Dec 31, 2009

New Year's Poem: "Kubla Khan" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

So I suppose you're saying, "What does this have to do with New Year's? This poem's about sex and creativity--the mighty fountain and all that. And everything's fertile and sensuous--he can't write about this from Michigan in winter. And he better not sing about it with that damned banjo."

Well, dudes and dudettes, Xanadu is also a place as paradoxical as it is sensuous, sexual, dynamic, creative, and fertile: "It was a miracle of rare device, / A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice." Kubla Khan made it, and like him, I have a few Abyssinian maids up my sleeve. Dulcimer and banjo, dulcimer and banjo. When it works, it works.

And here in the midst of my creations, have I not heard you singing about my works and me:

. . . Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Or was it George Clooney you were gonna weave a circle 'round?

Happy New Year.

Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

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Dec 30, 2009

Movie Review: Up in the Air

Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman
Written by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner
Directed by Jason Reitman

Grade: A/A+

Up in the Air doesn’t need acclaim from a mere Banjo review; it’s doing fine on its own. But I do want to pile on about how refreshing it is to see a film that treats its audience like adults. Even if we’re not quite up to the adulthood offered by our president, we should thank him for the gesture, and now we can applaud a similar respect for us from a movie.

Up in the Air is an entertaining film with a plot that moves and characters that amuse and appeal. But it’s also a meditation on our economy, and its critique of corporate coldness and cowardice goes way beyond fluff and charm.

With George Clooney as the male lead, I expected one more dose of urbane, wry, skinny-sexy, magically likable leading man. And like most leading men, Clooney is once again more Clooney than any character he plays. But in Michael Clayton and now in Up in the Air, that’s more than enough. His character, Ryan Bingham, is something of a thinker, albeit in a cynical vein. Add to that the good plot and meaty theme, two great female leads and a flawless supporting cast, and Ryan Bingham, despite all that winking and crooked grinning, has gravitas; we care about him.

The new-to-me amazements here are Vera Farmiga as the match for Clooney in both sexiness and wit, plus Anna Kendrick as Natalie Keener, the diminutive, aggressive, spunky, bouncy, cunning foil and challenger to Clooney’s Ryan Bingham. Bingham and Keener work for an Omaha company that flies “consultants” all over the nation—hence “up in the air”—to fire people (hence “up in the air” people) whose employers lack the spine for messy face-to-face encounters.

In a comparison that’s only slightly strained, Ryan Bingham’s job is like that of the two soldiers in The Messenger (see Banjo52 on Dec. 18 and Dec. 28), who go door to door to inform families that their soldier is dead. Clooney’s clients are merely unemployed, not deceased, not yet, but the rehearsed skill sets of the messengers are uncannily similar: maybe downsizing is that much like slaughter.

From the plot’s believable turns, the main characters emerge and develop as people we cannot entirely love or hate—just like life, one could argue, if one is in the company of adults.

Ryan Bingham is not only experienced and good at firing people, but he also takes pride in his work, including his lifestyle on planes, in airports and hotels. Home, family, and other schmaltz are empty, bumpkin notions to him; they are cages, especially since his company is based in Omaha and his roots are in northern Wisconsin. He’d much rather be “up in the air.”

Enter perky Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who is perhaps “keener”—fresh out of college, with a cost-cutting plan of firing via computer conferences. If only it weren’t for the pesky humanity of the victims and the threat to Ryan Bingham’s jet-set lifestyle—under the Keener plan, he would be grounded.

Then enter Vera Farmiga as Alex Goran (is she gore-ing people?) as the love interest for Ryan Bingham. (Where, by the way, have they been hiding Vera Farmiga? I’ve seen her here and there. But now I see her).

The farthest thing from a Barbie clone, Alex is a knockout in her way, on her terms, with intelligence, charm, mystery, wit and some depth of character, it seems. It’s absolutely believable that a cosmopolitan leading man would find her fetching and compatible—in intellectual and professional terms, as well as sex appeal. It’s one of the more fascinating screen romances I’ve seen in a long time: two attractive, dubious characters who seem to deserve each other.

