I'm not an Academy member and I don't have a vote, but if I did I would cast it unhesitatingly for "Zero Dark Thirty" for the best picture award. And I lament that Kathryn Bigelow, who directed the film, did not get nominated.
While I enjoyed "Argo," the other best-picture nominee depicting covert ops), it is, in the end, a formula movie, spiced up by Hollywood's valentine to itself in the form of a move within a movie, a farceur's look at Farsi life, with the jovial irreverence of Alan Arkin and John Goodman. It has a poitically correct framing device concluding with a Jimmy Carter voiceover that reminded me of the mock-editorial that may have cost an enterprising Times or Globe man his job: "More Mush from the Wimp." The movie also has a conventional narrative arc, ending in a crescendo of suspense. The joke signaled by the title ("Argo fuck yourself") goes a long way toward neutralizing one's reservations.
"Zero Dark Thirty" is a more complicated, darker, less conventional movie. The arc is there but is ambiguous: the main character, a CIA agent played by Jessica Chastain (left), achieves her aims but is last seen crying in an airplane in which she is the only passenger. The killing of Bin Laden does not override all the losses she (and the nation) have endured along the way.
The movie meticulously shows how intelligence works. It is highly dangerous and anything but glamorous. There are false scents, blind alleys, red herrings, b;atant lies, and the intelligence agent has no choice but to follow these even if, as may happen, a calamity may result. The hoodwinking of a sympathetic CIA agent, a friend of our heroine, leads to her murder and that of several of her colleagues.
The movie has been the victim of a smear campaign. Early on it shows scenes of waterboarding. The movie does not endorse this method of interrogation; it simply depicts it. Objections to the film's violence are also overblown. The violence pales next to the torture tactics used by the French in Algeria and shown graphically in more than one affecting movie. The conclusion of the movie, with Bin Laden finally located and killed, is managed without sensationalism. There are no celebrations and parades. The movie is as somber as the subject and it is dedicated quite eloquently to the victims of 9/11 in NY, of 7/11 in London, of other terrroist attacks across the globe (Pakistan, Afghanistan) and to the heroic sacrifices made by first responders.
Do not let the organized campaign against this extraordinarily intelligent and well-made movie deter you from seeing it. -- DL
A pretty girl is better than an ugly one.
A leg is better than an arm.
A bedroom is better than a living room.
An arrival is better than a departure.
A birth is better than a death.
A chase is better than a chat.
A dog is better than a landscape.
A kitten is better than a dog.
A baby is better than a kitten.
A kiss is better than a baby.
A pratfall is better than anything.
Here is the opening scene from the 1995 film adaptation of Shakespeare's Richard III, which sets the play in fascist England. For extra credit, identify the lyricist(s) who wrote this catchy song. The talented Stacey Kent starts singing at 2:15:
Jazz standards and Hollywood movies of the 40s, usually in black and white, often in a noir mode, go together like streetlamps and shadows, seam stockings and high heels, fedoras and belted trench-coats, scotch and soda. They’re as right for each other as Rogers and Astaire -- or Rodgers and Hart. The pleasure in developing this thesis lies in furnishing apt illustrations. Let me give a few. You’ll note that certain names recur; they “keep coming back like a song,” to quote a lyric Irving Berlin wrote for Bing Crosby in 1946.
Max Steiner composed some exciting suspense music for The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks’s 1946 movie of Raymond Chandler’s novel. It is very effective, and so, in its way, is the swinging number Lauren Bacall and band perform at the casino run by racketeer Eddie Mars: And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine (music Stan Kenton and Charles Lawrence, lyrics Joe Greene). The lyric locates us in noir central: “She’s a real sad tomato, she’s a busted valentine.” But my favorite musical moment in The Big Sleep is subtle enough that you might not notice it the first time around. Bacall (as one of the notorious Sternwood sisters) and co-star Humphrey Bogart (as detective Philip Marlowe) are bantering in a restaurant. In the background, a piano player is playing two great jazz standards: I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan (music Arthur Schwartz, lyrics Howard Dietz) and Blue Room (music Richard Rodgers, lyrics Lorenz Hart). At first you might think that what you’re hearing is just tremendously appealing café music. Only later do you realize that the two songs themselves have captured, in a whimsical fashion, the structural meaning of the scene.
The Big Sleep will culminate in the image of two lighted cigarettes in an ashtray as the words THE END appear on the screen. It’s a fitting image for the romance of Bogart and Bacall, who like to smoke and drink and make witty repartee in a roadhouse café. The by-play between the two romantic leads is utterly charming, but it is also, for much of the picture, utterly incongruous because incompatible with the story-line. The movie needs them to be lovers, the audience expects them to flirt, to link, and to clinch, and this duly happens, but at considerable violence to the logic of the plot, which puts their characters on the opposite sides of a quarrel.
