Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Study in Scarlet (1887)

The first appearance of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. I'd never read this novel before (except for The Hound of the Baskervilles I've only read the stories) but because I was writing my review of the new Sherlock series I thought I should check it out. It's a great first book, especially the strange central part, the long narrative set in Utah, 1847, in which the future murderer escapes from the grip of the Mormons. It's pretty sensationalist, the Mormons shown as an extremist cult, but this is adventure escapism and I can imagine that a settlement of Mormons in Western United States was as exotic to a Londoner in 1887 as the Kali cults of India.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Happy Birthday Sylvia Plath

Today is Plath's birthday. She wrote a couple of poems about birthdays, including this one, A Birthday Present. She wrote it in September of 1962, about a month before her thirtieth birthday and about five months before she committed suicide.

A Birthday Present

What is this, behind this veil, is it ugly, is it beautiful?
It is shimmering, has it breasts, has it edges?

I am sure it is unique, I am sure it is what I want.
When I am quiet at my cooking I feel it looking, I feel it thinking

‘Is this the one I am too appear for,
Is this the elect one, the one with black eye-pits and a scar?

Measuring the flour, cutting off the surplus,
Adhering to rules, to rules, to rules.

Is this the one for the annunciation?
My god, what a laugh!’

But it shimmers, it does not stop, and I think it wants me.
I would not mind if it were bones, or a pearl button.

I do not want much of a present, anyway, this year.
After all I am alive only by accident.

I would have killed myself gladly that time any possible way.
Now there are these veils, shimmering like curtains,

The diaphanous satins of a January window
White as babies’ bedding and glittering with dead breath. O ivory!

It must be a tusk there, a ghost column.
Can you not see I do not mind what it is.

Can you not give it to me?
Do not be ashamed–I do not mind if it is small.

Do not be mean, I am ready for enormity.
Let us sit down to it, one on either side, admiring the gleam,

The glaze, the mirrory variety of it.
Let us eat our last supper at it, like a hospital plate.

I know why you will not give it to me,
You are terrified

The world will go up in a shriek, and your head with it,
Bossed, brazen, an antique shield,

A marvel to your great-grandchildren.
Do not be afraid, it is not so.

I will only take it and go aside quietly.
You will not even hear me opening it, no paper crackle,

No falling ribbons, no scream at the end.
I do not think you credit me with this discretion.

If you only knew how the veils were killing my days.
To you they are only transparencies, clear air.

But my god, the clouds are like cotton.
Armies of them. They are carbon monoxide.

Sweetly, sweetly I breathe in,
Filling my veins with invisibles, with the million

Probable motes that tick the years off my life.
You are silver-suited for the occasion. O adding machine—–

Is it impossible for you to let something go and have it go whole?
Must you stamp each piece purple,

Must you kill what you can?
There is one thing I want today, and only you can give it to me.

It stands at my window, big as the sky.
It breathes from my sheets, the cold dead center

Where split lives congeal and stiffen to history.
Let it not come by the mail, finger by finger.

Let it not come by word of mouth, I should be sixty
By the time the whole of it was delivered, and to numb to use it.

Only let down the veil, the veil, the veil.
If it were death

I would admire the deep gravity of it, its timeless eyes.
I would know you were serious.

There would be a nobility then, there would be a birthday.
And the knife not carve, but enter

Pure and clean as the cry of a baby,
And the universe slide from my side.

The Girl Who Played With Fire (2010)

Didn't love the book particularly and didn't love the movie either. I guess I liked them both but while the storyline with the Vangers was my favorite part of the first book in the trilogy, the storyline in this second book was not as intriguing to me. I am still interested in the characters, particular Salander and Blomkvist, but they are never together in this book/movie, and it's a problem.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Mechanics of Pulp

About ten years ago I wrote a series of papers for an excellent class I took at Emerson College called "The Construction of Taste." The professor was Maria Koundoura and I've since forgiven her for making us sit through Salo. Anyway, I thought I'd put the papers I wrote up on this site. They were all about movies, intertwined with the texts we read for class. I don't really expect anyone to read them (they are long and jargon-y) but when has that stopped me before. Here's the first one:

