The Vermilion Coast

Photography, Poetry, and Reviews

Category: Reviews

Swinburne

I don’t remember when or how I began to read Swinburne.  When I try it’s like trying to remember a dream.  All I see are outlines of images, rough around the edges and endlessly moving.  It may have been from Pound, who introduced me to all sorts of things I’d never have come to otherwise: the Troubadours; the grimy, worm-like part of Venetian literature; a certain way of considering the past.  It might, though, have been from somewhere else, from a friend or a person I was falling in love with (this was a decade ago).  I do know for sure that Swinburne haunts me, in the way that a pretty thing is haunting, and that I’ll never get over it.

At first I must have loved the titles because I put a lot of stock in a good titles-and Swinburne has very good ones: The Triumph of Time; A Ballad of Life; A Ballad of Death; A Ballad of François Villon, Prince of All Ballad Makers.  They are absurdly broad, austere and almost awkward except for the fact that the poem that follows always overwhelms far more than the title, and not only does the title then seem appropriately grandiose but it seems slightly modest.  And then it must have been that I felt like he was speaking through me, because around that time I felt like I didn’t have any words of my own and maybe I never do and for that matter maybe no one ever does but especially at that time I didn’t and couldn’t even pretend that I had my own words so I let his become mine because he seemed to need to repeat them over and over, even in the same line, in the way that I needed to repeat words silently to myself after I said them out loud.

Later that haunting would come, like all real haunting comes, precisely when expected.  And at that moment of emptiness or eagerness or flightiness or anger or elation or fear that sprawling, sweeping sound of his verse returned.  More than anything his poetry is a triumph of the ceaseless return.  And it’s a reminder that we’ll never lose anything, not even our pain.

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The Social Network

The Social Network is prickly.  And brooding.  How something manages both prickliness and brooding, moodiness and wit, is a bit of a marvel.  It’s also a marvel given the tone, which is a sort of dull elegiac or a subdued panic.  The plot is fairly simple: Mark Zuckerberg (who in the film seems to little resemble the actual Zuckerberg, except inasmuch as they’re both pricks), encouraged partly by slouchy  loneliness, partly by the excitement of building things and mostly by other people’s ideas, creates a multi-billion dollar company.  Some people have quibbled over the accuracy of the story the movie tells, but I don’t get any impression that the movie’s account of history intends any uniqueness, much less uniqueness to the particular facts of the history of Facebook’s creation.  Sure, these are actual people, but only so much as they make the story relevant to the actual people watching.

Beginning with a half-drunken night at Harvard and ending with a very sobering afternoon in Silicon valley a few years later, the movie jumps back and forth in time between the actual creation of the website, and company, and the legal discoveries brought on by those cut out of the deal.  The whole process is a little, as my mother said after watching it, like watching the creation of a sausage. The focus isn’t as much on the details of the coding involved in the site’s construction or the mechanics of assembling capital and infrastructure for a leviathan-like business, but on the relationships between those involved.  Those logistics (the math, the contracts), however, become symbolic: the first algorithm Zuckerberg uses for Facebook’s earliest iteration is taken from his friend, who writes it out on the window of Zuckerberg’s dorm room when demanded, kind of rudely and for nothing in return.

It’s an uneven exchange, based on vaguely false pretenses.  Someone is sort of used, but used sort of willingly (there is the tacit, unspoken promise of something exciting being created in partnership).  This dynamic reverberates throughout: an idea, an algorithm, a conversation are turned from potential into actual motion without any clear articulation of who gets credit for them.  This sort of thing happens regularly all over the place, especially with entitled, white early 20-somethings.  The difference here of course is that billions of dollars are at stake, and everyone knows it.

If I follow the tone and perspective rightly, there aren’t unequivocal goods and evils. That is what is most unsettling about the movie: a kind of energetic apathy excites everyone.  This is a group of what must be the most empowered hapless people in film history.  The losers, the ones cut out of the project despite originating the idea, get 65 million dollars.  The co-founder, more mercilessly cut out, gets presumably much more.  Naturally, the question becomes, what is really lost?

Maybe even more pressing, what is really gained?  The project they orbit around and come to inhabit is a sort of productivity divorced from production.  They create a thing that, like mobil phones, no one knew they needed until it was there, and now can’t seem to live without.  Initially, at least, Facebook itself doesn’t do anything per se (it merely reflects things that have been done, or comments on them).  As such it becomes a fitting collective incarnation of the film’s characters, each of whom have to take from other people to make anything, and frankly look better in small moments, in a few select photographs, a few edited witticisms.  We always edited ourselves, but Facebook lets us do it entirely-this looks like an overwhelmingly appealing (and then necessary) feature for everyone in the movie, if not for an entire generation.