Though this duality may threaten the coherence of the picture, it makes the scenes between Bogart and Bacall doubly entertaining. The dialogue is full of double meanings and playful digressions. In the restaurant scene with the piano soundtrack, the two are nursing their drinks. They employ an extended racetrack metaphor to communicate their sexual interest. She: “Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first, see if they're front-runners or come from behind, find out what their hole-card is. What makes them run.” He invites her to take a stab at summing him up. “I’d say you don't like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.” He: “You don't like to be rated yourself.” She: “I haven't met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?” He: “Well, I can't tell till I've seen you over a distance of ground. You've got a touch of class, but I don't know how far you can go.” She: “A lot depends on who's in the saddle.”
The ostensible purpose of the encounter is for Bacall to pay Bogart off – to pay him for the work he has done and get him to drop the case. Thus: I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan. Once this plot requirement is out of the way, Bacall and Bogart get down to the real cinematic purpose of their being there: to tease and flirt and advance their budding romance. And now the piano player plays Blue Room, which idealizes the successful outcome of such a romance. Lorenz Hart’s lyric stars you and me and the prospect of our betrothal and a subsequent time ever after when “every day’s a holiday, because you’re married to me.” It’s a song second perhaps only to Tea for Two (music Vincent Youmans, words Irving Caesar) as an idealized fantasy of marriage so beautifully innocent it almost brings tears to your eyes.
The Big Sleep needs the two songs in the background, and not simply because they are in exact counterpoint to the course of the conversation between Bogart and Bacall. A soundtrack of popular songs by Rodgers and Hart, Schwartz and Dietz, Irving Berlin, and the other great masters of the thirty-two bar song is as necessary in noir movies of the 1940s as the city streets, the silhouette in the window, the Mickey disguised as a highball, and the night spots the characters frequent, from Rick’s Café Americain in Casablanca (1942) to Eddie Mars’s casino in The Big Sleep, where beautiful costumed girls check Bogart’s coat, offer to sell him cigarettes, and vie for the privilege of delivering him a message.
Nor do the songs suffer from being relegated to background music, shorn of lyrics. The solo piano renditions of I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan and Blue Room insinuate themselves in your consciousness. If you don’t recognize them, fine; if you know them, so much the better. When you listen to an instrumental version of a song whose lyrics you know and like, what you’re hearing is a metonymy of the song: a part standing for the whole. The text is not altogether absent if you the listener can supply it. (When the septuagenarian Frank Sinatra went up on the lines of The Second Time Around the audience helpfully sang them). But to make my point about the interdependence of Hollywood films and popular songs, let me offer this montage:
-- -- What better way to convey the faithful consistency of “iron man” Lou Gehrig, the Yankee first baseman who long held the record for most consecutive games played, than with Irving Berlin’s song Always? In Pride of the Yankees (1942), the song does double duty as the musical affirmation of Gehrig’s loving fidelity to his wife, Eleanor, played by Teresa Wright.
-- Johnny Mercer’s lyric for Tangerine (music Victor Schertzinger) extols the charms of a vain and fickle Latin beauty. To the strains of this song, Barbara Stanwyck plays the ultimate femme fatale in Double Indemnity (1944), who conspires with insurance man Fred McMurray to eliminate her husband. In a flashback in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), the same song plays on the car radio when Stanwyck, playing a neurotic heiress this time, flaunts her father’s wealth to betray a friend and seduce Burt Lancaster. The great Jimmy Dorsey big band version of this song features Bob Eberle’s romantic solo followed by Helen O’Connell’s brassy satirical retort.
-- As David Raksin’s theme for Laura (1944) plays in the background, the homicide detective played by Dana Andrews becomes obsessed with the murder victim, a beautiful dame (Gene Tierney), whose picture hangs on the wall. Laura obligingly returns to life -- the corpse in the kitchen belonged to somebody else – and whenever in future we need to summon her up, we need only hum Raksin’s theme. Johnny Mercer added his lyric to the music months after the movie was released.
-- To Have and Have Not (1944) is notable for being the first movie pairing Bogart and Bacall. It’s the one in which the foxy young actress seduces the hardened skeptic by teaching him how to whistle: “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” The song she “sings” in the movie’s nightclub scene is How Little We Know (music Hoagy Carmichael, lyrics Johnny Mercer). There are three things to keep in mind about the scene. 1) It is the composer who is playing the piano. 2) The song is an under-appreciated gem in the Carmichael – Mercer canon; I like it almost as much as Skylark. 3) It is said that the young Andy Williams enhanced the voice coming out of the throat of Lauren Bacall. (4) Jacqueline Bouvier loved the song, and during her junior year in Paris, she wrote out the bridge in English and in her own French translation for the benefit of one of her French hosts.