The Mechanics of Pulp:
Narrative Disruption and the Aura in Pulp Fiction

When John Travolta, playing the hit-man Vincent Vega, orders a Douglas Sirk Steak in Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), it's a further acknowledgment of what is already being rendered visually in the film's text. The two stock characters -- Vince Vega, the hitman/henchman, and Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), the boss's wife, are eating dinner together at Jack Rabbit Slims, a restaurant decorated and populated by camp approximations of fifties-era movie stars and rock-and-roll legends. The restaurant's host is an Ed Sullivan impersonator; the waiters and waitresses are impersonators of varying dead stars -- Vince and Mia's is a surly Buddy Holly (Steve Buscemi). The stylized setting is, at once, self-reflexive and integral to the plot, such as that plot is. Vince and Mia are subjects to their boss/husband Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), and must play their roles accordingly (they have been ordered to have dinner together), just as Travolta and Thurman are subject to the conventions of Hollywood, and a past that has allowed for them to exist on screen. Tarantino's setting, and the sequence in it, demonstrate the complexity of any text that exists in the age of film, in the age, as Walter Benjamin calls it, of "mechanical reproduction." The layers, intended or not, are inevitable and infinite. When Vincent takes the stage with Mia for the twist contest, audiences are instantly reminded of Travolta's many preserved cinematic moments on the dance floor. For more astute Tarantino fans the fact that Steve Buscemi, who played the waitress-hating Mr. Pink in Tarantino's debut Reservoir Dogs (1992), is playing the Buddy Holly waiter, is a built-in nod that would seemingly come directly from the director. But the reference to Sirk, infamous director of fifties melodramas, seems to resonate most through the sequence. Like Sirk, Tarantino disrupts the narrative of his film through self-conscious and self-reflexive elements that remind the audience that what is being rendered is fake; and as the audience makes this connection, an aura, that element of original art that Benjamin argued is lacking in film-art, exists in the interweaving of the film and its knowing audience.

Benjamin compares film-acting to the factory worker alienated from his or her product:

During the shooting he has as little contact with
it as any article made in a factory. This may contribute
to that oppression, that new anxiety which,
according to Pirandello, grips the actor before the
camera. The film responds to the shriveling of the aura
with an artificial build-up of the "personality" outside
the studio.
(Benjamin, p. 233)

The film acknowledges this contradiction in many ways. The sequencing of the film, with its constant jumps backwards and forwards in time, is both a nod toward an avant-gardiste sensibility and a self-reflexive trick that distances the audience from the narrative. The narrative breaks down into three segments, plus a framing segment that occurs sequentially between the first and third segments. The middle segment, titled "The Gold Watch," is sequentially the last "story" to take place. In that piece, Vincent Vega is narratively a very minor character; he is sent to "pop a cap in the ass" of the traitorous boxer Butch (Bruce Willis) but is himself killed, with his own gun, as he emerges from the bathroom in Butch's apartment. The final third of the film, however, returns to an earlier time to tell a story called "The Bonnie Situation." In that segment Vince Vega is still alive; of course, it is only his image that is still alive, reproduced on celluloid. Because Tarantino allows himself the editing luxury to disrupt the narrative, Vince's death takes on far less significance than say, Jack Dawson's (Leonardo DiCaprio's) death in the more traditionally narrated Titanic (James Cameron, 1997). Like the apparitional impersonating figures in Jack Rabbit Slims, the image of Vince Vega lives continuously, and the audience is made aware that the action unfolding is impervious to time; a few alterations in the cutting room and the final image of the film is of John Travolta replacing his gun into his shorts and exiting a coffee shop (likewise, another twelve bucks at the multiplex and Jack Dawson is alive again, falling in love on the ill-fated luxury liner). Is there conceivably a time when the iconic imagery from Hollywood's Golden Age -- Marilyn Monroe's dress fluttering up above the subway grate, e.g. -- will disappear forever, will cease to be reenacted, replayed, gazed upon? It seems unlikely, especially, as Benjamin states, in this age of mechanically reproduced images.

