A Supposedly Fun Film

August 23, 2015 § Leave a comment

I don’t know if I’ll get around to seeing The End of the Tour before it leaves theaters, but after reading Rebecca Mead’s article on the The New Yorker’s web site, “How ‘The End of the Tour’ Nails an Entire Profession,” I really want to.

The film is not a standard biopic, but a look at the evolving relationship between a journalist and his subject:

What “The End of the Tour” dramatizes—why it will be added to journalism professors’ curricula—is the seduction phase of the profile-writing process. It shows what a complicated encounter that can be, when the reporter’s effort to get inside the mind and heart of his subject is professionally motivated but also personally charged. We see the skill with which Lipsky engineers Wallace’s revelations: he waits until they are strapped into adjacent airplane seats before bringing up the fact that, as a graduate student at Harvard, Wallace was committed to McLean, the psychiatric hospital—a nice cinematic representation of journalistic cunning. But he is also seen singing along to the car radio in what is represented as a genuine sense of joy in Wallace’s company. Of course, you end up becoming yourself, even when you’re a journalist.

Wallace is not my favorite writer; he is witty and entertaining, but his outsized projects seem to fall just beyond my purview. That he was chosen for the subject of a movie (not based on David Lipsky’s biography, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, but about the making of that book) shows how he is sadly lumped into the category of writers admired for their personas as much as if not more than their opera. I read Infinite Jest a number of years ago, and what I remember of its tripartite narrative is caring more about the tennis academy thread than the psychologist thread or the Quebecois separatist thread. His essays fascinate me more, particularly those in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, though in their quests to view Middle American traditions like state fairs and luxury cruises through the lens of irony, they feel like very old jokes.

In the Here and Now

August 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

At The Lit Hub, Alexander Chee offers praise for the present tense in fiction:

In the present tense, you aren’t stuck to the moment—you can go forward and backward in time. In fiction, the demands of the present tense are in some ways the opposite of that exploration of uncertainty—the tense places a demand for the elimination of all other possibilities in the writer’s imagination—this is what happened and is what is still happening whenever this memory returns to this character or whenever this moment matters.

The present tense encourages a sitting, an observing, a letting things come to us. How often do we use it when we relay things that are comfortably secured and locked in the past? Think of how we share stories among friends, the way we talk as though the audience member is present at the scene: Tommy sees the snake and comes bursting out the bathroom with his pants around his ankles and the rest of us are just sitting there, dying laughing. Or: I’m driving down Route 6 minding my own business when this cop comes up behind me, and I’m thinking oh shit, what the fuck does he want? We use the present tense to tell narrative jokes: A man walks into a bar…

Critics often use the present tense to summarize movies, as though the audience is following along in the moment: Sonny stops at the toll booth, and there’s a delay as the toll booth operator drops the change. Then the movie goes silent, and that’s the moment when he knows he’s doomed.

Sports color commentators use the present tense to rehash a play that just happened. Archer throws a changeup on the outer half of the plate and Ortiz does a nice job of keeping his hands back on the ball and lifting it to the opposite field.

I have used present tense a few times myself, including for my baseball stories, even though they are set in the 1990s. It should come as no surprise that some of my favorite fiction uses the present tense, including John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy.

The End of PANK

July 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

The editors at PANK magazine announce they are closing up shop (via Facebook):

Dear friends and family,

Please accept this brief note as PANK’s formal notification of resignation, effective as of the end of this calendar year, 2015. We’ll publish one last print issue and two final online issues of PANK Magazine; look for those in the months ahead. We are immeasurably proud of our publications and have boundless gratitude for all the staff, contributors, and each and every reader who has labored alongside us over the last decade. It’s been an immensely gratifying ride. PANK loves you.

Yours sincerely
M. Bartley Seigel & Roxane Gay

I will remember PANK as a fun journal with sass and bite, the fiction about intense characters with few fucks to give, as in Meghan Cass’s “The Hawthorne Dynasty” from Issue Eight:

“Get a load of this chick from my super soccer star days,” Alana said, looking me up and down and laughing again. “Look how cute she is.”

I was suddenly aware of the ridiculousness of my flowered vintage dress, purple tights, and patent leather shoes in a place like this, the clothes of a little girl playing dress-up.

“We’ve got to go,” the man said again. “Set-up’s in thirty minutes, show’s at eight, Taconic’s a shit show.”

“Jesus, Mary, can I finish my drink?” Alana said, sounding for an instant like her mother. Then she pounded the rest of her first vodka tonic, dropped some cash on the bar, stood up, and stretched her arms behind her back. She was taller than I remembered, in her platform shoes. She smelled of smoke and a complicated perfume I couldn’t identify, a combination of sage and lavender and some men’s cologne.

It appears that this also marks the end for Tiny Hardcore Press, which had published Sheila Squillante’s collection Beautiful Nerve, Myfanwy Collins’s I Am Holding Your Hand, James Tadd Adcox’s The Map of the System of Human Knowledge and Robb Todd’s Steal Me for Your Stories.

