Saturday, November 24, 2007

Postmodernity and Literature

In the last couple weeks, a debate of sorts has been taking place in the university newspaper I write for, The Sheaf. Doug Goldie fearlessly and ignorantly attacked the study of classic literature, saying that the mores and sensibilities of Homer and his Iliad were so outmoded and so detached from our postmodern way of life as to be pointless. What value, he asked, can there be in a document that contains such fierce violence, such prejudiced hierarchy, and such obviously chauvinistic views of women? The article both angered and depressed me, filling me a sense of creeping dread. Thankfully, however, it also sparked an outcry and in the following issue an article by Brennan Richardson appeared, denouncing and rebuking Goldie for his short-sighted and narrow article.

While postmodernity may not be all bad, as I sometimes think, it certainly is not all good and Goldie's article contained many of the alarming symptoms of postmodernity that frighten me, symptoms which threaten not only to destroy our sense of greatness and worth but also to unhinge our society and kick it loose from its foundations. The past, its accomplishments, its failures and its literature - especially its literature! - is the foundation of our minds. Whether we like what our heritage offers to us or not, whether we agree with it philosophically or morally, our heritage must be acknowledged; if we ignore it or, worse, alter it to fit our own preferences, we lie to ourselves, we deceive ourselves and the truth will never be found within us. We may stand on the mountain's top but we do so only because there is a mountain standing below us which we did not make. If we step off the mountain, we fall and we die.

In Milton's great poem Paradise Lost, Satan, filled with hate and arrogance, boldly declares to the angel Abdiel,

"That we were formed then, say'st thou? And the work
Of secondary hands, by task transferred
From Father to his Son? Strange point and new!
Doctrine which we would know whence learnt. Who saw
When this creation was? Remember'st thou
Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
By our own quickening power, when fatal course
Had circled his full orb, the birth mature
Of this our native heav'n, ethereal sons." (Paradise Lost, V.853-863)

Milton was not familiar with postmodernity but was nevertheless familiar with its impulse, its desire to cut itself off from its own creation, to cut off the very branch upon which it sits. We are not self-made, as Milton's Satan claimed of himself; we are not of "birth mature." We are who we are and what we are because of a long history of human success and failure. In Paradise Lost, Satan, because of his deliberate refusal to acknowledge his own debt of creation, to acknowledge that he is dependent on something outside himself, was confronted with the vengeance of a justifiably wrathful God; the sight of that flaming chariot was so horrible and so revelatory that, instead of engaging it in impossible battle, he instantly leaped into the horror of chaos and eventually landed in hell. It may seem like too outrageous an analogy, but it seems to me that postmodern man runs the risk of facing a similar sort of judgment when he rejects or ignores that which created him, be it a God, an empire or simply a heritage. The past is immovable; it remains; it guides us, shapes us and, when we ignore it, punishes us.

The great literature of the past is the record of human accomplishment; it is our document of lineage; the proof that we can create great things, that we as a species can rise above the mud and accomplish more than merely war and death. I don't care that The Iliad hurt Doug Goldie's feelings. The Iliad has survived and been revered for thousands of years. It is, quite frankly, more important than Doug Goldie and his narrow opinions. If you cannot gain insight into the human condition from the man Matthew Arnold called "the clearest-souled of men," the fault is not with Homer but with you. The problem with classic literature is not that it contradicts what we'd like to think; the problem is that not enough of us are listening to what it has to say.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Review :: Beowulf

Postmodern man is a like a child who, when confronted with the laws of his parents, breaks down in a weeping, screaming fit of rage, howling at the injustice of not being allowed to do what he pleases. The child is ignorant and impudent and cannot respect either authority of tradition. A story is told for hundreds of years but when postmodern man, this child, hears the story he feels he must change it, make it look more like himself. He tells himself he is "updating" the story, making it more "relevant" to his own situation, but he is lying to himself. He is polluting the story, changing its essential meaning; he is forcing it to please him; he does not want to be offended by what it says.

I am not judging the film as a film at this point. If it were only a film, and if it were not adapted from a canonical text, I would probably have enjoyed it. It is inventive and really quite breathtaking display of graphical prowess. But it calls itself Beowulf and I am judging it as an artifact, as a symptom, of postmodernity, as a display of what is wrong with out current modes of thought. We don't believe in pure heroes anymore; instead of reaching up to them, we pull them down to our level.

