Roman Muradov’s newest graphic novella, Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art (Uncivilized Books, 2016), is the brief, shadowy, surreal tale of an illustrator who’s robbed of his artwork by a rival.
There’s more of course.
In a sense though, the plot is best summarized in the first line of Jacob Bladders:
Maybe that’s too oblique for a summary (or not really a summary at all, if we’re being honest).
But it’s a fucking excellent opening line, right?
Like I said, “There’s more” and if the more—the plot—doesn’t necessarily cohere for you on a first or second reading, don’t worry. You do have worth, reader, and Muradov’s book believes that you’re equipped to tangle with some murky noir and smudgy edges. (It also trusts your sense of irony).
The opening line is part of a bold, newspaperish-looking introduction that pairs with a map. This map offers a concretish anchor to the seemingly-abstractish events of Jacob Bladders.
The map isn’t just a plot anchor though, but also a symbolic anchor, visually echoing William Blake’s Jacob’s Ladder (1805). Blake’s illustration of the story from Genesis 28:10-19 is directly referenced in the “Notes” that append the text of Jacob Bladders. There’s also a (meta)fictional “About the Author” section after the end notes (“Muradov died in October of 1949”), as well as twin character webs printed on the endpapers.
Along with the intro and map, these sections offer a set of metatextual reading rules for Jacob Bladders. The map helps anchor the murky timeline; the character webs help anchor the relationships between Muradov’s figures (lots of doppelgänger here, folks); the end notes help anchor Muradov’s satire.
These framing anchors are ironic though—when Muradov tips his hand, we sense that the reveal is actually another distraction, another displacement, another metaphor. (Sample end note: “METAPHOR: A now defunct rhetorical device relying on substitution of a real-life entity with any animal”).
It’s tempting to read perhaps too much into Jacob Bladder’s metatextual self-reflexivity. Here is writing about writing, art about art: an illustrated story about illustrating stories. And of course it’s impossible not to ferret out pseudoautobiographical morsels from the novella. Roman Muradov is, after all, a working illustrator, beholden to publishers, editors, art-directors, and deadlines. (Again from the end notes: “DEADLINE: A fictional date given to an illustrator to encourage timely delivery of the assignment. Usually set 1-2 days before the real (also known as ‘hard’) deadline”). If you’ve read The New Yorker or The New York Times lately, you’ve likely seen Muradov’s illustrations.
So what to make of the section of Jacob Bladders above? Here, a nefarious publisher commands a hapless illustrator to illustrate a “career ladders” story without using an illustration of a career ladder (From the end notes: “CAREER LADDER: An illustration of a steep ladder, scaled by an accountant in pursuit of a promotion or a raise. The Society of Illustrators currently houses America’s largest collection of career ladders, including works by M.C. Escher, Balthus, and Marcel Duchamp”).
Draw a fucking metaphor indeed. (I love how the illustrator turns into a Cubist cricket here).
Again, it’s hard not to find semi-autobiographical elements in Jacob Bladders’s publishing satire. Muradov couches these elements in surreal transpositions. The first two panels of the story announce the setting: New York / 1947—but just a few panels later, the novella pulls this move:
Here’s our illustrator-hero Jacob Bladders asking his secretary (secretary!) for “any tweets”; he seems disappointed to have gotten “just a retweet.” In Muradov’s transposition, Twitter becomes “Tweeter,” a “city-wide messaging system, established in 1867” and favored by writers like E.B. White and Dorothy Parker.
I do. Which makes it, again, kinda hard for me not to root out those autobiographical touches. (He sometimes tweets on the illustration biz, y’see).
But I’m dwelling too much on these biographical elements I fear, simply because, it’s much, much harder to write compellingly about the art of it all, of how Muradov communicates his metatextual pseudoautobiographical story. (Did I get enough postmoderny adjectives in there? Did I mention that I think this novella exemplary of post-postmodernism? No? These descriptions don’t matter. Look, the book is fucking good).
Muradov’s art is better appreciated by, like, looking at it instead of trying to describe it (this is an obvious thing to write). Look at this spread (click on it for biggeration):
The contours, the edges, the borders. The blacks, the whites, the notes in between. This eight-panel sequence gives us insides and outsides, borders and content, expression and impression. Watching, paranoia, a framed consciousness.
