For my friend Bill Ryan's blog, The Kind of Face You Hate, I made a foray into the literary critical essay with a look at problem child H.P. Lovecraft and his seminal short story "The Horror At Red Hook." Enjoy!
N.b.: I offer the below in the spirit of nipping what I believe to be a particularly noxious meme in the bud. I've tried to keep it as spoiler-free as I can, and believe I've succeeded, but those invested in going into Gravity as total virgins might want to skip this post for the nonce.
Now that Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is getting rapturous reviews from the Venice Film
Festival, with more no doubt to follow, I believe it’s not un-okay for me to
let the cat out of the bag and report that I was able to see the movie a few
months back thanks to the kind consideration of some Warner people who wanted
some advance feedback from myself and a few other Internet-centric movie
journalists. I would have kept the cat in the bag longer were I not a little
disturbed by the mewlings of various and sundry folks who travel the digital
spaceways, claiming that the movie, co-written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón,
is somehow an ignoble enterprise in that it does not acknowledge the Ray
Bradbury short story “Kaleidoscope” as its story source.
There’s a really simple reason that Gravity doesn’t contain the credit “Based on the short story
‘Kaleidoscope’ by Ray Bradbury,” and the reason is because it isn’t. I say this
with confidence, my Everyman’s Library edition of The Stories of Ray
Bradbury open before me to page 184, on
which “Kaleidoscope” ends. As you may know, Cuarón’s film, which star George
Clooney and Sandra Bullock, is about the adventures of two astronauts who find
themselves stranded in outer space after debris from an exploding satellite
makes return to their own spacecraft impossible. “Kaleidoscope” concerns the
inner thoughts and verbal exchanges between the crew of a “rocket” (Bradbury’s
word) that’s been shattered by a
meteor storm, leaving the members of that crew drifting this way and that in
their spacesuits, facing their worst fears and worst selves as they head to the
death each of them knows is certain.
The specifics of the two stories are entirely different. In
“Kaleidoscope,” almost half a dozen rocket crew members are named, but the main
exchanges are between four: Hollis and Applegate, who had a kind of
professional rivalry, and Lespere and Stone. It takes place in an unspecified
future year, and is not merely science fiction but speculative science fiction;
in the story Lespere alludes to having wives on several planets other than
earth, which sets this story in a future when interplanatery travel is more
routine and humanoid life on other planets has been shown to exist. Gravity, on
the other hand, occurs in more or less the present time, so much so that one
critic has opined that the movie isn’t even science fiction. I’d have to say
that strictly speaking it is science fiction, not least because there are one
or two technological advantages the characters have that aren’t fully-fledged
practical realities for space workers at this point. That’s splitting hairs,
perhaps, but it is useful to note that the realm in which Bradbury was working
was necessarily much more fanciful than the one in which Gravity is set. (“Kaleidoscope” first appeared in book form
as part of Bradbury’s collection The Illustrated Man, published in 1951.)
Is the premise similar? Yes, but only insofar as Bradbury’s
own premise was similar to that of a shipwreck story. As a science-fiction
writer, a seer of rocketships and space travel and more, it was his innovation
to set a shipwreck story in a non-terrestrial realm. Gravity, too, is a shipwreck story, but the fact that it has
a smaller set of characters than “Kaleidoscope,” and the fact that one of the
characters is a woman, already kind of sets it apart automatically, and
throughout the movie’s brisk running time its emphases and circumstances differ
from those of the Bradbury story substantially, and at nearly every turn.
“Kaleidoscope” takes a premise that’s almost as old as storytelling itself and
goes its own way with it; so does Gravity. And there’s more. The most finally significant difference between the
two works is one of, well, theme. “Kaleidoscope” is about characters facing
certain death, their anxiety over what their lives have ultimately been worth,
their worries over whether their existences have ever meant anything at all.
The story ends on a beautiful metaphorical/actual note that says, yes, there is
a meaning, but you’re not necessarily going to be privy to it, and that is
possibly the thing that makes the meaning beautiful. I haven’t given you too
many specifics about the story line of Gravity but I will say that once the disaster strikes for the
astronaut the crux of the matter is that their deaths are not a given. They are
very likely, but not assured, and the story proceeds apace from that: these
characters are going to do everything they can to get home. So it’s two
completely different things at heart.