Despite all the high drama, however, The Social Network has no catharsis, no climax.  The anxiety, excitement and wit don’t waver much.  Heady argument is absent.  You are left, like one of the characters, a hapless witness to a slowly growing unease.  It’s a lingering unease too, especially if you check your Facebook after the movie.

The American

The American is a misleading title.  Little of the film’s main character, an erstwhile assassin (George Clooney), conjures up America.  Jack, as he is first called, speaks little and dresses less.  It’s all rusty, dark browns, ocher and Italian accessories.  Nationality itself, as far as the plot is concerned, seems more a matter of landscape than politics.  Jack is introduced at a cabin in quiet, rural Sweden cupping a glass of wine and a curvy nude.  The man appears distant, even up close, and he looks like he might be a foreigner anywhere.  He later moves on to a silent medieval Italian town tucked up into the spine of an Abruzzian hill. The only hint of his native country comes out in his accent, which isn’t actually all that American.

The director, Anton Corbijn, whose repeated geometric patterned village-scapes and broad, flat monochromatic squares of grass, snow  and sky recall early Mondriaan, is Dutch.  The opening credits swell with Italian names. Knowing none of these things going into the film, coupled with the title and Clooney’s art deco, suited silhouette on the poster, you might be surprised by what follows.

Corbijn is a photographer by profession and it shows in the cinematography.  Often characters seem the background of a larger portrait of a moody room, an empty bar or forested stream.  The assassin, Edward, once in Italy, poses as a photographer.  So begins a long meditation on the relationship between photographers and their subjects.  The assassin, like the photographer, fits nicely into this structure: neither can afford to be too close or too far to their subject.  Both, existing just outside of the world which they handle, reach in and stop time.  The American deals more than anything else with the peculiar aloofness necessary to do this kind of work, and do it well.

His work is to make a specialized rifle, which leads into a thorough display of the kind of things otherwise hidden in action films: waiting, watching, scrounging for parts, and then patiently assembling the rifle itself. The particular style of his work, and the way it is filmed, assumes a decidedly European flavor.  He never looks out of place; never makes a false step and speaks passable Italian.  When he meets his contact at the bank of a stream to test the rifle he brings picnic fare as a cover.  As he empties the bottle of Muscatto his contact points out that the wine they are not drinking has been chilled.  The American shrugs and says, “Italian Police.”

Like photography, whose work only minimally requires the actual taking of photographs, assassination seems to seldom involve the actual taking of lives.  Preparation, and recuperation, occupy most of the assassin’s time.  When he is not meeting or calling contacts, he files, hammers, melds, fits, and polishes.  Only a few steps away from his work desk, he does similar work on his own body, which looks as lean as the film does.  These reflections, like those of the mirrored work of photography and assassination, pervade the action.  What seems formally like minimalism-sparse dialogue, stylized silence, taciturn streets- becomes much grander taken all together: loneliness assumes a more austere character; aloofness seems essential for art, not only art-making.  Austerity and reticence are not exactly inviting characteristics, and the collective sigh (or groan) released by the theatergoers as the film faded to black recalled the sounds of having been rejected.  One man behind me began a subdued sort of angry shouting.  The couple beside me, who arrived happily enough, looked as though they had just broken up.  My grandmother went out of her way to contact me the next day to tell me not to go see it.  I certainly felt odd as the final credits appeared, as though I’d been caught in a building moments before it collapsed.

Mesrine: Instinct to Kill, and Public Enemy Number One

Two films appeared last year in France and this year in the United States about the life of Jacques  Mesrine.  The films are two parts of a single story, the rise and fall of France’s most well known gangster, a man who began his adult life by choosing to be a criminal but grew to regard himself rather as someone chosen.  Beyond this we might begin to describe him with a list of, let’s say, achievements: French veteran of the Algerian war; bank robber; thief; author; libertine; part time revolutionary; orator; murderer; prison escapist.  Still today all of these achievements are hotly contested, save one.  Throughout his career Mesrine displayed an unrivaled ability to break out of jail.  He broke out of high and low security prisons.  He broke out of Paris’ “La Sante” prison, stayed in Paris for a little while, and immediately went back to heists, which is basically the equivalent of breaking out of Alcatraz, swimming to shore and then opening up a bar in North Beach.  He broke out of a previously impenetrable prison in Quebec, only to drive right back armed to the teeth and attempt to break back in to break out the guys who had helped him break out.  He even broke out of a full courtroom, while on trial, but not until the (overflowing) court could hear a litany of his, let’s say, accolades.