And yet our reading rules—again, from the end notes: “SPOTILLO: Spot illustration. Most commonly a borderless ink drawing set against white background”; followed by “CONSTRAINT: An arbitrary restriction imposed on a work of art in order to give it an illusion of depth”.
Arbitrary? Maybe. No. Who cares? Look at the command of form and content here, the mix and contrast and contradistinctions of styles: Cubism, expressionism, impressionism, abstraction: Klee, Miro, Balthus, Schjerfbeck: Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang. Etc. (Chiaroscuro is a word I should use somewhere in this review).
But also cartooning, also comix here—Muradov’s jutting anarchic tangles, often recoiling from the panel proper, recall George Herriman’s seminal anarcho-strip Krazy Kat. (Whether or not Muradov intends such allusions is not the point at all. Rather, what we see here is a continuity of the form’s best energies). Like Herriman’s strip, Muradov’s tale moves under the power of its own dream logic (more of a glide here than Herriman’s manic skipping).
That dream logic follows the lead (lede?!) of that famous Romantic printmaker and illustrator William Blake, whose name is the last “spoken” word of the narrative (although not the last line in this illustrated text). Blake is the illustrator of visions and dreams—visions of Jacob’s Ladder, Jacob Bladders. Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art culminates in the Romantic/ironic apotheosis of its hero. The final panels are simultaneously bleak and rich, sad and funny, expressive and impressive. Muradov ironizes the creative process, but he also points to it as an imaginative renewal. “Imagination is the real,” William Blake advised us, and Muradov, whether he’d admit it or not, makes imagination real here. Highly recommended.
In her cameo in the Coen brothers’ newest film, Hail, Caesar!, Frances McDormand gets her scarf stuck in her editing machine. It nearly chokes her (or, I should write, her character, film editor C.C. Calhoun) before Josh Brolin’s studio head/fixer Eddie Mannix hits “Reverse,” saving her life.
Like so many of the scenes in Hail, Caesar!, the editing scene is funny, well-acted, impeccably filmed, and ultimately superfluous. It’s a throwaway, a wonderful scrap, one of many scraps that the Coens seem to toss to their audience, goading, Hey, you put all of this together.
The McDormand scene is ultimately just another way for the Coens to highlight the artificiality of their medium. Hail, Caesar! is of course a film about film, a film that aims to satirize how the metaphorical sausage is made. As such, Hail, Caesar! is self-satirizing, meta-metaphorical. It’s the Coens pointing out the flawed seams or imperfect varnish before the product is even finished. McDormand’s editor getting caught in the machine is some kind of clumsy synecdoche then.
These metatextual gestures only helped to heighten my own awareness of Hail, Caesar’s! flawed seams. This is a film brimming with wonderful, energetic set pieces—synchronized swimming with Scarlett Johannsson! — Channing Tatum tap-dancing on a bar! — Alden Ehrenreich (not so famous, yet) stunting on horses!—that add up to almost nothing. The end result would almost be fascinating were it not so dull.
Alden Ehrenreich’s singing cowboy Hobie Doyle is not dull, and every time he’s on the screen Hail, Caesar! threatens to become interesting. “Called up” to be in more, eh, prestigious fare than the cowboy pictures he’s been doing so well in, young Hobie’s plot has the slightest (just the slightest) tinge of Mulholland Drive — “This is the girl.” (Or, eh, “This is the boy. The cowboy”).
Hail, Caesar! can’t commit fully to Hobie for its hero, alas. Instead the film, after an initial bout of goodwill-building (including an especially funny early scene in which religious leaders are invited to critique Hail, Caesar!, the film-within-a-film here)—instead the film (the Coens’ Hail, Casear!, that is) plods along a few not-quite-intersecting tracks, introducing the occasional grotesque for a cameo that serves no real plot point.
Look, I get it. Having a character’s fate expositioned away via clumsy dialogue at the end of the film is like, meta, right? It’s the Coens way of grinning at the corny clumsy past of their chosen medium, hey? It’s like, purposefully, self-reflexively bad, a piss-take on an audience’s willed suspension of disbelief, hm?