-- In The Clock (1945) office worker Judy Garland meets soldier Robert Walker on a two-day leave in New York City. At the moment they realize they are falling in love, the piano player in the restaurant is playing If I Had You (music Ted Shapiro, lyrics James Campbell and Reginald Connolly).
-- Somebody puts a coin in the jukebox in the diner and out comes I Can’t Believe that You’re in Love with Me (music Jimmy McHugh, words Clarence Gaskill), triggering the recollected psychodrama in Edgar Ullmer’s strange reverie of an unreliable (unbelievable) narrator in Detour (1945). The movie is a paranoid masterpiece, and the very title of the song goes to the heart of its mystery. The viewer “can’t believe” the events he or she is witnessing, because the narrator is either delusional or a liar or both in some blend. The same song punctuates The Caine Mutiny, where it has a more conventional signification.
-- A drunken Fredric March still in uniform and his game wife Myrna Loy dance to Among My Souvenirs (music Horatio Nicholls, lyrics Edgar Leslie) on his first night back from the war in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Hoagy Carmichael tickles the ivories at the gin joint where the reunited couple have gone with their daughter (Teresa Wright) and returning airman Dana Andrews.
-- Rita Hayworth invites the American male in the form of tightlipped Glenn Ford to Put the Blame on Mame (music Doris Fisher, lyrics Alan Roberts) in Gilda (1946). In The Lady from Shanghai (1947), the same red-haired enchantress seduces Orson Welles and coyly sings Please Don’t Kiss Me (same songwriters), a phrase that says one thing and means its opposite. Given the way Hollywood films wink at one another, it’s no surprise that we hear an instrumental version of Put the Blame on Mame in the background when tough-guy Glenn Ford sets out to foil the killers in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953).
-- The radio reliably pours out love songs in keeping with the plot twists in Delmer Daves’s Dark Passage (1947). Humphrey Bogart plays an escaped convict with a new face who will escape to South America with Lauren Bacall if he can figure out who killed his pal and framed him for the murder. During the course of the movie we hear instrumentals of I Gotta a Right to Sing the Blues (music Harold Arlen, lyrics Ted Koehler), I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan (music Arthur Schwartz, lyrics Howard Dietz)\, and Someone to Watch Over Me (music George Gershwin, lyrics Ira Gershwin). “You like swing, I see,” says Bogart. “Yes, legitimate swing,” Bacall counters. When Dark Passage gets serious about the love story, we see a record spinning on Bacall’s record player and the golden voice of Jo Stafford sings Too Marvelous for Words (music Richard Whiting, lyrics Johnny Mercer) and legitimates the romance.
-- In Key Largo (1948), the fourth Bogart-Bacall movie on this list, Claire Trevor plays a washed-up night-club singer and full-time lush in the entourage of gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson). Trevor sings Moanin’ Low (music Ralph Rainger, lyrics Howard Dietz) a capella, her voice faltering, and when she finishes the torch song, says, “Can I have that drink now, Johnny?”
-- Manipulative Anne Baxter supplants Bette Davis as queen of the stage in All About Eve (1951), and the romantic Broadway ambiance of New York City is communicated in background instrumentals of all-star songs by Rodgers and Hart (Thou Swell, My Heart Stood Still), Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler (Stormy Weather), Arlen and Johnny Mercer (That Old Black Magic), and Ralph Freed and Burton Lane (How About You?).The last named begins, “I like New York in June.”
The use of Among My Souvenirs in The Best Years of Our Lives is exemplary. Edgar Leslie’s 1927 lyric communicates regret at the passing of time. Trinkets and tokens diligently collected and treasured offer some consolation but do nothing to stop the flow of tears. In the movie, when the U. S. army sergeant played by March comes home he brings souvenirs of the Pacific war as gifts for his teenage son. But like the knife in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Crusoe in England,” when it has become a souvenir on the shelf after Crusoe returns home from his island, the mementos of the global conflict have lost their meaning. They seem vaguely unreal, lifeless. In contrast, the photograph of his wife that a hung-over March looks at the next morning – another sort of souvenir – has all the meaning in the world for him. And Among My Souvenirs – played on the piano by Hoagy Carmichael, hummed in the shower by a drunken March, and heard as background music -- unifies the whole sequence and endows it with the rich pathos that make the song so durable a jazz standard. I recommend that you listen to Art Tatum play it on the piano or, if you can get your mitts on it, a recording of Sinatra and Crosby doing it as a duet on television in the 1950s.
