Archive for August 2008
My great friend Tim Kreider is writing another article, this one about books that shape us in childhood, and “why literature and art in general loses its power to change our personalities and our lives as we grow older. ”
Since I have no idea if my response got to him in time for his article, or whether it’s useful, I’m posting what I feel relevant here. Fair warning: I’m a fast and careless writer more often than not. This isn’t wordsmithery, this is a hurried -but genuine and substantial, I hope – response to a request from a friend.
I’m not 100% convinced your thesis
is true of me, in that I still feel pretty moved by things I’m
reading. In fact, I’m reading and being influenced more than ever I
think lately, as I’ve begun to read more consciously. Your certainly
right that books in our youth shape us (for me- it’s Peanuts
again) but I think the subtle growths we are capable of in our
adulthood are still significant, even if they don’t appear so from the
But maybe my thinking about this is strange, and if so, for two reasons.
1: I may be overemphasizing the mature growth a conscious person goes
through. If I’m over-compensating, it’s only to not seem a stagnant
2: I’m a notorious blank slate. My memory is so horrible, I barely
remember my own efforts and conversations of last week, let alone the
books I read a long time ago. Often I think the only thing shaping me
-that I’m conscious of- are the things in my present.
That said, I’ll try to give a proper response to this.
Childhood: Peanuts books. Mad Magazine. Books about cartooning. Novels
about animals: Call of the Wild, Born Free, etc.
There was a silly children’s book about a pumpkin who goes trick or treating
as a spider that I rather liked.
Adolescence: Foxfire books. These were a series of (10?) documentary
anthologies about the skills and stories of Appalachian people.
I found the self-sufficiency and simplicity of their lives and
behaviors so incredibly powerful.
Douglas Adams. Any smart kid with a disbelief in the real world has to
discover these at some point. Lucky boys and girls have sympathetic
adults to lend them; I actually stumbled on these cause they were in
the first part of the fiction section that I was browsing in my local
book store. Then I found out later that everyone knew about them!
Vonnegut: Same as above. Disbelief and frustration with the idiocy
around one will lead one to Vonnegut.
Love and Rockets. Cerebus.
A book of poetry by a guy named ANTLER. In the Whitman, Ginsberg vein,
poems about the woods, people doing simple things, slight
impeachments of our society, etc.
Age 17-20ish: Dharma Bums by Kerouac. Still to this day I’ve never
read On The Road, but I’ve read Dharma Bums two or three times. Again,
like the Foxfire books, it’s about freedom and simplicity, and
choosing actions that are coarse and simple, living close to the
ground for benefit of the spirit.
Adult years 21-30:
Italo Calvino: Cosmicomics, Invisible Cities. Showing that literature
could be a sparkling creation, guided by curiosity, and intelligence.
Borges should have done this for me, but I never responded to Borges
as much. His erudition was beyond me.
(Image courtesy Mmothra blog- thanks!)
In Search of the Miraculous and other books about GI Gurdjieff.
(Hi Staats!) This
more than any other book maybe had an explosive effect on my
personality. This, coupled with two or three terrific acid trips at
age 21 or 22 (actually, I might not have read it all the way through
until 24 or 25) gave me my still governing principles about well,
Life, the Universe and Everything.
A Pattern Language– a hippyish book about the options available in
planning a city, a town, a street, a home. It made me realize that if
we create our surroundings using the needs of people as our governing
idea, we would be happy. What a crazy thought! But it also went into
the depth and the subtlties of people’s needs. Poetic needs, needs of
quiet and of loud culture, of ritual, bonding, but of solitude and
Small is Beautiful much like the above, about our economic systems.
See Hutch Owen’s Working Hard for regurgitation of that.
Philip K Dick. The Moomin Books by Tove Janssen.
Jealousy, and Towards a New Novel, by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Taking off where Calvino started
in my brain, Robbe-Grillet sling-shotted it even farther.
Link here from my blog posting after his death.
Lastly, two books about art. One, a comprehensive overview of modern
art, devoured while I was stranded and mostly alone in Morocco (and sent to me by
Jon Lewis- hi Jon!) gave me a brain opening primer into art from the 19th
century and on. My college experience woefully incomplete, books replaced
it where necessary.
Two, Classical Music for Dummies. Seriously! The entire world of
Western Classical Music was sealed and taped up and the windows
painted black til I decided to read something about it that would take
me through it. I can’t imagine living in a world without Beethoven, or
Debussy or Brahms now.