Every writer or filmmaker who endeavors in the realm of
science fiction owes a debt to Ray Bradbury. I think we can all agree on that.
But Ray Bradbury isn’t the secret writer of Gravity. I bet he totally would have dug the film, and I bet
if had not passed away in June of last year he would have been invited to look
at it well before I was.
I don't read as much jazz journalism as I should, but of what I did read in 1969 it is Down Beat's account of the Rutgers Jazz Festival that has stayed with me most vividly.
Down Beat, as you know, is the principal magazine of the American jazz music profession; it has been going thirty-five years, and has correspondents in every land from Denmark to Japan. Its policy is a comfortable, middle-of-the-road tolerance: whatever is, generally speaking, is right. And the man they sent to Rutgers was clearly cast in the same mould: let 'em all come, DIzzy, Herbie Mann, Jethro Tull, B.B. King, the Adderley Brothers—the more the merrier. He sat patiently in his seat and tried to hear good in everything, even sermons from Stones had they been present, and on the whole he succeeded, though there is the occasional wince. ('I was beginning to wish I wore a hearing aid so I could turn it down').
The flashpoint, if one can call it that, came on the Sunday evening. Our man arrived late, to find the Miles Davis group launched into what proved their final number, or, as he puts it, 'in the throes of what I most deplore, a free-form free-for-all' that "degenerated into a musical catfight." One must salute his honesty: here was one of the groups he was most anxious to hear, and it was terrible, and he admits it was terrible. But then—and this is the point—there followed the Newport All Stars Braff, Norvo, Tal Farlow, and good old George Wein on piano, and the reporter's relief was so enormous that his encomia became almost pathetic in their hyperbole. Braff and his friends were sparkling spring water, they were 'Macbeth' and "David Copperfield', they were incomparable, they were as eternal as sex and sunlight: 'man, this is what it's all about.' In his enthusiasm he asked a 17-year-old girl what she thought of them. She said: 'It's music to go shopping at Klein's by.'
Now the point of this anecdote it two-fold: first, all kinds of jazz are not equally good, no matter what editorial policy might be; some of it is ravishingly exciting, and some a musical catfight scored for broken glass and bagpipes, and you only have to hear the two in succession to grab one and reject the other. Secondly, jazz (that is, the form of Afro-American popular music that flourished between 1925 and 1945) means nothing to the young. This should strengthen us in our devotion to it. True, we must give up any notion we may have been cherishing that beneath our hoary exteriors lurk hearts of May: we may dig jazz, but the kids want something else. Our passion for this extraordinary and ecstatic musical phenomenon that lasted a mere twenty or thirty years in the first half of our century must now take its place alongside similar passions for Hilliard miniatures or plain-chant.
—Philip Larkin, "Moment of Truth," The Daily Telegraph, January 10, 1970, reprinted in All What Jazz, Faber and Faber, 1985
But Professor Skizzen had noticed that God was always excused. Any and every God. For any and every thing. A tornado might trash a trailer park and the poor wretches who survived would think to thank him for sparing them, as well as preserving a children's plate and one photo of the family grinning at the Falls asif they'd pushed the water over by themselves.
Perhaps the Gods alternated fucking off. "I won't interfere with the destruction of the temple, if you won't prevent the crucifixion of the Savior." The pagans, the Christians, and the Muslims had taken turns burning the Library of Alexandria, but it was a moment of rare cooperation. Most of the time the celestial bodies were at one another's throats. The thought of burning drove Joseph to his attic where there was nothing but paper, sticky strings of clippings, rows of books, piles of magazines, stacks of newsprint, rolls of placards and posters, so he was always frightened by any word that implied ignition. The fact that burning had occurred to him was significant. Set those mountains of painful testimony ablaze, shred the evidence, erase the stories: of the young woman who was raped by her judges in punishment of the adultery of her brother, for instance. Out of what dark corner of the human mind...? or is it all dark, even in the light? or do our murderous desires lie hidden in the closet of the entry? under the runner unrolled down the hall? or disguised as that spot under the dining table where the rug is stained? By whom are we ruled if not by our nature? Remove all signs of those murderers who now make movies of themselves going through their grisly motions; and there will remain the badgering of sweet maids by their horny masters or the drowning of babies in their baths. It is impossible to conceal all the evidence. Yet how easily we forget who we really are. Because it should give us the creepts. His father's plight had been desperate indeed, for where could one go, really, to stay clean—worse, who could one be to be tolerable?