Suspension of disbelief—faith. Does Hail, Caser! aim to take on faith? It certainly dabbles, exploring (“exploring” is not the right verb—but I already used “dabbles”) political faith, economic faith, religious faith. Faith in the aesthetic power of film, which again and again Hail, Caesar! attempts to embody via kinetic spectacle before puncturing said aesthetic transcendence with ironc winking (or technical failure).
The signal moment in the film’s ironic treatment of faith is delivered in its penultimate scene. George Clooney’s character Baird Whitlock’s character (a Roman soldier whose name I can’t recall, but, hey, note the layering, man) deilvers a monologue. The speech is meant to be this kinda sorta Road-to-Damascus epiphanic transcendence deaile, and the aesthetic power of Clooney’s Whitlock’s delivery is confirmed internally on set by the various film people (grips and script folk, etc.) offering up admiring Brady nods—only Whitlock stumbles over the last word of the speech—which last word, of course, was faith. Charlie Kaufman did the same thing much better in the funeral monologue near the end of his film Synecdoche, New York. In Hail, Caesar!, the moment feels like a glib trick played on the audience
It’s entirely likely that there’s a much finer design to Hail, Caesar! than I’ve credited the Coens here. Maybe on a second viewing, I won’t be bogged down so hard looking for a thread to follow. (Shagginess is hardly a sin though, yes Lebowski?). And I’ve failed to point out some of the fine performances here—Josh Brolin anchors the film admirably (although half the time he was on the screen, I kept hoping the film would turn into Inherent Vice). Hail, Caesar! has plenty of great moments, and those moments, like I said, might cohere into something sharper upon a second screening. But right now there’s nothing that compels me toward a second screening any time soon.
It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. It’s maybe the vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz, which means world-weariness or hip ennui. Maybe it’s the fact that most of the arts here are produced by world-weary and sophisticated older people and then consumed by younger people who not only consume art but study it for clues on how to be cool, hip — and keep in mind that, for kids and younger people, to be hip and cool is the same as to be admired and accepted and included and so Unalone. Forget so-called peer-pressure. It’s more like peer-hunger. No? We enter a spiritual puberty where we snap to the fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded encagement in the self. Once we’ve hit this age, we will now give or take anything, wear any mask, to fit, be part-of, not be Alone, we young. The U.S. arts are our guide to inclusion. A how-to. We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears. And then it’s stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naïveté. Sentiment equals naïveté on this continent (at least since the Reconfiguration). One of the things sophisticated viewers have always liked about J. O. Incandenza’s The American Century as Seen Through a Brick is its unsubtle thesis that naïveté is the last true terrible sin in the theology of millennial America. And since sin is the sort of thing that can be talked about only figuratively, it’s natural that Himself’s dark little cartridge was mostly about a myth, viz. that queerly persistent U.S. myth that cynicism and naïveté are mutually exclusive. Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool. One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia.
—From David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest.
The thing is it has to be the truth to really go over, here. It can’t be a calculated crowd-pleaser, and it has to be the truth unslanted, unfortified. And maximally unironic. An ironist in a Boston AA meeting is a witch in church. Irony-free zone. Same with sly disingenuous manipulative pseudo-sincerity. Sincerity with an ulterior motive is something these tough ravaged people know and fear, all of them trained to remember the coyly sincere, ironic, self-presenting fortifications they’d had to construct in order to carry on Out There, under the ceaseless neon bottle.
From David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest
William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion, newish from University of Delaware Press, collects academic essays and memoir-vignettes by a range of critics and authors to make the case that Vollmann is, as the blurb claims, the “most ambitious, productive, and important living author in the US.” I interviewed the book’s editors, Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, over a series of emails in a two-part interview. You can read the first part here. A few days after the first part of the interview posted, Lukes and Coffman hosted a book launch party in NYC for WTV: ACC; the pics in this interview are from that event (check out the Facebook page for more, including Jonathan Franzen reading from his piece on Vollmann).
