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Sunday, 27 November 2011

Current Obsessions

Here some things that are currently taking up far too much time in my life:

Silent films

 Ever since seeing Scorsese's masterful and completely enchanting Hugo, I want to seek out and watch all the old silent classics. Les Vampires, The Kid, City Lights, Sherlock Jr, The General, Sunrise, Safety Last. The list goes on. Hugo reminded me why I love movies in the first place: their complete and unparalleled ability to transport me to another place. There's something special about silent movies, something so incredibly pure and trustworthy about the images. Hugo also made me feel slightly guilty aI haven't had the urge in awhile to do a Keaton or Chaplin or Lloyd marathon, but that shall be remedied very soon. I also want to be primed for the release of The Artist, a movie I am very enthusiastically awaiting.

FlÜd Watches

I have their Big Ben in oak, and there are so many more I would love to have in my collection. They are unique yet fashionable watches that won't break the bank. The only thing to watch out for is that ridiculous $40.00 shipping charge to Canada. Ugh.

Theorizing how Breaking Bad will turn out

So will Jesse find out that Walter used Lily of the Valley to poison Brock? And what repercussions will Walt suffer from the murder of Gus Fring? Will Jesse turn out to be the Southern US meth kingpin while Walt continues to make awful choices about his family and career, ultimately leading to his (no doubt) bloody end? How will the showdown of Hank and Walter look? I shudder to think of all the meaty possibilities and glorious directions this show could follow. How does one end the best television program of the last decade? I can't even wait until next summer.

Stay tuned for more obsessions as they envelop me....

Postmodernism: or, How I Learned to Stop Categorizing and Love Contextual Definitions

Reading tastes vary wildly by individual. One person's classic is another's airport paperback. Thats fine with me, I have no want to argue the merits of the so called classics and where they stand in the pantheon of "great literature" or any such nonsense. To do so is an exercise in foolhardy blowhardism to which I haven't sunk in days. It just so happens, though, that many of my favorite authors and books fall into a certain broad, nebulous non-genre known as postmodernism.

What images are conjured when one rolls the word postmodern around their brain as if sucking on a lozenge? To me, the worst part of art and writing, ironically, come to mind. I picture gigantic pencil sculptures, nonsensical prose, and art installations meant to fulfill the onanistic desire of the artist and no one else. These images are not without merit, sadly, but to dismiss postmodernism entirely based on preconceived notions is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I will address postmodern literature solely and not pretend to know enough about art to justifiably fill an entire blog post worth of ramblings based solely my own ignorance.

So, where and with whom do we start? Great question, I am wondering that myself.

Well, definitions are fun! 

 post·mod·ern·ism   [pohst-mod-er-niz-uhm] noun( sometimes initial capital letter ) any of a number of trends or movements in the arts and literature developing in the 1970s in reaction to or rejection of the dogma, principles, or practices of established modernism, especially a movement in architecture and the decorative arts running counter to the practice and influence of the International Style and encouraging the use of elements from historical vernacular styles and often playful illusion, decoration, and complexity.

 Well there you have it. Postmodern refers to anything that isn't established modernism. Need a definition of that? We could go on and on, falling down a rabbit hole of OED definitions in a Sisyphean task of defining something that simply cannot be defined. How very postmodern. Some claim that the playfulness of modernism as a means to an end yields to the playfulness in postmodernism as an end unto itself. Certainly a fuzzy boundary, as ones attempts to parse out T.S Eliot's The Wasteland and Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy and put them on opposite sides of a malleable spectrum. 

In order to gain purchase on such a spectral idea, we must look to examples of what is commonly referred to as postmodern literature and attempt to form a skeleton on which to hang our ad hoc definition. Which brings us back to the question, where do we begin? 

Thomas Ruggles Pynchon. That's where I will begin, since it's damn near impossible to have a conversation about postmodern lit without his inclusion. The notoriously camera shy author is the poster boy for many of the most popular facets of postmodernism. The combining of genres. The historical touchstones. The impenetrable narratives. The mixture of high and low art. The random asides. Even Pynchon's most linear works like The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice are ripe with postmodern flourishes, but if you want to dive in head first, tackle his magnum opus, Gravity's Rainbow

Seeing as entire books have been written attempting to elucidate to the reader what exactly Gravity's Rainbow is about, this blog will focus not on plot machinations (and if you've read it you'll know why) but on certain aspects that make it "postmodern". Gravity's Rainbow is funny. It's hilarious, really. It's full of moments of great physical comedy (the book centers around erections, after all) and endlessly quotable dialogue:

Death has come in the pantry door: stands watching them, iron and patient, with a look that says try to tickle me.

