Out and about (November 2007)

Sorry about the dearth of material here lately. I’ve been car shopping, and getting my heart and mind out from under black waters. I’m still waist-deep but no longer submerged. All the same, let me direct your attention elsewhere for the time being.

The Self-Styled Siren pays tribute—two times—to Joan Fontaine.

James Wolcott pays tribute to another actress, Isabelle Huppert.

And now for a lesser, ahem, thespian. I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed this hard at a celebrity profile, but Jean-Claude Van Damme deserves every jibe:

Jean-Claude’s other limitation, however, has turned out to be impossible to overcome: He can’t act. If that sounds judgmental, then I suggest you watch Universal Soldier, a movie in which both he and Dolph Lundgren play cybernetically enhanced, reanimated corpses. You’d think this was the perfect showcase for Jean-Claude Van Damme, but watching him pit his acting ability against Lundgren’s is like watching one of Jerry’s Kids get in the ring with Mike Tyson. Even as a zombified killing machine, Jean-Claude is clearly out of his depth.

But he’s managed to do a lot with a little. Jean-Claude has three expressions: worried, charming, and doing a split. Of the three, doing a split is the most convincing. Getting crucified in Cyborg? Worried. Disposing of a bomb that could blow up a sacred Muslim shrine and start a jihad in The Order? Really worried. Meeting a spunky lady reporter in any number of movies? Charming. Confronting the hitmen who killed his wife? Do a split.

For a lot of actors, not being able to act would be an obstacle, but Jean-Claude has transformed it into his trademark. Acting? Acting is for weirdos like Forest Whitaker (Bloodsport), Kylie Minogue (Street Fighter), or Kieran Culkin (Nowhere to Run). Jean-Claude is just a normal, average guy, you know? When he fights, he likes to head-butt his opponents and kick them in the nuts, the way normal people fight. His love interests don’t look like supermodels or even actresses, they look like the gals you see at commuter bars packing away Bloody Marys and waiting for the 6:45 to Hackensack. In Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, USA Today is the paper of record and foreign countries are where the police are corrupt and you get hassled by immigration. He may be from Belgium, but in his movies, he’s an All-American Guy.

Moving from Belgium to France proper, Girish writes thoughtfully and intricately on screenwriting and the French New Wave. As always, the comments are as lively as the piece itself.

Wes Anderson, a filmmaker whose aesthetic is heavily influenced by the French New Wave (among other things) gets much-deserved love from Walter Chaw. A revealing, moving take from his review of The Darjeeling Limited:

Anderson has up until now touched on spirituality only obliquely. Here, his disconnected players stop to pray at every altar passed along the way; the loss of a father initiates/necessitates this desperate casting-about for another. Towards the end, there’s a flashback bookended with matching shots that laid me to waste, and in watching the picture a second time, I was stunned by how controlled and economical Anderson is with his images. The film isn’t about the desire to be found, as lesser films might have it—rather, it’s about growing comfortable with being lost. In its way, The Darjeeling Limited is all that needs be said about post-modernism: with the search for God finished, move into an acceptance of aloneness. A character at one point says, “We lost him, and we’re never going to be okay, but it’s the past now—and the past is over. Isn’t it?” There’s an understanding that life is Renoir’s Indian river: it’s never the same twice, and it’s always the same. Anderson handles the shift from deadpan comedy to formalist pathos better than he ever has in the past—The Darjeeling Limited resembles a Takeshi Kitano masterpiece: instantly recognizable, intricate and artificial, and overwhelmingly human. It’s a stunning companion piece to The Royal Tenenbaums (I imagined, more than once, that this is the procession and eulogy for that picture’s patriarch), a distillation of Anderson’s surprising sobriety. If you hear the music, you’ll recognize that beneath Anderson’s hipster veneer is the low keen of loss and wounds that never close.

That might be the best paragraph I’ve read on Anderson.

The last film-related link of this edition, I swear, but Matthew Dessem deserves more attention that I think he’s getting. He’s working his way through every film that the Criterion Collection has released, and offers up interesting, difficult-to-find factoids. Here, he writes on the W.C. Fields classic The Bank Dick.

Apparently, Bill Watterson was a great craftsman well before Calvin & Hobbes. Here’s a collection of cartoons and comics from the genius’s college days. There’s oodles of rare stuff here.

Rockslinga writes a tribute poem to Edward Said.

Mississippi poet and recent Pulitzer Prize-winner Natasha Trethewey writes a beautiful, complicated poem about her home state. (Thanks to Chicken Spaghetti for the heads-up.)

Signs above Zack Oberman’s Halloween candy, 1996-2006: hilarious.

One small item that helped get me out of the doldrums was receiving a kind, completely out-of-the-blue letter from Daniel Mendelsohn. As I’ve said on more than one occasion, he might be the best critic in America, so I’m pleased to spread the word that, according to him, next year will see the release of his first collection of criticism. As a further boon to the world, here he is on the Met’s new production of Lucia di Lammermoor. I can’t think of better proof of his prose than the fact that, while my interest in Italian opera is limited to say the least (shame on me), I read this straight through, utterly absorbed. Go read it.

Why has it taken me so long to find Luc Sante’s rave of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day? The longstanding assessment is that it’s too long, it’s got many characters, and has too many longeurs. Sante says no to all that. This comes from the essay’s closing, but it’s too good to resist quoting:

Pynchon thinks on a different scale from most novelists, to the point where you’d almost want to find another word for the sort of thing he does, since his books differ from most other novels the way a novel differs from a short story, in exponential rather than simply linear fashion. Pynchon’s work has absorbed modernism and what has come after, but in its alternating cycles of jokes and doom, learning and carnality, slapstick and arcana, direct speech and poetic allusiveness, high language and low, it taps into something that goes back to the Elizabethans, who potentially addressed the entire world, made up of individuals with differing interests and capacities. He also thinks big because he is extremely American (like many of his fellow citizens, he is never so American as when traveling abroad). In this way he is reminiscent of the “millionaire ascetic” in Borges’s story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” who “declared that in America it was absurd to invent a country, and proposed the invention of a whole planet.” Here, in Against the Day, by his own admission, he has made what “with a minor adjustment or two [is] what the world might be.”

Which is not what the world ought to be, mind you. Thinking big is not necessarily megalomania, and fiction-writing is not exactly voodoo. Against the Day is a flawed time machine, trying without much luck to find a version of history where iniquity failed to triumph, but in the process coming up with many reasons why it should continue to be resisted.

That is all.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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