Achievements, accolades and acclaim are the essence of a man openly obsessed with his resume.  Mesrine writes an autobiography (in which he admits to committing murder, while in prison awaiting trial), sets up a profile interview with a popular French paper and, in perhaps his most revealing scene in the film,  lambastes a police interrogator for mispronouncing his name- the “s” is silent.  Vincent Cassel, who is best known in the States for his role as Danny Ocean’s blithely European anti-hero in the film’s latest two installments and as a sneering, hapless, impotent Russian gangster opposite Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises.  In short, he has not been flattered by the English speaking world, which is a pity.  On paper Mesrine is his most American leading role, and by the violent tenor of his voice and the overproduction of his expressions he acts as though he is aware of it.  This is a bit sad, since he has shown riveting subtlety in the heated, enigmatic Sur Mes Levres where he plays an ex convict reentering society, alongside a woman whose deafness renders her quite lost in it.  They both discover virtues in their deficiencies, although not in any way they could celebrate publicly, which covers them in a weighty blanket of silence; real crime is quiet, mysterious and antisocial.

Mesrine, on the other hand, fills the world with noise.  He shouts, screams, shoots and shakes.  When words don’t suffice he speaks with his hands, and with his gun, often all at the same time.  French gangsters, it appears, talk a lot.  And I mean a lot; Mesrine speaks Spanish (to pick up women, successfully) and English (to American police, less successfully) and even picks up some Quebecois slang in Montreal (mid bank robbery, at that).  While arguing with his wife (consequence of an adventure into Spain) he spurts out sentences in French, then in Spanish, then in French (as she responds in Spanish, French and then Spanish) ending in a violent eruption (in French) as he forces his pistol into her mouth and holds it there, long after he’s finished speaking.  He talks so much that by the middle of the second part you haven’t really any idea what he cares about, or even what he stands for.  It’s no surprise then that he looks most confident when breaking out of jail; nothing can be lost in translation.

Unsurprisingly, these scenes (the break-out scenes) are done with the greatest diligence; they provide the body of the plot (his deepest friendships are made, begun or solidified in the planning and execution of his break outs) and grant the audience some momentary catharsis.  And of course, they shift the focus away from whatever he had done to get put in there in the first place.  Such shifting is sadly underused in the film.  The whole project attempts to do justice to the man’s complexity, mystery and charm by overwhelming the screen with his presence.  What is left is an actor and director who, like their subject, don’t know exactly what to do with their bounty of talent.

Joanna Newsom: Have One on Me

It can be difficult to listen to Joanna Newsom’s music. It is at once oddly withdrawn and deeply intimate.  Her main instrument is a harp, which can’t be described these days without saying things like “arcane,” which conjure up a foreign time, or “Celtic,” “Moroccan” or “Oriental,” which conjure up a foreign place.  While her first album, The Milk Eyed Mender, happily stretched the limits of a three minute melody her next album, Ys, took fifty-five minutes to get through only five songs.  Have One On Me spans two hours and three LPs.  As for the subject matter;

So the muddy mouths of baboons and sows and the grouse and the horse and the hen
Grope at the gate of the looming lake that was once a tidy pen
And the mail is late and the great estates are not lit from within
The talk in town’s becoming downright sickening,

from the first track on Ys, is not nearly her most allegorical lines.  They are, however, only a few lines of a twelve minute long song in which she hardly stops for a quarter rest.  She wanders between varied histories, personal, political, literary and mythical.  At this point it in her career she sounds more anachronistic singing about packing up a car than about  meandering the garden of Eden, breaking “our hearts, in the war between St. George and the dragon.”

And then there is her voice.  It is arresting, to say the least.  If you are listening you can’t avoid it; you can’t exactly have a conversation over it; if you’ve heard more than a few lines you can’t help but form an opinion of it, even if you don’t want to share it.  Her voice changes suddenly, dramatically, within the same song, and sounds as unhurried as earlier it had sounded rushed.  At one moment it sounds sharp, cutting.  Next it sounds supple, soft.

