Tuesday, June 02, 2009
“What day are you on?”
He’ll eventually finish, but the edifice that rises over his foundation will be a cheap and shoddy split-level trophy house impersonator. Whereas the competition soars a hundred two stories high and has been striking awe into the hearts of tourists, hard-nosed New Yorkers and fictional great apes alike, since 1931.What interests me about this lop-sided comparison today is the similarity of their actual foundations – in all but scale.
Plot works the same way. The basic supports and footings seem to be universal: chains of causality with gradually rising stakes, and ever more serious consequences. From there you can build a cheesy little chicken house like The DaVinci Code, or a cathedral like 1984.
I re-read Orwell’s masterpiece this week, as I try to do every year when the first “bright cold” days of April approach. This time I was studying it mainly for its plotting and only incidentally for the architecture of thought, feeling and political philosophy that Orwell conjured from that sandy pit of Aristotelian rebar.
The plot of 1984 is a tight little death machine. Winston Smith believes he has scraped a tiny little pocket of privacy for himself in the barbed wire and concrete totalitarian society of Oceania. The writing desk inn his tiny flat fits into an alcove originally intended for bookshelves. Sitting there he is invisible to the telescreen, which monitors everyth9ing he does, within its visual range. How often or by what system any given telescreen is monitored there’s no way to know. But he has to assume that everyone is being watched all the time.
Winston writes in a journal with creamy cotton fiber pages purchased illegally in the Proletarian section of Airstrip One (formerly London). He writes with an antique fountain pen, spurning the scratchy ‘ink pencils’ in common use. The diary is secret, or so he thinks. In fact, every move he makes has been scrutinized intensely for years.
The same is true of his love affair with Julia, his co-worker at the Ministry of Truth. She has been conducting successful clandestine romances for a decade and knows every trick and subterfuge. It’s only when she gets involved with Winston that her fate is sealed. From the moment she passes him a note with the words “I love you” scribbled on it, through theuir carefully worked-out assignations and the rental of a little love nest above the antique store where Winston purchased his diary, to their contact with the rebel organization known only as The Brotherhood – and their pledge to do litearally anything for the cause of insurrection – members of the Inner Party are toying with them, building a case against them and orchestrating their ruin. O’Brien, the Inner Party member who initiates them into this diabolical sham, is part of the conspiracy, as is Mr. Charrington, the kindly store owner who rents them the apartment. Everything Winston says and does further incriminates him and undercuts his efforts to take the moral high ground during his interrogation in the Ministry of Love. So he’s ‘better’ than the Party he despises? O’Brien has him on tape, pledging to throw acid in a child’s face to help the cause.
Every scene in the book pushes Winston closer to the torture chambers of the Ministry of Love, those vast “ramifications” below street level, and eventually to his ultimate self-treason in Room 101. Every “free” action adds another brick to his prison.
In a sense 1984 is a genre novel, and there have been other genre novels that chart this kind of merciless downward spiral: Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, John LeCarre’s The Spy ho Came in From the Cold all ring down an inevitable doom on their hapless characters. But nothing in any of these novels comes close to the more impact and majestic tragedy of 1984. And the plot of this magnum opus, the trail of clues that lead Winston Smith ever deeper into the scrutiny and control of forces he cannot understand, the escalation of suspense as love makes him reckless and the Thought Police close in? Well it holds everything else together, supports all the sky-scraping levels of thought and feeling. It’s startling, in a way – this mundane blueprint hardly seems connected to the lavish atriums and soaring roof gardens of the finished building.
