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.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Career opportunities

For the most part, Daniel Ortega’s win in the Nicaraguan presidential election is reported as a head-scratcher, if not a defeat for God, George W. Bush, mom, apple pie, and all things good and proper. It’s been a long time since I followed Nicaraguan politics, so all I know is what I’ve read in the newspapers these past few weeks preceding the election, which if history is any indication, which it usually is, means nothing, or worse than nothing, misinformation. But you never know, unless you are directly involved.

The unfortunate truth is that Nicaragua is a poor country with no significant natural resources and there will be widespread poverty no matter who governs it. The best they can hope for is basic political and economic freedom, health care, and education, which may not sound like much but are actually quite precious. The worst they can fear is the return of, if not further descent into, a brutal police state where those on top take what there is, leaving next to nothing for the great majority while jailing, torturing or killing anyone who complains about it. This worst case scenariois just about all they’ve known historically.

I spent a month in Nicaragua in early 1983. Back then, the U.S. government under Ronald Reagan was creating and arming a terrorist organization that came to be known as the Contras. Our proxies were just beginning to carry out terrorist attacks while I was there. Although everyone knew the U.S. was behind these attacks, Ronald Reagan and his spokespeople regularly looked the camera in the eye and lied about it. I was there and I saw the evidence. There was no doubt.

To be at a place in history where you know the facts on the ground and can see a very convincing politician look you in the eye and lie about it is something everyone could benefit from. It’s an eye opening experience and it's available to everyone. All you have to do is study any controversial issue about which the government is taking controversial actions, especially abroad, but few of us take advantage of the opportunity. It’s one thing to generically “know” that the government lies all the time. It’s something else when you witness it first hand. It’s something else again when people’s lives are being ruined, if not extinguished because of these lies. And it’s really enlightening when you meet those people and see that they are not evil monsters, just every day people like you and me.

I did not meet Daniel Ortega, but I met his wife, the poet Rosario Murillo and quite a few other Sandinistas. I was very impressed with Rosario Murillo. She was a beautiful woman and very passionate about the arts. She was the type of woman you’d expect to be teaching a graduate writing seminar, not as the wife of some third world dictator. And although the reading meant nothing to me at the time, I got to attend one by the master short story writer Julio Cortázar and a reception afterwards where I met Thomas Borge and other higher level Sandanistas. Of course by “met,” I mean shake hands and briefly exchange pleasantries. We didn’t sit down and chat over beers or anything like that. I don’t know what kind of person Daniel Ortega and the other Sandanistas came to be, but the overwhelming majority of things I saw, heard, and studied at the time led me to believe that they were sincere at the time.

I also met some people who I’m sure would later go on to be Contras, if they weren’t already, and heard stories of violence and injustices committed by the Sandinistas. Landowners had their properties confiscated and often their former “employees,” now Sandinistas, took revenge for past wrongs. The Sandinista police and military apparently looked the other way while many of these type crimes were being committed. And they were particularly hated on the Caribbean coast where the English speaking people and the Indians had always been ignored by the government and liked it that way. They got vastly improved medical care, education, and electricity, but preferred the freedom they had known before. I find it easy to believe that Nicaragua was never a utopia of justice under the Sandinistas. I do believe, however, that it was a big improvement over the previous dictator and that their intentions were good. That was 1983.

But it appears that things went down hill. The U.S. followed the classic insurgent strategy of making the government to become ever more repressive. The Contras terrorized civilians and attacked isolated military targets forcing the government to devote more and more of its time and resources to security, and ultimately repression. That, along with economic pressures led to a decrease in standard of living as well as freedom for the Nicaraguan people and resulted in more opposition to Sandinista rule.

And I think that beyond the obvious, that kind of thing changes the people in charge. The Sandinista idealists were forced to make hard choices, to oppress and to kill, in order to hang on to power. As is not unusual in human affairs, they began to become the thing that they hated. This was our plan and it worked.

How it would have gone if the U.S. had let them try their experiment in Democracy is anybody’s guess. We will never know.

But it is important to note that Nicaragua under the Sandinistas was a Democracy. The newspapers portray it as a dictatorship at the top of the stories, but if you read deep down they grudgingly admit that the Sandinistas were elected in fair elections and then peacefully turned over power when they lost. Again, whether these elections would have taken place without U.S. pressure is anybody’s guess. We will never know.

So it is not necessarily the end of Democracy now that Daniel Ortega and some remnant of the Sandinistas are back in power. Everything I read suggests that they have become totally corrupted by all of these years in politics. I suspect that is true, but it’s also true that you can’t believe what you read, particularly when you are in the U.S. (or anywhere else) reading about people the government perceives as their enemies.

I hope they can still be the people they wanted to be. I wish them well.