Sunday, June 29, 2008

Underground Films

Film critic Manny Farber on "Underground Films," 1957:

"…any day now, Americans may realize that scrambling after the obvious in art is a losing game. The sharpest work of the last thirty years is to be found by studying the most unlikely, self-destroying, uncompromising, roundabout artists … The films of the Hawks-Wellman group are underground for more reasons than the fact that the director hides out in sub-surface reaches of his work. The hard-bitten action film finds its natural home in caves: the murky, congested theaters, looking like glorified tattoo parlors on the outside and located near bus terminals in big cities. These theaters roll action films in what, at first, seems like a nightmarish atmosphere of shabby transience, prints that seem overgrown with jungle moss, sound tracks infected with hiccups. The spectator watches two or three action films go by and leaves feeling as though he were a pirate discharged from a giant sponge …

"The action directors accept the role of hack so that they can involve themselves with expedience and tough-guy insight in all types of action: barnstorming, driving, bulldogging. The important thing is not so much the banal-seeming journeys to nowhere that make up the stories, but the tunneling that goes on inside the classic Western-gangster incidents and stock hoodlum-dogface-cowboy types. For instance, Wellman's lean, elliptical talents for creating brassy cheapsters and making gloved references to death, patriotism, masturbation, suggest that he uses private runways to the truth, while more famous directors take a slow, embalming surface route." (Negative Space, 15-17)

Farber's excitingly arguable definition of "underground," which is quite different from what we often take the word to mean when applied to art nowadays, makes me want to do a Keywords-style analysis of it, with particular attention to the evolution of the term in the late 50s/early 60s. The movies that Farber's using "underground" to champion are "male action films" directed by Howard Hawks, William Wellman, Anthony Mann, Robert Aldrich, etc. Briefly, here, Farber seems to want at least three different connotations of "underground" in play:

1. oblique in its formal strategies — "roundabout," "tunneling," and in contradistinction to "scrambling after the obvious"

2. not obviously authored — "the director hides out in sub-surface reaches of his work" — a hiding out which paradoxically confirms the director's ultimate authorship by allowing him to indulge his preference for "private runways to the truth"

3. disreputable — referring both to the films' conditions of viewing ("shabby transience") and their conditions of production and reception ("The action directors accept the role of hack")

For Farber "underground" is a kind of portmanteau concept, combining these three senses (which refer to form, authorship and social status respectively) into a rough category which he can use to classify, and therefore justify, the kinds of films he likes. What Farber doesn't make the word refer to is any type of coterie, conspiracy or social network, which I think has become the primary meaning of "underground" since. (One would assume this usage has political roots, though it would be interesting to try to figure out exactly which ones. A later instance that might reward some attention is the Weather Underground.) He also, while making a point of these filmmaker's opposition or at least indifference to more legitimate film culture, avoids any mention of the "avant-garde," both because it would be silly to apply such a term to Hollywood movies and because he clearly doesn't consider it a prerogative of any of his favorite underground filmmakers to épate la bourgeoisie: that would actually be closer to the sort of over-obvious, over-audience-focused films he attacks elsewhere in the essay.

Thus I think we can isolate, in Farber's article, a relatively pure conception of "underground," before it acquires its decisive association with the "counterculture" (a word yet to be coined). Farber's use remains idiosyncratic, but I think it nonetheless captures the word at an interesting point in its trajectory.

(I may write more on this later, when I read Farber's more famous essay on "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art.")

Thursday, June 26, 2008

e.g. "Ever adventuring Doctor Jones finds the ark thought lost"

Today Meredith Martin alerted me to the neatest thing, with the most unassuming title: John Box's A Metrical History of England (1882). It's a 36 page poem that goes chronologically through the events of English history. It's also a gimcrack, proto-Oulipian mnemonic puzzle!

As Box's "Preface and Key" describes:
"The following rhymes are a synopsis of English History - easily learnt and remembered. They have, however, some other advantages: -
1st. Each line expresses a historical fact;
2nd. The date of that fact is contained in the line.
The letters a, b, c, d stand for 1, 2, 3, 4 respectively; o stands for nought; f for five; s for six; e for eight; n for nine; v, the only unappropriated letter of the word seven, stands for that number.
With the exception of the first stanza, the dates up to 978 are found by taking the initial letter of the first three words of each line, thus: -

"A bulwark arises from Solway to Tyne"

a, b, a; that is 121, the date of that event."

To avoid every line beginning with an "A", centuries are given by "the measure of the verse," with the first words then encoding the particular year within that century. "Measure" seems to mean syllable count, but is hardly explained and doesn't seem to hold up. In any case, verses are grouped by century, as if in admission of the failing.