But it was the plot that pulled me through the book the first time I read it – that and the cheesy Pocket Books cover showing a slutty Julia with her Junior Anti-Sex League scarf wrapped around her waist and the spooky white pyramid of the Ministry of Truth looming in the background. I was in the eighth grade. I actually thought Winston might win, somehow, back then. It seemed like a reasonable assumption: the good guys won in all the other stories I read. The Fantastic Four won, the Hardy Boys won, James Bond won. Even Lad, A Dog managed to save the day by the last page. So I was primed for a rouser I fell for every trick, as clueless and obsessed as Winston himself. I believed O’Brien was an ally. I loved the ‘curiously civilized’ way he resettled his spectacles on his nose. I barely noticed the sublime descriptions ( Winston was “gelatinous" with fatigue? Ordinary chocolate tasted like “The smoke from a rubbish fire”? Wow), or the clever details (Like the tobacco falling out of Victory Cigarettes when you hold them vertical); I skipped reading Goldstein’s The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism entirely.
I just wanted to find out what happened next.
When I got to the end, I was devastated (Just as my mom had warned me I would be); and I immediately started reading it again. It’s easy to forget that childish fury of curiosity while poring over the Newspeak Appendix or studying Orwell’s tough, working class no-nonsense prose. But the man who changed his name from Eric Blair was a story-teller first and foremost. That he managed to engineer so much political acumen, so much prescience, such an Empire State Building of heart and heartbreak over the humble foundation of his plot -- that’s his true achievement.
His 450 days were well- spent.
When I try to study precisely how he did it, I feel like a sleight-of-hand trickster, poring over Videos of the The Great & Mysterious Blair for some professional tips. But after a while I start to develop the awestruck and demoralizing suspicion that there’s nothing there for a work-a-day con-man like me to learn.
Because Orwell’s magic is real.
Now history seems to be repeating itself with Rihanna and Chris Brown, and all the 911 calls and stormy break-ups in the world won’t affect the most likely outcome. It’s tragic and it’s infuriating and it makes me think back to a underheated Katate dojo in Greenwich Village in the early 70s. My friend was studying with the great Tae Kwan Do sensei Duk Song Son and occasionally his beautiful daughter, herself a high ranking black belt, would teach a class. In kumite, or free fighting sessions, she regularly schooled my friend in the fine points of Korean karate technique. Put more crudely, she kicked his ass.
And so, much as die-hard NRA members love to fantasize what might have happened at Columbine if one of those nerdy biology teachers had been packing some heat, I can’t help thinking about Chris Brown trying his psychotic bully-boy routine on someone beside Rihanna -- his shy and self-effacing Korean girlfriend, say. It would be a kind of pure justice that the institutional justice system could nevertprovide.
Because the ideal, Platonic form of justice, is this:
The world you create with your actions, the terms and ground rules of life which your behavior defines -- APPLY TO YOU.
I suppose it’s like a street-fighting Golden Rule: others will do unto you as you do unto them. You punch your girlfriend and instead of the satisfying crack of fist on cheek, the rich spatter of blood, your punch is blocked, your wrist is broken and your jaw is shattered, all in about one tenth of a second. You were looming over your helpless female victim – how delicious! But now you’re on the ground, with your cheek rasping into the asphalt, the girl – I guess this was the wrong girl to beat up, Chris -- has your other wrist in one hand, and she’s straightening your elbow with the other. And perhaps she has the presence of mind to say something g like this:
“I’m going to break your arm in a few seconds. It’s going to hurt. I want you to remember that pain the next time you decide to attack someone weaker than you are. Will you do that for me, Chris?”
A whimpered, groveling “Yes, yes …” and then the satisfying snap of separating cartilage.
That beats anything you’d ever hear in a court-room, where even an eventual guilty verdict gives nothing but empty closure and everyone knows the punishment doesn't matter because it came too late.
But it does serve one noble if demoralizing purpose: it gives us a sense of the huge intricate density and detail, the untouchable richness and complexity of another person’s life. It does this so elegantly … a few photographs (O my god, they have a kid??, Crap, do I look that old? How long have they lived in that huge house?), a few wall postings that refer to family trips and graduations, circles of friends over-lapping with other circles of friends like the Olympic logo, and you get the sense of it – like the pulsing halo of light above the hills that promises the still-invisible Las Vegas as you drive through the desert night.