-- A version of this essay appears in Boulevard, ed. Richard Burgin.
"Gentleman's Agreement" (1947), one of the great underrated black-and-white films from the idealistic late1940s, is now available streaming from Netflix, and I urge everyone to resist the temptation of watching all of "House of Cards" all at once and choose instead to spread the pleasure over the course of a week and to interrupt the flow by taking in this well-written, well-acted film, a monument to liberalism when it had its moment as the L word of choice. Gregory Peck stars as a journalist who comes up with a new angle on exposing anti-Semitism in America. The anti-Semitism critiqued is, to use a distinction Ezra Pound would have appreciated, the "suburban" rather than the extermination kind -- the separate but almost equal approach: country clubs and hotels restricted to gentiles; anti-Semitic hiring policies so ingrained that even in New York a well-qualified person named Cohen or Finkelstein would be wise to change her or his name when applying for a job; the assumption that a smart Jew would have figured out a way to avoid combat in World War II ("were you in public relations, Mr. Green?); even Jewish anti-Semitism -- the way a Jew will cringe in the presence of a stereotypically "kikey" (i.e. loud, vulgar, pushy) member of the faith. Elia Kazan directed the picture. The sterling supporting cast includes Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, Celeste Holm, June Havoc, Anne Revere, Albert Dekker, Dean Stockwell, Sam Jaffe, and Jane Wyatt.
This is from the period when the script could make or break a Hollywood film. Moss Hart wrote this one and copped an Academy Award nominaation. The movie garnered eight other nominations and won thre, including the best picture Oscar. Eliza Kazan won for best director, and Celeste Holm deservedly took Holm an Oscar as best supportng actress (beating out the equally wonderful Anne Revere, who plays the journalist's mother). The lead was offered first to Cary Grant, who turned it down. But they got the the right star In Gregory Peck, who is to principled liberalism what Cary Grant is to suave urbanity. Peck took the role despite his agent's objections. I know he's supposed to be a wooden actor but I have always thought this an unfair characterization and if you see this movie (and "Twelve O'Clock High") I think you'll see my point.
You'll get no spoliers from me. The film is full of surprises, even if the most crucial one is given away in just about anything written about it. But here are some things you might like to know: (1) It's adapted from the best-selling novel of the same title by Laura Z. Hobson, which I read when I was fifteen and thought it was pretty good. (2) Darryl Zanuck, a gentile, who produced the movie for Twentieth Century Fox, decided to make it when he was turned down for membership in the "restricted" Los Angeles Country Club, whose management was under the mistaken belief that Zaniuck was Jewish. (3) More than a few facts about the making of the movie supports its central thesis. Samuel Goldwyn was among the Jewish movie moguls who feared that the making of the film would only stir up trouble -- that Jews would be wise not to call attention to themselves. (4) The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), associating Communism with Jew-lovers, called Zanuck, Kazan, John Garfield (real name: Julius Garfinkel), and Anne Revere to come to Washington and endure the committeee's contempt. Garfield, who refused to name names, suffered on the blacklist for a year and died of a heart attack shortly before being asked to testify a second time. He was only 39. (5) The movie's success was toasted at Los Angeles's Biltmore Hotel on December 12, 1948 with speeches and testimonials followed by an entertainment extravaganza in the hallowed Hollywood tradition. The night was capped off by the Hollywood debut of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. They were a hit. -- DL
“It all started in the backseat of my sister’s truck.” That’s
the hair-trigger response anytime anyone asks Bill Hayward to talk about
Well, really it started with snapshots. There was the truck, but
there was also Wyoming. In Wyoming, a young Hayward watched red ants bring
beads up from deep within the earth—from old burial sites. It was how the earth
fused past and present, he noted. Then there was fourth grade art class.
Hayward smushed a paintbrush onto paper, watched the bristles splay out, rapt
at the potential that lay before him. A humorless art teacher snapped him back
to reality— “You’re going to ruin that brush!”
Hayward doesn’t operate in a world where the tools of art—pieces
of art themselves—are subject to ruin. After all “to ruin” suggests someone is
there to impose on these instruments, to do the alleged ruining. When Hayward
creates, he steps aside. Hayward sets the world in motion like the deist god
who winds the clock, but where it will go from there is anyone’s guess.