At its best, the result sounds like this:

"Over blighted England rose from bleeding Dane a mournful wail;
Over craven England flew red vengeance with each eastern gale;
Over English waters sail a noble fleet that traitors lead,
Only noble Alphege standing firm against the Danish greed." (14)

(so that would be: A.D. 1002/1003/1008/1009)

The first years of any century begin with these orotund "O"s, which fits the almost incidental chant of the poem. The poem doesn't have space within its constraints for suggesting causation: with no enjambment each event stays on its isolated line, and only rhetorical cues can partly suggest the causes and effects that the poet, nevertheless, seems always on the verge of suggesting. A conqueror will arrive in one line, vengeance will be meted out in the next; his son is full grown as new couplet begins; canonized as a saint soon after.

The result is a cryptic, anaphoric tide of half-comprehensible moments that sounds, in total, more like a soothsayer intoning the future than a legend of past events. Particularly since the dates in early English Chronicles vary, such Saxon incidents as the ones cited above can be hard to place as particular events. Lines that lack a proper noun may only find their referents when we decipher cryptic, seemingly non-objective judgments ("traitors", for instance, above). The strange mix of verb tenses, throughout, works against any sense that these events occurred, or are occurring, in a succession. In fact, the poem often seems to be describing some Sarum plain in which all of English history, every invasion and expansion, dukes it out simultaneously.

While Box's diction doesn't particularly strive to follow the development of the history it's describing -- (as, say, in the Oxen of the Sun episode in Ulysses) -- he does, by sheer fact of his nouns, present a sort of march from Anglo-Saxon ("Egbert boldly came crushing through Essex and Kent") to the polyglot Victorian imperium ("Decisive march to Goojerat brought Punjaub 'neath our rule"). Perhaps most strangely, the gradual lengthening of the lines, due to that inscrutable but somehow advancing "measure" of the centuries, lends a prosodic telos to the development of history. By the end of the poem, after the Whitmanesque anaphora that has structured time all along, we arrive at Whitmanesque lines that stretch to 18 syllables/8 or 9 feet (it's mostly iambic throughout). Fitting then that we get "Southern against the Northern States now stand in sad array" as the marker for 1861. That American-focused line should also suggest that the bounds of a metrical history of England, per se, must become global, and the meter distends accordingly. It's really at the breaking point by the end of the work, which is of course also the end of the possible history that Box could have helped us to remember.

There's some kind of rhythmic-nationalist lesson here that I'll leave it to Meredith to decipher. It's unclear to me whether the lines expand necessarily to "keep beneath control" (45) the far corners of the empire, or whether such octameter (?) is a symptom of over-reach.

As for being useful, as a portable mnemonic for national history, I wonder how this would fare. Could anyone actually use this poem to study for their history exams? The poem seems like a strange mix of mundane classroom drill (Roy G Biv, et al) and prophetic Hebraic numerology. The preface, in any case, notes that the mechanism of the poem, which seems to encrypt history as something both arbitrary and fated, leads to lines "written with unaccustomed fetters and manacles which hamper the freedom of their flow." If the poem does seek to document some movement toward imperial control, it does so only by enslaving the poet.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Robert Christgau on the New York Dolls (Notes on Twee #11)

"By their camping they announced to the world that hippie mind-blowing was a lot more conventional than it pretended to be, that human possibility was infinite. Of course, between Arthur's instinctive awkwardness and Syl's clowning and David's pursuit of the funny move, they suggested in addition that human possibility was hilarious. And the band's overall air of droogy desperation implied that human possibility was doomed as well." (Grown Up All Wrong, 188)

Possibly not a note on twee at all, but it bears repeating.

Friday, June 20, 2008

I dreamed last night that I found a great record store run by Barack Obama.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Three Wisemen

Notcoming's been doing a Frederick Wiseman retrospective this month, and I reviewed three of his films for it: The Store, Blind and Central Park.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Road Map

"When one is trapped in the vicious circles of thematic analysis, tourist routes around 'common themes,' which can only lead to 'commonplaces,' the only way out, it seems, is to explain the implicit values of history manuals by a history worthy of a manual."

— Pierre Bourdieu, Reproduction, p. 189 (trans. Richard Nice)

Singing way out of your range (Notes on Twee #9)

What's up with that? How did it get started? How self-conscious is it? Etc. etc.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Paging Kenneth Goldsmith

I just stumbled across this website, and it's really fucking weird. It's a website that provides the full text of the English subtitles for various bootleg DVDs, with no attributions as to character or stage directions or anything: just a long out-of-context transcript. The upshot is that the film, no matter what its original tone or genre, is transformed into some sort of bizarre prose poem. Here, for instance, is Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest (which I just screening-logged for Notcoming). And here's The Karate Kid.

Friday, June 13, 2008

A Nanny in Manhattan (Notes on Twee #8)

Rock'n'roll began as teenage music, and all previous attempts to go "back to basics" partook of its original logic of adolescence, i.e. of desire, whether it was teenagers barred from sex and pleasure in the 1950s, working-class youth barred from career opportunities with punk, or radical youth barred from political representation with hardcore.

