Out and about (April 2009)

Whoa nelly, it’s been a rough couple of months. All the same, my reader’s block is slowly fading. The Baseball Chronicle republished my “Days of Plastic and Sunshine” essay, which got my writing muscles flexed again. So, now that the fingers are back to klik-klacking regularly, and the ol’ synapses are firing again, it’s time for you to get out. Seriously. There’s lots of great stuff out there to read and mull over—here’s the best of what I’ve found.

Jim Holt discusses how and why he’s taken up memorizing poetry:

It’s a physical feeling, and it’s a deeply pleasurable one. You can get something like it by reading the poem out loud off the page, but the sensation is far more powerful when the words come from within. (The act of reading tends to spoil physical pleasure.) It’s the difference between sight-reading a Beethoven piano sonata and playing it from memory—doing the latter, you somehow feel you come closer to channeling the composer’s emotions. And with poetry you don’t need a piano.

The confluence of great lyrics with great music: De La Soul’s 3 Ft. High and Rising is a high point of hip-hop. Hell, maybe the high point of the 1980s, and—with Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique—definitely the last gasp of that sample-crazy era. HipHop.com provides a two-part oral history of the album’s making that’s funny and touching. Here’s part one and part two.

Matt Zoller Seitz’s 5-part video essay Wes Anderson: The Substance of Style is an extremely good way to see how cinema criticism is enriched by new media, and how it can lead to a deeper, more engaged appreciation (or at least understanding) of a filmmaker’s themes and techniques. Seitz edits Anderson’s work, juxtaposes his clips with some from movies that influenced him, writes captions, and uses film stills and audio clips to show Anderson’s range of influences—Charles M. Schulz, Bill Melendez, J.D. Salinger, Orson Welles, Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese. This may end up as one of 2009’s best and most idiosyncratic movies, even though it’s made up entirely from pieces of another filmmaker’s oeuvre. You watch—this is the future of film criticism.

Video as criticism/essay, of course, isn’t a new idea. In 1986, Jean-Luc Godard seduced/half-goaded Woody Allen into a hotel to discuss Allen’s movies. The resultant interview video, Meetin’ WA, is smug, cantankerous, and unfair—then again, I’m no Godard fan—but provides a grand opportunity to explore how a filmmaker can use the form to interrogate another filmmaker. (Thanks, Tom Sutpen.)

For a positive, well-considered take on Godard, see Michael S. Smith’s latest essay on the man He talks at length about Godard’s most recent movies, and two noteworthy books on his cinema:

The beauty of Godard’s black-and-white images, the long takes on people’s faces, the melancholic musical refrain heard repeatedly throughout the film, the close-ups on personal objects, the observation of daily Parisian life, the shots of lone individuals, or lovers, on street benches suggest that anger is not the only underlying emotion in [In Praise of Love]. It is a much warmer, more personal work than some of Godard’s previous films and seems centered on a sincere concern about what impersonal economic systems can do to people, on the importance of history and personal memory, on the need for individuals and entire cultures to form and understand their own identities.

Godard had a love/hate relationship with Pauline Kael, who was one of his most passionate early defenders. But, over the years, even she got tired of his shenanigans. Okay, that was a lousy lead-in to a 1982 two-part interview (hosted at RockCritics) with Kael at her wittiest. Golly, remember when movie critics unconnected with Roger Ebert appeared on TV…

More on movies, over at Adbustersa long, thoughtful take on what America’s biggest pop culture industry is really doing to us. That industry happens to be porn so, um, this one’s NSFW (for language, not visuals).

Switching tracks… Wax Banks reports that magician Ricky Jay is performing live again, which reminds me that I've been wanting to link to this profile of the sleight-of-hand genius for ages.  I also hope that his longtime collaborator, playwright and filmmaker David Mamet, will film this show, so that those of us without access to the performance can see Jay fool us again, and again, and again.

Alain Locke, the first African American Rhodes scholar, jumpstarted the Harlem Renaissance when, in 1925, he published The New Negro, an anthology of black prose and poetry that still represents a significant part of the American canon. (The Wikipedia entry is far too short.) Using the first biography of Locke as a springboard, Ross Posnock traces Locke’s career alongside the rise of black arts, literature, and intellectualism in the 20th century.

Locke possessed a cool detachment that was the source of a remarkable self-awareness and absence of self-pity, qualities that allowed him to minimize and to manage the pathos that inevitably afflicted an American of his gifts, ambitions, and color. Like all black intellectuals of his era he found himself “trapped between two worlds,” but unlike many others Locke seemed to resolve the frustrations. Unlike [W.E.B.] Du Bois, he did not make a career out of them. He would never be capable, at least in public, of the flamboyant histrionics that Du Bois displays at the start of his autobiography: “Crucified on the vast wheel of time, I flew round and round with the Zeitgeist, waving my pen … to see, foresee and prophesy.” The audacity of Du Bois’s mind set him apart, and eventually made him a world-historical figure. Locke knew his own limits and was guided by a stoic steadiness and an irony about himself that helped him to persevere and thereby to avoid becoming one more burned-out case, the fate of many of his famous Harlem friends.

For a primer on contemporary black public intellectuals, here’s an oldie-but-goodie that I’ve been meaning to link to for a while: Robert Boynton’s “The New Intellectuals.”

That is all.


UPDATE: No, that's not all.  Am I crazy for thinking that the forthcoming first collection of essays by a major contemporary writer should merit more attention than, well, no response whatsoever?  Apparently, the mighty, magnificent Zadie Smith has a collection coming out in November.  I've heard neither hide nor hair of it, other than a mention I found after the fact at a Smith fansite.  Book bloggers, do your jobs.

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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