Thursday, January 17, 2013

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Friday, October 7, 2011

Trailer for "The Raven"

This is a novel idea. It is one thing to adapt a Poe story, and it is common to make Poe a character in his own story, but "The Raven" is not actually an adaptation. It is speculative fiction that casts Poe himself as a "real life," or reel life, version of his own character C. Auguste Dupin (Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Purloined Letter) in a "tale of ratiocination;" think CSI in Poe's Boston.

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Autism in Poe

In Praise of Predictability

American culture is obsessed with originality, innovation and novelty.  Or at least it thinks it is.  Wired Magazine reported recently on a study done by Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt of UC San Diego that finds that spoilers actually increase the enjoyment of written stories.  Stories need suspense, obviously, but it seems that too much suspense detracts from the experience of the story.  A little foreknowledge allows us to focus more on the story and less on our reaction to it.  

I have long felt that originality is not the most important factor in whether something is any good.  Consider the epic poetry and tragedy of the Greeks; such literary heavyweights as Homer and Sophocles were telling stories everyone already knew by heart.  Or think of any story about history, or biography.  What is important here isn't the what but the how.  Originality is one factor among many.

In most cases where people criticize something as being unoriginal, predictable, a rip off, or whatever, what they are really saying is that it was unsatisfying.  This may or may not be traceable to lack of originality.  Art needs stability.  Like rhythm in music or meter in poetry, there is an ongoing dialectic of unity and variety.  Stability is boring, but there needs to be enough to carry the variety.  Variety is chaos, but there has to be enough to give us a charge and keep us on the edge of the seat.  We can't totally have either one, but we can't totally give up the need for either.  That is the magic of dialectic.

There is also a personal agenda behind any critical discussion.  Cynicism should not be mistaken for intelligence; bemoaning how derivative and unoriginal everything is is a great way to display superiority to everything.  Enjoyment involves naivete.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Lars von Trier Questioned by Dutch Police

I don't know which is worse: prosecuting a makeup artist for making things or prosecuting a director for saying things.  The makeup artist is of course Rémy Couture, who has for some time now been fighting a disastrous and expensive criminal prosecution in Canada for nothing but fabricating the grotesque.  Now it is the Danish director Lars von Trier's turn for a good hosing.  It's not official yet, but he reports being questioned by Dutch police supposedly at the behest of the French, although they deny this.     

My advice for public figures: don't ever talk about Hitler.  Or Nazis.  Ever.  Not even in your native tongue.  No matter how ironical, witty or cute you think you are being, you are making a complete ass of yourself and inviting disaster.

That said, I found my sentiments on the subject summed up nicely by Tristan Sinns at Planet Fury:
"Many of us groaned at the comments made by Lars von Trier during an interview at the last Cannes Film Festival; but now France is considering actually throwing the man in prison."  Read more 

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Jailed For Fiction?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Liking Black Swan does not Make me a Misogynist!

In a recent review of Black Swan, Alastair Macaulay had this to say:

"Its real objective... is to imply that a woman’s truest fulfillment is as (heterosexual) lover, wife and mother, and therefore that Nina’s best artistic successes can never compensate for her personal sacrifices."

Many people seem to be saying things like this.  This view perplexes me.  I didn't get this out of it at all.  There was no elucidation in the movie of some choice between Nina settling down with a man or pursuing her dreams.  There is no loverman character hovering around whining about how much she works, or getting jealous or whatever.  She is single and lonely, and something about her character makes me think that even if she wasn't obsessed with her occupation she would still be single and lonely.

Nina is isolated, and has tremendous difficulties in communicating, connecting or relating with others.  Is this because she is a woman?  Is this causally connected with her lack of love, heterosexual or otherwise?  I would say no.  It seemed to me not that she is troubled because she doesn't have a man, but the opposite.  She doesn't have a man (or a woman) because she is troubled.  I have known many people who are socially awkward who become workaholics because work structures their social interactions.  They can be quite effective on the job, but have trouble when this structure isn't there.  This isn't because they are boys or girls; it is one way to negotiate being a person.

None of Nina's problems derive ultimately from her intrinsic womanhood.  She is a woman and she does have problems, but she doesn't have problems because she is a woman.  Nothing that happens in the movie presents this false choice Macaulay talks about.  Nina's character drives her to do the things she does, to have the goals she has, etc.  Her womanhood is a part of this character, but only a part.  She is a whole person, a round character.  There is also, among other aspects, her mental makeup.  Boys can be crazy and obsessive, too, and when there is such a boy character in a story we don't read the whole story as some commentary on the character's boyness.  Unless of course the story explicitly sets itself up as such an examination.  Black Swan doesn't do this.  It is a thriller.  Thrillers are about crazy people, unreal and extreme situations.  Nina is not Everywoman.  Nothing about her character or situation is presented as normal.  It is nearly impossible to even tell what is supposed to be real and what's not.  How can she be the carrier of some simplistic moral message?

