Friday, November 17, 2006

Rabbit run, elephant shoot

For my next trick, not only will I pull a Rabbit out of my hat, but an Elephant as well. I will simultaneously review John Updike’s seminal novel Rabbit Run and Gus Van Sant’s elegiac film Elephant. It’s not a task I would choose for myself, but with the strong public demand, how can I demur?

Am I using my two dollar words properly?

sem•i•nal, adjective; (of a work, event, moment, or figure); 1. strongly influencing later developments. 2. relating to, or denoting, semen.

el•e•gi•ac, adjective; (esp. of a work of art) having a mournful quality.

Yep, Rabbit is seminal in both senses of the word and elegiacal as well. Elephant is definitely mournful. One could argue that it relates to semen. Whether it strongly influences any later developments, we’ll have to see. Smart money’s probably on “no.”

Anyway, John Updike is a Master of American Literature, a true giant, etc. etc. Almost every review of his work starts with something like “John Updike’s genius is...” And the Rabbit books are considered his greatest achievement.

That’s strong stuff, but not the only reason why I’ve resisted reading him for so long. It’s not just Updike. The other American Literary Giants of that era – Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth, J.D. Salinger, et. al. were prominent on the bookshelf when I was a kid and I’ve not yet read those guys as an adult either. They are the authors my hipster parents and their hipster friends were reading, or pretending to read. The book jackets always promised sex. My copy of Rabbit, copyright 1960, 47th printing 1989, still promises sexual candor on the inside cover. I don’t know how many of those goddamned books I skimmed looking for the sex parts when I was a kid, but it was always disappointing. All fancy words and not much fucking. And when people did manage to fuck they were always sad about it. If you’re a horny teenager with a literary bent, my advice is to try Henry Miller. Stay far, far away from Updike and that crowd. But did my parents read Henry Miller? No, they read a bunch of depressed fucking north easterners like John Updike.

But I’m older now and no longer care about sex in literature. And I’ve certainly got nothing against depressing stories. Fancy words? Depends on how they’re used.

Updike is very good with words. He writes fantastic sentences and wonderful paragraphs. I’ll open the book at random, with no fear of failure, and transcribe one to show you what I mean:
She gets up and walks around the room with the baby on her shoulder patting to get the air up and the baby poor thing so floppy and limp keeps sliding and trying to dig its little boneless legs into her to hold tight and the nightie blown by the breeze keeps touching her calves the backs of her legs her ass as he called it. Makes you feel filthy they don’t even have decent names for parts of you.

See how smooth that is? I didn’t even notice the punctuation games when I read it the first time. Let’s do it again:
She swiftly pivots, swinging her backside to safety behind her. Her freckles dart sharp as pinpricks from her shocked face. Her leaping blood bleaches her skin, and her rigidly cold stare is so incongruous with the lazy condescending warmth he feels toward her, that he pushes his upper lip over his lower in a burlesque expression of penitence.

You get the idea. Almost every paragraph in the book is great. But for me, all of the fine wordsmithing did not make a good story. The symbolism is obvious. Rabbit is a dimwitted creature who likes to fuck and run. That pretty much sum it up. The rest is just fancy dressing.

Elephant, on the other hand, is a large, slow moving creature and very smart. The film is one of constant movement. If the camera is not moving, then the characters are. Usually both. There is movement in time as well. No great show is made of it, but the film often returns to a particular point in time when the camera is following a particular character. One scene in a hallway is filmed from the perspective of three different characters. Many other moments are replayed from the edge of a shot. The intersection of characters in time gives the viewer a bearing on when the climactic events will occur. It’s very well done. Like Updike’s punctuation games, you might not even notice it.

The elegiacal quality of the film, the languid movement of the camera and the characters suggests a European art film sensitivity while the inevitable denouement is all American guns and glory. Whether or not the movie has a point is for the viewer to decide. I can’t sum it up some smart ass sentence beginning with “the symbolism is obvious...” The symbolism is not obvious. The camera in Elephant shows not tells. We see a typical day in a typical, albeit gigantic, high school that goes typically wrong in typical American fashion. The story is nothing special. The beauty of the film is in the craft.

So it seems I’ve arrived at the paradox. I’ve described both Rabbit and Elephant as very well-crafted works of art with unexceptional stories, yet one gets praise, the other condemnation. Is it a matter of the times. I am an adult in the time of Elephant. I was a child in the time of Rabbit. Does that just make the story more powerful for me?

Or am I just shallow? Do I need the guns and the violence? Possibly, possibly.

But it’s also possible that Elephant actually told a very good story. I can’t exactly say what that story is, but the look on the boy’s face at the end of the movie, the look of bliss, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything quite like it in a film. And that look had the whole story behind it. Without that story, that look would not have been possible.