Saturday, August 28, 2010

Poem in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A poem of mine titled “Submerged Town Reappears” is published in today’s edition of Pittsburgh’s newspaper of record, the Post-Gazette. It appears in both the print and online versions of the paper.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Harmony Korine, Trash Humpers

Harmony Korine’s latest film, Trash Humpers (2009), is one of his best, and is his most experimental and non-linear work yet. Its setting is similar to that of his earlier film Gummo (1997) — American waste — but is even more extreme and crazier. I suppose “setting” is a questionable term in this case, as Trash Humpers is barely scripted if at all (apparently some segments were loosely scripted, but most of it was improvised). The filming took place in Korine’s native Nashville, in its back alleys and abandoned parking lots, highway service roads and overgrown backyards. It depicts three people, sometimes four, two to three men and a woman, in old-people’s masks or make-up, who go around doing just what the film’s title implies — simulating sex with garbage cans, dumpsters, and other objects, sometimes fellating tree branches or plants. When not involved in this, they smash objects like cinder blocks, tv sets, and fluorescent lights while drinking bottles of cheap wine. But don’t make the mistake of looking for a “story.” There is none. Part of Korine’s brilliance is his having freed himself from the tyranny of linear narrative. There are recurring elements, motifs, but thankfully no story (not that story can’t be done well, but here it would inevitably be hokey). In this regard, Trash Humpers as an abstract film evokes life more faithfully than any conventional film can. It is a series of unrelated events connected by nothing more than the chronology in which they have occurred. From what I have read, the scenes as we see them are presented in the order they were filmed. Perhaps, though, the mere presentation of these random scenes can be said to create a kind of narrative in itself. If so, so be it. At least it is organic and, dare I use this word, real.

Certain scenes verge on disturbing. The characters take a hammer to a baby doll’s face, repeatedly, or drag it behind a bicycle. It sounds innocuous enough, tacky even, but through the repetition of these scenes an odd sense of pathos begins to develop for the doll, which is heightened by the later introduction of a real human baby. In another scene, shot in a room of a house, a kidnapped man is killed in a very realistic-looking manner. These are not necessarily nice people (nor were the kids in Gummo). But in their seeming nihilism, there is meaning to be found. I hesitate to make this an essay on the meaning of the film, because I think the meaning is supposed to be, at least according to Korine, secondary to his filmic concerns. As with the films of David Lynch (who also tends to deny any underlying meaning in his work), though, it is there. It has to do with being an outsider in American society, being excluded from it, as one of the characters articulates towards the end of the film, asserting that most people would envy the freedom their lifestyle bestows because their own lives are mundane and predictable. (Ironically, ironically, however, the character who posits this is wearing a Confederate flag t-shirt.) In all this Trash Humpers is vaguely reminiscent of John Waters’s Pink Flamingos (1972) and Lars von Trier’s The Idiots (1998), both of which also depict small but tightly-knit groups of people who reject societal mores by acting in their own particularly bizarre ways — but who are ultimately seen to be flawed people.

Korine himself has said the following about the characters in Trash Humpers: “It’s kind of like an ode to vandalism. There can be a creative beauty in their mayhem and destruction. You could say these characters are poets or mystics of mayhem and murder, bubbling up to the surface. They do horrible things, but I never viewed them as sad characters. They’re comedic, with a vaudevillian horror element to what they do. They dance as they smash things and set them on fire. They’re having a great time.” And it’s true. There’s a great and satisfying sound when the fluorescent bulbs explode, when the cinder blocks hit the tarmac, when the firecrackers are set off. There’s a visceral, unsettling effect to the shrieks added to the soundtrack, to the roughly-cut videotape on which the film was made. Korine’s medium here, video, is a critical element. Obviously, this wouldn’t be the film that it is if it wasn’t filmed/cut on video. In many ways it has the feel of contemporary home-shot video escapades made famous by tv shows such as Jackass. But beyond that, the video itself adds an aesthetic aspect that takes Trash Humpers to a whole other, lyrical level. Just as Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963) was deliberately shot on expired film stock, Korine’s medium here is crucial. Streetlights burn their light into the videotape like midnight suns. The strange flowing water in an industrial yard reflects clouds and sky in an unexpectedly heightened dream-like manner that almost seems counter to the cold, clear expectations that video implies.

Well, let me get to the point. As a statement, this is one of the best avant-garde films of our era, and possibly all time. Korine is our most ambitious director, our most experimental. Lynch has to be considered here too. But what sets him apart — this point John Menesini recently made to me — is that Korine is the quintessential American director. Not quintessentially American in the sense of Walt Whitman, but I would suggest more in the sense of William Carlos William (“The pure products of America/ go crazy—”). In the conversation with Menesini, I countered by saying, But Lynch’s themes are also quintessentially American. John said, Yeah but there’s something European in his technique; and I guess he’s right; Lynch is a descendent of surrealism. I love surrealism, but okay, that gives him a European influence. Nothing wrong with that (and maybe there’s even a kind of surrealism in Trash Humpers too?), but it leaves Korine as the one who is probably more naturally immersed in the American idiom. Korine’s America, though, is (almost) at a dead end. These characters are people with nothing much that is positive or generative to offer (the real baby that appears later in the film is stolen/kidnapped; old people humping trashcans is the antithesis of sex). Where Williams ultimately sees some kind of ongoing potential in the American people, Korine seems to be suggesting that America has become the wasteland (to continue the poetic metaphor, the wasteland of T. S. Eliot) that Williams rejected (in, for example, “Spring and All”). But Korine is not his characters, and I think the ultimate statement of Trash Humpers is that there is unexpected beauty and art in the overlooked back places of America, and that it takes a filmmaker like to Korine (or a poet like Williams) to find it. And is there not something generative and life-affirming in the act, in the improvisation? In a kind of filmic destruction which has imbedded in it the potential for subsequent new creation?