Biblioklept: Let’s talk about the formal elements of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion. The collection seems to balance essays of a more academic flavor with memoir-vignettes, personal accounts, and riffs.
Christopher K. Coffman: We decided early on to intersperse among the academic essays pieces by non-scholars, or by scholars writing in a non-scholarly mode. The goal here was at least two-fold. We wanted to offer something a bit more accessible to WTV readers who were not in academia (although I think the average WTV fan can follow scholarly arguments as well as many of us in academia can). Also, we realized that some people with a privileged view on WTV’s work–such as those of WTV’s book designers who contributed (Bolte and Speaker Austin)–could add something of interest and great value to audiences in and out of academia, and we wanted to make space for that. I would have to look back through the e-mail log to be sure, but I think Daniel first came up with the idea of soliciting shorter pieces from non-scholars, and that I then conceived the structural component. I am a huge fan of Hemingway’s In Our Time, and the contrapuntal play between the stories and the very short inter-chapters in that book served for me as a paradigm of what Daniel and I have tried to do in this regard. Of course, as soon as we brought up the example of Hemingway, we recalled that WTV does something similar in Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs, so he beat us to the punch even there. At any rate, my hope is that our readers find in the short chapterlets material that serves as a response to or as an extension of ideas presented in the more properly scholarly readings that surround those shorter pieces.
The second question of arrangement was the placement of essays and interchapters, and we here grouped according to subject matter as well as we could, without merely replicating what McCaffery and Hemmingson had done for Expelled from Eden. We also, obviously, made space for both Larry and Michael as the authors of the Preface and Afterword. Our intention there, insofar as I can speak for both of us, is to make it clear that we are trying to situate our contribution to scholarship on WTV in relation to the work that Larry and Michael have already done. Finally, I wrote the Introduction not only because one of us had to, but also because Daniel was spoken for in the sense that he already had material that formed the basis for the really great chapter that he contributed. Also, I found the chance to frame the book’s material via an introduction that dealt with WTV’s place in the landscape of post-1945 American fiction appealing. That said, while the introduction bears my byline, my ongoing conversation with Daniel during the past few years shaped my thinking about WTV as much as any original ideas of my own, so he deserves a lot of credit for the introduction as well.
Daniel Lukes: I’ve been going back over the timeline to see if Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou’s edited volume The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, which also features some shorter pieces, was an influence on that, but it looks like we took our approach independently. Though I will say their book did serve as a model in some ways of what ours could be. Dealing with the “non-scholarly” pieces has been for me one of the most exciting parts of putting this book together (the distinction between “scholarlies” and “non-scholarlies” itself being one of the various amusing frameworks that Chris and I have been carrying around throughout the process). From the beginning I thought it would be very helpful to have some of Vollmann’s literary peers chime in: you just don’t hear too much from them about him. So we reached out to writers we thought might be Vollmann readers: some just weren’t (I’d love to know if Cormac McCarthy reads Vollmann: the letter I mailed to a presumed representative of his returned unopened). Some were Vollmann fans/friends, but couldn’t make it for another reason; when Jonathan Franzen came through and expressed his enthusiasm for the project and willingness to contribute a piece, I felt some relief. And James Franco was a pleasure to work with. That said I think the primary value of the non-scholarlies is in the insights they offer into Vollmann’s world and writing practices, from those who have worked closely with him, in particular Carla Bolte, Mary Austin Speaker, and Mariya Gusev’s excellent and vivid pieces. Continue reading “An Interview with Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, Editors of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion (Part 2)”
William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion, new from University of Delaware Press, collects academic essays and memoir-vignettes by a range of critics and authors to make the case that Vollmann is, as the blurb claims, the “most ambitious, productive, and important living author in the US.” I interviewed the book’s editors, Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, over a series of emails.
If you live in NYC (or feel like traveling), you can check out the book launch for William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion this weekend, hosted by Coffman and Lukes (4:30pm at the 11th Street Bar).
This is the first part of a two-part interview.
Biblioklept: How did William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion come about?