The opening image in Pulp Fiction is, true to it's title, words. The American Heritage Dictionary, New College Edition definition of "pulp" is flashed on the screen:

pulp -- 1. a soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter.
2. A magazine or book containing lurid subject
matter and being characteristically printed on
rough, unfinished paper.

Tarantino is both foretelling his themes and acknowledging his source. The difference, seemingly, is the mode. What is not being said -- at least directly -- in the American Heritage's definition is that there is a metonymic connection between the mode and the subject matter. Pulp initially referred to the quality of the paper itself, and was only later associated with the subject matter printed on such "pulpy" paper. Tarantino is attaching that realm to film, and by doing so, he's not just referring to the throw-a-way quality of the stories -- the boxer not throwing the fight, the unwanted corpse in the car --, but also the cheapness of the medium, the mass accessibility. Benjamin, talking about photography, writes that "From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the 'authentic' print makes no sense" (Benjamin, p. 226). It is the same with film; Pulp Fiction is as easily reproduced on film-stock as it will later be on video, and its constant replaying emphasizes its own pulpiness, and also its artifice. Tarantino seems unwilling to completely naturalize the imagined world he is presenting. Instead, he inserts instances of recognized artifice, and self-reference. The Jack Rabbit Slims sequence, with its artificial Hollywood setting, is the most instantly recognizable. There are countless other instances, however. Vince Vega says to Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), "Let's get into character," before the two enter an apartment to perform a hit. Mia Wallace says to Vince, "Don't be a..." and then draws a square with her fingers, creating a superimposed animated square on the screen, a reference from the animated show "Josie and the Pussycats." When Butch takes the taxi from the fight where he has killed his opponent, the backdrop is not only recognizably a rear projection -- it is a rear projection in black and white stock. All of this is reinforced finally by the sequencing of the film, which emphasizes the image of the characters over the imagined lives of the characters. Vince Vega's death is insignificant because it is faked. The reality is that his image (an image that can be moved and placed like a prop) can be replayed again and again, and that is ultimately what pulp is about: the manipulation of images, of stock characters, within given situations.

Of course, such a technique is not new, the most obvious source being Sirk and his films from the fifties, most notably Written on the Wind (1957) and Imitation of Life (1959). Those films, genre-identified as melodramas, or women's pictures, were, at the time, popular explorations of family drama. Embedded in Sirk's films, however, most notably through visual technique, were a constant affirmation of the fraudulent nature of the medium, and hence a criticism of the very ideologies -- capitalism, patriarchy, e.g. -- the films were portraying. Through outlandish color, and purposefully bland acting, and extreme symbolic flourishes, Sirk created a cinematic world that referred most pointedly to itself, and its own artifice. In the article "Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on Family Melodrama," Thomas Elsaesser writes:

When Robert Stack shows Lauren Bacall her hotel
suite in Written on the Wind, where everything from
flowers and pictures on the wall to underwear, nail
polish, and handbag is provided, Sirk is not only
characterizing a rich man wanting to take over the
woman he fancies body and soul...He is also making
a direct comment on the Hollywood stylistic technique
that "creates" a character out of the elements of the
decor and that prefers actors who can provide as blank
a facial surface and as little of a personality as possible.
(Grant, p. 362)

This Sirkian effect is exactly what Tarantino seems to be going for in the Jack Rabbit Slims segment of the film. Just as Travolta is being manipulated as an actor, so is the character he is portraying. Benjamin cites Rudolph Arnheim's quote about actors in film: "the latest treating the actor as a stage prop chosen for its characteristics and..inserted as the proper place" (Benjamin, p. 232), seems to sum up the situation both in Written on the Wind and Pulp Fiction nicely. Both films critique their own genre while also upholding many of the conventions of those genres; and their critique seems to corroborate the notion that they are merely inserting entries into genres already massively reproducible and reproduced.