So you sit back and think – did I really believe I could fit myself somehow into that humming sprawl? And could they fit into my own? A few novelty e-mails, check the box and move on: you’re conscious but not connected. It turns out that information is inert -- simple awareness (they’re still alive, they remember prom night, they got fat, they published that stupid book they could never finish) doesn’t generate much energy. They drop away again, and the search for new prodigal pals goes on.
A more accurate image might be that you start off thinking –“This will be a fun ride on the tourist trolley of someone else’s life – a trip through Fantasyland on the Disneyworld train, licking a five dollar ice-cream cone and catching up."
But people’s lives are bullet trains not trolleys, and if you happen to place yourself on an adjacent track all you see is a glint in the distance, then a roar of passing metal, a blur of windows, a buffeting smear of velocity. Then it’s gone. There’s no way off your train, and no way into theirs. And most of all, no way around the dismal paradox at the heart of the metaphor: despite the apparent fact that you are hurtling off in opposite directions, you’re heading for the same terminal, faster every day.
Beter to glance at an old yearbook occasionally.
And leave it at that.
"Every time that man oppens his mouth the stock market drops a hundred points," the duffer grumbled.
I don't argue politics with this gent -- he gets his news from Sean Hannity -- but it did occur to me to mention that Obama isn't responsible for the failing banks, the plunging stock markets, or the disintegratuing global economy.
He was elected to bring us the bad news and he's doing precisely that.Why he wanted the job will always be a mystery. But he seems to think he can help. I certainly hope he's right.
"How could this have happened?" the old man moaned quietly, reaching across to turn off the radio, with its endless stream of bad news and dire predictions. I could have told him that, too: a bunch of foolish, greedy monkeys with business degrees and houses in the Hamptons were given permission to loot this country into bankruptcy by an administration that systematically dismantled every rule, law, regulation and impediment that might have stopped them. Bush was elected to make his proprietors richer and it worked. That's the tragic irony of his "Mission Accomplished" banner. The most corrupt, amoral mission in American history; but neatly accomplished, and well done. No they don't need the money, but after the seventh zero money turns into power ... unless the srtructure your power is built on gets destroyed in the process.Then it's time to go back to Crawford, cut brush and watch the end of days on the flat screen TV, and all hail the King of the Termites.
But the old man's question stays with me: how did this happen? What was the pivot point that turned us down this catastrophic path? Ultimately, I have to blame Bill Clinton and his dalliances; and the carelessness with which he carried them out. Because if hadn't been impeached then Bush wouldn't have had that"Bring morality back to the White House" line to run on, and Gore would have had the full force of a successful adminstration surging behind him and despite the best efforts of a crooked political machine, he would have won the 2000 election. You can't steal an election unless it's close -- that's why we all knew Obama needed a landslide. Gore didn't actually lose, we know that now, after all the votes were finally counted ... but it wouldn't have taken much to seal a truly decisive victory. If he hadn't been tainted by the ignominy of a philandering president, sluiced with 'slick Willy' slime, he would have been our 42nd President. And stem cell research would have continued, and the war in Iraq would never have happened, the quarter of a million dead Iraqis would still be alive, along with thousands of American soldiers; we would still have a viable military and a functioning economy. The smug, strutting bandits that pilfered our financial markets with their "default swaps" and "securitized bonds" would have been stopped or prosecuted -- with the help of those Bush-rescinded laws that had kept the thieves in check since before World War Two.
A prosoperous world at peace ... versus the cratered, war-torn destitution we see all around us today. And what caused it all, the old man wants to know. Well, the answer isn't some unknowable force of history, or some dark conspiracy ... it's not huge and overwhelming. It' s tiny and sleazy and sad.
Look closely: it's a dried out speck of errrant DNA.
That's right: we were brought here by a spot of semen on a woman's dress. It seems impossible, it takes your breath away -- it gives you asthma, it literally closes the throat like a mold spores, this absurd, idiotic, appalling truth. How could such a tiny hinge open such a mighty door?
And how can we ever close it again? Nothing small will do the trick, we know that much. The penny on the track may derail the train; getting three dozen five-ton railroad cars out of the ditch may take more money and man-power than we can afford, more will than we can muster.