François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock, Helen Scott during the interviews that created the book.
F.T. Would you say that Psycho is an experimental film?
A.H. Possibly. My main satisfaction is that the film had an effect on the audiences, and I consider that very important. I don't care about the subject matter; I don't care about the acting; but I do care about the piece of film and the photography and the sound track and all of the technical ingredients that made the audience scream. I feel it's tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic are to acheive something of a mass emotion. And with Psycho we most definitely acheived this. it wasn't a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance or their enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film.
F.T. Yes, that's true.
A.H. That's why I take pride in the fact that Psycho, more than any of my other pictures, is a film that belongs to film-makers, to you and me. I can't get a real appreciation of the picture in the terms we're using now. People will say, "It's a terrible film to make. The subject was horrible, the people were small, there were no characters in it. " I know all of this, but I also know that the construction of the story and the way in which it was told caused audiences all over the world to react and become emotional.
Elise Lhomeau and Denis Lavant, Holy Motors, Leos Carax, 2011
She sank upon her knees beside his pillow, took his thin hand in her own; begged him not to make an effort—not to tire himself.
His face was of necessity serious—it was incapable of the muscular play of a smile; but its owner apparently had not lost a perception of incongruities. "What does it matter that I am tired, when I have all eternity to rest?" he asked. "There is no harm in making an effort when it is the very last. Don't people always feel better just before the end? I have often heard of that; it's what I was waiting for. ever since you have been here; I thought it would come. I tried two or three times; I was afraid you would get tired of sitting there." He spoke slowly, with painful breaks and long pauses; his voice seemed to come from a distance. When he ceased, he lay with his face turned to Isable, and his large unwinking eyes open into her own. "It was very good of you to come," he went on. "I thought you would; but I wasn't sure."
"I was not sure either, till I came," said Isabel.
"You have been like an angel beside my bed. You know they talk about the angel of death. It's the most beautiful of all. You have been like that; as if you were waiting for me."
"I was not waiting for your death. I was waiting for—for this. This is not death, dear Ralph."
"Not for you—no. There is nothing makes us feel so much alive as to see others die. That's the sensation of life—the sense that we remain. I have had it—even I. But now I am of no use but to give it to others. With me it's all over." And then he paused. Isabel bowed her head further, till it rested on the two hands that were clasped upon his own. She could not see him now; but his far-away voice was close to her ear. "Isabel," he went on, suddenly, "I wish it were over for you." She answered nothing; she had burst into sobs; at last he gave her a long groan. "Ah, what is it you have done for me?"
"What is it you did for me?" she cried, her now extreme agitation half-smothered by her attitude. She had lost all her shame, all wish to hide things. Now he might know; she wished him to know, for it brought them supremely together, and he was beyond the reach of pain. "You did something once—you know it. Oh, Ralph, you have been everything! What have I done for you—what can I do to-day? I would die if you could live. But I don't wish you to live; I would die myself, not to lose you." Her voice was as broken as his own, and full of tears and anguish.
"You won't lose me—you will keep me. Keep me in your heart; I shall be nearer to you than I have ever been. Dear Isabel, life is better; for in life there is love. Death is good—but there is not love."
"I never thanked—I never spoke—I never was what I should be!" Isabel went on. She felt a passionate need to cry out and accuse herself, to let her sorrow possess her. All her troubles, for the moment, became single and melted together into this present pain. "What must you have thought of me? Yet how could I know? I never knew, and I only know today because there are people who are less stupid than I."
"Don't mind people," said Ralph. "I think I am glad to leave people."
She raised her head and her clasped hands; she seemed for a moment to pray to him.
"Is it true—is it true?" she asked.
"True that you have been stupid? Oh no," said Ralph, with a sensible intention of wit.
"That you made me rich—that all I have is yours?"
He turned away his head, and for some time said nothing. Then at last—
"Ah, don't speak of that—that was not happy." Slowly he moved his face toward her again, and they once more saw each other. "But for that—but for that—" And he paused. "I believe I ruined you," he added softly.
—Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (Chapter LIV), 1881, from the 1985 Library of America edition
Over on Twitter, my pal Brian Koppelman wrote yesterday, "My friend @Glenn_Kenny gets fired up (and aggro) at a moment's; yet he's been quiet despite @BretEastonEllis attack on DFW." Well, relatively quiet. I will not reflect on the irony that it is partially due to the ministrations of Brian and a few other friends that I've made an effort to be Not Such An Asshole On Twitter, despite the intuition I have that one of the few things Twitter is kind of good and amusing for is just that sort of thing. But my reasons for not weighing in more fully on Mr. Ellis' fulsome expression of negative opinion on David Foster Wallace...as I am about to do now...have more to do with an attachment to some old-school journalistic ethics than with what Richard Hell once referred to a "share of excess nice."
First off, I don't really know all too much of Bret Easton Ellis' writing. Once I read Greil Marcus (in what was in fact a positive review) describe a scene in the novel Less Than Zero in which a poster for the Elvis Costello album Trust played a prominent symbological role, I thought "Later for this guy." This was around 1985, when I was writing rock music criticism for the Voice, and my editor Tom Carson and I would regularly compare notes concerning poetic form in Nabokov's The Gift, or as we would refer to it, Dar.* Just as we didn't need no fascist groove thing, so too did we not need facile pop-culture referential accounts of the anomie of the rich kids of our generation. After American Psycho made its splash, or whatever it was, I read precisely enough of it to determine to my own satisfaction its authorial voice, which was/is a ventriloquist dummy's inept parroting of Alain Robbe-Grillet dressed in a "Die Yuppie Scum" t-shirt. I wound up admiring Mary Harron's film version, because the array of cine-rhetorical devices the director broke out for it wound up putting a reasonably sharp point on the book's facile satire, and Christian Bale's embodiment of Patrick Bateman had a knowing gonzo wit that was nowhere evident in the prose I read. I understand that Ellis himself was less than thrilled with the movie. Go figure.
And then I was done with the writer. I was obliged to review the movie adaptation of The Rules Of Attraction, a stacked-deck college saga that makes the uncommon mistake of trying to concoct some kind of High Tragedy out of the capricious behavior of largely unformed post-adolescents. Aside from finding the whole thing overdetermined, albeit the sort of stuff that an unformed post-adolescent actor might read and think it's REALLY HEAVY, my response was pretty much along the lines of Albert Brooks' dismissal of William Hurt in Broadcast News: "You really blew the lid off of nookie."
And so, to now, and to Bret Easton Ellis' Twitter feed, which, the fawning of any number of literary wannabe starfuckers notwithstanding, has really been little besides sad, between the dithering about how HE would put together a movie version of Fifty Shades of Gray, and his little aperçus that come off like USA-Today-column era Larry King channelling Michael Musto (which, I know, is kind of unfair to Musto), as in, "The celebrity couple I'm most compelled by right now: Andy Samberg and Joanna Newsom." Oh, do tell. Is that because Andy Samberg's a COMEDIAN and Joanna Newsom plays the harp and writes and sings such odd, idiosyncratic songs? Oh, that's weird, right...? Okay, I'll stop now. And then there's the name-dropping, and the observations such as "The best American movie right now is Magic Mike and if you're thinking it's Moonrise Kingdom then you are a hipster douchebag," the personal hilariousness of which my newfound sense of discretion inhibits me from fully discoursing on, although I will say that, demographic-alienation wise, Ellis ragging on "hipster douchebags" seems even more ill-advised than Michael Chabon poking fun at organic-food fetishists. But never mind.