Farmiga and Kendrick impressively become their characters. Alex and little Natalie are not especially admirable, but neither can we dismiss them as icy, one-dimensional villains. In fact, we’re usually glad to be in their company, for entirely different reasons. Men over 40 will want to father Ms. Kendrick and knock off Clooney in pursuit of Ms. Farmiga.

These women make perfect companions for Clooney’s Ryan Bingham. Alex is at least his equal in secularity and sexiness; maybe that explains her androgynous given name. On the flip-side is Kendrick’s unusual blend of protégé and professional rival.

The current economic crisis, plus America’s decades-long tendency toward downsizing ordinary folks while bloating our fat cats ad nauseum, plus the older, more encompassing theme of cold corporate bastards (one of whom is the convincing Justin Bateman)—all this is handled with restraint and chilling plausibility.

So, if you want simplistic manipulation, go see The Blindside; it’s an enjoyable, tepidly original yanking of the heartstrings, and you’ll probably feel good both during and after, as I did. On the other hand, if you think you can handle adulthood on film, but maybe not quite such darkness as The Road or The Hurt Locker, choose Up in the Air. It goes down smoothly, yet will give you plenty think about, if you let it in.

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Dec 28, 2009

The Messenger, Part Two

On Dec. 18, I reviewed The Messenger, a movie about two soldiers whose assignment is notifying the next of kin that the U.S. soldier in their family has been killed.

In response, Jeff M, a thoughtful and regular visitor, writes: “My God, who the hell would want to watch this film? No offense, Banjo, but some things...I don't know. It's right up there with Sophie’s Choice or Boys Don't Cry.

Jeff, I know what you mean, but where does one draw that line concerning serious art? At Dostoevsky? I completely understand a reluctance to seek out grim stuff, to pay admission to be depressed as well as enlightened. I've never put myself through Clockwork Orange along with a number of other books and movies, especially when there are more innards and sliced flesh on film than in medical schools.

Still, when I make those choices, I know I’m sacrificing something—maybe the new information and perspectives offered in The Messenger, maybe the elevation of human suffering to the status of tragedy. An audio recording of King Lear can make me shiver, but it’s a price I'm willing to pay once in awhile for witnessing the eloquent arrogance of social rank and senility and fatherhood as they are struck down into eloquent humility.

I remember Sophie's Choice as magnificent, if difficult—ditto the more recent The Road and Hurt Locker, and any number of other high quality but grim movies. Like you, however, I’ve consciously chosen to skip some. Don’t you think it’s got to be a personal choice?

The people who make me crazy are those who seem to get off on war while confining their reading and movies to Patriotism Made Simple by Moe Rawn and the Simpleton Brothers. Those people should be forced to see every minute of every convincing war movie—twice. Ditto for bigots and well-made movies about racism or sexism. Or am I just refusing to accept that bricks can’t think?

Jeff, I'm pretty sure that's not you signing up for Jingoism 101, so by all means skip this movie if you want to, need to. But I’m not sorry I saw and praised The Messenger; I think it added important fuel to my skepticism about American wars popping up like zits, here, there, and everywhere.

As we’ve heard so often since our war in Vietnam, the surviving veterans of most wars—and their loved ones—are wounded in myriad ways, from which the rest of us are shielded. Maybe the least I can do is put myself through two hours of forced enlightenment about an aspect of military life I've probably never considered. I don't have to endure such things every time, but sometimes, especially if someone I trust tells me how and why the book or movie is well-made.

So, as long as viewers have some of sense of what they’re getting into, I recommend, again, The Messenger as good film making.

More importantly, I repeat what I said in the December 18 review: most of Congress should see it—right after they volunteer their children or themselves or their spouses to be put in harm's way in one of our foreign ventures.

This should be a rule: if you vote for war, you go to war—or send your young offspring because they are more able warrior surrogates. I suppose that’s Utopian, though I’m not entirely sure why.

You might have heard something similar from Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), but I promise I had the idea decades before seeing that good film. And of course, when Michael Moore is your ally, your argument is probably more than halfway down the tubes in mainstream America—not because it’s unsound but because it fails the Simpleton’s Red, White, and Blue test, which is entirely multiple choice. Experiences like The Messenger are essay tests, and they’ll be graded hard.