The second part of Macaulay's summary is more plausible.  The movie does depict Nina’s artistic success as paling in comparison to her personal sacrifices.  Sort of.  She does die, after all.  But even where this is true, it is not a consequence of her being a woman or failing to be a 'proper' woman.  She doesn't have to renounce her dream and stay barefoot and pregnant in a kitchen in order to not die.  She could simply have taken another role.  Or waited to take such a demanding part until her training made her ready.  She could have taken up meditation, yoga or therapy to handle the stress.  The only thing that prevents these sane options is her specific character; not her universal womanness.  Nina's tragic flaw is her perfectionism, not her womanhood.  

Of course, Nina's gender is critical to the story.  She is a ballet dancer, after all, not an NFL quarterback.  But you could depict identical themes and alleged moral messages with a story about an NFL quarterback (all that head trauma surely results in a hallucination from time to time.)  Boys and girls can both equally take on more than they can handle, go into a pursuit against strong misgivings, or conform to expectations instead of following the heart.  In order to read Black Swan as some sort of 'woman-know-your-place' story, we the viewers have to identify Nina's womanhood as the cause of her problems.  Nothing in the movie itself dictates this link, and personally, this did not occur to me as I watched.

Black Swan is not a story about women, ballet dancers or women ballet dancers; it is a story about this woman, this dancer, this person.  Art is about the particular, not the universal.  A story, at best, represents one set of possibilities.  Deriving universals from these particulars is a tricky business.  This kind of criticism reveals as much, or more, about the critic as it does about the work.  What did Cassius say to Brutus?  Something like, the fault, dear readers, is not in our movies, but in our minds, that we are underlings.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Autism Spectrum in Poe

Karen Weekes, in her article for the Cambridge Companion to Poe entitled "Poe's Feminine Ideal," comments on the egoistic isolation of Poe's main characters.  She remarks on this with regard to the presentation of female characters in Poe's fiction.  Weekes reads this as simple egoism or narcissism on the part of the character and, by implication, Poe himself.

This all got me to thinking about the actual flavor of self-preoccupation in Poe's characters, particularly in such stories as Weekes deals with: Ligeia, Morella, Berenice, Eleonora and The Fall of the House of Usher.  These characters are very much self absorbed, insensitive to others and their isolation tends to culminate in some sort of radical break with reality.  But are they narcissists?

I don't think so.  The main ingredient in narcissism is grandiosity, and this grandiosity is usually with reference to the self and others.  The narcissist needs others to be better than; the overt narcissist uses others to satisfy their feelings of entitlement, while the covert narcissist avoids people and situations that don't play into the illusion of greatness that they wish to have for themselves.

Poe's characters do have a flavor of grandiosity, but the element of vanity is conspicuously missing.  These characters describe themselves as meek and they come across that way.  They are strikingly unconcerned with others, individuals or society at large.  These characters never talk about society or scandal, and they seem not to have the pervasive shame that seems to go so well with narcissistic concern with the opinions of others.  The Narcissist needs an audience, real or imagined; Poe's characters seem completely unaware that a crowd has gathered.  The only people that seem to exist are those with whom the character has some relationship of importance.  Even then, though, these other characters are vague and distant.  Oddly enough, this kind of cold unconcern for others shows that narcissism is not the key to these characters.  The narcissistic consideration of others is mainly about how the other relates to the self; but even this is some kind of relation.

The egoism of Poe's main characters seems to be more of an autistic than narcissistic flavor.  They do not justify, aggrandize or explain their isolation; it is just a fact of existence.  They dislike it.  They suffer for it, and they seem to more or less know this.  They don't refuse to connect; they are incapable.  They don't use others for pleasure; they seem to be unaware that others can be a source of pleasure as much as anxiety.  They don't seem to be properly egoistic or narcissistic, but solipsistic; they are completely trapped in themselves and they experience the reality of others and the world as always in question and never to be trusted.

How justifiable is it to view certain of Poe's characters as exhibiting some form of Autism spectrum condition, such as Aspberger's?  I have no idea.  It is an intriguing question.  All I know about the Autism spectrum is what can be gleaned from reading a few wikipedia entries, and I haven't been able to find any articles that relate Poe and autism in any way.  I would love comments and suggestions!