap into authenticity or “realness” in their project, both in their music and in their connection to their fans, the Juggalos. At the same time, this authenticity is bolstered by commonplace idioms and tropes of postmodernism–code names, fictional personas, costumes, make-up, self-invented mythos, argot, and a keen emphasis on self-referentiality. These postmodern defenses render the question of intentionality radically ambiguous. This is why the old techniques of satire and parody do not hold up very well against ICP: the realness of the thing in itself transcends the ironic viewpoint. Cracked did a much better job with this video:

It’s hardly hilarious, but its mash-up technique actually surpasses ironic-viewpoint-as-parody: there’s some real commentary here. The mash-up artist juxtaposes two “real” sources–a Glade Plug-in ad and clips from the original “Miracles” video and the result is genuine satire. What’s being mocked though isn’t the inanity of the Insane Clown Posse, but the larger inanity of mass commercial culture itself, in which people are encouraged to lose critical perspective, to be reduced to a child-like state of wonder by a fucking air freshener, a consumer product. The satire works by pointing out that the ICP video isn’t really any dumber than most other commercials–it’s just so brazenly over-the-top that we notice its inanity. Indeed “Miracles” calls attention to its inanity. It’s self-aware (perhaps). In any case, this juxtaposition of “the real” shows us that successful post-postmodern satire will not invoke an ironic viewpoint, but rather call attention to the limits of an ironic viewpoint. The “loudness” of ICP’s stupidity is so extreme that we take an ironic view, but what of the far-more subtle stupidities of Glade Plug-in commercials and their ilk? If “Miracles” is to be instructive, let us learn from its distortions, for what it distorts is really just part and parcel of 21st century American culture. It is a priori irony. It is meta-criticism. But it need not be instructive. It can simply be enjoyed for (whatever) it is.

Self-Ironizing Anti-Satiric Culture and a Juggalo’s Sense of Wonder

Books, Post-postmodernism

Last year, Saturday Night Live ran an unfunny parody of an infamous viral video. SNL sought to mock the 2009 Gathering of the Juggalos Infomercial which advertised the tenth anniversary spectacular for that venerable event. The Gathering of the Juggalos is an annual outdoor music and culture festival initiated by and starring Insane Clown Posse. The best way to (try to) understand it is to watch the infomercial. You can watch the infomercial and SNL‘s parody at Current, which I suggest you do now. Done? Okay.

SNL‘s parody is not funny, it is merely observational; that is to say, it doesn’t ever approach satire. It is unfunny mimicry of something far funnier. There is no topping the riotous authenticity of the thing in itself. The original Juggalo infomercial’s joyful exuberance resists SNL‘s ironic aims–it can’t really be satirized. It is beyond kitsch, and eventually even schadenfreude. It does not seem real. Can the ICP enterprise be in earnest, though? Take their new video “Miracles,” for example–are these guys for real? Take a few minutes to watch this. I insist. (NB: Lyrics NSFW).

The video, apparently directed by Lisa Frank, communicates a sincere adoration and sense of wonder and possibility in a world of shit that’ll shock your eyelids, like: long neck giraffes, pet cats and dogs, fucking shooting stars and fucking rainbows, UFOs, crows, ghosts, moms, kids . . . you know, pure motherfucking magic. There’s a paradox in Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J in full malevolent get-up vamping in front of rainbows and stars and expressing anger at scientists who would dare to explain how fucking magnets work. Even more perplexing, earlier this year, ICP released the trailer for their Western film, Big Money Rustlas the deadly tale of debauchery, hedonism, and family love set in a small town of Mudbug. Again, I insist you watch the trailer. (NB: Language NSFW).

How might one go about satirizing that? It already seems framed as a parody of a parody. It’s anti-satiric. It self-ironizes. But again: How sincere are ICP?

Thomas Morton’s “In the Land of the Juggalos” (Vice magazine), the authoritative, in-depth investigation into the 2007 Gathering, reveals a close-knit culture of rejects reveling in “the worst aspects of goth, punk, gangsta rap, rave, nu-metal, and real metal to create a sub-culture so universally repulsive as to forestall any attempts at outside involvement.” Equally good, and more immediately accessible is Derek Erdman’s photo essay documenting the 2009 Gathering–the one advertised in the promo video. His marvelous, grotesque photos show a sincere audience, eager members of the Psychopathic Records “family.” Take a few minutes to suck it all in. These people are serious in their Juggaloness. But again, what of ICP themselves? They can’t be art-pranksters or scammers, can they? They are clearly serious about ICP as a money-making enterprise but what about as a form of art or cultural commentary? Can they be serious about the absurd sentimental content of “Miracles” or their woefully dumb Western film? Are they for real?