Something to think about on a winter afternoon: the awesome power of little things: the polio microbe that invades a cell, the drop of dioxin that contaminates the reservoir, the atom that splits to destroy a city.
But Monica Lewinsky's dress? I need my inhaler.
“The book was better than the movie.’ You hear this particular piece of popular film criticism every time a novel gets adapted to the big screen; well almost every time. Some movies are as good as their source material and some – like The Godfather or The Bridges of Madison County – are actually better. But it’s always the dumb artless popular novels, long on plot and short on style, that upgrade themselves as movies. A film can eliminate a trite prose style, it can replace hackneyed characters with beloved actors, it can transform shoddy descriptions into dazzling cinematography. Heroic stunt doubles and inspired editors turn clumsily written action scenes into vivid set-pieces. But the closer a novel gets to actual literature, the more the movies fall short. This was brought to mind vividly this weekend as I read No Country For Old Men and then watched the Academy Award-winning film version. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a well-made film, perfectly cast, elegantly shot, reasonably faithful to the source material. You can tell the Coen brothers were trying to approximate the harsh arid prose of the novel with those wide shots of the empty desert. But a desert is just sand and sky. The wastelands in the novel are a territory you create and inhabit along with the author. You carve out a world of dust and blood with Cormac McCarthy as you read this exhilarating and despairing novel and the result is infinitely richer and more troubling than any photograph, any stream of photographs, even if they’re flowing past at twenty-four frames per second. The book has a moral engine humming just below the surface, in the mordant soliloquies of Sheriff Bell, played with pitch perfect understanding by Tommy Lee Jones in the film, which gives us a few snippets of this commentary. It runs throughout the book, though, a kind of Greek Chorus, setting the context, mourning the nihilism of the story’s events. It’s a constant presence, not an occasional scene-setting hint. We see this story through Sheriff Bell’s eyes and his clear pitiless view of the events defines the fated tragedy of the story’s seemingly random violence. Listen to him:
Young people anymore, they seem to have a hard time growin up. I don’t knowhy. Maybe it’s just that you don’t grow up any faster than what you have to. I had a cousin who was a deputized peace officer when he was eighteen. He was married and had a kid at the time. I had a friend that I grew up with was a ordained Baptist preacher at the same age. Pastor of a little country church. He left there to go to Lubbock after about three years and when he told em he was leavin they just set there in that church and blubbered. Men and women alike. He’d married em and baptized em and buried em. He was twenty-one years old, maybe twenty-two. When he preached they’d be standin out in the yard listenin. It surprised me. He was always quiet in school. I was twenty-one when I went into the army, and I was one of the oldest in our class at boot camp. Six months later I was in France, shootin people with a rifle. I didn’t even think it was that peculiar at the time. Four years later I was sheriff of this county. I never doubted but what I was supposed to be neither …
Loretta told me she heard on the radio about some percentage of the children in this country bein raised by their grandparents. I forget what it was. Pretty high, I thought. Parents wouldn’t raise em. We talked about that. What we thought was that when the next generation come along and they don’t want to raise their children neither, then who is goin to do it? Their own parents will be the only grandparents around and they wouldn’t even raise them. We didn’t have an answer about that.
This is the central voice of the novel and we scarcely hear it in the film. Watching Tommy Lee Jones made me want to hear an audio book, where he could read all these haunting words aloud.
There are other problems in this adapatation. Some have to do with time constraints, I suppose, others with differences in style and temperament among the various collaborators. No one collaborated on the novel. I remember walking out of some awful film years ago and overhearing someone say, “It took seven people to write that piece of shit! Can you believe that? Seven people! Moby Dick – one guy. Am I right?”