That is all I have to say. I loathed Beowulf for no other reason than that it is not Beowulf. Change the name, make a new story, say whatever you would like to say, but do not tell me this is Beowulf. This film is a mockery of that heroic poem. It creates ambiguity where none exists; it takes heroism of the highest order and smears mud all over it; it rejects greatness in favour of a flawed character. This is not Beowulf.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Werner Herzog

There are some artists who, when you are finally made aware of them, completely take over your imagination. They restructure everything about your experience of a medium, whether it is a newly discovered poet renovating your experience of poetry or a newly found painter revolutionizing your experience of canvas. In the world of film, I've had this experience three times now. The first time, three years ago, was when I devoured the films of Stanley Kubrick. For months, he took over my mind and I found my experience of film constantly evolving. Then it happened again two years ago when I finally discovered the brightest star in cinema, Akira Kurosawa. The experience was almost sublime and for months the images of Seven Samurai haunted me like no film has ever done before. Now, I find that it is happening again. It is not happening on as revolutionary a scale as with Kubrick or Kurosawa (there are only so many times your understanding of something can be destroyed and remade, after all), but it is happening in subtle ways that I appreciate just as much. I have discovered the films of Werner Herzog and I have fallen in love all over again.

I have now watched five of Herzog's films: Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, Woyzeck, Fitzcarraldo, and his most recent film Rescue Dawn. All of them have been exercises in madness and nature, in reaching the limits of human endurance and sanity, and all of them have gently shaped my expectations for what film can do. For so long I have lived and breathed in a cinematic world of stylization, from the pure bravado and exhilaration of Sergio Leone's West to the hallucinations and nightmare of David Lynch's human interior and to the mutation and evolution of the human mind and body in David Cronenberg's world of medical horror. And I have enjoyed these worlds completely. The fantastic and the stylized throws reality into glaring relief; we understand the shape of humanity by charting its outer limits, tracing it's boundaries and by occasionally stepping out further than ordinary human experience demands. Herzog does this too but from an entirely different vantage point, one from which artifice itself nearly disappears and we are left only with the human, naked and exposed, the subject of intense and unblinking scrutiny.
Anyone who has seen a Herzog film has probably, or at the least should have been, struck by his documentarian sensibility. It would be a lie to say that artifice disappears in a Herzog film but it would not be a lie to say that he often manages to make us forget about the artifice, forget that we are looking at something essentially unreal. He gives us images so tactile, so visceral and grueling, so candid and almost voyeuristic, that we are tempted to believe he has stolen away into the jungle with only a camera and managed to capture an event as it unfolds before him. There are moments when this documentary style is almost distracting, as when the camera lingers on little accidents or unscripted events, which ironically draw attention to the artifice of the film exactly by highlighting its lack of cinematic polish, but these moments are rare and forgivable, if one even notices them. While the rigor and clarity of vision of a Stanley Kubrick produces some of the greatest and strongest works of cinema, Herzog's steady and unflinching gaze penetrates deeper into the tissues of humanity and nature and makes us feel like we are watching ourselves, watching a real human drama full of obsessions and madness.

And the world of Herzog is a world of madness, of men stretched to the limits of experience either by insanity or obsession. These are the extremes, these are the myths of man that define us. Here on the edge, here in the jungle, here on the very brink of murder, here is where Herzog defines the human. Herzog's examination of humanity can be startlingly bleak, as in the haunting Aguirre, and it can also be triumphant even in the midst of despair, as in Fitzcarraldo or Rescue Dawn. The human spirit has a great capacity for insanity, it seems, but only because it has a great capacity for strength and power. The films of Werner Herzog explore these two extremes, both of which he suggests are often far more closely related than we'd like to think or admit.

Once a revolution has occurred, it is almost impossible to return to the way things used to be. After Kubrick, I saw movies differently. I had experienced the medium's true potential in the hand's of a true artist. I feel the same way, now, with Herzog.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Election

Today it's election day in Saskatchewan. I thought of this.

"There is no end to suffering, Glaucon, for our cities, and none, I suspect, for the human race, unless either philosophers becomes kings in our cities, or the people who are now called kings and rulers become real, true philosophers - unless there is this amalgamation of political power and philosophy, with all those people whose inclination is to pursue one or other exclusively being forcibly prevented from doing so."