Black humor and irony are touchstones of postmodern lit. Other works that come to mind that embrace jet black humor are Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five and Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint (don't read either while sitting in a coffee shop, people will begin to question your sanity since you'll be cackling like the Joker). Both Gravity's Rainbow and Slaughterhouse Five also view historical events (in both books, WWII) through a lens of science fiction and fantastical occurrences. Time travel is treated as an common occurrence, and a single, sentient lightbulb named Byron is given a complete life story. Flourishes such as these don't really stick out in a postmodern novel, though. They simply are woven into the dense fabric of the prose. 

Density is often cited as another postmodern touchstone. This is not referring to the size of the book (although postmodern works can be very, very long) but rather to the knotty, often impenetrable plots and seemingly random characters that populate the story. Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 is a relatively slim novel, but is so packed with asides, frayed plot threads, paranoid rumblings, and random songs that it takes a lot of concentration to wade through it all. One Hundred Years of Solitude is another relatively small novel (at least in comparison to tomes like Against the Day and 2666) often cited as postmodern (and the figurehead of a subsection of postmodernism called magic realism) that reads like it was twice as long since it blends so much together (an entire family tree from roots to canopy). 

This post could continue picking out aspects of postmodernism and highlighting the novels that exemplify the genre, but Jesus my eyes are getting sore staring at this screen. Honestly, it is exhausting just thinking about postmodern lit, since most of the books I enjoy are folded into it for so many different reasons. Murakami.  Vonnegut. Pynchon. DeLillo. McCarthy. Roth. Irony. Black humor. Intertextuality. Pastiche. Satire. Is this a testament to the breadth of postmodern qualities, or to my narrow reading list? Who knows for sure, but I suspect the former rather than the latter. 

When it really comes down to it, if a book that was published post 1941 (the year both James Joyce and Virginia Woolf died, which to some signifies the end of modernism and by definition the beginning of postmodernism) contains any element that makes it odd, unique, or individual, you can wrap it up in a nice postmodern packaging and slot it neatly away. And this nonsense about postmodern novels using "playfulness" as an end rather than a means, as if the author was writing it solely to puzzle readers and be dissected by scholars, well that's a load of tripe. Vonnegut wrote about his experiences during WWII the only way he could, and Slaughterhouse Five is filled with as much melancholy, heartbreaking emotion as any Brontë or Dickens novel. And the density of some novels, specifically those by Pynchon, should be embraced. Who says everything has to be neatly laid out, from point A to point Z, in a digestible, linear fashion? It's tremendous fun to be lost in a labyrinth; adrift in literary puzzle where structure is eschewed in favor of flights of imagination, regardless to whatever locked doors or dead ends they may lead to. 

I suppose my gripe with the word postmodern is that it describes so many genres and styles that it describes nothing at all. Besides, what comes after postmodern? Post postmodern? Yes, actually. This type of naval gazing can go on and on ad infinitum, becoming an unwieldy ouroboros bent on making a mockery of the entire literary classification system as a whole! Sigh. It's time to wrap this post up. 

Take home message? Read books. A lot of them. By lots of different authors, alive or dead. If you like a book by a certain author read more by them. If you don't like a book by a certain author, seek other authors out. If you don't like Gravity's Rainbow, don't assume you won't like any other postmodern work by any other author. They vary so wildly in terms of plot, writing style, and character that it's moot to clump them together at all. 

Oh, and read lots and lots of Philip K. Dick. His books will make you a better person. I know they did that for me. 

That is all. 

Words to Live By #9

“Why should things be easy to understand?” 

--Thomas Pynchon 

What better quote to precede a post on postmodernism than this gem by none other than Thomas Pynchon, who very nearly summarizes the entire idea of postmodernism in every novel he writes.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Vice of the Aged?

I admit that I am somewhat of a nostalgia junkie, although, unlike some that long for the past, I pine not for a simpler time, but for a more passionate one. A caveat is required for my claim, however. I am not saying that the present day finds nothing to be passionate about, quite the opposite is true for many people around the world. Governments are being overthrown, economies challenged, social order turned on its head, all achieved by people ignited with passion. All the power to them, but I feel removed, at a distance. Ironic seeing as social media places the worlds strife and conflict right on my iPad, but still, there is no connection to the current state of affairs and the fire in my heart.

Recently seeing Woody Allen's most recent film Midnight in Paris stirred up so many wonderful memories and emotions in me. In it, Owen Wilson plays a man so consumed with 1920s Paris, so taken with that era of nostalgia, of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Dali and Modigliani, that he travels back in time every night at midnight, and lives out his fantasies of interacting with his "golden age" heroes. For me, the city is right, but my "Golden age" is about four decades later.

Flash back to Paris 1959, where my passion truly lies. The nouvelle vague seeds of French cinema have been planted by previous eras, specifically Italian neorealism (de Sica and early Fellini), and Hollywood films (Hitchcock and film noir in particular) and bloomed into rare and unnameable roses of cinema. French cinema pre-nouvelle vague is nothing to take for granted, producing incredibly talented filmmakers and some of the most honoured movies of any generation. But for my money, the films produced between 1959 and 1968 represent the most fertile period of filmmaking in history.

