There's nothing to win by
this sort of an outcry
Oh yeah we all know why
Cuz the world a person lives in
is his brain. Well mine just gives in...
—Richard Hell, "Who Says? (It's Good To Be Alive?)," from Blank Generation, Richard Hell And The Voidoids, SIre Records, 1977
Michel Piccoli, Juliette Binoche, Denis Lavant, Mauvais sang, Leos Carax, 1986.
Denis Lavant, Holy Motors, Leos Carax, 2012.
In a recent comment the reader calling himself "That Fuzzy Bastard" expressed surprise/curiosity that Holy Motors was ranked so highly on my best-of-the-year list given the skepticism I expressed about it on first seeing it. As I mentioned in my first writeup, some of that skepticism was fueled in a reactive mode relative to Carax's Cannes 2012 status as the Approved-Creative-Fireworks-Wackadoodle of the Know-Somethingish American contingent of the festival attendees. Also there was some subsequent annoyance at self-satisfied predictions concerning a shift in the film's reception.
A second viewing was, for me, more demonstrative of the movie's not just melancholy but its anger, its futile regret over a life badly lived because, in the immortal words of Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull, "I got no choice!" As the ultimately nameless (I believe) actor played by Denis Lavant, once more I think acting for/as both himself and his director, goes through a day of demands and insults and winds up having to spend the evening with (spoiler alert) a family of chimps, if I'm not mistaken, the movie drives any number of sad and pissed-off stakes through The Imaginative Life As It Is Lived In These Times, but avoids (to use David Thomas' phrase) "I'm a miserable artiste, pity me!" special pleading, in part via a genuine empathy expressed through certain of the roles Lavant enacts. The imaginative life is not so far removed from what's referred to a the life of the mind after all. Unlike That Fuzzy Bastard, I came out not seeing "light, context-less emotion-tweaking" so much as a melange of modes and of alienated reactions to those modes, those reactions not making much of a dent in "reality" along the way. Yes, the green-suited "Merde" monster does succeed in disrupting a fashion photo shoot, but aside from a hard-on and a cigarette, what does it get him?
Nick Tosches' latest novel, Me And The Devil, is a pretty problematic piece of work, but in the aggregate I have to say it left a mark, one that's not entirely segregated from the local anger that Tosches often expresses therein in a fashion many will take not unreasonable exception to. It's that kind of book, one where the acheivement seems in too-uncomfortable proximity to the things that make it objectionable. Where Holy Motors stumbles, it's in the realm of sentimentality (forgivable with respect to the movie's treatment of Edith Scob, less so in the It's A Wonderful Life-inspired talking-limos coda); Me And The Devil errs, as regular Tosches readers should not be surprised to learn, in the area of sort-of nihilist-tough-guy posturing. But it's not entirely purposeless. For instance:
Only an utter fool would rather express himself than simply be himself. To live was a beautiful thing. To write about it was a labor. And the pay had given way to pay cuts.
Writing was not an act of imagination or, may the Devil take me for even using the word, creativity. (How I cringed when people used the word 'creative" in referring to me in my presence. I knew then and there that they did not know what work was. I knew then and there that they lived in a dream world. Often they themselves were make-believe "artists," living the "creative" life under the shelter of trust funds, inheritances, or family money of some kind. Often they were trying to imply an intimacy that did not, could not exist with me or what I did.) There was nothing to be romanticized in what I did. If flower garlands of words and phantoms of imagery had come to me in visions, so had some of the stupidest ideas I have ever had: ideas that landed me in jail, emergency rooms, or hock.
While Carax's film is a fantasy depiction of the working life of the artist, it is relatively unsparing in its depiction not just of toil but of emotional deprivation and loss. If it is a work of "creative" "exuberance" that exuberance is in a certain sense a gob of spit from the bowels of hell.
When I was young, I thought it would get easier. But as it turned out, each novel got harder. Maybe this was because, with each one, I was flaying a further layer from inside me, exposing yet another, deeper layer. Maybe this was what made it harder. When I was young and thought it woudl get easier—the days when I was thrilled to see my name or my picture on a book—I hid. I did not even dare to write in the first person. Then all that changed, and when it did, it reminded me of that sixteenth-century anatomical engraving by Amusco something-or-other, or something-or-other Amusco, the one of a guy stripped to his inner anatomy holding a knife in one hand and the drooping entirety of his body's own freshly removed skin in the other.
The special knife, I thought as I recalled this: the special knife. Maybe I needed to write. Maybe, even with all the illness it brought, it was the least destructive, least dangerous alternative that I had. And I should be thankful that I had it.
Every gift a curse, every curse a gift.