Kids at Twenty

July 19, 2015 § Leave a comment

Kids

Kids was the first movie I ever trekked to see. Unrated and saddled with a reputation (“racy”; “controversial”; “provocative”) out of the gate, there was no way it would fly at the mall theaters. I eventually found the listing in the Boston Phoenix. I had to leave the suburbs to see it, and so I dragged a friend to Cambridge with me.

At that time, I was a few years older than the kids in Kids, and I had never been to New York. The actors were younger than me, amateurs pulled off the street. It was an authentic move: the characters talked like they lived there on the Upper East Side. Leo Fitzpatrick, who plays Telly, was picked for his role when Larry Clark saw him skateboarding in Washington Square. It wasn’t long before Chloë Sevigny was showing up in streetwear ads in Spin magazine and Rosario Dawson was appearing in mainstream films like Josie and the Pussycats.

Why was I so interested in seeing Kids? I was a sophomore in college at the time, trying to cram a part-time job into a full-time schedule. I was frustrated and bitter. Merrimack was a lonely place, its square campus pinned between highways, and sickly proud of its apartness from alt-culture. It was Irish Catholics drinking Bud Ice and listening to Neil Young and Pearl Jam and smoking weed and losing money at cards and Sega.

There was also a lot of hooking up, or at least attempts to hook up, which wasn’t a new thing but was still difficult for me to reconcile. Hooking up meant posturing, lying about yourself, scoring points and throwing people away. I was guilty of posturing too, but I took the insolent defeatist loner route, the route that allows you to avoid having to engage. If Kids was going to take a probing look at the moral vacuity of young people and their shame-free vices, I wanted to see how closely it reflected the attitudes I saw.

Kids was released in 1995, near the beginning of the Giuliani administration, and it is interesting to estimate how much of the New York that Telly and Casper and Jenny walk through has since been cleaned up or gentrified away. The movie buries itself in the underground: amongst the ravers, the skaters, and the freakers—but we also see the households, the collectibles, and the childhood bedrooms as bases from which the kids operate.

The opening scene has antihero Telly open-mouth kissing a 12-year-old girl in her room: the audio gets right in on the teeth and wet suck. “You know what I wanna do?” Telly barely enunciates. “You want to fuck me,” she says, practically resigned to the fact. They are in their underwear. In the space between them, we can see the girl’s collection of stuffed animals and awards displayed against the far wall.

Telly collects his quarry, then races downstairs, where his friend Casper waits on the stoop. They shoplift malt liquor forties from a convenience store; they watch skater videos and do nitrous oxide in a friend’s apartment; they steal money from Telly’s mother, who is preoccupied with her newborn. They skate in Washington Square Park and join a crowd in pummeling a black man who bumps into Casper, not stopping until the man is left unconscious on the pavement.

In taking the virginities of girls, Telly is the only character in Kids with a professed interest. Sexual conquest is his means of keeping score, of knowing he is alive. There is a whole method behind it, which he lays out to Casper:

TELLY

I want to knock her guard down. I mean there’s a whole

philosophy behind it. Having a virgin suck your dick, that’s

basic because there’s nothing lost.

CASPER

It’s no big deal, right?

TELLY

Right. But when you deflower a girl, that’s it. You did it.

You were the one. No one else can ever do it.

The nameless 12-year-old from the first scene is never seen again. (Not only in the movie: the actress’s name is Sarah Henderson, and Kids was her only film; she never appeared in another.)

Harmony Korine was 19, barely a kid himself, when he wrote the script for Kids. A transplant from Nashville to New York, he had befriended Larry Clark while Clark was photographing the skaters in Washington Square. As he explains in Eric Hynes’ excellent and comprehensive “’Kids’: The Oral History of the Most Controversial Film of the Nineties”:

I was trying to entertain myself, to crack myself up, to invent new ways to get in trouble, new ways to mess with people, new ways to make people angry. You can’t discount how excited I was, and we were, with the idea of making people — and grown-ups specifically — angry.

Critics, even today, watch Kids and come away with the sense that Clark’s real objective was to made a documentary of New York youth culture. As Adam Taylor wrote in the Awl in 2010, that portrayal ended up selling the city as glamorous to outsiders:

These kids were the “real deal.” I clearly was not. New York City was a playground for them, full of drink, drugs and sex. My life, in suburban London, was the definition of leafy, and my social life revolved largely around the Nintendo 64. I wore glasses and I couldn’t skateboard. In fact, no one I knew could really skateboard. I was sold on the New York City exported by the film.

Ten years later I now live in New York, and I barely recognize it from the film. There are no skateboarders in Washington Square Park, just NYU students. The East Village is full of bars with beer pong tables in the back, Ivy educations and Japanese restaurants. I still don’t know anyone who skateboards.

A question to be asked is why Korine felt the need to imbue Kids with a moralistic tinge. The hype that the movie received—“a wake-up call to the world,” boasted the trailers—seemed to expect Kids to frighten children away from such behavior, and alert parents to what their kids were doing when they weren’t looking.

I remember not being shocked at all by the actions in Kids, but thinking, yes, this is exactly where kids want to go. I recognized the slick workarounds, the slurred rhetoric of manipulation; I recognized Telly’s bony, freckly shoulders; I recognized Casper’s squint and saunter, his bringing up of phlegm, and his habit of idly shoving his hand down his shorts. I recognized the looks in the faces of the girls, both frightened and impressed by the audacity of the boys.

