Wednesday, December 4, 2013

WHERE I'VE BEEN (part three)

1. OK, this is going to require calling to mind events as long ago as mid-November and, since it’s already December, that indicates I’ve been elsewhere since most of this stuff happened. True. I went back to where I’m from for the T-day holidays, which began for me on the 26th with a ride on Amtrak. It was good to get away, especially when one considers that on Monday, the 25th, the center of downtown New Haven was in heavily armed and patrolled lockdown due to a call that claimed someone was heading to Yale campus to shoot it up. Nothing like martial patrols to send you packing. What did I do for almost a week after that? Not much, except eat more sweets—including apple pie and pumpkin pie—and more turkey than one man should ever consume, drink spiked egg nog, and watch football galore with me younger bros. Some good games I must say: Baltimore over Pittsburgh on T-day itself, Ohio State over Michigan on Saturday—down to the wire! (to say nothing of Auburn running back that field goal against Alabama!)—and both the Eagles (my bro’s team) and the Giants (my team) victorious on Sunday. If you’ve watched either team lately, you know what a frustrating task it is to root either on to victory, much less both. In between—the Broncos over the Chiefs! Somewhere along the way—day before T-day—was a trip to a local cinema to see Thor 2. More on that later, maybe. 

I wish I could say I read stuff, but not really, except a bit more Bleeding Edge on the train and lots of book reviews. Which provoked a certain annoyance at how the book reviews to which I subscribe pretty much review the same books, but that fact led to me reading two reviews of Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath that showed me why I like Bookforum so much. Jim Newell’s take on Gladwell was something of a take-down. Meanwhile, at New York Review of Books, Freeman Dyson (!) didn’t so much review the book as divulge its contents—tepid book reviewing indeed. I also—on Black Friday no less—visited Main Street in Newark which meant shopping at Captain Blue Hen’s where (nostalgia must be sinking in its hooks) I picked up an omnibus of the first 30 issues of The Avengers from Marvel Comics. This covers the transition from drawings by Jack Kirby to drawings by Don Heck as well as taking me back to the era in which I was first learning to read—five, six, seven—and the images of Marvel Comics had a way of impressing themselves on my cranium that was second to nothing at the time. That same day featured a visit to Rainbow Records and new vinyl purchases: the dBs return album (for a different era’s nostalgia) Falling Off the Sky (2012) and the first Ramones LP to set to rights, sorta, the fact that I never owned any of their stuff, and PIL’s album—because, well, y’know. 

2. Before any of that happened, I saw some plays that I reviewed: Almost, Maine, the latest production by The New Haven Theater Company, and two shows at Yale Cabaret: Crave and Derivatives—the last an interesting take on New Haven itself c. “the Great Recession.”  I also saw a trio of plays I didn’t review because they are the work of 2nd year playwrights and 2nd year directors in the Yale School of Drama—or, as my friend Lee nicknamed it, due to the number of couples that have been emerging from it of late, the Yale School of Dating. 

3. On Saturday, 11/9, it was Phillip Howze’s Tiny Boyfriend, directed by Sarah Holdren, which featured great work from Mitchell Winter, who has really come into his own with his performances in the Yale Summer Cabaret, together with Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who has been much in demand this semester, and very memorable work from James Cusati-Moyer as, first, a flippant and flamboyant boss and, then, a girl-child being raised by two dads;  Howze’s play is ambitious and a bit all over the place, stopping off at such timely items as online hookups, office romance, cock-comparing, penis envy, potty training, the Electra complex, and the vagaries of same-sex parenthood, along with knowing winks at racial profiling, stereotyping, and sexualizing. It was vastly entertaining.

4. On Saturday, 11/16, I saw Ryan Campbell’s Dead Ends, directed by Jessica Holt, the second play to have no female roles; Matthew Raich and Dan Reese were incredibly eloquent in alternating monologues rife with the rhythms of real speech and full of incidents—a flood in the home of a man who has lost his job, so that he has to take his wife and daughter to his not very welcoming in-laws; a humiliating day on the job as a Burger King assistant manager for a guy who shares a house with his much more successful brothers—that escalate toward one of those balls-out showdowns that Sam Shepard is famous for; the starkness of this production really stayed with me, even if there were a few things a bit overboard.