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Dec 23, 2009

Holiday Cheer

I'm not sure they were simpler times, but in case my last few entries have been too serious for the holidays or for life, try this. The clip is six minutes long; I hope you'll stick with it for at least 3 minutes so you can appreciate Hoffman's skillful quick-cuts to other people in the room.

Has any camera has ever loved anybody as much as this clip loves the dimpled girl in short hair and plaid skirt?

YouTube - Best Bluegrass Clog Dancing Video Ever Made

The film maker is David Hoffman, the year 1964. If you don't know David Hoffman's work, as I did not, please google him. It's an impressive array, not confined to mountain music; many documentaries are available for purchase at

YouTube - Best Bluegrass Clog Dancing Video Ever Made

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Dec 22, 2009

Lines for Winter by Mark Strand : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

This Mark Strand poem is a little darker than Grace Paley's "Walking in the Woods" (December 9 here), but don't you think it offers a similar challenge?

Lines for Winter by Mark Strand : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Dec 19, 2009

DECEMBER 20: The Holidays and Thomas Hardy's "The Oxen"

left: Completely irrelevant photo of a stranger, shamelessly intended to attract attention.

The Oxen - - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

If I sound too cynical today, blame these frisky December 19 posts by altadenhiker and Ken Mac:


Their comedy about the holidays is lighter in tone than my offerings today, but I’m encouraged that others see something in addition to the sacred at this time of year.

I’ve been looking for poems that are sunnier than my humbuggedness about The Holidays or winter in general. However, poems celebrating winter, or the solstice, or stuff-worship at the altar of the High Holy Mercenary . . . quality poems of those sorts are hard to find, though there’s plenty of hickory dickory dockery jabbery wockery pockery out there, such as this that I penned about ten minutes ago:

Snow, snow, come today.
Polly Pickle wants to play,
go slippy sliding on her sleigh,
and she can't do that in the dirt.


Smiley Riley is a boy
who likes to play with his new toys.
If his trucks break on the floor,
he smiles and hollers, “Bring me more!”

Is that too dark? May I not eschew the Greed Fandango, the mish mash and the mush? Maybe I’m a little too self-indulgent about my eschewing, but it's hard to restrain earnest commitment.

Yet I don’t want to be the Grand Chasm of Grinch either. Humbuggedness is my problem, and I should own it, eat it, wallow in it alone—one gloom-pig in a pit of glum slop on a far, far archipelago.

In that context (somehow?), and before I go on with more father poems, here is “The Oxen,” a respectable Christmas poem by Thomas Hardy. “Hoping it might be so” is an ending to be proud of. But in getting there, we’ve had to suffer through some awkward diction ("straw-y"?!), chosen to suit the demands of rhyme and meter, I suppose. Well, that’s one reason we have so much free verse a century later.

I had to stop at two bird food stores the other day. The older man and older woman on duty at each place, as they took my money, hissed MERRY CHRISTMAS, as if Christmas were a weapon they were shooting at me. All I wanted was thistle for the finches.

Therefore, I bid you, one and all, Happy Holidays. Happy Life. Peace.

The Oxen - - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

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"Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden (The Poetry Foundation)

Here is Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays.” It’s not primarily about any religious holiday, but consists of nicely understated praise for a father along with a confession of regret. We see modest lives, along with childish self-absorption and the need to repent that later on. The honoring of the father is grounded in no holiday fairy tale, but in reality, including the mysterious and perhaps under-explained “chronic angers of that house.”

I had to choose between winter and Father’s Day as the right time for this poem. With all the holiday hullaballoo and fru-fru out there, I chose now.

I have at least two more father poems in mind, one complimentary, one or two others, not so much. Stay tuned.

Those Winter Sundays by Robert E. Hayden : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Dec 18, 2009

Movie Review: The Messenger

The Messenger A-

Director: Oren Moverman

Screenplay: Oren Moverman and Alessandro Camon

Starring: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton

I’m switching to letter grades because there can be confusion about the 4-point system; in some schools 3.0 is the middle of the B range, while at others, 3.0 is the lowest B. Can you hear the universe breathing easier now that I’ve reduced (or purposefully increased) the ambiguity weighing upon it?

Now, about The Messenger, how many angles can writers come up with on the theme of “War is Hell”? Well, here’s one more. The Messenger is a very good, very serious movie about two soldiers whose job is notification of the next of kin that the soldier in their family has been killed.