Plato, The Republic. Translated by Tom Griffith. Cambridge University Press, 2004. 175.

Review :: The Darjeeling Limited

The first Wes Anderson movie I saw was The Royal Tenenbaums and it was on a lazy weekend while I was working at a summer camp. Another counselor and I went into the nearby town to buy pizza and rent some movies. I had recently heard about Anderson and was interested; I remember her being interested in it only because she thought it was another Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson comedy. It is not just another comedy and I think our different reactions to the movie are rather typical of responses to Anderson in general: I fell completely and immediately in love with the film's quirky and loving attention to nuance and minutia while she was simply bewildered by it and probably indifferent to the film as a whole. I don't think she hated it; she just didn't get it.

There is a tendency for some critics and fans to snobbishly say to a film's detractors, "you don't get it," as if this declaration somehow demonstrated a film's value or, worse, as if they, the fans, were somehow privy to secret knowledge about the film which everyone else missed because they are simply not as intelligent. I have often wondered whether I sound like this. The truth is, however, that some people "get" Anderson and others do not. But it's not a matter of esoteric gnostic insight or even about being smarter than the average bear; it's simply a matter of sensibility. Anderson is not the most insightful or mysterious of directors; his stories are not really all that more intelligent than any other well-made and serious comedy or drama. But it is his visual style, his lavish attention to detail and minutia, and his quirky and almost excruciatingly deadpan sense of humour, which set him apart. You either like that or you do not.

The Darjeeling Limited is the story of three estranged brothers, Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrian Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman), who have not seen each other since their father's funeral over a year ago. Each of the brother's lives are imploding in various ways and so, convinced and slightly duped by Francis, the eldest of the three, they decide to make a "spiritual journey" across India on a train, the Darjeeling Limited.

The story is not complicated and I don't suppose it needs to be. The journey metaphor has been seen many times before and we are all familiar with its tropes and idioms. Anderson is not reinventing the wheel. What is interesting about this story, however, and what separates it from most other road or journey movies, is how little actually happens on this journey. They don't meet a wide variety of odd characters; they are the odd ones. At the end of their journey, they don't find anything - no wizard behind the curtain, no Kurtz in his jungle; they find themselves. The brothers, Francis especially, are deliberately attempting to prompt some sort of religious experience; they've scheduled their enlightenment and reconciliation on the itinerary. And yet, even though they tell themselves they have noble motives, they are consistently petty and thoughtless, self-indulgent and more often than not they exploit their exotic surroundings in a typically Western and material manner. They visit temples and spend more time buying shoes than saying prayers. It is only when they are finally forced off the itinerary and confront the humanity of the people around them that they discover something profound and ultimately unarticulated about themselves.

Of course, all the regular criticisms of Anderson could still be said of The Darjeeling Limited. The film appears pretentious and arrogant and seems to be filled with an inflated sense of self-importance. I think it is. And I think it probably deserves to be. Anderson has achieved something that most filmmakers rarely do: the creation of a completely idiosyncratic and convincing style. He inhabits every frame of this film. He is complete control and he never falters in his execution. Nearly every frame is densely packed with details, each one of which contributes to a deeper and more satisfying understanding of the characters. However, the one criticism that I do think holds water, a few drops anyway, is that Anderson is sometimes a bit too heavy-handed in his execution. Some of his metaphors seem too obvious. Most of the time this fits in nicely with the film's themes, as when Francis, who is looking too hard for an authentic experience and probably measuring his life according to the familiar conventions of a journey metaphor, receives a flash of insight when their train becomes "lost." Other times, though, this heavy-handedness seems unnecessary, as if Anderson could have achieved the same thing without actually having his characters articulate it.

Yet while it sometimes feels like Anderson is hitting you over the head, it at other times feeling like he is a master of the ambiguous and the unspoken, as in the brilliantly executed short film Hotel Chevalier, a companion piece of sorts to The Darjeeling Limited. Anderson can be subtle; sometimes he chooses to be obvious. In either mode, he's crafting brilliant and enjoyable films. The Darjeeling Limited doesn't replace The Royal Tenenbaums as my favourite of his films but it does once again validate my opinion of him as an artist. The Darjeeling Limited demonstrates that after five feature length films, Wes Anderson is not loosing steam and remains an important and brilliant director.