Out and about

I’ve hit the ground running in 2007, trying to catch up on all the movies I wanted to see in 2006 but which didn’t arrive in Jackson (thank you, Netflix!), and gearing up to judge some poetry books. My first issue of Poetry arrived in the mail yesterday, so my new year’s resolution #3 (to read more poetry, hence the year‘s subscription) arrives in earnest. So, rather than expect much from me this week, you’re better off turning your attention to…

A long interview with Pico Iyer, my favorite travel writer other than Patrick Leigh Fermor:

Let’s talk about your process a little bit. Your writing, especially in Video Night in Kathmandu, is incredibly detailed. It is very much like you are taking a camera and shooting a panorama. One of the challenges of any writer, but especially someone who writes and travels, is the process. You’re going to Tibet, for example. What do you do before you go? What do you do while you’re there? When are you writing? When are you fitting this together? What is the process?

I think I usually pose a question to myself, of myself and of the place before I go. And I choose a very, very specific focus. Because anyway, it is an act of presumption to go to Tibet and Nepal for two weeks and write a whole chapter about it. So, as you remember in that book, in Japan, I chose baseball, in Manila, music, in India, movies, in Thailand, sex. Each focused theme gave me a keyhole through which to focus the material and to see a culture that I couldn’t pretend to say anything definitive about. Each theme gave me a microcosm to work within. And beyond that, I pose a question as a starting point, to frame an argument, and, of course, as soon as I get to one of those places, that question flies out the window and is replaced by another question. And then—the hope is—a deeper question and a still deeper one, and finally one that can’t be answered at all.

The main practical thing I do is to map out a kind of outline in advance and an itinerary in advance, confident that both will get exploded as soon as I travel. Just having them, though, is a kind of reassurance. It’s like mapping out a way to get to an airport in advance, which gives you the freedom, in some ways, to get lost en route.

David Denby writes what is basically an update of Pauline Kael’s seminal 1980 essay, “Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, the Numbers” (which was also originally published in the New Yorker). He articulates and expands on some of the concerns I expressed back in August 2005.

After a relatively long absence, Outer Life is back in black: on the difficulties of writing a good eulogy and the problems of gift-giving. From the former:

Describe his qualities, illustrate them with telling anecdotes from your personal experience with him. But don’t let it devolve into an “all about me” eulogy. Your personal experiences should illustrate the eulogy, not be the eulogy. Never lose sight of the deceased. Step aside, let him be the star. It’s his turn. You’ll get your turn when you die.

The humor issue cannot be avoided. It must be faced head-on. Can a eulogy be funny? The answer is no. There are funny ways to die, but there is nothing funny about death. I don’t say this out of respect for the deceased, I say it out of respect for those they’ve left behind. Don’t make light of their pain. They’re mourning a loss, not looking for entertainment.

Sure, a deft eulogist can spin an amusing anecdote or two, the sort that elicits knowing smiles instead of cringes and nervous laughter, but most of us aren’t deft. We’re not that funny either, at least intentionally, so chances are (1) the deceased did nothing funny, at least intentionally, (2) if the deceased did anything funny, he did it unintentionally, which usually means that it was at his expense and will just make him look bad, and (3) you’ll think your personal anecdotes are funny when they’re not. Especially when the church is packed with weeping mourners. Talk about a tough crowd.

Michael Blowhard notices that America is incredibly kid-centric and wonders—as I do—if that’s a good thing:

I’m no history buff, to say the least. But I’ve suspected Americans of kid-centricity for at least a few decades. When I spent a teenaged year in France in the early ‘70s, for instance, I was shocked by how non-kid-centric France was. Most people raised children, of course, and perpetuating the population was generally thought to be a good thing. But it wouldn’t have occurred to the adults I encountered to organize their lives around their kids. Kids were instead expected to fit into adults’ lives.

No one went on vacation to any place like Disneyland, and camps, soccer leagues, and music lessons didn’t dictate family decisions for anyone. Kids may have had their own entertainments—their own books, music, and TV. But parents made no effort to share them. Come to think of it, French parents didn’t show any urge whatsoever to use their kids as vehicles for re-living their own childhoods. Childhood, once lived through, was left behind.

Kids weren’t seen as the be-all and end-all of life, in other words, as they often are in much of America. Kids also weren’t felt to be a boundless source of deep wisdom, let alone the redemption of anything. Adult life had its own allures, and adults treated themselves to the food, travel, and art that suited them. They did this even during their kids’ infant years, a time when many American parents seem to consider it a sacred obligation to set aside all personal pleasure.

I hadn’t planned on seeing Apocalypto—Mel Gibson’s torture porn makes me want to waterboard him—but three sharply written, remarkably divergent takes have got me wondering if I should shell out $8 to see the thing. Armond White loves it; Noel Vera hates it; and Matt Zoller Seitz—who, as usual, has the best-written take—is somewhere in-between. Of course, the last time I saw a movie based on reading several well-written, but wildly divergent, takes on a film, I ended up suffering through Marie Antoinette, so go figure.

Darby Dixon writes about all the books he didn’t get around to reading this year.

And, finally, Wet Asphalt ponders a great question: Must all great fictional characters be round?

Scott Esposito asks “What’s wrong with flat characters?,” and the Reading Experience agrees, rightly pointing out that the expectation for “round” characters came about with the rise of realism and, I would add, modernism. That is, the 19th century naturalists, among whom we can include Dostoevsky, but even more so French writers like Flaubert and Zola, gave birth to twentieth century writers like Joyce, Hemingway and Faulkner, and so helped cement our contemporary expectations of absolute realism and “inner life” in fictional characters.

But the twentieth century and modernism also gave rise to writers who sought to subvert the idea of character. Kafka’s characters, for instance, aren’t just flat, they’re practically voids on the page. The more important a character is in Kafka’s work, the less we seem to understand their actions, decisions and thought processes. Or take for example Vladimir Nabokov, who in books like Invitation to a Beheading strips his characters entirely of inner life, swaps their identities and character traits all around and back again, and otherwise willfully subverts the notions-in-themselves of character and identity. And, as Scott Esposito pointed out, the post-modernists always employed flat characters in pursuit of their novels of ideas.

That is all.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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One Response to Out and about

  1. Noel Vera says:

    Thanks for the mention. Was Matt in between? I suppose. I just don’t buy the argument that Gibson is actually a talented director. Never mind the violence, which is middling, or the racism, which was offensive; I think the love of the man as an action filmmaker is based on thin (if not overly flashy) evidence. Would rather see George Miller’s Happy Feet, myself–now those are action sequences…

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