Members of Congress should be required to see this movie, but they won’t. I predict that not many plain old citizens will go either because the story’s too grim.

I hope the writers got their facts straight; there are some things you don’t mess with. So I’ll say the presumably accurate information here is interesting; there are strict rules about how a soldier goes about this grisly business. Also, there’s simply the fact of a job not many people are aware of and even fewer would want.

So who has such a job? At one level that’s what the movie’s about. At a broader, deeper level, it’s a character study of two messengers and the newly bereaved people they meet as they carry out their duty. The whole situation is one way to put a human face on war and its aftermath.

The movie drags a bit in the middle. I suspect that some scenes could be cut, though each is interesting or even compelling while it’s happening.

One potential complaint: in the two central characters we see still more military men who are perhaps more wounded psychologically than they are physically. As accurate and important as this portrait may be, is the subject of the damaged veteran wearing out its welcome as a subject for films? That sounds like blasphemy, like a terrible question, but I feel sure people wonder—or simply complain. Those who like war might say The Messenger dishonors the military by making soldiers humanly complex and vulnerable. Those who are sick of war might argue that they won’t put themselves through one more perspective on its awfulness.

The story is what it is (as we say these days. It's a thing to say. Like, "I'm sorry for your loss."). The acting is excellent, including Woody Harrelson's bad cop against Ben Foster's good cop; the script and direction respect the complexity and ambiguity in both characters. The scenes seem utterly realistic, and the content has more than enough heft. Only the length (too long?) and pacing (too slow and repetitive?) are questionable. If you have the time and energy to see something more or less as a duty, at least there's a high-quality presentation in The Messenger.

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Dec 13, 2009

Poem for a Day: "Keeping Things Whole" by Mark Strand


and things in fields

One of the most youthful, most basic of our philosophical ponderings is, "Who am I?" For most of us, it probably remains relevant for a lifetime, though we might blush to admit it.

But maybe our most sophisticated add-on makes it just a bit less narcissistic: "What am I?" -- as if we can know. But we should want to; we should be Sisyphus rolling our rocks up that hill.

I don't know Mark Strand's poetry as well as I intend to, but I stumbled onto "Keeping Things Whole" a couple of years ago, and this or that cue keeps me coming back to it. The poem strikes me as simple and playful on the one hand, but as profound as subatomic particles on the other. It is as self-important as its conclusion, "I move to keep things whole." But it's also humble--literally self-effacing: "I am the absence" . . . . That is, absence of field. And who doesn't like a field? A field is an intuitively good thing unless added information convinces us this is one of those rare malevolent fields.

The other day (Dec. 9), in talking about Grace Paley's "Walking in the Woods," I mentioned the uses of white space in poems. In "Keeping Things Whole," notice the way Mark Strand's trail of words is much thinner than the white space surrounding it, as if the poem is a thing like its speaker, moving into and out of spaces in a mysterious, ineffable way. And the inked words are not loud or bellicose or imperialistic; they are not bombs, but small, soft-spoken shapes, wondering about themselves and space and matter, as they wind and sneak along.

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Dec 9, 2009

Poem for a Day: "Walking in the Woods" by Grace Paley

Is Grace Paley's "Walking in the Woods" a companion poem to Dylan Thomas' famous "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night"? Is it also a response to Altadena Hiker when she said here (in the Dec. 6 visitor comments) that people should stop whining and get on with it? (She said it more forcefully than that).

Over decades, a number of scholars and critics have said there is no What in poetry, only the How. The How is the What. Along those lines, form is especially worth talking about in "Walking in the Woods." I'm never sure how I feel about using white space or unconventional (self-conscious?) line structures in place of punctuation and more traditional lines. I like to think I'm open-minded, but there's also a traditional old fart alive and well within me: mellow old quasi-hippie on one shoulder and formalist bean-counter on the other. Something about "Walking in the Woods"--and a lot of Paley's poems--makes my internal codger sit down, shut up and go with it.