There is a radical authenticity about ICP’s project. It’s an autochthonous monster engendering a legion of mutant fans. Yet it also seems potently aware of its position. ICP/Juggalo culture strikes me as a form of ritual theater assuring a sense of belonging and even meaning in life to a group of people who choose to see themselves as outcast or othered. It is inconceivable to suggest that they are wholly or even partly unaware of how others see them; indeed, awareness of how others perceive them is exactly what gives meaning to being a down-assed ninja, a true Juggalo. They see you seeing them (seeing you seeing them).

Hence a condition of post-postmodernity, of a ludic and labyrinthine culture that produces subcultures resistant to irony, to parody, to the defenses of Modernism and the techniques of postmodernism. If we contrast the gap between SNL’s parody and the real thing, we might be led to what I think David Shields is trying to describe in his book Reality Hunger, a situation where the narrative techniques of modernity (and their counterparts in postmodernism) are no longer tenable forms of discourse and analysis in an increasingly technologically mediated world.

Experiment: Imagine that you wish to satirize (or parody) Walmart. Envision the details and observations you will use to mock the behemoth, its customers, its gross place in America. Then go to a Walmart. You are trumped. Hyperbole and irony are beyond you. There is no way to top the thing in itself. You are left merely with a set of observations, not insights. An ironic viewpoint does not cease to exist, but it can’t be supported via the traditional methods of Modernism or postmodernism. Contrast South Park‘s Walmart satire with the website People of Walmart. The former attempts to justify an ironic viewpoint through the logic of satire and mimesis. The latter is an ironic viewpoint of an objective reality. It’s not even parody. It’s “real.”

And this is why SNL’s Juggalo spoof signals the limits of parody and cultural parody’s satirical, mimetic aims. Like People of Walmart, it’s just an ironic viewpoint of an objective reality. The postmodern distortions of ICP (their clown paint, their mythos, their argot, their identities, their Faygo) and the surreal, trashy carnival of the Gathering present an objective reality radically open to a host of ironic semiotic machinations delivered in an earnestness that trumps satire. ICP have already done the work for you. Their world hosts ironic oppositions; their nihilistic anthem “Fuck the World” directly contradicts the sugary magical wonder of “Miracles.” The weird identity-symbiosis they share with their fans is wholly defined by radical otherness and alienation. If you take the time to wade through comment boards on ICP related videos, news, and articles (you shouldn’t do that, btw, dear reader), you’ll find a fierce hatred of Juggalos–a fierce hatred that paradoxically defines and confers identity upon the Juggalo. This is a priori irony. ICP’s aesthetic identity resists mockery, renders mockery moot. A recent internet video, “The Juggalo News,” attempts to satirize Juggalo culture. It’s mildly amusing but ultimately offers no insight. It’s failed satire.

Far better to dispense with pointless parody and enjoy ICP’s works for whatever they are. Re-watch “Miracles.” Around 1:09 or so Violent J raps: “I fed a fish to a pelican at Frisco bay / It tried to eat my cell phone” and Shaggy responds: “He ran away,” kicking a leg back and thrusting an arm forward in a pose evocative of Superman to illustrate the action of his bosom companion’s narrative. This is more precious than gold, Shaggy’s gesture, a miracle in “Miracles,” and I will take it as an earnest gift. ICP has brought me some measure of joy, and yes, tears (of laughter) in my time, so I do thank them.

Christmas in the Heart — Bob Dylan

Music, Reviews

When Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart came out a few months ago, most critics obsessed over the ironic possibilities of a Bob Dylan Christmas album, especially one called Christmas in the Heart, especially one with that cover. Had these critics forgotten that Dylan has always held his cards tight to his chest? That he’s been producing his albums for years now under the kinda-Christmasy pseudonym Jack Frost? That he only does what he really wants to do? For many of these critics, the fact that all proceeds of the album go to Feeding America functioned almost as an excuse for (more) weird behavior from Dylan. All one has to do, of course, is simply listen to the music to find that Christmas in the Heart is a minor masterpiece in the Christmas music genre and a wonderful, strange fit in the Dylan canon.