Stepping out of the way, however, may be the most challenging artistic task of
* * *
Last week Hayward appeared at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe
in Soho with Laura Isaacman, editor of The
Coffin Factory magazine, to discuss his full-length film Asphalt, Muscle and Bone. Isaacman’s
interest in Hayward’s work was sparked by a collaboration she witnessed between
Hayward and the writer
Taylor. Isaacman then began “stalking” the eccentric Hayward—who humored her
inquiries—hanging around his studio and digging through old suitcases, looking
for anything that might lend some insight into the enigmatic artist and that
nagging question of inspiration.
Isaacman, perhaps naively, wanted a linear tale of inspiration,
a trajectory from “then” to “now,” but from there things only got less
After living in 17 states with his older, snake-wrangling
sister, who instilled in him a sense of adventure and a hunger for possibility,
Hayward got his start in photographic portraiture. As Hayward took the
conventional, staid position of photographer behind the lens, enacting his
vision on the subject, he felt something was incredibly wrong; he couldn’t get
something Kierkegaard once said out of his head.
“He said the advent of photography would make everyone look the
same,” explains Hayward. “I decided it was time to mess around, to disrupt.” He
began slicing up and rearranging faces—the effect was a cubistic uncanny
valley, equal parts creepy and beautiful (the resulting images managed a
certain uneasy symmetry, which we are unconsciously conditioned as viewers to
believe denotes the utmost beauty).
It also occurred to Hayward that around this time there had been
a “gross imbalance of testosterone” in the world for the past three- to
four-thousand years. He became fixated on dance, believing dance emphasized the
female figure in a position of power, one contrary to the traditional view of
“Nobody here didn’t come out of a vagina,” announces Hayward to
the crowd, “but everybody’s running from it. We won’t talk about it. We have to
talk about vaginas in a positive way. We have to talk about death and vaginas
in a positive way.“
“Throw out everything you’re comfortable with,” he adds. “Give
Hayward made it his mission to reinvent portraiture, to
transform it from something unfulfilling and subjugating to a process of the
“collaborative self.” (At least this is his explanation for those who demand a
narrative, who cannot wrap their minds around the disjointedness of inspiration
and creation as they infiltrate our lives, only to abandon us just as quickly
as the canvas has been primed.)
Hayward would bring in his “subjects“ for a conversation and
together they’d wait for something, anything. That “something” was removed from
judgment and from planning. It was full of risk. It usually took about 15
minutes to get the ball rolling, to strip away the inhibitions of daily life
and proper conduct.
People tore off their clothing, dipped their hands in paint and
stood there, exposed, dripping onto canvases. If it sounds less than
earth-shattering to you, wait until you see Hayward’s shots. The man behind the
camera disappears, the image yanks you in—it demands your unwavering
complicity. You feel as though you’ve just witnessed a crime of passion you
yourself perhaps committed. I feel like a traitor calling them “Hayward’s
shots” at all, as though I’ve gravely missed the point.
When it was Willem Dafoe’s turn, he created a series of large,
oversized, crudely-drawn mother figures. In Hayward’s photos, Dafoe cowers
below them, as though being birthed from the pages. “Oedipal” springs to mind.
Don’t ask Hayward what he’s trying to accomplish. He quotes
Francis Bacon: “If I knew what I was doing, why would I do it?” He says Asphalt, Muscle and Bone encapsulates
“risk-taking and how women have been written off” as well as the “impossibility
of love” as he flips through projected film stills, he knows he only wants to
see things he’s never seen, but that’s about all he knows.
Members of the audience shift in their seats, they seem uneasy
about this “impossibility of love” notion. Hayward feels under no pressure to
address the crowd for long, quiet stretches. A man breaks the silence: “Can you
expand on the impossibility of love?”
The way we’re introduced to love is completely erroneous, offers
Hayward. We have to break it down before we can build it up.
“All of these may or may not be in the film,” Hayward explains
cryptically as he shows us film stills of mythical places like the Fat River
Hotel and the conceptual Museum of Emotions. You cannot physically enter into
Hayward’s museum or his hotel, all the rooms are made up, but you can purchase
postcards, postcards which look as though they were pulled from the very
ancient burial grounds themselves. And in order to reach these places, you must
first yourself get lost.
In his presentation, as in his work, Hayward appears to withdraw
into a strange, removed place within himself only to reemerge and confront us
with the unseen, the whimsically gritty and eerie. Is this work erotic? Nudes
reappear in the stills on several occasions, in hotel rooms, often in
compromising poses, seemingly torturing each other or wrapping their teeth
around strings of pearls. We almost feel guilty asking ourselves. What is
eroticism anymore? Would it offend Hayward if we were to ask? No one does;
they’re hung up on the love question. They’re still obsessed by the idea of
Hayward says it took a long process of elimination to get to
where he is now, artistically-speaking—a lifetime of risk-taking. His life
parallels the canvas he describes—a “blank” canvas is not truly a blank canvas,
it’s a series of cliches which must be painstakingly scraped away.