I cannot imagine improving upon the closing of this poem, though I suppose someone could argue it's didactic, an instant aphorism, bumper sticker wisdom, a neat ribbon and bow, tied and pasted on a package that exists only to serve the bow. However, maybe I'm tired enough of my own whining, as well as others' self-indulgences, to love Paley's simple and direct command as closure here. I'm at least as comfortable with it as I am with Keats' equally didactic conclusion in "Ode on a Grecian Urn":

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all
Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.

Notice too that Paley (almost) instructs us not only to shut up and "do it," but also to like life. If you haven't "liked life," why not? What's wrong with you? Look around. Look at that tree. How can you not like that? Those who don't are more or less disinvited from the poem--or at least invited to reconsider their way of being in the world.

This is getting close to a high-handed, judgmental dismissiveness. But for some reason, the whole line of thought and Paley's method of expressing it strike me as completely original, full of impact, and above all, earned. This speaker has forced us to give her permission to say what she says, the way she says it; moreover, she orders us to like it, and I'm guessing most of say okay. Or, Yea Verily. I'm not sure where, why, or how this happens in the poem--something in the voice, I suspect--but I'm convinced it does, and I do not resist.

Many serious lovers of serious poetry (and all art?) argue that there's a magic in it, a power that comes from some unknown source--in poet, poem, and audience. Surely "Walking in the Woods" is a case in point.

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Poem for a Day, Grace Paley, "Here"

For the Grace Paley poem, click on this link:

Dec 6, 2009

"DayStar" By Rita Dove |

"DayStar" By Rita Dove |

The Friend by Marge Piercy

The Friend by Marge Piercy

Women in Art and Poetry - 2

You can enlarge any photo on any Banjo52 post by clicking on it.


"Daystar" by former poet-laureate Rita Dove pairs up nicely with "Aunt Hannah." Everyone I know has heard, or spoken, thoughts similar to the speaker (named Beulah). "Daystar" comes from Rita Dove's 1986 book Thomas and Beulah.

"DayStar" By Rita Dove |

I cannot find an online version of Adrienne Rich's "Woman-Right" (see my note at end about copyright), but I hope everyone will try to locate it. A short poem, it strikes me as a perfect companion to the painting "Burnt Out," above. The images and actions in the poem more or less outline widely accepted differences in the mindsets of women and men (for one thing, we men like to measure). Now that science has verified some of these contrasts--admittedly in broad, sweeping, stereotyping terms--Rich seems prescient (her poem from the mid-1970s predates, I think, later scientific announcements about male and female brains).

In the potential pathology about what's at stake in gender conflicts, Marge Piercy's "The Friend" takes things up a notch. How extreme is her exaggeration--in a metaphorical effort to make a point, don't you think? And why title the poem "The Friend"?
The Friend by Marge Piercy

Just yesterday at this site, we saw three reputable poems by three reputable poets, all modern males, perceiving women in a way that seems well-intentioned. In fact, Richard Wilbur's "Piazza di Spagna" seems to me a kind of apotheosis of the girl in Rome. Even so, might each poem justifiably be called an objectification of a woman?

And are today's three poems--all by women--more accurate than the men's poems in their portrait of American women, at least as they were prior to about 1990?

I realize that these questions invite misleading stereotypes and distortions; whatever Dove, Rich, and Piercy are saying, there will be exceptions by the dozen. But might it be instructive to discuss with someone of the other gender the character, the extent, and the purpose of any hyperbole you find here? Do these six poems and four nineteenth century American paintings (two on Dec. 1, plus today's) describe the core of any gap that remains between the genders? Six poems and four old paintings won't say it all, but are they speaking something like a truth? A kernel?

It's the holiday season. Be gentle.

(Again, by the way, if someone knows how I can resolve my worries about copyright issues, please let me know. Feeling obliged to put only links in my posts, rather than entire poems, unless the author is long dead, seems a rinky-dink game that only fourth-tier lawyers and bitter, bitter authors or their descendants would want to play. But I'm not going to waste my time engaging with them. And what is fair use anyway? It's not as if I'm passing these off as my work. Are they afraid I'll make millions off their or their granparents'? work? If a few of my readers buy a book by one of the poets I cite, how is that poet damaged? Litigious America is disgusting. Happy Holidays. Make sure those mittens you buy are properly copyrighted.).