ANYWAY, the SECOND reason I haven't weighed in more is that I have yet to read the D.T. Max biography of David Foster Wallace that has set Ellis off so. I AM SUPPOSED TO HAVE GOTTEN A COMP COPY, and I have not, and I have this fucked-up rule in place right now that I am not to PURCHASE any more books until I finish War And Peace, on which I'm up to about page 800. So there's that. But it was in reading Max's book that Ellis apparently felt so many (presumably) old resentments against the late Wallace stirring up. And, so moved, he deemed the "Wallace myth" "borderline sickening" on a "purely literary level," went on to say "Anyone who finds David Foster Wallace a literary genius has got to be included in the Literary Doucebag-Fools Pantheon," to aver that Wallace's "pretentiousness" made Ellis "embarassed to have any kind of ties to the publishing scene" (n.b., that's "publishing scene," not "publishing," I presume there's some kind of distinction to be discerned there), threw around terms such as "tedious," "overrated," "tortured," "pretentious" (again!) and so on. As the hippie therapist said to the troubled kid on some early '70s Afterschool Special, "that's a lot of rage there, you wanna rap about it?"
In a blog post in which he gives Ellis more of the benefit of the doubt that I'm inclined to, the always-amused-by-literary-kerfuffles James Wolcott gets some insight from venerable New York editor Gerald Howard, who worked with both Wallace and Ellis and who's also the editor of Wolcott's own diverting memoir Lucking Out. Trying to be a good dad to both his sort-of kids, Howard notes, "At the moment the Wallace style is dominant and that is what drives Bret Ellis nuts." There's a lot of issue to be taken with this sentence, one of which would be that the Wallace style is, at its best irreproducible, but there's little doubt that SOMETHING is driving Ellis nuts. Howard goes on to wax skeptical about This Is Water, which is, I think, a little unfair to Wallace, who did not supervise its publication (what with being dead and all) and who I do not think really considered it as among his signature works. But anyway. While the Wallace "style" may be "dominant," the Wallace backlash has always been with us. Not just that awful Maud Newton piece in the Times Magazine (no fucking link). Back when he was alive, and he and I would work together (yeah, you KNEW I was gonna get around to this sooner or later, didn't you?) on occasion, I can't tell you the number of colleagues who would almost literally nudge me in the ribs and make reference to "Footnote Boy." You know how the eccentric movie blogger Jeffrey Wells likes to go on about how if director Terrence Malick had a REAL producer like Bert Schneider, than he'd be disciplined into making another Days of Heaven instead of all that airy-fairy not-narrative-enough wackadoodle nonsense? Well, I was the anti-Bert-Schneider to Wallace. "You commissioned the piece at 300 words and he gave you 3,000? That's SO undisciplined. I would never stand for that." And so on. And you know, it WAS kind of a pain in the ass to have to patiently talk it out with Wallace why we were gonna have to pass on 3,000 words on Terminator 2, and then have to go and find another writer, do another agent negotiation, and so on. But in the end, such as it was, it was all worth it, because, Douchebag-Fool that I am, I thought Wallace was a fucking genius. Still do.
I would think that Ellis would be delighted that, while an undergraduate, Wallace rhapsodized over the "smell of cunt in the air;" it makes him sound like a particularly loathesome character in, well, a Bret Easton Ellis book. The Wallace I knew and worked with was over that way of thinking about women, and was quite well-mannered, and chivalrous. I remember him being very sweet to my future wife, and saying very nice things about her in conversation thereafter. But wait...I think I'm banking near that "middlebrow sentimentality," the rejection is the most "furiously important thing an artist can achieve in this historical moment," according to...hey, wait, who's being "pretentious" now, Bret Easton Ellis?
Back to the tweets; the latterones have gotten, not unpedictably, a bit, yes, sad. "No problem that David Foster Wallace was smarter than me and a better writer but he was so much colder than I ever was. He faked it. Almost." And then: "David Foster Wallace: when I say 'better' writer I don't know what the fuck that means except he knew big words, syntax, grammar. Big deal." Any time a self-styled creator of literature complains over "big" words it is once again time to bail, and yet there's something poignant about all this. After excoriating "Saint Dave," Ellis wants you to know that HE, Bret Easton Ellis, is really the good person. I am reminded of Ellis' high regard for Don DeLillo, and I remember the incredibly moving eulogy DeLillo delivered for Dave at NYU at a memorial for the writer there, and I recall the correspondence that DeLillo and Wallace shared to the end of Wallace's life. And I see Bret Easton Ellis sitting in the back of the classroom, alone, putting his hand up and biting his lower lip, and keeping it up so long he needs to put his other hand under his arm to prop it. And then starting to quietly piss himself.
*This is made up. Tom Carson and I never did that. But one of us may have thought of it.