A D Jameson is the author of three books: the prose collection Amazing Adult Fantasy (Mutable Sound, 2011), in which he tries to come to terms with having been raised on '80s pop culture; the novel Giant Slugs (Lawrence and Gibson, 2011), an absurdist retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh; and the inspirational volume 99 Things to Do When You Have the Time (Compendium, 2013), which grew out of something he posted here. Adam has taught classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Lake Forest College, DePaul University, Facets Multimedia, and StoryStudio Chicago. He is also the nonfiction / reviews editor of the online journal Requited and a contributor to the group blog Big Other. He recently completed his coursework toward a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
I first learned about Robert Ashley through Peter Greenaway, thanks to his Four American Composers series. I rented all four videos because I was interested in John Cage and Philip Glass. I didn’t know who Meredith Monk was, or Robert Ashley.
As it turns out, the episode on Ashley interested me the most. I didn’t understand the opera being discussed, Perfect Lives, but I knew I had to hear and watch the whole thing. I took to the internet and discovered that I could order it directly from Lovely Music, on VHS. I did so. It cost me $100—but I had to hear it.
Few people I knew at the time had ever heard of Robert Ashley. When I moved to Illinois and met Mark Tardi and Jeremy M. Davies, we bonded in part over our shared love for Perfect Lives, “an opera for television” made in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It’s still not widely known. It’s still never been broadcast in its entirety in the US. But I’m not alone alone in regarding it one of the greatest operas and long poems in the English language. (John Cage wrote of it: “What about the Bible? And the Koran? It doesn’t matter. We have Perfect Lives.”)
Short notice, but for those of you in Chicago, tomorrow night will see a plum event as the Danny’s Reading Series convenes, 7:30pm sharp at Danny’s in Bucktown (1951 W. Dickens, just off Damen). Reading will be Barry Schwabsky, Mark Yakitch, and the incomparable Virginia Konchan. As always, a DJ and dancing will follow.
A Field in England is finally getting a US release, starting today. It was probably my favorite new film of 2013, and it certainly contained my favorite scene of 2013 (the tent scene—watch at your own risk!).
Drafthouse Films is releasing it in select cities (but not Chicago, boo, hiss). It’s also available for digital download.
I’ve seen this movie maybe four times already, and you better believe I’ll be watching it again. And somewhere I have a mess of notes on it that I keep meaning to type up into something semi-coherent…
The great Hungarian filmmaker Miklós Jancsó passed away on 31 Jan; he was 92 years old. (The New York Times obit is here.) I first learned about Jancsó from David Bordwell, who wrote a detailed analysis of the man’s 1969 film The Confrontation in Narration in the Fiction Film (some of which you can read here). That film has been difficult to find (though there’s an unsubbed copy at YouTube), but I was able to track down The Round-Up (1966); The Red and the White (1967); Elektra, My Love (1974); and what would quickly become one of my favorite films, Red Psalm (1972):
(Here‘s a detailed essay by Raymond Durgnat of that film.)
Jancsó is perhaps best known for his work in the late 60s and early 70s, which saw him systematically exploring the question of how few takes he could use to make a film, while simultaneously exploring how complex those takes could be in terms of staging. The 87-minute-long Red Psalm consists of 27 elaborately designed shots (see the above clip for an example); in this way, the film was a forerunner of Aleksandr Sokurov’s 2002 single-take feature Russian Ark, as well as Alfonso Cuarón’s recent Gravity. (Cuarón named Jancsó as his primary influence in this Empire interview). Fellow Hungarian Béla Tarr was also much influenced by the man’s work, and has called him “the greatest Hungarian director of all time.”
Despite Jancsó’s significant artistic achievements, he’s been unfairly overlooked by most US film distributors. But some of his work can be found both online and on disc. It’s well worth tracking down.
“Total Eclipse of the Heart” was a single from Bonnie Tyler’s fifth album, Faster Than the Speed of Night (1983), and her biggest hit. It was written by Jim Steinman, Meat Loaf’s once and future collaborator. Steinman also planned out the video, which was then directed by Russell Mulcahy, a man responsible for numerous ’70s and ’80s music videos, as well as the films Highlander, Highlander II: The Quickening, and Blue Ice. So that’s the aesthetic world we’re dwelling in. (In a single word: overblown.)
The video itself is pretty broad, and rather easy to read—broadly. Simply put, Tyler plays an instructor (or an administrator) at an all-boys boarding school. (I will refer to her character as “Tyler” throughout, for convenience’ sake.) Extremely sexually repressed, Tyler endures a long night of the soul fantasizing about her young charges; this constitutes the bulk of the video. Come morning, she (and we) are returned to restrained, repressive reality. But we’re left with the hint that A.) at least one of her students has magically become aware of her fantasy, or B.) her fantasia has caused Tyler to become mentally unhinged. (I lean toward B and will defend that reading below.)
That’s the basic outline. The devil, however, sits in a straight-backed chair, clutching a dove. He’s also in the details, so let’s delve deeper …
On 16 December of last year, Macaulay Culkin posted to YouTube a video of himself eating a slice of pizza:
I watched it and showed it to some friends because, on the one hand, how random! Macaulay Culkin! Eating pizza! Lol! One million other people and counting apparently felt similarly.
The video fascinates because it depicts a star (or a former child star) doing something utterly mundane. The presentation is simple, stripped down. The shot is static and there are no cuts. Culkin looks embarrassed to even be there, to be watched eating. There’s no glitz, no glamor. The guy eats pizza just like you and me, even tearing off the crust (though I would’ve finished the rest of the slice).
Why does he look like he really doesn’t want to be wherever he is, or eating the slice?
Has he ever eaten a slice of pizza before?
Why does he look so sad?
Does he know he’s being filmed?
Do the pizza oils get trapped in his beard?
Why does he keep looking up?
Forty-six questions is a lot of questions, prompting a forty-seventh: “How many times did author Eric Dodds watch the damn thing?” And one million views is a lot of views. Thus, despite being banal, despite being awful, the video is somehow also something else. Would it be fair to call it transcendent? Even sublime? And if so, why? Because it purportedly offers us unmediated access to a former star, now desperately embarrassing himself?
But far from being random, or mundane, or excruciatingly candid, Culkin’s pizza video is a put-on, its every second pure artifice. For starters, it’s a loving recreation of another work—a short film of Andy Warhol eating a hamburger:
There’s a lot of ego on display here and when I’m honest, I enjoy that. It gives this site much of its attraction: people post and comment here in the spirit of one-upmanship, calling attention to themselves. The stakes are real: get a lot of page views, get voted up a lot, and you might win a publishing contract! (I have.) In the increasingly impoverished world of indy lit, what could be better than a website where typing some words into a text field and clicking a button can make you a (virtual) celebrity? When I post and comment, I do so giddy with the realization that others are watching—others who might invite me to their parties, or to contribute to their literary journals. (Some have.)
The indy lit blogosphere that we have made and are currently still making is as much about provocation as it is communication. Since its participants tend to be well-educated writers and artists, we tend to be good at provocation. We intend our comments and posts to make others think and feel differently—including, sometimes, negatively.
I was born in a relatively sexist / racist / homophobic corner of the world (Scranton, Pennsylvania—represent), where I was raised by fairly liberal parents who mostly espoused views one might call progressive. Nonetheless I absorbed a lot of sexist / racist / homophobic ideology, because the culture surrounding me was largely sexist / racist / homophobic. I attended a Catholic grade school and high school, for instance, and became an Eagle Scout—and while I’m not trying to single out those institutions (which did some right by me), we didn’t exactly sit around reading bell hooks.