Dec 4, 2009

Women in Art and Poetry

I’m not ready to abandon that nineteenth century American gallery after last week’s attempts to relate the work there to Hawthorne. I’m not sure why the idea took hold so firmly, except for my feeling that here were two contemporaries presenting rather similar portraits of similar parts of the U.S. I think I felt that each might have validated the other, and therefore I was illuminated (nothing more dangerous than an illuminated banjo—it’ll never shut up—it’s like some Jurassic Park cricket.).

So before leaving that gallery indefinitely, I want to look at a few portraits of women of that era, painted by men of that era, plus some modern poems that seem related. Then, tomorrow or very soon, I want to look at some contemporary American women poets on the subject of women. (Does the fact that they’re contemporary fatally skew the comparison?).

“Piazza DiSpagna, Early Morning” by Richard Wilbur (this is the cleanest online version I found. I’m sorry about the small print; the poem is at the bottom left of the page).,.Early.Morning.htm

“I Knew a Woman” by Theodore Roethke

“Nude Descending a Staircase” by X.J. Kennedy, in response to the Duchamps painting by the same title

By the way, I've deliberately opted against an e.e. cummings poem--he fits in all too easily. For whatever reason, these three poems popped into my mind concerning this subject--I rarely think about the Kennedy poem, but there it was, more for the title and its comparison to the Wilbur than for any other reason. What Duchamps was up to in his painting is a whole other bucket of worms, isn't it?

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Dec 1, 2009

Movie Review: The Road

Movie Review: The Road GPA 3.9

Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron

Screenplay: John Penhall
Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy

Director: John Hillcoat

I thought it was only the cockroaches and their ilk that would survive nuclear winter, but The Road (based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel) says there might be a few of us humans left after all. This is the story of two of them, a father and his son (about ten years old?), traipsing around the earth their species has tried to destroy. And these two are not alone.

It’s a miracle that a premise this grim kept me in the theater at all. In fact, I was the proverbial rivet.

First is the simple fact that there is a plot; things happen, in a sequence, for a reason. We’re tense about what will happen next, and I see no reason to be disappointed; whether bleak or cautiously optimistic, these scenes and episodes make sense, even as they keep us guessing with each test of character, each inconclusive comment on what we humans are.

Pictorially, the movie is not one dreary photograph after another; instead there’s remarkable variety within the sameness of the constant grey sky and November landscapes. Changes in subject, changes in light and angles, shifts from landscape to characters—including the humans other than the two at the center—plus a few brief flashbacks provide enough variety and surprise to keep the eye and psyche satisfied, though always sober and never complacent. Also, as much as I hesitate to say it, even without sunlight there is a kind of beauty in these bare trees and Appalachian hills covered with fallen leaves. Also, watch for the possibility of something important in the images of water; I'm trying to avoid words like symbolism and redemption, but my grip is loosening.

Like the landscape, the themes mix a little hope into the starkness. On the obvious and dominant downside, humanity has finally done the unthinkable: the holocaust has happened, a few years prior to our current story. But as a father and son make their way south to survive the approaching winter, their individual characters, their relationship, and one or two folks and scenes along the way illustrate that there was and is virtue and beauty among us, even as we face ourselves at our worst, in the wake of our most self-destructive disaster.

So why not a 4.0 for The Road? First, as much as I love Robert Duvall, so distinctive a voice has no place here, especially not coming as a surprise and in a feeble effort to disguise an iconic actor. Already I've grudgingly forced myself to accept Viggo Mortensen and Charlize Theron as a couple of poor and ordinary country folk. Why not drop Sir Laurence Olivier and Lawrence Welk into Appalachia while we’re at it?

Also, in last 15-20 minutes, I find some implausibility in the father’s choices, given weather and topography, about where to plop down and whether going for a swim might be a good idea. Finally, the appearance of four and half or five new characters at the end comes entirely too close to a deus ex machina for my tastes. The final scene is not impossible, but the fit is a little loose in a world where cannibalism is common.

I don’t know what scientists are saying about the likelihood of the McCarthy and Hillcoat vision of post-apocalyptic America and earth, but with the minor reservations voiced above, it feels realistic, including the possibility that writing us off as entirely evil and stupid is simplistic and premature. So, whether you’ve thought a lot or not at all about nuclear holocaust, this film ought to rub some hard edges off your conclusions, one way or the other. And that’s what art is for.