So how does Tarantino, or rather, Tarantino's audience, create an aura of originality for a film such as Pulp Fiction that constantly unravels itself as it progresses. Benjamin believed that film, by its very nature, could not contain such an aura, that there was no object that could be ritualized, hence no cultification could exist. Certainly, however, in this day, films are consistently being reinvented by their own cult audiences; these audiences have found a way to turn film into an object. Delving into this subject, I realize that I am about to present an entirely insufficient perusal of cult-movie aesthetics, and that this is certainly a subject worth much deeper digging. That said, I can think of two immediate examples of methods by which cult audiences have reinstated films with an aura of originality. The most instantly recognizable cult-film of today, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975), -- and incidentally one of the characters mentioned frequently in Pulp Fiction is nicknamed Tony Rocky Horror -- is only truly experienced at a midnight showing where it is framed and enhanced by a live show. Because of its appropriation by a cult audience the film itself has almost entirely lost its own identity. The Martin & Porter Video Guide, which catalogues every film available on video, states, "If you're not experiencing this scintillating spoof at a midnight showing, you're missing much of the fun. Audience participation is a key" (Martin, p. 914). The live show means that each viewing is a unique experience that will never be reproduced in exactly the same way, unlike the film itself which is inalterable. Thus the aura of a live experience is transferred to a static film. Another example is when movie revival houses advertise in their programs that they will be exhibiting rare, and particularly fine, prints of old classics. The aura that the reproducible film cannot have is given to a particularly clear print that is then presented to a select few, a cult audience willing to reenter the movie theater to see a film that is no doubt available on DVD. In both of these cases the aura of originality exists not in the film itself but in the interaction between the film and its audience.

This is also the case with the aura of originality in a film such as Pulp Fiction. Mechanically reproduced, existing without an original copy, it must gather any aura it can from the communal cult audience and their particular reading of the text. Some of the reading had its groundwork laid by the film-makers, i.e. references to Sirk, references to other Tarantino films, countless references to the pop-culture iconography that it has sprung from. But some of that reading is original. One theory, born in the cyberspace of web-pages devoted to the film, explains how the glowing entity in the briefcase Jules and Vincent recover is in fact Marcellus Wallace's soul, that he had sold to the Devil for financial success. This theory is explained by the combination on the briefcase's lock -- 666 --, the band-aid on the back of Marcellus Wallace's head -- the Devil removes the soul from the back of the neck --, and the glow of the item in the briefcase, that causes anyone who looks at it to exclaim how beautiful it is. The boys killed at the beginning of the film are the Devil's helpers, and it truly is divine intervention when Jules and Vincent are miraculously not killed when one of the boys unloads a gun directly at them. Tarantino has been asked about this and he states that he, in fact, does not know what is in the briefcase. Such an answer only bolsters a cult-audience's reading of a film-text as an original one. Placed in a new context, Pulp Fiction as a supernatural tale, a battle between God and the Devil, the film regains an aura of originality -- it's been reproduced in a new theoretical light.

When Vince Vega and Mia Wallace first take their seats at Jack Rabbit Slims, Mia asks Vince what he thinks of the place. "A wax museum with a pulse," he replies. It seems an apt definition of film itself. Marilyn Monroe lives on in films via a pulse of electricity but she is no longer flesh and blood. It's the point that's constantly being reiterated in Pulp Fiction, particularly in the restaurant scene, and particularly through the narrative disruptions in time. Unable, and unwilling, to fool the audience with its fiction, the film instead relies on the text that exists with a knowing audience than can see the flow of Hollywood that has culminated in its existence. All that referencing ends up distinguishing itself from others of its genre. In that space between the film and its viewers there may or may not be the aura of originality. If it's there, though, it's sparked by an understanding that nothing can be original in the age Hollywood, Netflix and mechanical reproduction.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations.

Grant, Barry Keith. Film Genre Reader II. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.

Martin, Mick and Marsha Porter. Video Movie Guide 1997. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996.

The Green Ripper (1979)

The infamous 18th book in the Travis McGee series. Infamous because this one really splits the fans. Apparently it's both the favorite of many McGee fans and the least favorite. I loved it, although I understand the naysayers. McGee should be about parties on The Busted Flush, gin on the rocks, beach girls, Meyer's philosophies on life, and don't forget a mystery, usually involving a damaged female, maybe some stolen cash or buried treasure, and maybe one truly scary bad guy. And yes, The Green Ripper has all those things but what it mostly has is an incredibly violent revenge tale in which McGee suddenly becomes Rambo in First Blood. (By the way, JDM's book was first).