What I wouldn't give to have been at the premiere of Jean Luc Godard's 1960 film Breathless. This is the film that arguably started it all, with it's experimental editing, on-the-fly shooting style, and melange of genres. Breathless was a slap in the face to all the stilted, studio-shot, creatively bankrupt films that came before it, in any genre. When viewed alongside Resnais' Hiroshima mon Amour and Truffaut's Les Quatre Cent Coups one can see steps being taken in a new, bold direction embodying politics, love, rebellion, and sex in a whole new way.

My church

But it is not merely the abundance of great films, directors, and actors that make me longingly gaze into the past. It is what these films meant to and the passion they ignited in the people of France at the time that make this a golden age for me, and here's where my nostalgia kicks in at full force. People cared about cinema, they argued ceaselessly over the filmmaker's message. They were passionate and engaged. They thought that movies could change the world, shape the war, or make a girl fall in love with you. And they could. Nowadays, you get blockbusters and indie films, a few great, some good, most not. But even the great ones never feel dangerous, like they could incite riots or change peoples' long held beliefs. I long for a time when people young and old protested the forced resignation of Henri Langlois, the co-founder of the Cinémathèque Française theatre, causing an international uproar so deafening that the Cannes Film Festival was put on hold that year. Needless to say, Langlois stayed put. Had I been alive in 1968, I would have chained myself to the gates of the Cinémathèque alongside countless other protesting cinephiles with pleasure.

Some say nostalgia is a dangerous pastime relegated to those who haven't the constitution to deal with the present. I cannot embrace this logic, insofar as the past is inextricably linked to the present, or, as the old adage goes, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Of course (and this point is made beautifully in Midnight in Paris) someone's past is another's present. I often wonder if people living in '68 Paris knew how influential their era truly was. I would imagine not, which begs the question of how will 2011 be remembered and immortalized a generation or two down the line?

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a flux capacitor to repair.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Digital Breadcrumbs

2011 has been quite the year for technology. As the dominance of the smartphone continues, information has travelled faster from user to user than ever before, creating a world where the only limits are put into place by how far people are willing to dip their toes into this vast ocean of information. We are instantly connected to our own social networks comprised of friends, family, and acquaintances, allowing them to see what we are doing, who we are with, and where we are at any time of the day. Text messages, Facebook updates, Foursquare check-ins, and Google map queries are all leaving their mark on our daily lives, whether we like it or not. The worrisome part of this is that the entire process is invisible, little ones and zeroes embedded in the ether long after we delete our texts, updates, photos, and emails.

In the back of my mind I was aware of this digital permanence, hence my shying away from social networking sites (not that I have anything to hide, per se). But my eyes were opened Ludivico-style when I came across an article in none other than Vanity Fair about Kruse Wellwood and Cameron Moffatt, the two teens convicted of beating, raping, and murdering Kimberly Proctor in Langford last March. The various text messages and World of Warcraft chat logs are reproduced ver batim, as if they were just written. In fact, the Tech Crimes Unit amassed the equivalent to 1.4 billion sheets of paper on the two teens. That's not a typo. Billion. Everything from Google and Wikipedia searches (for items like camp fuel, Lithotomy position, and inside body parts) to google map queries (for wooded areas best to dump the body) and YouTube videos (Florence and the Machine's Blinding). The case against the two was so airtight that they both pleaded guilty of first degree murder. There is a news story making the rounds about a Hillary Adams, 21, who at 14 was beaten with a belt by her father for downloading music illegally from the Internet. The catch? (because there's always one of those). Her father is a prominent judge. She posted the video to Reddit, where it obviously gained hits, resulting in Facebook groups calling for her father to step down. And then there is the case of a Harvard Law student who sent an email to a trusted friend about the link of intelligence to genetics, and therefore race. The email was saved, and the friendship eventually dissolved. What's an ex-friend to do? Why, send the aforementioned email to the Harvard's Black Student Association. The email sender is now permanently and digitally branded as racist for as long as the Internet sticks around.

It seems that as the usage of social media and technology increases, so decreases people's common sense. Information is shared freely and publicly. Incriminating secrets are relayed via text messages. Data is stored for decades without people even knowing it. Has anyone even read the 6000 word privacy agreement from Facebook? Inherent trust is being placed into huge companies who make money off of selling the very information we are serving to them on a silver platter. It may seem of no consequence to post some pictures, email something off color to a friend, or update your status to something that may offend someone, but you must realize that everything is permanent and retrievable. Removing it is like uncooking an egg or removing food coloring from a glass of water.

This post is not meant as a dire warning against the use of technology from the point of view of an old man shaking his fist at the younger generation. I embrace technology more than the average person, in fact. But a certain amount of digital responsibility must be implemented before you press send, because you may as well be chiseling it into stone.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Words to Live By #8

There's no such thing as perfect writing, just like there's no such thing as perfect despair.

--Haruki Murakami