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Nov 29, 2009

The Airplane and I

Although I fly if necessary, I’m never happy about it, and I’m the sole "decider" of what’s necessary.

Jetliners. What better illustrates the sardine factor?—the human transmogrified to insignificant fish crammed in tin? Or in the butcher shop's multitude of meat, the smallest kielbasa tube hanging among shiny knives and silver counters.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (Dell 1968) offers many of the greatest lines in all of literature and philosophy. In the last chapter, his friend Bernard O’Hare comes across the prediction that the world’s population will double to seven billion by the year 2000. Vonnegut responds, “’I suppose they will all want dignity.’” Ditto the passengers on a 747.

Then there’s the bladder factor. My closest thing to a scary plane experience was the prospect of having to retrieve my old fullback skills and bowl over the linebacker-stewardess who stood between me and the john while some CEO’s airplane sat on the tarmac in Chicago. I think she knew I meant business about my business; she stepped aside.

I understand the safety statistics of flying compared to other modes of travel. I even understand an ounce of the principle of lift and all that physics jazz. But the whole business remains unnatural, and the larger the plane, the more unnatural it is to take off and stay aloft.

For some reason, I’ve become more aware of all that in recent years, and it results in a lot of childlike staring--the small planes at the little airport a mile away or the monsters blowing away my chimney as they approach Detroit Metro 25 miles southwest.

My getting the camera a few months ago was a mixed blessing, partly because it results in my trying to photograph planes. If you think today’s pics of hovering metal cigar cases look natural, if you see nothing odd or downright spooky about them, especially when juxtaposed to warm, earthbound trees, let me know, and we can try to find the right kind of doctor for you.

Till then, I insist that humans + flight = voodoo, and I don’t intend to discuss it.

My counter-voodoo, by the way, is scotch. A doctor friend once recommended it, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Nov 26, 2009

NOVEMBER 27, 2009. Hawthorne's America, Artists and Intellectuals, Part Two

"My Kinsman, Major Molineaux":
Bumpkin Robin Discovers the Complexities of Town Life.

Or is this the village to which Ethan Brand returns?


So, as the artist makes self-centered, enlightening, courageous, impulsive, self-centered, self-destructive, egocentric, narcissistic decisions, the artist’s family and friends may have paid terrible prices—not always, I'm sure, but often. William Carlos Williams was a practicing physician, Wallace Stevens was a lawyer with an insurance company, and I’ve often wondered whether friends and relatives found them good human company, more stable—and altruistic?—than the “school” of Berryman, Plath, Hemingway, and a host of others. Banking didn’t seem to help Eliot much in his personal life. Maybe I'm grossly over-valuing what it means to look normal, hold down a steady job, to be in fact a professional. Am I the first?

Also, the same family, friends and social conventions may have been a cage, may have provided inane constraints and may have inflicted psychic wounds that half-created the young artist and sent him on his quest as much as his instincts and talent did. He might have been running from mundane demands or family pathology as much as he was running toward artistic expression and a defensible perspective on the world.

All of this is mostly likely a huge chicken and egg question. I’d be shocked to discover anything less than dozens of books on the subject, and maybe one day I’ll read some. What would I google? "Psycho Writer"? "The Dysfunctional Family and the Artist"?

For sparking all this, should Paula gets Comment of the Month, or does it just clinch the fact that Banjo has logorrhea? That’s a false apology. What I actually don’t understand is how so many people find questions like these boring, irrelevant, nerdy, especially when no one expects definitive answers—and especially compared to more manly, more exciting, mainstream problems like curing that slice at the Golden Parachute Golf Club, where the starboard rough is a genuine quagmire.

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Imagining America, Continued: Hawthorne, Artists and Intellectuals

Honing his craft

He embarks. (Could be Robin in Hawthorne's "My Kinsman, Major Molineaux")

In response to my November 17 post on Individualism, Paula wrote:

“I'm very sleepy so maybe I shouldn't tackle this but it occurs to me that without Mozart we would simply have something else, most likely good and possibly better. I'm more interested in how people respond to the works than the works themselves anyway.