“Accessibility” is a word that is thrown around by indie music reviewers in the same way Real Estate agents throw around “rustic charm” and “quaint.”  It basically means that the music would likely be appealing to those not already reading the type of review that would use the word “accessible” to describe the “sound” of the band.  Like Real Estate agents, indie reviewers are both selling something and concealing something, but whereas Real Estate agents are selling physical property, indie reviewers are pitching ideas.  What they are concealing is a fear that a certain type of music, if pushed out of its original context, might fall apart.  Since “indie” now more readily denotes a notion of self, a style of self consciousness, than any particular sound, it has become more susceptible, as a movement, of either fracturing or becoming mainstream.

In this light Joanna Newsom appears to be an enigma.  Her soggy, old, feral moods are oddly sincere, and sincerity is timeless, but then what other generation could find her “sound” so attractive?  Of course, to be obsequious we first have to be somewhat baffled.  That she is difficult, that you have to sit (for a while) sifting through layers of melodic lines and thick, severe poetry in order to make any sense of her music is perhaps her greatest appeal to those in a time overwrought with the tension between heady individualism and muscly traditionalism. She either sits, harp in hand, utterly outside of the conflicts wrestling for the identity of her form of art, or squarely in the center.  Have One On Me doesn’t provide much reason to suspect one direction or the other, but you can imagine-and hear-her patiently, persistently working through profound questions similar, if not the same, to those troubling the varied worlds-large and small; divine and worldly; musical and mute- surrounding her.

Broken Embraces

Toward the end of Broken Embraces the camera hangs directly above a coffee table.  The table overflows with thousands of torn strips, squares and triangles of photographs.  The table, rectangular and black beneath the clippings, suggests some thematic parallel with the camera’s, or even the film’s, vision.  The shot is a violent splash of color, yet also vaguely reminiscent of the odd shapes and sharp, sweeping lines in Picasso’s Guernica.  You begin to think, like you do when you see the Guernica, that pain begets beauty.  It’s a pretty thought, but for the fact that anyone involved with war might more likely prefer to have their life back rather than a work of art.  Catharsis, artistic or otherwise, itself is not healing.  The tension between pain and beauty- or more properly; what you choose to feel when you see something so evil so aesthetically pleasing- lingers throughout Broken Embraces, although that’s not to say that it’s a moral film.

It isn’t a moral film because there isn’t any moralizing, and further because there isn’t much by way of plot.  But there is tension, and whole lot of it.  Some tension arises simply out of the oddness of a monologue, some out of a single comment and some from more typical situations (adultery-of a kind, illness and so forth).   The film weighs so heavily with characters that you might even take tension itself to be one of the principal characters.  And why stop there?  The film that is being made within the film, Girls and Suitcases, is certainly Broken Embraces‘ central character.  It preys on its producer, haunts its director, creates-and consumes- the life of its main actress.  It seems almost as though you were in a place where nothing is more natural, more central, more salient, than films.  They are life forms, and their evolution is just as dramatic, vast and enigmatic as Darwin’s biology.  Almodovar’s is a world as fertile as it is unforgiving.

The overwhelming presence of character in the film assumes the space that in other films would be filled by story.  The narrative, consequently, is a bit odd.  It is, in a very limited sense, like that of Proust; the whole act of film making seems to be an effort to regain time.  You are submersed in the hazy vicissitudes of the past, one that is being constantly recreated, constantly re-collected, one that is never-like Faulkner says- past.  Your world, it seems, may be best understood through certain cuts, particular frames, a spell of dialogue- none of which need have anything to do at all with your actual history.

But what is, for lack of a better phrase, actually going on?  A writer, by his own introduction, is recreating his life due to the fact that he is now blind.  He works with his producer, who in her introduction looks more like his wife, and her son, and the story begins with a death of someone they know, followed immediately by the appearance of the dead man’s son.  With that the story begins to descend into memory, or the realm of memory, in which the landscape is an abundance of images, all overlapping one another and enveloping one another; you cannot step in one direction without opening the way to two more.  There is a film being made.  There is a romance between the director and the actress.  There is a film being made about the film being made.  There are no class conflicts, no real breaches of morality (no one is married, and no one is likely to be so), no conventions beholding anyone to act.  Each character’s actions defer to no higher rule than themselves, which, frankly, makes it strange when you see them suffer.  Stranger still, by their art, just as by their lives, they present a world in which not only pain begets beauty, but beauty begets pain.