Dylan tackles fifteen carols and classics in a consistent, old-timey style evocative of Les Paul and Mary Ford and other hybrid Country & Western of the immediate post-WWII era. Dylan’s production is warm and simple, showcasing the talent of his players and backup singers. Opener “Here Comes Santa Claus” sets a lively pace that slows down over the course of the album’s first side, through a lush “Do You Hear What I Hear?” to a version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” that wrangles just the right mix of bitter and sweet. Dylan’s version of “Little Drummer Boy” is downright ethereal. The album picks up again with its only barnburner, a fired-up version of Lawrence Welk’s polka, “Must Be Christmas.” Do yourself a favor and enrich your life by watching the marvelous video (seriously watch it, if for nothing else than for Dylan’s surreal wig):

The energy and strange, chaotic madness of “Must Be Christmas” makes for the lively climax of the album, and the video clearly represents Dylan’s vision of Christmas as carnival. Not that it’s all ritual madness, of course. The commercial/spiritual paradox of Christmas comes out in the end, as the record winds down with the secular melancholy of “The Christmas Song” followed by the stirring hymn “O’ Little Town of Bethlehem.” If there’s any concern that Dylan is somehow not entirely earnest in his Christmas music–or too earnest in his irony, perhaps–one simply has to listen to the spirit in his gravelly, aging voice. Christmas in the Heart may be ironic, but that shouldn’t diminish its pleasures at all: it’s a self-conscious, loving irony, far from sneering, and certainly not a trick on the listener. It’s a gift of music, really (as corny as that sounds), one that asks the reader to laugh along with it, but also to feel genuine sentiment in the beauty here. Highly recommended–especially on 180 gram vinyl (the vinyl addition includes the album on CD and a 7″ single of “Must Be Christmas” and a B-side of Bob reading “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” with backing music by John Fahey).

Road House, Paul Verhoeven, Modern Action Films, and The Ironic Vision of the Viewer

Movies

road house

Twenty years after its release, Rowdy Herring’s neo-western Road House holds up better than ever. The film stars an iconic Patrick Swayze as a philosophical cooler named Dalton hired to clean up a road house bar. In this process, Swayze’s Dalton discovers that the small town is under the thumb of the bullying gangster Brad Wesley (played with zealous malice by Ben Gazzara). Dalton cleans up, kicking ass without bothering to take names, and leaving a not-unsubstantial body count. This short plot review in no way conveys the brilliance of this film, which can’t really be captured in words–Road House must be witnessed. You have to see the rampant brawling, hear the awesome dialog (sample: “Pain don’t hurt), experience the spectacle that is Road House. That said, not everyone can appreciate what’s going on here: it merits a 5.7 out of 10 at IMDB and a 42% at Rotten Tomatoes. In short, the film is divisive. In his original review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote, “Road House exists right on the edge between the “good-bad movie” and the merely bad. I hesitate to recommend it, because so much depends on the ironic vision of the viewer.” A careful reading of Ebert’s review reveals that he really enjoyed the film. “Was it intended as a parody?” he asks. “I have no idea, but I laughed more during this movie than during any of the so-called comedies I saw during the same week.”

Ebert’s question of intentionality is instructive (if not ultimately that important). Any savvy viewer–especially those with a fine-tuned sense of “ironic vision”–will have to ask herself whether director Rowdy Herring and his crew meant to create such a sublime parody, or if the resulting masterpiece is just a happy accident. The simple answer to the question is that it doesn’t really matter, of course, but I still find it a curious issue of aesthetics, especially in light of a new breed of action films that are particularly self-aware. These include Jason Statham’s Crank films (2006 and 2009), movies that ask the viewer to suspend any rudimentary understanding of physics in exchange for ninety-minute doses of adrenaline overdrive. I’ve actually just described most Statham vehicles, but it’s the knowingness of the Crank movies that make them such a joy: part of the joke is that the film recognizes its ludicrousness. The Cranks want to make sure that the audience gets that they get that the audience is getting what the films are getting at. 2007′s Shoot ‘Em Up, starring Clive Owen and Paul Giamatti operates on the same principle. Shoot ‘Em Up is a series of action set pieces so ridiculous that the phrase “over the top” doesn’t even begin to function as a critique (during one of the film’s many, many gun battles, Owen’s character delivers a baby and then cuts the umbilical cord by shooting it). In a sense, films like Shoot ‘Em Up and Crank operate outside of any normal critique, including not just visual cues but also dialog to announce their parodic intent (Giamatti’s villain exclaims that “Violence is one of the most fun things to watch,” at one point). This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to be critical of such films (it’s very, very possible, actually), just that the films incorporate a sort of generational “ironic vision” of their audience as part of the viewing experience.