Throughout the process, Hayward always felt that push of
something being wrong though. It was the impetus to move forward, the force
that kept him going. “I feel at ease now,” he says.
In the art of the world around him, Hayward will settle for no
less than the standards to which he holds himself. “You can’t short-circuit
experience,” he says. Art cannot and should not be commodified. “You won’t find
yourself online, on Instagram.” The crowd titters, guiltily. “You won’t find
Paris in Disneyland.”
Alissa Fleck is a
freelance writer whose work has been featured in the Huffington Post, the San
Francisco Chronicle, Our Town Downtown, on Narrative.ly and more. She cares
deeply about LGBT issues and has a piece on the subject forthcoming on
(Ed note: This is the second part of a two-part essay by Laurence
Goldstein. Goldstein is Professor of English at the University
of Michigan and Editor Emeritus of Michigan
Quarterly Review (1977-2009). His
most recent book is a volume of poems, A
Room in California (Northwestern University Press, 2005). A book of
literary criticism, Poetry Los Angeles: Reading the City’s Essential
forthcoming from University of Michigan Press. Find the first part of this essay here. )
Nastassja Kinski in Roman Polanski's film Tess (1979)
In yesterday's post I speculated on ways that certain rules
or conventions inhere in the genre of the encounter poem. My starting point was my own memory poem
“Meeting B. F. Skinner, 1963” and I proceeded to comment on poems of major
importance by William Wordsworth, Robert Hayden, and Robert Frost. I deliberately confined my examples to male
poets because I wanted to complicate the genre definition in a follow-up column
on poems by women. This is that column.
I argued in my
first mini-essay that encounter poems originate in the emotion of awe and
strangeness that overtakes the speaker—almost always a recognizable portrait of
the author—upon coming into contact with a figure who shocks him or her into a
new state of being or mind. In this
sense the encounter poem may be said to enact the rhetorical function of all lyric
poetry. As I indicated previously, the
stranger must be of higher or lower social status in order for the poet to make
the mental adjustments that constitute the exchange of insight between poem and
reader. Occasionally the mysterious
figure encountered in a strange place turns out to be a double of the speaker,
arguably an exact equivalent, and his or her recognition of that fact engenders
the surprise, even the shock, of the poem.
Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting” is the purest example I know of that
dramatic situation. In the subterranean
graveyards of battle, differences of social status, national citizenship, and
ethnic definition are revealed as fundamental illusions.
History has placed
women in the same privileged positions as men for smelling out the false
consciousness that follows upon deference to undeserving authority. I would endorse claims that women have always
responded as sensitively as men both to fraudulent oppressors and authentic figures of redemption,
whether of high or low position on the social register. And not just social station. Those who
occupy existential situations as seemingly forlorn as the Leech Gatherer or
“Aunt Jemima,” carry what Wordsworth calls “a more than human weight,” as if
they had traveled across the furthest border of mortal possibility to confront
the merely social station of the speaker.
In Hayden’s poem, I argued, the mysterious stranger usurps the customary
male role by speaking almost the entirety of the poem, pronouncing the moral in
the final lines, a privilege almost always reserved for the poet or his
I think of “Aunt
Jemima of the Ocean Waves” as a poem that hands off the baton of male authority
to a rising generation of women who assert their rights by means of the poetics
of correction: “Don’t you take no wooden nickels, hear?” By contrast, no stranger is going to correct
the speaker of “Two Tramps in Mud Time.”
He holds his axe aloft and the needy wood-choppers recede back into the
“mud” whence they came.
So let’s test my
rules and regulations on an encounter poem that never fails to stir my students
to profitable contention: Ana Castillo’s
“Seduced by Nastassia Kinski,” from her volume of 2001, I Ask the Impossible.
Encounter poems often share conventions with other genres, and this one
belongs equally to the genre of the “movie star homage poem,” about which I
have written in my book The American Poet
at the Movies: A Critical History.
This genre is like and unlike the genre in which poets encounter other
poets. That is, they are fan’s notes,
often laced with envy and resentment but are almost always fantasies of encounter, not real meetings. Robert Frost made himself available to poets
like Robert Lowell and Donald Hall, and would not have been surprised to hear
that they included his conversation in poems; but we know at once that Ana
Castillo is not reporting a gaudy night with the famous star that actually
happened. The poem, with its title like
a tabloid headline and its lurid narrative of coercion derived from the
template of Alec D’Urberville and Tess in Kinski’s most famous role, is all
dreamwork in keeping with the agreed-upon conventions of star-fucking poems.