Daniel Lukes: The starting point would be the MLA panel I put together in January 2011, called “William T. Vollmann: Methodologies and Morals.” Chris’s was the first abstract I received and I remember being impressed with its confidence of vision. Michael Hemmingson also gave a paper, and Larry McCaffery was kind enough to act as respondent. Joshua Jensen was also a panelist. I kept in touch with Chris and we very soon decided that there was a hole in the market, so to speak, so we put out a call for papers and took it from there.
One of my favorite things about putting together this book has been connecting with – and being exposed to – such a range of perspectives on Vollmann: people seem to come at him from – and find in his works – so many different angles. It’s bewildering and thrilling to talk about the same author with someone and not quite believe you are doing so. And I think this started for me, in a way, at least as far as this book is concerned, with reading Chris’ MLA abstract.
Biblioklept: I first heard about Vollmann in connection to David Foster Wallace (Wallace namechecks him in his essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”). A friend “loaned” me his copy of The Ice-Shirt and I never gave it back. When was the first time you read Vollmann?
Christopher K. Coffman: I first encountered William T. Vollmann’s work about ten years ago. At the time, I had just finished grad school, and as my dissertation work had been focused on aspects of modern and contemporary poetry, I had let my attention to contemporary prose slip a bit. When I realized this had happened, I starting reading a lot of recent fiction. Of course David Foster Wallace’s books were part of this effort, and I, like so many others, really developed a love for Infinite Jest and some of the stories in Girl with Curious Hair. My memory’s a bit fuzzy on the timeline, but my best guess, given what I know I was reading and thinking about at the time, is that in my reading around DFW I discovered the Summer 1993 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction with which Larry McCaffery had been involved, and that the interview with DFW in that issue–along with the WTV materials themselves–woke me up to WTV and his work. I can’t say enough about how important Larry’s championing of WTV has been, and continues to be. Of course, one could say that about his support for so many of the interesting things that have happened in fiction during the past three or four decades. His interviews, his editorial work, the part he played with the Fiction Collective …. the list of the ways that he identifies and promotes some of the best work out there could go on for a while, and no one else that I know of has done it as well as Larry has for as long as he has. Anyway, as I was pretty much broke at the time, my reading choices were governed in large part by what I could find at libraries or local used bookstores, and The Ice-Shirt was the first volume I came across in one of these venues. I was already a huge fan of The Sot-Weed Factor and Mason & Dixon, and the entire Seven Dreams project very much struck me as a next step forward along the trajectory those books described. As a consequence, I immediately started tracking down and reading not only the rest of the Dreams, but also everything else I could find by WTV.
What about The Ice-Shirt that really won me over, aside from my impression that this was another brilliant reinterpretation of the historical novel, is that WTV was clearly bringing together and pushing to their limits some of my favorite characteristics of post-1945 American fiction (structural hijinks of a sort familiar from works by figures like Barth and Barthelme, a fearlessness in terms of subject matter and the occasional emergence of a vatic tone that reminded me of Burroughs, an autofictional element of the sort you see in Hunter S. Thompson). Furthermore, as a literary critic, I was really intrigued by two additional aspects of the text: the degree to which The Ice-Shirt foregrounds the many ways that it is itself an extended interpretation of earlier texts (the sagas on which he draws for many of the novel’s characters and much of its action), and the inclusion of extensive paratexts–the notes, glossaries, timelines, and so forth. In short, this seemed like a book that united my favorite characteristics of contemporary literary fiction with a dedication to the sort of work that I, as a scholar, spend a lot of my time doing. How could I resist? It took my readings of a few more of WTV’s books for me to be able to recognize what I would argue are his other most significant characteristics: his global scope and his deep moral vision.
As for your also having begun reading WTV with The Ice-Shirt: It’s an interesting coincidence to me that we both started with that book. I have always assumed that most people start into WTV via either the prostitute writings (which have a sort of underground cachet by virtue of subject matter) or Europe Central (which is of course the book that got the most mainstream attention), but here we both are with The Ice-Shirt. WTV has indicated he sees it as under-realized in certain ways, but I am still quite fond of it, even in comparison to some of the later books. Continue reading “An Interview with Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, Editors of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion (Part I)”
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.
What moved you to write JR?
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.