Indeed, these films count their success on the audience’s ability to “get”–and appreciate–the irony being conveyed. While action films have long used irony and meta-fictional devices as part of their vocabulary, those devices have usually been an invitation to the viewer to deepen his or her fantastical identification with the film. 1993′s Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Action Hero is a consummate example here; in this dreadful film an action hero comes to life at the behest of a young boy who becomes a surrogate for the audience. The meta-troping here isn’t so much ironic; rather, it’s just another reification of hero-spectacle-audience dynamics. Films like Shoot ‘Em Up and Crank, in contrast, ultimately disconnect the heroic-identification most traditional action movies strive for. This isn’t to say that the audience member’s ironic vision prevents him or her from living vicariously for 90 minutes through the hero (or, more accurately, anti-hero)–it’s just that the vicarious, distorted nature of the identification is always on display. Put another way, Shoot ‘Em Up, Crank, and other movies that fit this mold (these might include Tony Scott’s unfairly maligned 2005 film Domino, 2008′s Death Race, 2007′s Smokin’ Aces, and even Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror (although surely that particular film is a separate discussion)) invite their audiences to both revel in and mock the conventions of heroic narrative filmmaking. These films take place entirely within scare quotes; there’s no danger that their irony might be misinterpreted. Only the most callow of viewers will not “get” the intentionality of parodic irony here (contrast Ebert’s unconfused review of Shoot ‘Em Up with his questioning of Road House; there’s not a hint of nervousness that the silliness of the latter might be unintentional). These films wink so often at the viewer that the gesture becomes a distracting nervous tic.

While I have a certain fondness for the parodic, ironic action films I’ve mentioned, I have to admit that their greatest failure is, ironically, their defining characteristic. They announce their parodic content at all times, squashing any of the anxieties about intention that a viewing of Road House engenders, and, in doing so, they lose an unqualifiable, unquantifiable joy. The greatest parodies never announce themselves as such, and thus create a contradictory balance of trust and anxiety from savvy viewers. In my estimation, no one does this better than director Paul Verhoeven, auteur behind Robocop, Starship Troopers, and Showgirls. Verhoeven’s films are doubly generous: on one hand, they function beautifully as straightforward Hollywood fare; on the other hand, with the assistance of a particular ironic vision, they are brilliant satires of not just culture and politics, but also of the very art of filmmaking and the implicit contract between film and audience. In contrast with the studied irony of certain latter day action movies, the films of Verhoeven don’t blink, let alone wink at their audience, making the irony that much more delicious. Road House, without the benefit of a director with the oeuvre of Verhoeven, is certainly one of the most quizzical documents of the late eighties. Is the film self-aware? Swayze’s winning performance gives nothing away, allowing the audience to fully identify with his rampant bad-assery. There is no simple answer to the question the film must prompt to any contemporary viewer, just as it did to Ebert in 1989: “Is this for real?” It’s that anxiety of indulgence, of undecidability, this central ambiguity that makes Road House such a joy to watch. The film does not force you to watch it through any particular ideological lens. Celebrate Road House‘s 20th anniversary by giving it a proper re-viewing; whether you bring your ironic vision is up to you.

Joe The Plumber Plunges Into A Puzzling Paradox

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Yesterday, CNN’s Political Ticker blog published a short piece on Joe “The Plumber” Wurzelbacher (you know, that dick who landed on our Worst People of 2008 list). Wurzelbacher is covering the Israeli attacks on the people of Gaza for a conservative website called Pajamas Media. In the report, Joe waxes philosophical on the nature of war and freedom of the press:

“I think media should be abolished from, you know, reporting,” Wurzelbacher said. “You know, war is hell. And if you’re gonna sit there and say, ‘well, look at this atrocity,’ well you don’t know the whole story behind it half the time, so I think the media should have no business in it.”

So, let’s figure out Joe’s line of reasoning: War is bad. We don’t know “the whole story” behind the situations and circumstance in which war occurs. Therefore, because we don’t know “the whole story,” we should cease from any “you know, reporting.” To simplify it further: We do not know certain things. News reporters, whose job it is is to determine and then report these certain things we do not know, do not know these certain things. Because reporters do not know these certain things (these certain things there job is to determine), they should be stopped from determining the truth of these unknown certain things.

We all owe Joe a debt of gratitude for demonstrating the rhetorical art of paradox so beautifully. A regular Xeno, this guy. Additionally, Joe here graces us with not only a demonstration of paradox, but also gives us a great model of irony–a reporter (okay, an unlicensed plumber pretending to be a reporter) ostensibly reporting a war calling for the abolishment of the reporting of war! Bravo! Now, if Joe could please give us a better demonstration of a prick by proceeding to fuck himself with a hat pin, I believe we would all be thrilled.