Whatever the reason for the mistakes and miscalculations in the film version of McCarthy’s novel, they diminish and undermine the story in a familiar Hollywood manner – the Coen Brothers seem to think they know more about narrative construction than Cormac McCarthy. Say that sentence aloud: The Coen Brothers seem to think they know more about narrative construction than Cormac McCarthy. See how sad and absurd that sounds? There are so many ways it’s not true, big ones, and small ones. McCarthy simply tells us things that the brothers choose to omit: how exactly Llewelln Moss died, for instance; and what happened to the money. Those are big issues. For those who found the movie frustrating and needlessly opaque, let me tell you that Moss confronted one of the Mexican drug runners at the motel, but the Mexican grabbed the girl and put a gun to her head. Moss said he’d drop his gun if the Mexican let the girl go. That’s how it worked, but when the girl was free the Mexican shot her and then he shot Moss, but Moss managed to grab his gun and shoot the Mexican before he died.
Now, if you’ve seen the movie recently enough to remember the details, you’re saying, “Girl? What girl? You mean the skank at the motel who offered Moss a beer? The one he was going to sleep with before the bad guys showed up?” That would be a shrewd question, but it would just make my point more clearly. The girl in the movie has one line. In the book, Moss picks up a fifteen-year old runaway, heading for California, and gives her a thousand dollars of his stolen money.. She says:
What’s that for?
To go to California on.
What do I gotta do for it?
You don’t have to do nothin. Even a blind sow finds a acorn ever once in a while.
He’s not trying to sleep with her. He makes that clear in their last conversation, less than an hour before they’re both killed. Listen:
I wonder where I’d be right now if I hadnt of met you this morning.
I don’t know.
I was always lucky. About stuff like that. About meetin people.
Well, I wouldn’t speak too soon.
Why? You fixin’ to bury me out in the desert?
No. But there’s a lot of b ad luck out there. You hang around long enough and you’ll come in for your share of it.
I think I done have. I believe I’m due for a change. I might even be overdue.
Yeah? Well you aint.
Why do you say that?
He looked at her. Let me tell you something, little sister. If there is one thing on this planet that you don’t look like, it’s a bunch of good luck walking around.
That’s a hateful thing to say.
No it aint. I just want you to be careful. We get to El Paso I’m goin to drop you at the bus station. You got money. You don’t need to be out here hitchhiking.
…You want to split this last beer?
Run in there and get a cup. I’ll be back in a minute.
All right. You aint changed you mind have you?
You know about what.
I don’t change my mind. I like to get it right the first time.
He rose and started up the walkway. She stood at the door. I’ll tell you something I heard in a movie one time, she said.
He stopped and turned. Whats that?
There’s a lot of good salesmen around and you might buy something yet.
Well, darling, you’re just a little late. Cause I done bought. And I think I’ll stick with what I got.
He went on up the walkway and climbed the stairs and went in.
When Moss’s wife Carla Jean finds about her husband’s death she assumes that he was having an affair with the girl and dies believing that falsehood, which opens up a stark level of tragedy the film cannot touch because the girl was never even a character and the Coen Brothers chose not to show Moss’s death. As for the money: Chigurh finds it in the motel room air vent, and takes it to the mob boss -- the one he kills in the movie. In the book he turns the money over and assumes he and the boss will remain in business together. In the film all you see is the vent on the floor when the Sheriff inspects the motel room, aftre Chigurh has gone. I guess you’re supposed to figure everything else out for yourself.
More siginifcantly, the Coen brothers cut the heart of a crucial scene late in the story, where Bell visits his wheel-chair bound uncle (You never get to know their exact family connection in the movie). The Coens leave in the chit chat about week-old coffee and feral cats. What they chose to exclude is Bell’s confession of a war-time act of cowardice that has haunted him for the rest of his life. It clarifies all his actions, everything he’s done in the course of the story -- all his attempts to redeem that shame. And what he did in the war wasn’t even all that bad. The house they were using as a bivouac was hit by an enemy mortar shell. Everyone else was dead or dying when the Germans started to advance on the position. Bell grabbed a machine gun and held them off until night-fall. He knew they wouid be able to surround him in the dark and kill him. So he took off. It’s something his father would never have done, and both he and his uncle know it. Here’s what he says:
If I was supposed to die over there doin what I’d give my word to do then that’s what I should have done. You can tell it any way you want but that’s the way it is. I should have done it and I didn’t. And some part of me has never quit wishin that I could go back. And I cant. I didn’t know you could steal your own life. And I didn’t know that it would bring you no more benefit than about anything else you might steal. I think I done the best with it I knew how but it still wasnt mine. It never has been.