The basic storyline involves the death of McGee's current girlfriend. She dies from a sudden virus but Meyer figures out that she might have been killed. This leads McGee to a cult in California and a pretty shocking final act. Good stuff but I understand it's a little strange to see McGee with so much blood on his hands but one of the good things about this series is that McGee changes. He gets older, sadder, a little more cynical about the world, and less sure of himself. Personally, I don't think the McGee of this book is out of character.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Poetry Monday

Richard Cory

by E. A. Robinson

Whenever Richard Corey went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Corey, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Heartbreaker (2010)

A cookie-cutter romantic comedy from France that is better than it should be, mainly because of the very funny Romain Duris in the lead role as a man hired to break up relationships. Vanessa Paradise is good as well, as the engaged young woman who is the intended mark. Think you can guess what happens? Well, you're right, but there are many funny scenes along the way, and the unbelievable Monte Carlo location makes this worth it. See it before it gets remade in America with Matthew McConnaughey and Katherine Heigl.

Friday, October 22, 2010


This is a fun new show starting Sunday night on Masterpiece Mystery. Check it out. Mad Men is over for the year. My review is up on Slant Magazine.

The Turquoise Lament (1973)

Now that I've been reading all the Gold Medal and Dell JDM paperbacks I can get my hands on I find I like those a little better than the Travis McGee series. It was Travis McGee of course that got me hooked on JDM back when I was in high school. Apparently, however, I have not read them all, including this one. It's a later McGee, meaning it's a little more depressing, a little more bitter. McGee gets a distress call from a young woman he once knew, named Pidge (why do McGee's lady friends all have such kooky names?) and finds himself romantically involved with the young lady and up against an aw-shucks sociopath. It was a decent read, the beginning good, and the ending great. The middle slogged a little, but just a little. It was a short book.

Film Frames Fridays

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Mad Men Foreshadowing

One of the many joys of Mad Men is how well constructed it is. In case you were surprised by Don's sudden proposal to Megan you shouldn't have been. It was perfectly foreshadowed in the episode Beautiful Girls.

There she is, the future Captain Von Trapp comforting Sally, with Dr. Faye "the Baroness" Miller blurred in the background.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Ride Up Market Street

Thanks Charlene for showing me this, and thanks 60 minutes for actually airing something like this for 11 minutes without commentary. Best thing I've seen all year, without question.

View it here:

Poetry Monday

Storm Windows

by Howard Nemerov

People are putting up storm windows now,
Or were, this morning, until the heavy rain
Drove them indoors. So, coming home at noon,
I saw storm windows lying on the ground,
Frame-full of rain; through the water and glass
I saw the crushed grass, how it seemed to stream
Away in lines like seaweed on the tide
Or blades of wheat leaning under the wind.
The ripple and splash of rain on the blurred glass
Seemed that it briefly said, as I walked by,
Something I should have liked to say to you,
Something … the dry grass bent under the pane
Brimful of bouncing water … something of
A swaying clarity which blindly echoes
This lonely afternoon of memories
And missed desires, while the wintry rain
(Unspeakable, the distance in the mind!)
Runs on the standing windows and away.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Anton Chekhov's The Duel (2010)

I would have enjoyed this movie more if I'd understood it a little better. It was probably made for Chekhov fans, who would understand the basic character types. I'm not suggesting that it should have been dumbed down but there was very little context given for the characters and who they were and what they did and why they were grouped together in a bleak and beautiful resort town in Russia. But it was well-made, and the acting was amazing. In particular Fiona Glascott as Nadya, and Andrew Scott as Laevsky. And by the time we get to the duel at the end of the movie (spoiler alert: there is a duel), and I had straightened the characters out, I was intrigued.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


This highly entertaining show starts tomorrow night on BBC America. I review it for Slant Magazine here.