Castillo presents the
nubile Kinski as the embodiment of sexual desire:
dance, I avoid her gaze.
I am trying
every possible way to escape eyes,
smile, determination, scarf pulling me
cheap wine, strobe light, dinner invitation.
“Come home with me. It’s all for fun,” she says.
The speaker offers some futile resistance before succumbing:
. . . she
finds me at a table in the dark.
“What do you want, my money?” I ask. She reminds, cockily,
has more money than I do. I am a poet,
does. And when we dance, I am a strawberry, ripened
devoured, and she has won.
They retire to Kinski’s place and consummate their lust; we
understand the sex as a one-night-stand, not as the inception of a continuing
relationship. That is the convention of
the male encounter poem. But we would be
wrong to do so. The next day, a Sunday,
the couple goes out for dinner and over champagne “Nastassia wants me
forever.” The star-power overwhelms the
dazzled speaker, who whispers, “te
llevaré conmigo” [I’ll take you with me.].
“As if I ever had a choice,” the speaker laments in the rosy aftermath
of their impulsive coupling. What choice
or chance does any fan have when encountering the sex object of his or her
dreams? Glamour of this wattage is
character of this seduction, and its ethnic component, provide my students with
more grounds for discussion of taboo violations. Hook-ups between strangers may or may not
unsettle the Millennial Generation. They
know, or learn in survey courses, that the erotic “gaze” and ensuing sexual
consummation between women has a literary genealogy at least as far back as
Coleridge’s “Christabel,” not to mention Sappho. The formerly masculine-only prerogative of
selecting and persuading a bed partner of the opposite sex, and sometimes of
differing ethnic identity, was always a cultural myth inviting the potent
counter-myth of the openly aggressive female, white or non-white. This charismatic stranger reveals to the
speaker new depths to her personality, not without some regret. And, as always, readers learn from texts of
transgression something new about the allure of the formerly off-limits Other.
The beginning of a
feminist sensibility, we were told decades ago, is marked by an increased
fascination with the female body, one’s own and the other’s. The mutual adoration of speaker and stranger,
and their erotic union, is a fulfillment that breaks one form of chains derived
from the male tradition. It is no
backhanded compliment to say that Castillo’s poem still shakes us with the
strength of an edgy movie, in which forbidden things challenge and change us.
If I choose to stay
on the topic of encounters with movie stars a few paragraphs longer it’s
because the ubiquity of references to film actors in contemporary poetry is one
of the most noteworthy ekphrastic modes of our time. Yes, the overwhelming and inescapable impact
of visual media in our culture is the chief cause of this new feature in our
poetics. But I hazard the thought that
the voluminous surge of significant writings by women poets beginning in the
1960s has something to do with it as well.
One impulse of this new writing was to explore the possibilities largely
left open by male poets who seemed not to realize precisely how women
understood themselves and the universe around them. Female poets found it useful to shake up the
forms, including the encounter poem, by which male poets coded and dramatized
information about human relationships.
From grammar school to graduate school, from Edith Hamilton’s Mythology to M. Esther Harding’s Woman’s Mysteries, Ancient and Modern, I
was astonished by the legends women claimed as their inheritance, legends they
felt free to subvert or recreate in contemporary idioms with modern, or
postmodern, figures of magic and transformation.
Movie stars make
themselves available for such appropriation; indeed, that’s their function in
our lives. Male poets paid homage from a
distance, acting as high priests of the new religion of cinema. Vachel Lindsay wrote a hymn to Mae Marsh,
Delmore Schwartz to Marilyn Monroe, Frank O’Hara to James Dean. But how different their forms of praise are
from Anne Carson’s extensive use of stars like Catherine Deneuve and Monica
Vitti to help her articulate lyric desire, lyric shame, lyric rapture, lyric
degradation. (See the extended prose
poem “Irony Is Not Enough: Essay on My
Life as Catherine Deneuve” in Men in the
Off Hours and the sequence of poems on Vitti in Decreation.) Carson does not
construct a traditional meeting with these stars; she absorbs them into her
identity, her imagination of feminine nature and female destiny that bonds her
with the European performers. Dialogue
tends to disappear in these poems—certainly dialogue between figures as
discrete as her actual self and the Romantic other.
In Decreation the encounters are placed in
cinematic or theatrical formats. “Lots
of Guns” is my favorite adaptation of movie conventions. The opening scene of what she calls an
“oratorio” is a parody of some strange meeting somewhere between two people
unlikely to meet again:
Why are you
To take your
life and stuff it in a box.