But twee goes back to an earlier phase, in which all needs are pretty much met, and the ones that aren't are yet to be conceived of. Not all the way back: it's not Rousseauistic naturalness that twee wants (though maybe noise does?). It's that magic time when one has begun the process of acculturation, but hasn't gone too far along. You know what you're supposed to want, but it hasn't yet got inside you. We see this best in the genre's management of gender roles: there are boys and there are girls, and they're dressed differently, but ultimately they don't seem all that distinct.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


My review of Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux is up now at Notcoming.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Dignified and Old (Notes on Twee #6)

I suspect that an issue of prime importance in any analysis of twee would be the little matter of how it ages. (Cf. Luna, Calvin Johnson, The Wedding Present.)

Monday, June 9, 2008


Mirabell: Books of Number is the Ghostbusters II of twentieth-century poetry.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Know Your Onion!

"'Literary! Literary!' complained Ford Madox Ford in a letter to an acquaintance who had sent him a volume of her poems. 'Now that is the last thing that verse should ever be, for the moment a medium becomes literary it is remote from the life of the people, it is dulled, languishing, moribund and at least dead.' … These sentiments are likely to strike us as unexceptionable, for the cultural dispensation under which 'literature' operates as an honorific term and 'literary' as a vaguely pejorative one is well established; but the negative connotation of 'literary' and the coinage of 'literaryism' belong to the late nineteenth century, and by calling upon literature to avoid not the characteristics associated with other types of writing but precisely the things that give a text the appearance of being literature, those terms state the conditions of what would become a familiar avant-garde problem. For a thing that is suspect for looking like itself is an onion that can be peeled indefinitely." 

— Louis Menand, Discovering Modernism: T.S. Eliot and His Context, 55

Saturday, June 7, 2008

French Toys (Notes on Twee #5)

"French toys: one could not find a better illustration of the fact that the adult Frenchman sees the child as another self. All the toys one commonly sees are essentially a microcosm of the adult world; they are reduced copies of human objects, as if in the eyes of the public the child was, all told, nothing but a smaller man, a homunculus to whom must be supplied objects of his own size.

"…French toys always mean something, and this something is always entirely socialized, constituted by the myths or the techniques of modern adult life: the Army, Broadcasting, the Post Office, Medicine (miniature instrument-cases, operating theatres for dolls), School, Hair-Styling (driers for permanent-waving), the Air Force (parachutists), Transport (trains, Citroens, Vedettes, Vespas, petrol-stations), Science (Martian toys).

"The fact that French toys literally prefigure the world of adult functions obviously cannot but prepare the child to accept them all, by constituting for him, even before he can think about it, the alibi of a Nature which has at all times created soldiers, postmen and Vespas. Toys here reveal the list of all the things the adult does not find unusual: war, bureaucracy, ugliness, Martians, etc. It is not so much, in fact, the imitation which is the sign of an abdication, as its literalness: French toys are like a Jivaro head, in which one recognizes, shrunken to the size of an apple, the wrinkles and hair of an adult … [F]aced with this world of faithful and complicated objects, the child can only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator; he does not invent the world, he uses it: there are, prepared for him, actions without adventure, without wonder, without joy. He is turned into a little stay-at-home householder who does not even have to invent the mainsprings of adult causality; they are supplied to him ready-made: he has only to help himself, he is never allowed to discover anything from start to finish."

— Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, 53-54

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Did you know

that Kingsley Amis wrote a James Bond novel, under the pen name Robert Markham?

Monday, June 2, 2008

City Kitty (Notes on Twee #4)

Here's a little pop structuralism for you:

"…[C]ultural types which occur in very similar forms in every society, because they are constructed around very simple polarities, are used to fulfill different social functions in different communities … No doubt relationships between any two societies would be made easier if, through the use of some kind of grid, it were possible to establish a pattern of equivalences between the ways in which each society uses analogous human types to perform different social functions." (Tristes Tropiques, 25)


"Travel is usually thought of as a displacement in space. This is an inadequate conception. A journey occurs simultaneously in space, in time and in the social hierarchy. Each impression can be defined only by being jointly related to these three axes… only by a miracle can it happen that a journey does not bring about some change or other in this respect." (ibid, 85-86)

Now consider the case of Dean Wareham, born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1963, exported to New York in 1977, starts Galaxie 500 in 1987. Unlike Britain, which has a long history of nancy boy sensitivity in the arts (often also associated with homosexuality and child-cult), or America, where the terms "rock" and "sexual revolution" were polysemous if not synonymous, NZ/Australia are known for a distinctly polarized sexual and musical politics. So Wareham (much like his neighboring countrymen the Go-Betweens) starts from a premise of unquestioned rock masculinity which he is able to cleanly invert, rather than subvert. There's not a trace of inner conflict in Wareham's role reversal: his sweetness is all refusal, no compromise.

Put this sensibility on a plane to America and watch what happens. In his new context, Wareham appears not as eccentric (like Jonathan Richman or Calvin Johnson) nor as effeminate (like Morrissey or Stuart Murdoch) but as a new, available archetype of heterosexual masculinity. Voilà: the rock star as knowing, narcissistic wimp.

(To be expanded.)