The old man sat for a long time. He was bent slightly forward, looking at the floor. After a while he nodded. I think I know where this is goin, he said.
What do you think he would have done?
I know what he would have done.
Yeah. I guess I do, too.
He’d of set there till hell froze over and then stayed a while on the ice.
Do you think that makes him a better man than you?
Yessir. I do.
Apart from anything else, it’s hard to understand why a professional screenwriter would cut a line as good that one: “He’d have set there till hell froze over and then stayed a while on the ice.” You’d think Mr. Coen would have done it just for the pleasure of typing that sentence (that’s why I did it twice). But no. The heart of the character was left on the cutting room floor (if they even shot the scene), and I have no idea why.
But it’s a shame. The people in the film are ciphers. In the book they live and breathe … and talk. Even Chigurh talks. He has a whole insane philosophy of murder that he explains at length to anyone who’ll listen, and most people do. He’s a sociopathic existentialist, Sartre with a sawed-off shot gun. In the book he’s fascinating. In the movie he’s Javier Bardem. Which is quite a lot, I know that. But it’s not enough.
The movie was grim and a little confusing, full of gaps and stark landscapes. If I think of it at all, I’ll remember Javier Bardem saying “Friend-o” and Tommy Lee Jones’ defeated squint. The book re-arranged my consciousness and invaded my dreams, put a tired noble voice in my head and broke my heart. The movie gave me two hours of unsettling entertainment.
The book gave me a parched tragic inexplicable world that I’ll never forget.
I’ll stick with that.
The purest feeling I know is the delirious awe I feel for the artists I love. It’s pervasive, it affects every level of my being. There’s the sheer pleasure of this sublime paragraph or that gorgeous melody; physical pleasure, carnal pleasure in that beauty. Then there’s the sense of connection, so many things fusing together in the near dissonance of a Beethoven late quartet, in the comic desperation of Kafka’s hunger artist: my heritage, some deep resonant echo of the Judaism that illuminated so many generations of my family deep into their historical roots in northern Europe. The divinity of some art pierces all the layers of deracination and assimilated indifference. Maybe it’s just that you feel something greater than the forces you understand when you stare at a Matisse, when you giggle your way through Calder’s circus or stroll quietly through Christo’s Gates; when you cry for Jim Tyrone in Moon For the Misbegotten or laugh helplessly at the Marx brothers. There’s a sense of justification, even justice -- so much just seems worth doing when you bask in the stringent Greek sunlight of great art. The same way a bad song or story makes the whole idea of songs or stories seem futile and ridiculous, a masterpiece makes every crazy idea seem worthwhile, worth doing, worth trying. And this despite the fact that the work diminishes you, makes you feel small and puny and inadequate. E.E. Cummings: “This man this artist, this failure… MUST PROCEED.”
But it’s still more, still bigger somehow, that sense of redemption in the early morning cold when the stars are out and the sky is pale with dawn and nothing is moving on the empty street but the light; the first sip of coffee and the clean warm socks fresh from the dryer, the dry rasp of wind on fallen snow; that charge, an electrical charge like the one when you meet her eyes and don’t look away, the jolt of an unexpected touch. It’s a feeling that life itself, short, sad, soon-obliterated, miniscule life is vastly, ecstatically worthwhile, every breath and shiver of it.
You can’t explain this. The art can’t explain it, either. But it lets you see it and feel it, so that no explanations are necessary. All you have to do is listen, or perhaps sing along; or call someone you love and read them an exquisite paragraph, in translation, on the long distance telephone at midnight.
Maybe, by the time you’re finished, they’ll feel it also.
That what art is for.
That may be what the telephone is for, too.