You have no
gives me the right.
I veto your
is a mystery.
mystery is a way of lying.
concept is no longer in use.
of lying, yes, is no longer in use.
What do you
do when you want to avoid telling the truth?
I use a
watts and 5 power levels.
hard on your gun?
I never put
my gun in the microwave—there is no need.
Guns do not lie.
The Marx Brothers come to mind as a seminal influence here
rather than Greek tragedy or Greek comedy.
I read the exchange as between male and female, though I’d be cautious
about identifying which voice is which.
As with poems about Nastassia Kinski and Catherine Deneuve, the
discourse is hard-edge and resists recognizable gender roles. The “poem” makes sense whether the one who
wields the gun is a femme fatale or the gunsel of noir romance, acting tough but easily brutalized by his/her
As long as I am
extending the conventions of the encounter poem I’ll make reference to another
intriguing experiment with dramatic structure by a contemporary. Denise Duhamel’s “How It Will End” appeared
in Best American Poetry 2009and
according to the author’s note it derives, like “Resolution and Independence”
and “Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves,” from the serendipity of an actual walk in
a picturesque location and the resultant encounter with figures worth writing
about. The innovation in this text is
that the speaker and her husband do not pass words with the distant objects of
their attention, a lifeguard and his girlfriend who are quarreling and
generally making a spectacle of themselves.
The two would-be eavesdroppers cannot hear the dialogue being exchanged
but they do become involved in what they imagine to be the source of
contention. “It is as good as a movie,”
she says, a silent movie, and then she and her husband proceed to undergo a
surrogate encounter as they disappear into the roles of “lifeguard” and
“waitress” they endow upon the actors they watch from a bench on the boardwalk.
Duhamel now must
complicate the cliché of life as a movie in which we are all bit players and/or
eager voyeurs. There is plenty of exposition
in the long line free verse, in which most of the syntactical units are fitted
to the full line so that the story element is not unduly interrupted by line
breaks calling attention to the poem’s status as artifact. Gradually the observing couple begin to
bicker among themselves as each takes the part of the corresponding gender
figure down by the lifeguard station:
even give the guy a chance and you’re always nagging,
so how can
he tell the real issues from the nitpicking?”
and I say,
“She doesn’t nitpick!” and he says, “Oh really?
should start recording her tirades,” and I say
should help out more,” and he says
should be more supportive,” and I say
mean supportive or do you mean support him?”
The misunderstanding between these two is so profound, and
so banal, that we sense that they are encountering each other for the first
time, struggling to articulate the nature of their own relationship in the
guise of perplexed viewers making sense of a movie.
In the more
familiar kind of encounter poem the boardwalk couple would continue their walk
and speak with the beach couple, or, more daring, the beach couple would spot
the spectators and walk up to confront them.
But the poem ends like the romantic idyll it is. [Spoiler alert] Suddenly the beach couple is making up:
She has her
arms around his neck and is crying into his shoulder.
her up into his hut. We look around, but
no one is watching us.
Well, not quite. The
reader is watching them, and listening to them, and finally that is the
encounter that matters. The poem acts on
us like cinema, first involving us in a lovers quarrel and then releasing us
with a happy ending. Or is it
happy? “No one is watching us.” The boardwalk couple is left with hurt
feelings of which the poem is the guilty witness. One rises from reading the poem needing an
embrace and looks around for one’s beloved.
Is “How It Will
End” a gendered or genderless poem?
Alicia Ostriker argued in her groundbreaking study of feminist poetics, Stealing the Language, that all poetry
is gendered, and especially those poems that chronicle “expressions of rage at
entrapment in gender-polarized relationships” by offering “retaliatory poems
which dismantle the myth of the male as lover, hero, father, and God.” The speaker’s immediate suspicion of the
lifeguard, whose profession is the very embodiment of the heroic, and her first
statement in the poem, “He deserves whatever’s coming to him,” are clear
expressions of sexual politics. The
encounter on the beach is the occasion for an upsurge of discovery, and
self-discovery. Though “How It Will End”
is in certain ways a “woman’s poem” it adds to all poets’ repertory of strange
meetings another timely model worthy of close study.
This Thursday, Housing Works bookstore brings you Bill Hayward and scenes from his film asphalt, muscle and bone. Laura Isaacman, editor of The Coffin Factory, discusses art, literature, and film with Bill, whose photographs are the main art feature in issue four of The Coffin Factory.
Housing Works Bookstore Cafe 126 Crosby Street New York, NY 10012