5. Then, on Friday, 11/22, I took in Emily Zemba’s I’m Sorry I Brought Up God, directed by Andrej Visky, in which there were two female characters—Gwen, played by Ashton Heyl, and Denise, played by Carly Zien—to one male, David, played by Ato Blankson-Wood. What started out as an awkward date situation became—with the re-entry of Gwen’s former roommate, Denise—an awkward threesome of intimidation and failed communications. The dialogue was full of repetition that meant every conversation was more or less stymied by its own pacing, but to what end? My general feeling was that it was anti hetero-coupling if not entirely comfortable with any alternatives—Gwen and Denise seem more likely to be lovers, though not quite, than either of the male-female possibilities, but at the center of it all was Gwen, a very brittle character played by Heyl as though, no matter what is happening, her mind is somewhere else. It seems a role that asks what is a woman if she doesn’t play the role of “woman”—but it was hard to tell what she might really be concerned with.

6. On Tuesday, 11/12, my favorite poet of our time, John Ashbery, read at the Beinecke.  At 86, Ashbery is getting on, certainly, and was in a wheelchair throughout the reading—he told us not to be too concerned, as he can walk some—but his very labile voice was still comfortingly in evidence. And his grasp of the locutions of our times as amusing and trenchant as ever. Does he still have a lot to say?  Well, not quite as much as he used to, but he still knows how to respond to the everyday patterns of speech in such a way as to render them prescient and nostalgic at once. He read a poem “about” the Ritz Brothers, a more dissolute version of the Marx Brothers that he knew of from his childhood. I had a brief chance to speak with him during the reception as he sat signing books (why the hell didn’t I bring along Flow Chart—to get a signature and any comment he might make about it?) and he seemed quite willing to chat about the movies he didn’t get to see as a kid and attributed his grasp of the idioms of our day to people like his young assistant. Listening to the reading, I found myself contemplating a command of American speech mannerisms that bridges the time of my parents’ childhood to the present day. No other poet makes me feel the existence of time as a part of our very figures of speech. The idea of poetry as “timeless” is both achieved and undercut in his poems and in ways that delight and surprise. 

7. On Friday, 11/15, I took another trip into New York, this time to see a recent documentary by Joe Angio—at the School of Visual Arts--on the Mekons, my favorite band of the 1987-1991 period (yes, I like them even more than I like The Pixies or the bands that were already past their brilliant early bloom at that time—Talking Heads, R.E.M.). The Mekons, who continue to make albums and have had a series of very good releases since 2000, kept up where The Clash left off. Indeed, one of the “lessons” of the film, The Revenge of the Mekons, was that bands who made it—like The Clash, like The Replacements—oftentimes came apart, unable to find, in the world of bloated concerts and over-played tracks, the conviction that united the band when they were broke and unknown. It’s not that the Mekons are “unknown” exactly, but certainly more obscure, perhaps more resolutely Brit (sort of like a latter-day Kinks in that regard) and, as the film made clear, the band began as a lark on the part of art students during the first flush of punk. The fact that they couldn’t play need not dissuade anyone, in those days.

But to keep at it required an influx of inspiration from elsewhere, which came in the form of bluegrass honkytonk, Chicago-style. The band actually learned a thing or two and from The Edge of the World (1986) to Honkytonkin’ (1987) to So Good It Hurts (1988) to The Mekons Rock’n’Roll (1989) they followed a track of ever-improving work. So much so that their chance at greater things came with the latter LP and a contract with A&M Records. Their next LP should’ve been “the one” that made their name. But forces conspired against them, the label dropped them (because the visionaries that signed them got sacked) and their great album The Curse of the Mekons (1991) was only available as an import from some no-name label. Sure, the great Indy Turn was about to begin, but, even so, the Mekons had been at it for over a decade at that point and it must’ve been rather discouraging to see the ship come in and then sail off without them. So it goes. 