Jennie learns she is HIV-positive, and Telly is the only boy she has slept with. Knowing his predilection for virgins ripe for the picking, she goes on a hunt to find him. It is the one act of responsibility in a movie that documents the perils of its avoidance, and it ends with passed-out Jennie bent in half and raped by Casper on the squishy Naugahyde sofa next to three shirtless, passed-out preteen Latino boys.

Meanwhile, Telly has decided that he wants to take the virginity of a girl named Darcy. There is the scene where Telly calls up to Darcy’s window, trying to lure her to join them at the public pool. A few friends have joined them from the park, including two girls, and while Telly works to convince Darcy, Casper spoons a girl who leans back into him, allowing him to caress her bare stomach; another rubs his hand up and down a girl’s bare thigh. These subtle maneuvers epitomize the ritual of the scheme that Korine and Clark want to bring to the fore.

Twenty years later, the fears and attitudes that drove the film no longer carry the same propulsion. AIDS does not have the same specter it did then, and the race-against-the-clock narrative (Jenny trying to find Telly before he can harm Darcy) doesn’t have any value in a generation with cell phones and Internet at hand. As a result, the film has become somewhat more of a documentary than it had been when it was released; when you re-watch Kids, you find new places where the lens lingers. It takes time to admire young torsos (a subject that comes up again in Larry Clark’s photography), watches as Telly and Casper manage the streets and subway lines, and admires the oddities of city culture; there is a transitional scene towards the end where we are taken on a ride through the streets, with stops to look at the odd homeless character or park curiosity, against the swirls of Folk Implosion’s “Raise the Bells,” an aural oddity that is reminiscent of a classroom filmstrip complete with off-key fuzzy cassette soundtrack. It is a sobering juxtaposition, as it comes just after the traumatic extended scene of Casper raping Jennie, and just before Casper wakes up again to utter the final line: “Jesus Christ, what happened?”

The drama in Kids is almost Shakespearean, in that the majority of the characters end up silently doomed. It ends with a visual body count: the passed-out young people piled up in the apartment, all over the floors and the furniture. And while Fitzpatrick, Sevigny, and Dawson have gone on to become stars, it’s almost tragically appropriate that both Justin Pierce, who played Casper, and Harold Hunter, who played one of the skater kids from the park, died young. The rough New York in which the kids were allowed to wreak havoc is also gone, scrubbed clean. Korine has said that it’s not possible to make a film like Kids anymore, and it’s not just due to the access of technology that would easily allow Jennie to get ahold of Telly. It’s that the romantic underground that Kids is all about no longer exists.

Fasting Worth

July 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

20593137-000

Via Poetry Magazine: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse/132/5#!/20593137. RIP.

The Empty Sky of Morning

June 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

This blue, indolent town. Its cats. Its pale sky. The empty sky of morning, drained and pure. Its deep, cloven streets. Its narrow courts, the faint, rotten odor within, orange peels lying in the corners.

-A Sport and a Pastime (1967)

James Salter will wear the dreaded “writer’s writer” label forever now that the New York Times has used it in the backhanded headline of his obituary, and I suppose it is apt; I learned about his work from the praise he received from other writers. He is a writer best read in sentences rather than scenes or plots; still, his Paris Review interview leads off by praising him as a “consummate storyteller.” A Sport and a Pastime has a lot of close-up sex in it, but it also has lines like the above, which give weight in tight, clipped phrasings (“Its cats”) and uses adjectives the way they are supposed to be used. Salter had a word for his method, and appropriately it comes from the French:

I’m a frotteur, someone who likes to rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that really is the best word possible. Does that word in this sentence have any electric potential? Does it do anything? Too much electricity will make your reader’s hair frizzy. There’s a question of pacing. You want short sentences and long sentences—well, every writer knows that. You have to develop a certain ease of delivery and make your writing agreeable to read.

–The Art of Fiction No. 133

It’s Always the Drummer, Pt. 3

June 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

Indi Surfs

Chris Gorman played the drums for one of my favorite bands, Belly, in the 1990s behind lead singer Tanya Donelly. (His brother, Tom, played guitar.) Belly produced only two albums, Star (1993) and King (1995), and Gorman’s photographs were used for the album art on both.

Now, with the help of his daughter Indi, he has written and illustrated a children’s book, Indi Surfs, reviewed enthusiastically by Maria Russo in the New York Times Book Review:

The splattery, scratchy black-and-white art looks like digitally remastered photography with a touch of 1950s-style pen-and-ink illustration, rolling over the pages with a few areas of turquoise or rose washes. Gorman’s spare words, in a large, shadowy font, and the images of girl, surfboard and ocean feel united organically, as simultaneously exhilarating and meditative as surfing itself.

The Gorman brothers operate a photography studio in New York, and some of their work provides an evocative look at surfing and skateboard culture.

Although the members of Belly grew up in Newport, Rhode Island, the band was based out of Boston, so Gorman is a perfect fit for my anthology of Boston drummer literature.

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