Friday, December 18, 2009

Ancient Scenes of Celebrities Past

I wrote that title without intentionally intending it to be a Dickens* reference, but decided to leave it there once I noticed because I thought it sounded good. These videos that I found, with very little effort, are the results of my procrastination as I work on conference papers for the Canadian Philosophical Association meetings in Montreal this June.

I’ve liked Eric Bana ever since I saw Munich: his was the best performance in the whole film. I had seen him in Black Hawk Down, but he was just one soldier character among others in that movie. Munich was where he stood out as an actor of intense emotion. And I thought of him after that as a dramatic actor, yet to recapture the intensity of Munich, but one can’t make a film like that every year. And I thought his work in Star Trek as Nero was the best villain of the entire film franchise since Khan.

Then I found his wikipedia page and discovered several things I hadn’t known before. For one, he’s of Croatian heritage, with the full last name Banadinovic. I learned more about the Australian films he’s done, particularly his dramatic debut Chopper. And most surprisingly, I discovered that he began his career as one of the lead actor/writers on a sketch comedy show, Full Frontal, that ran for six years. I knew from Funny People that he could do comedy, but I never realized that it was where he spent such a significant portion of his career. And he’s hilarious. He does a pretty good impersonation of Arnold Swartzenegger, but I think this sketch, showcasing his most famous character on the show, Peter the most stereotypical Australian in the universe, is his best old material on youtube.

And today is the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Second City theatre in Chicago, the venue which can legitimately claim to have invented modern American comedy. The list of people who have gone through Second City is so long as to require a great deal of dedicated research which I don’t want to do. So I’ll just post this sketch from 2001 featuring Steve Carell as an unassuming man doing his laundry. Carell has really grown on me over the years, but it’s fun to see him before he had a professional stylist keeping his hair in control twenty-four hours a day.

*A minor confession to my readers: Despite my regular screeds against VicLit, I have never read any Dickens.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

It's Really Only the Music that I Hate About This Holiday

Patton Oswalt explains everything that drives me insane about the holiday season, mostly having to do with schlocky stories and terrible music. I was in the grocery store the other day, and the combination of Saturday afternoon grocery store cart traffic jams with the most horrifyingly awful Xmas songs drove me close to the point of mass murder. Donovan, my cashier, agreed.

The really terrifying part about this song is that there's a tv-movie adapted from its story, starring Rob Lowe. It was made in the middle of his run on The West Wing, so he can't fall back on the excuse that he needed the paycheck.

Philosophical Friendships, Wordplay, and The Monster of Foxy Conservatism

After a few comments I made last week about my philosophical and fictional development, a series of duelling comments between my old friend Bernie Wills and my newer friend Ben Wald has started on my facebook page. Bernie teaches at Grenfell College, Memorial’s west coast campus, and Ben is in the last year of his MA at McMaster. I think if they were to meet in real life, they’d get along quite well.

Both are extremely argumentative when it comes to philosophy, but neither of them are abrasive about it at all. They can just congenially dispute a point for hours, constantly coming up with new angles and evasions and rhetoric. I usually run out of steam and do something else after a while, but I think if Bernie and Ben were in the same room talking philosophy, they wouldn’t leave again until they ran out of food. And the argument would continue over lunch.

Ben can always find an angle to refute or critique pretty much any philosophical statement in a conversation. It will be very productive for him, even though it’s sometimes frustrating for me. The way I do philosophy, I pursue an idea starting from a very strange place, which can sometimes begin in a state resembling Orson Welles lying face up at sunrise on a beach in southern California wearing nothing but a pair of mysteriously stained boxers and tripping out of his mind on salvia. And I end up with a coherent and intriguing conceptual investigation. On the good days.

Bernie I met when he was teaching at Memorial’s St John’s campus, at a philosophy department mixer. It was 2005, as I recall, and I walked over to say hello to Jim Bradley, the department head and a good friend, who rapidly introduced me to Bernie. Unfortunately, I was standing against the wall, and Bernie is much taller than me, so dominated my field of vision as he spoke about the invasion of Iraq for the next half hour until I, like Jim, could finally find an excuse and go somewhere else. We since became good colleagues and friends, exchanging ideas on a wide range of topics from Deleuzian ontology to Curb Your Enthusiasm.
An amusing Hamilton non-sequitor. There is a bar downtown called Liquid Kitty, that is constituted from a large basement dancefloor underneath another bar, almost as wretched, called Tailgate Charlie’s. Tailgate Charlie’s is just kind of lame; Liquid Kitty is a terrifying meat market for the 30-55 set (to which I approach closer with every passing day, so I have to mock them while I still can). It is so awful that you can smell the syphilis as soon as you get past the mandatory (seriously, it’s mandatory!) coat check.