The point of it all—and there’s a lot of high spirits in the film, particularly with bits like Jon Langford reminiscing about the night U2 opened for the Mekons!—is that the music of the Mekons is survivors’ music. It’s not the Hit Parade of any era. It’s raunchy, raw, inspired and inspiring. It’s the music that, as Jonathan Franzen (yeah, I know, it almost made me like him) says in the film, belongs to people of an “embattled critical stance,” who are vindicated by the fact that things don’t go their way—the Mekons' music makes misery more bearable. The misery of missed chances, perhaps, but more like the misery that comes with knowing that we’re on a fool’s parade, collectively, and there’s no hope for it. It was great seeing the film with Kajsa because she’s the person I passed their music onto most effectively. She gets it, in other words. And she was along the one time I saw them perform live, in 2000, in DC. The fact that some of the Mekons were present at the screening—Langford, Sally Timms, Steve Goulding—added to the mirth. More than any other punk-rock-rockabilly-altcountry band the Mekons have the feel of old English folk music and songs that face life’s grim realities with a gleam in the eye. 

8. Around 1994, when even the Mekons were starting to lose their edge, and R.E.M. was sort of on a comeback, I first became aware of the band Kajsa and I went to see on Wednesday, 11/20, at Terminal 5 in NYC. Mazzy Star suited us then—newly landed in Connecticut after Princeton—she none too happy with middle school and me none too happy with the job market after grad school. But it wasn’t until 1996 and Among My Swan that we were fully captivated. Though the previous LP, So Tonight That I May See, is the one that got people’s attention and put them on the playlist in the wide world of indie music, the third LP was more diverse, more sophisticated in its guitar arrangements, less overtly a Velvet Underground knock-off. Swan was just the right music for depressed dad and his moody daughter and we took it to heart. So there was no way we’d miss them on their comeback tour—to support Seasons of Your Day, their first LP in 17 years (!). 

Where did the time go? You’d never know more than a few years had passed, listening to their trademark low-key arrangements and lambent vocals. It’s not laid-back or mellow music, it’s the other side of that—it’s music for when you’ve been up for so long you’re pratically in slow motion.  Hangover music. Music for the darkest watches of the night when everyone just wants to ride on some inner path and not interact. Their concert was all in subdued lighting—mostly blue and violet spots. Hope Sandoval only visible because she wore a shiny tunic and a large belt; Dave Roback just a shadowy shape. The rest of the band—four others—never clear enough to say you could see a face. Behind them were retro projections, images that looked like pages from a book of ghosts. They opened with “Look on Down from the Bridge”—the final, bittersweet track from Among My Swan, a song that, when I first heard it, seemed an elegy for my daughter’s childhood. 

9. But don’t think it was all a downer. Earlier that day, Kajsa and I had lunch at the Whitney Museum, saw the Robert Indiana show, which is an impressive array of colorful and bold canvases conveying the American sensibility as icons, the kind of symbols that might appear on logos, currency, trucks and buses. We also saw as much as we could take in of Rituals of Rented Island, a show that brings together artifacts and films from the late seventies and early eighties in SoHo and environs, when things were very Mekony all over. It was like being in a time capsule, taking me back to a time of youthful acceptance of all that is the case. At the time, I would’ve been still in the belief that art meant a major painter—and that’s precisely what the artists in this show are avoiding. It’s the kind of art made by artists who make their living in day-jobs that entail the use of audio video equipment and cheap printing—and those are the means to the mediums they work with, not exactly conquering them, but who cares?  There’s something fresh and lo-fi about the whole show—check out things like the room of John Zorn’s Theatre of Musical Objects, or the props and stills from Jack Smith’s marathon adaptation—with stuffed puppets—of Ibsen’s Ghosts, or Mike Kelly’s absurdist TV skits, including Baby Ikki crawling into traffic and back on a NY street. I need to go back to the exhibit to see more.

Our day also featured a great meal at Hanci, a Turkish restaurant near the concert venue, picked out by Jason and made all the warmer and more cordial by the fact that Christmas seemed to be in the air: Kajsa and I saw the “Holidays on Ice” displays at Bergdof-Goodman en route from Whitney to Hanci, and I was stunned to see none other than Malcolm McDowell surge across my path, mere inches in front of me. It was the sort of the day that made me feel a Lucky Man indeed. 