Later adult hood 30+:
Harold Bloom books on “The Canon” and “On Reading” this or that, helped me
understand how to read. Again, I never had good reading classes in
college, It gave me an appreciation for writers I haven’t read, but
now look forward to: Milton, Dante, etc.
All the comic books which through careful inspection have helped
teach me how to DRAW and think about comics. Tezuka published
by Vertical (go Vertical!).
Currently, every time I read Nabokov my brain explodes into thinking
about how to use words, and how glorious rolling around in them can
be. Further, Margaret Atwood makes me crazy for every reason,
Mary Gaitskill has a tailor’s approach to her raw materials that
excites me, and Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude is forever
burned in my brain. All this
has happened in the past few years!
Let’s hear it for the late bloomers!
Leela and I are in Gainesville, Florida, both writing and drawing ongoing stories down here and gorging on other storytelling and trying to decipher, parse out and deconstruct what we’re taking in. We’re trying to be constantly vigilant about slipping into the tendencies we’re disliking in certain crappy movies we keep coming across.
What makes a movie crappy? To Lee, it’s a lack of emotional directness and vividness, and a habit of explaining instead of telling the story. The biggest crime she came up with while watching ROME (crappy): “Shooting the Outline.” Rome constantly shot the outline. If the outline reads “They cross the Rubicon” the filmmakers film a bunch of dudes in togas and military gear crossing a river saying “This is the Rubicon.” Blech, and they did it over and over again.
When Shooting the Outline happens, there’s no emotional color, no dramatic texture, no story unfolding in front of you, just things you have to know about in order for you to get it. Everything, when Shooting the Outline, feels like a montage. To quote the guys from South Park: It’s a training montage! … Always fade out in a montage!
Crappy movie number 1: The Painted Veil. Ed Norton and Naomi Watts in a Cholera epidemic in rural China. He is punishing the adulterous Watts character by bringing her here. Toby Jones plays a noble homunculus and spirit guide through the hard landscape for them both.
The Painted Veil had:
An adultery montage
A resentful native montage
A redemption montage
What is a montage in these contexts? I think a montage is when NOTHING DRAMATIC OR SURPRISING happens. This is fine. Sometimes you need to communicate that something typical or expected happen. They fell in love (in the usual way). They learned how to shoot (it’s a training montage…!) They drove all night. They had sex.
When the core of the movie works this way, the movie is “crappy.” (Getting back to our original question…) I remember two good scenes in this movie, two non-montages, both involving emotional intensity from Ed Norton. The first is the scene where he goads her into confronting him. The second, their hostilities almost break and they move closer to a detente, but don’t quite get there. The rest is predictable and dull, though lushly shot and competently directed.
Leela always goes to Fatih Akin and Almodovar for examples of her favorite storytelling. What would these directors do with this material? There wouldn’t be a shortage of emotional intensity, and further, the characters would be human enough to have wit, or humor or levity. At least they wouldn’t be sketches of characters, they would be characters you can feel around inside and invest yourself in.
I agree. I felt the Naomi Watts character was only there to be watched, you never were allowed to know her, only “know” her in the way you already know certain character types: she’s young, shallow, vain, spoiled, etc.
Lee thinks the beginning was too short, you were just given hinted details when the real story was there, not in the strained relations and redemption in the end, but more in who this character (Watts’ character) was and why she acted like she did.
I love having Leela around, because as I’m trying to find the good movie in the bad, or wondering if I’m missing something, being too critical not open to decent storytelling, Leela remains indignant. I’m still not certain The Painted Veil isn’t a good movie done badly, but Leela thinks they should scrap the whole thing and refocus. In the end I think she’s right.
Tomorrow: Crappy Movie #2: French thriller, ‘Tell No One’ and how Almodovar would have done that one.
For the next few weeks, I’m presenting strips that exist in my “Unused” folder. I think this one was a bit too strange and the Metro nixed it, or maybe I never submitted it. It was done as a present for Francois Ayroles, the great French author and Oubapian who created a terrific series of wordless comics, much better than this one. Here, I was trying to use his vernacular, but still stay with my own framework. Charming, a bit.
I present this one first as a celebration of nature and beauty as I am also flying to SUNNY and BEAUTIFUL , tomorrow, to stay the month of August.
These are also running on my webcomicsnation account.