My friend André habitually calls it Liquid Pussy. I don’t know if this is a purposeful joke, or if he just misheard it on the first terrifying night we ended up there. But it’s hilarious.
Another amusing piece of Hamilton information. Sarah Palin is coming here in April as part of a fundraiser for two hospitals in the city. If George W Bush was the Arnold Swartzenegger Terminator, then Sarah Palin is the T1000 come to hunt down the pre-teen John Connor called political sanity. And she is coming, by invitation, to a fundraiser in one of the most left-leaning cities in Canada, a country with a real left-wing party that holds solidly almost every Hamilton seat in both levels of government.

Sarah Palin coming here better stir up at least a few women’s rights and anti-Republican protesters. I might even go myself with a sign and some of my friends from social work and sociology.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Not Too Long Journey in Search of a Method

My pleasure reading over the last month or so included mostly Bolaño, as you could probably tell from the previous few posts. After reading 2666 again, I started Nazi Literature in the Americas, his fake encyclopedia of the mostly melancholy and marginal lives of the men and women who constituted a century-long literary movement built around fascist ideas. Of course, these people were all fictional. It was, as I’ve considered everything else I’ve read by Roberto Bolaño, brilliant.

But after finishing Nazi Literature, I started The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, and the transition between the two authors in my reading was jarring. It’s made me think about the development of my own writing style, which, even though I owe a lot to the modernists like Joyce and Woolf, now is more aligned with the easier language of Bolaño and Nabokov. The idea I had today was that the reason for this transition has to do with my philosophical development more than my tastes as an author.

What fascinated me about modernist literature when I first discovered James Joyce and Virginia Woolf was the technique of stream-of-consciousness writing, language that inserted the reader into the thoughts of the character as they drifted along an associative train through time and space, sometimes focussed on the colloquial, sometimes on flights of memory, sometimes intimate moments of self-reflection, and sometimes into fragmentary thoughts that completely dissociated one from reality and could lose track of what is typically thought of as the narrative altogether. Plot became secondary to character study with this technique.

And it had none of the irritating omniscience that so annoys me in so much nineteenth century literature. The narration of Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, and Maryann Evans (George Eliot) knew everything about their characters and displayed them on the page for you to read. Every facet of their characters were laid out in the text like the terms of an anatomy lesson. It wasn’t so much character study to me as character explanation. The narrator displayed all the psychological properties, and they collided in the mechanical necessity the parts dictated. I could almost call it mechanical realism.

This stream-of-consciousness technique offered a teenager with pretentions for a career in writing a way of exploring a character-constituted narrative, but kept the mystery and paradoxes that I saw in actual people. The mechanical realist technique put every facet of their characters’ psychologies on display, each one fitting together into a consistent whole. A character revealed through stream-of-consciousness could embrace inconsistency, as the character itself could become just as lost in its own stream as the reader. Surprise was possible.

My philosophical development began just as I was turning 19, with my first course in the subject from Jim Bradley, to whom I owe lifelong thanks. When I first began, I was fascinated by the problem of how the subjective could be bridged with the world, how thought could become objective and no longer distort the world in order to understand it. But over the following years, I began to understand how flawed this entire philosophical setup was. If a human subject’s knowledge of the world was so radically distorted as this setup says it is, then no creature with such a flawed perceptual apparatus could survive. In all the ways I had studied of how people tackled the question of how we could overcome the distortion inherent to subjectivity, no one had seriously questioned whether subjectivity was inherently distorting of reality at all. And I abandoned most of the philosophy that refused to pose this question.

And this is why, as I’ve developed this stance of radically rejecting the subject-world problem and all the ways this pseudo-problem crops up in other philosophies (mind-body, thought-reality, certainty-doubt), I’ve come to abandon the stream-of-consciousness as a fruitful literary technique. Reading Faulkner has just made this even more clear to me. I’m only reading him for the first time this year, having picked up a box set of three novels cheaply at a used bookstore in Windsor this March. He’s a master of the technique, taking it to what looks to be an extremity of fragmentation. The story of The Sound and the Fury is nearly impossible to discern from the constant shifts in time, mood, event, perception, and thought. These shifts are structured along the narrative of the decline and fall of the noble family of Compson. But that narrative is far from apparant in the words themselves and their organization.

The stream-of-consciousness technique is a story told from deep within a single character’s subjectivity. And taken to its extreme in Faulkner, I can see now the presumption in the technique as to the nature of a subjectivity: a distortion of the plot playing out in the real, outside, world. There is no place for the world itself to be mysterious in its constitution of itself, no place for a conspiracy between a character and her world, no way to turn a narrative into a plot against the reader. The only way for confusion and mystery to arise in stream-of-consciousness writing is in the distortion consciousness creates in trying (and inevitably failing) to apprehend the world.

The realism of Nabokov, Bolaño, Vonnegut, DeLillo, and Pynchon (these are my favourite examples; I know I must read more women) can create grand structures of multiplicity through a simple structure: realist writing with a narrator who doesn’t know everything, and who sometimes might not know anything. A stream-of-consciousness can flow in only one direction: down the black hole of a distorting subjectivity. Myserious realism can build an entire world with a quick suggestion.