10. On the Friday of the Mekons movie, I had some time to kill and picked up a couple books from the Strand tables at the bottom of Central Park.  One was Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, published in 1967 and made into a movie, directed by Roman Polanski, in 1968. I read it in the train on the way home that day and finished it off on Sunday, 11/17. I don’t know why reading the book attracted me so much except that it was a nice British paper edition and the prose is so easy to consume and so settled in its time.  It’s interesting to see how non-WASP people are handled in the book—including Italians and Negroes—particularly as the book is almost a parody of Catholic fears at the time.  Rosemary, while drugged and about to be raped by Satan, dreams of John and Jackie Kennedy and the Pope!  It’s that kind of world. The film follows the book so well, it’s easy to read it with images from the film playing in one’s mind’s eye. Though when I watched the film later that week it made me realize that the sardonic tone comes from the film-makers more than the source.  Levin intends the book to be a chiller and, in its steady focalization through Rosemary, it is. There’s a grasp of how hysteria feels that, I suspect, is what made the book popular with female readers—that and the fact that motherhood takes precedence. The message: abortion is wrong and a mother will love her child—even if the father is Lucifer himself.

11. On Sunday, 11/17, I learned that Doris Lessing had died. I didn’t compose a commemorative post for her because I don’t feel at all familiar enough with her work, though I have read three of her novels.  One of them I re-read that day: The Fifth Child (1988). The book followed Levin’s novel in an interesting way as it’s about a couple who is happily reproducing—though not exactly solvent—until they produce their fifth child. A painful pregnancy results in a child no one can love—he’s oddly grotesque without Lessing going into detail about it. It’s not so much his appearance as the effect he has on others. He seems not to be human, and yet he is. The boy, Ben, tests the sympathies of his family and of any caregivers he comes in contact with. His only joy is in hanging out with a motorcycle-riding older boy who takes him under his wing for a time (hired by Ben’s parents to do so, to keep him away from the family). Lessing seems to be sporting with different possibilities—is Ben a figure for the juvenile delinquent or is he rather proof that even JDs can do a good turn?  Is Ben a figure for the darkest fears about the unwanted pregnancy, the child society disclaims, the total misfit that can find no acceptance? Ben’s own mother, Harriet, sees him as freakish and somewhat terrifying, but the bureaucratic types that run child services act as if he’s simply a somewhat dysfunctional child, thus putting Harriet under the shadow of “bad mother.”  The book doesn’t resolve well, pulling back from the Gothic aspects it flirts with while not developed enough to be a statement about parenting or the socialization of children. And yet something about the book stays with you: a fear of the outcast and of being the outcast are strong enough in most of us to see how tenuous are our bonds with those who accept us, and how easy it is, perhaps, to see monsters in others.

It was an interesting “double feature,” in a way, entirely fortuitous. Something about mothers, I guess.


Andrew Shields said...

The unsettling quality of "The Fifth Child" derives from its fundamental question: how should a society respond to those who cannot be socialized?

That category includes those who are physically incapable of being socialized (the horribly deformed children Harriet sees at the "institution" where they send Ben for a time), those who are psychologically incapable of being socialized (schizophrenics, say, though there are no representatives of them in the book), those who in one way or another simply refuse to be socialized (such as the JDs in the book), and those who are rejected by family or society (Ben as the figure of this category).

Lessing herself dramatically sidestepped the issue in her sequel, "Ben in the World," in which Ben's difference really does end up being "classified" in terms of his being a "throwback"; Harriet's genetic speculations end up getting authorial support. And everything unsettling about "The Fifth Child" is settled by classifying Ben's difference in one of the very ways that FC actually dismantled.

Donald Brown said...

That's interesting, about the sequel. When I say the book doesn't resolve well, I don't mean I want that kind of "explanation." What I want, I think, is something more uncanny.

Your comments about the difficulties of socialization are most likely the way the book is intended or, at least, the way it can most profitably be read--my caveat is that such an approach "socializes" what is unsocializable about the novel, taking it as a treatment of, or allegory of, real situations (the examples you give), but surely the power of the novel resides in its ability, like Frankenstein, to tap into darker fantasies about "not belonging" (mark of Cain, etc.), rather than a simple concatenation of the "problem children" we have among us, in society. Leastways, that's what I found myself wanting from Lessing. Maybe the "throwback" idea was her way of getting to that, still within a "logical explanation" (as they used to say in those movies were a skeptic looks askance at the supernatural). All of which is a way of saying that I like how Fifth Child balances on a knife-edge at times, not letting us decide what kind of genre we're in. That takes some doing.