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Jandek (Pittsburgh Thursday)

On Thursday, August 5th, Jandek played a show in Pittsburgh at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. It was a good venue for a show — an outdoor patio enclosed by a tent-like structure. I have now seen Jandek twice (and have written about the other show here). For an ostensibly reclusive musician, he actually plays out relatively often now. I suppose he has had to wrestle with the opposing concerns of maintaining his personal privacy and getting his music out to a live audience. I think it is possible to strike that balance, and from what I could tell the Pittsburgh crowd mostly left him alone. When he finally exited the stage after playing for two-and-a-half hours, there were no autograph hounds, no groupies rushing up to meet him. The kind of person who would go to see Jandek knows what he is like, and hopefully respects the fact that he doesn’t want to be bothered.

But I am getting ahead of myself here. Before the music started, I was in line to buy drink tickets and overheard one local fan remark to another, “I never thought this day would come.” There was real appreciation of this show. There was also a something of a “scene” element to the crowd — every “outsider” music fan in Pittsburgh must have been in attendance — still, there was a range of different people there too, including also poets, aging revolutionaries, a couple of children, parents, fellow musicians, artists (one woman, wearing a large bow tie, was later to be observed sketching the band as they performed), and perhaps a few curious onlookers. All of this being said, it was not quite a capacity crowd, which meant that there was a comfortable lack of jostling or jockeying for position closer to the stage.

Jandek suddenly took the stage, walking through the crowd, at about 8:15 PM. Whereas he played guitar when I saw him last year, this time he played keyboards. The backing band consisted of Pittsburgh musicians Dean Cercone on guitar and percussion, Spat Cannon on upright bass, and Andrew McKeon on drums. The quartet opened with an instrumental, and there seemed to be some concern about whether Jandek would sing or not. After this intro, though, Jandek intoned lyrics to every piece. He does not sing per se, but rather reads in an idiosyncratic manner over (and in complement to) the music. The subject matter seemed largely to deal with the ways in which people alienate and are alienated from each other in contemporary society.

Musically, I would describe this performance as ambient, but not in an electronic sense. Yes, Jandek’s keyboards occasionally had a synthesizer sound, but mostly they sounded like an analog piano or sometimes an electric organ. Spat Cannon’s bass, as previously mentioned, was the big old-fashioned upright instrument and hinted at jazz. McKeon used brushes (and their wooden nub-ends) on the drums. Cercone’s guitar playing — often executed with a drumstick — reminded me at times of Thurston Moore’s, though this is possibly a superficial observation. The sound was generally atonal — the band seemed to play in response to each other rather than together (which I do not mean as a criticism), but occasionally there were convergences. At one brilliant point, Cercone suddenly matched the note of Jandek’s held, off-kilter vocal with his guitar. Cannon occasionally fell into a hypnotic, rhythmic bass figure, which Jandek would briefly entrain with. But overall the sound was jagged and disjointed, which accorded well with Jandek’s words. After a whole two-and-a-half hours of such improvisations, Jandek unceremoniously began to pack up his things and walked off the stage, back out through the crowd, to the musicians’ rooms somewhere downstairs in the Arts Center building.

The show was organized by the novelist, poet, and publisher of Six Gallery Press, Che Elias. Pulling off the unwieldy event was a small triumph on his part, and at one point, not long into the set, while there was still some daylight and before the colored lanterns hanging from the ceiling of the tent were turned on, I observed this image: The sun had started to go down and hung low on the horizon; it had suddenly become visible (but for only a few minutes) at a long angle through a window flap to my left, bright red-orange so low you could look upon it and not have to avert your eyes in pain or blindness; it was this brilliant bright glowing pre-twilight red orb, glowing right above Che’s head as he stood there momentarily rapt in this music of Jandek which he had helped to bring to this place and point in time. For me, the image sums up the feeling of the night.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Philip Lamantia

Above, a poem by Philip Lamantia. “Memoria,” from Semina 3, 1958. Source: http://writing.upenn.edu/library/images/semina/index.html

Lamantia’s selected poems is Bed of Sphinxes: New & Selected Poems, 1943-1993 (City Lights, 1997).

Some more Lamantia poems here, and some other writings (including poems) here. But his very best poems (at least the best ones in my opinion) don’t seem to be online.

Lamantia is commonly categorized as both a Beat and a Surrealist, with good reason (published in View and by André Breton in VVV at age 16; took part in the Six Gallery reading in San Francisco in 1955). But these categories don’t matter so much as whether his poems are any good, and what they’re like, and what it’s like to read them. Titles of Lamantia poems can perhaps suggest what he’s like: “Man Is in Pain,” “In a Grove,” “Hypodermic Light,” “The Ancients Have Returned Among Us,” “Interior Suck of the Night,” “Isn’t Poetry the Dream of Weapons?” Isn’t it?