"Artistic geniuses like Glenn Gould are often so tortured and their lives so unhappy and I'm no fan of romanticizing the creative process, too many family and friends hurt and damaged. Sometimes taking care of your family is a deeper and more important creative act than being a noted musician or poet. I'll know more when I wake up in the morning.”

I think Paula hits on an important pair of ideas. The problem with the point on Mozart, of course, is that we can’t know what might have been. Odds are that Paula is right, but we’ll never know because Mozart did happen. I guess I find it tantalizing to wonder about the “what ifs,” even when I know I’m setting myself up for frustration.

Paula's second point is scarier: art versus life, one of the old, old questions. How do the major talents know they’re major talents and therefore “have permission” to choose art over life and other humans? I realize that borders on a false dichotomy, but I'm throwing it out there anyway. Also, I’m sure that very few young artists (I mean in all fields, including literature) would claim to know their greatness, their long-term significance; if anything, they’d probably tend to say it’s all a scary adventure, but one on which they must embark. The urge will not leave them alone; they don’t choose the urge—it chooses them. Even if that sounds a little LaDeeDah, I can’t discount it. Given the odds against being the next Emily Dickinson, in one’s own lifetime or in eternity, why would anyone choose that path? Arrogance is one answer; lack of alternatives is another. Most likely there are more, but I'm not sure any of them offer foolproof health insurance.

At best the young artist has to make the proverbial leap of faith into another kind of religious pursuit. However, that may be a leap into Self more than an exploration of the mysteries of being, of the Universe, of Spiritus Mundi, of gods and such.

At worst, it stops at plain old self-indulgence. Still, from a handful of such adventurers, we strangers benefit decades and centuries later—not because the artist particularly wanted to help us out, but because he wanted to explore and express himself and his world because it was the only thing that felt good, felt right.


Nov 24, 2009

Nathaniel Hawthorne, American Heritage

I’m pretty sure it’s not cool to like nineteenth American art, but in my last two visits to the art museum, I wandered into those rooms and was taken by much of what I saw. More and more often in looking at history, I think, “These are my ancestors. What do we have in common?”

My sense of connection also arises partly because of Hawthorne’s story, “Ethan Brand,” which has popped up in conversation a couple of times lately; his unflattering portrait of New England villagers intrigues me.

Ethan Brand left his town eighteen years before the story begins. Now he’s back, and the town’s atwitter about his return. We learn that he left in order to discover “The Unpardonable Sin,” and, guess what, he found it. It’s the sin of pride that causes someone to set himself apart from, and therefore above, “the brotherhood of man.” By seeking the Unpardonable Sin, Ethan Brand commits it. He knows it, and says he would do it again.

Labeling the seeker, the rebel, the iconoclast an “unpardonable” sinner—that sounds like a pretty democratic and reasonable value system, right? But when we meet Ethan Brand’s fellow citizens, we’d consider lighting out for the territory too. They tend to be drunk, ugly, and uninteresting, except that they’re sort of weird, sort of a traveling circus that doesn’t travel.

So are we supposed to identify with the arrogant “intellectual” and title character, who says he's not repentant for his self-imposed exile, which amounts to self-exaltation? Are we up to it, that kind of defiance, solitude, and acceptance of responsibility? Or should we see ourselves as one of the tedious, unattractive Everymen of the village? At least the motley crew in the town square have each other—right? Is that what we’re supposed to say, out of a sense of modesty and a need for others, a sense of ourselves as herd animals? The townsfolk are the only alternatives to Ethan Brand in the world of the story; so to play fair, those are our choices.

“Ethan Brand” is my favorite Hawthorne story, along with “My Kinsman, Major Molineaux.” I think both pieces ask more complex and subtle questions than most of his work does.

So when I saw the paintings, which are roughly contemporary with Hawthorne, I couldn’t help but see the rag-tag bumpkins of those two stories, or the pious folks of Salem who render Young Goodman Brown an isolated cynic in one of Hawthorne’s other famous stories.

If the humans in these paintings are our norm, the best or only prospects for fellowship, how do we respond? To which male would you hand over your daughter? Which female looks like the best candidate for interesting talk over coffee? Or is coffee not the point? If these are our predecessors, who are we?

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Lovers' Lane