Oct 31, 2011

INTERVIEW: Justin Timberlake

“I’ve been really, really lucky,” says Justin Timberlake, sitting back on a sofa at the Ritz Carlton in Battery Park, on the Southern most tip of Manhattan. “Because I look back and I don’t think I’m the most talented singer, or dancer or actor. I don’t think I’m that good. It just takes this inner head-down type of thing. That will-to-achieve was the other half of why things probably happened for me. It takes balls."

Oh to be in possession of Justin Timberlake’s balls. Let’s not be greedy. Just one would suffice to rescue the average Englishman from the confines of Prufrockish self-doubt, and propel him, blinking, towards the klieg lights of Grammy-winning pop superstardom. Two of those beauties beneath the bonnet and you would in all likelihood now be transitioning — via a successful clothing line, golf course, restaurant and vodka brand — towards the megawatt beneficence of movie stardom, as Timberlake is now.

“Its kind of like being on a rollercoaster,” he says. “ You don’t know when that rollercoaster is going to end, so you realise that enjoying every single loop and every left and right turn is the fun of it. You just get to a point — I feel like I’ve been through it in the last year or two — which is: you realize that who you are is not what you do” Timberlake presents a personable, even placid exterior. For someone who once sangI'll let you whip me if I misbehave” on ‘Bringing Sexy Back’, he’s the politest sex God you ever could hope to meet, dressed head-to-toe in black like a studly waiter, with smooth, babyish skin, and pale blue eyes. “I feel that I’m painfully normal,” he says. “Other than the fact that I have an extremely aspirational profession.”

Only the worry lines on his forehead give some clue to the duck legs paddling furiously beneath the waterline. He peppers me with questions about the screening of the film I attended the night before. “Was Craig’s score on the film? They just did all the color. They ’re just doing all the sound mixing right now, which I think is a very integral part of the film. To hear the time going – ft ftf ft ft ft – and also the score. I’ve heard some of Craig’s score. It’s beautiful.”

from my interview with Justin Timberlake in The Times

Oct 27, 2011

REVIEW: In Time (dir. Niccol)

In Time has such a rich premise — a future in which the poor run out of time at 25, and the rich stay 25 forever — that it is at least 20 minutes before you notice it's as dead as a Dodo. The film was written and directed by Andrew Niccol, whose fascination with fake utopias (he directed Gattaca and wrote The Truman Show) here furnishes him with a world divided, as has been traditional since the time of H G Wells, into the Haves and the Have Nots, with the Have Nots haggling for extra time via a device on their wrist — 'Got a minute?" ask the beggars on the street — and the Haves swanning around tony mansions, looking beautiful and 25 forever. Time is quite literally money. It looks like the longest credit card commercial you ever saw, the styling at its densest in the exquisite, paradisal form of Amanda Seyfried, wearing a Louise Brooks bob and Le Louboutin heels, in which she teeters heroically, like a refugee model, while fleeing the film's villains. There are three of them — a blonde one, a dark one, and Pete from Mad Men — all showing up for chases duties on a rotation scheme. They are first sign that the film is losing forward puff, the clincher being a plot that, for lack of anything better to do, devolves into an attempt to Overturn the Order of Things — viva la revolucion! — in order to get back to the pre-lapserian state we all enjoyed before the movie's writers came up with their bright idea in the first place. Never trust a movie whose second half basically entails undoing it's first. It's like someone arriving at a party with the announcement they're leaving — the conversation can't settle. Which is a shame because the first half has a nicely concealed satirical sting, at its sharpest in the scene where Timberlake, being shown his table in a fancy restaurant, is gently corrected by a waitress: she can tell he's ghetto, because he does everything so quickly. I'd never thought about this before but but's true: rich lives run slower, although they affect rush as a way of appearing not too ostentatiously idle. Much like In Time, in fact, which does a perfect impersonation of action-movie kinetics without proceeding an inch. C-

Oct 26, 2011

REVIEW: Lucking out (Wolcott)

I tore through James Wolcott's Lucking Out after managing to get my hands on a copy earlier this week — it took me three nights. I knew I was going to love the writing, Wolcott's prose inspiring in me the same gobsmacked awe that I get watching Chinese gymnasts and Grand Slam tennis champs. Responding to Patti Smith, the prose of Normal Mailer, Talking Heads, David Lynch, porn, Balanchine, Wolcott maps his own synapses with such a heady mixture of pinpoint accuracy and wind-blown abandon, that you don't have time to be astonished, for here comes some fresh wonder down the pike: "the women women in particular suggested minor characters in Dawn Powell novels who had slipped down several rungs in life and were left with nothing but late innings rituals and brief flurries of bother"; (his co-inhabitants at the Latham Hotel) "every phrase quivered like the handle of a knife whose blade has just lodged in the tree bark" (Kael). There's something like that on every page — a Federesque barrage of aces. What stops his writing from descending into mere Fine Writing — or, since Wolcott is too energetic a talent for silver-birch finery, the hyper-caffeinated rock-press equivalent, distracted by its own snarl in the bath-room mirror — are his sure, unshakable rhythms, and the simpatico match-up between his prose and his subjects. In each case, he locks into some obstreperous vitality in his subjects — a gnarly, wriggling life force — and then proceeds to write like a man possessed.
"Patti already has her stage persona pencil-sharpened into a self-conscious, couldn't-care-less wild child, playing with a zipper like a teenage boy with a horny itch, pistoning her hips, hocking an amoeba blob of spit between songs, scratching her breast as if addressing a stray thought, and, during the incantatory highs, spreading her fingers like a preacher woman summoning the spirits from the Pere Lachaise graveyard where Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde were buried to rise and reclaim their former glory."
Notice how, at the very point where most writers would be sneaking off for a well-deserved fag break, Wolcott whips one more delightful image out of the bag — the resurrection of Morrison and Wilde — like a sealion ending its balancing act with one final nudge, sending the ball flying into the delighted crowd. Being this deeply embedded in both the world and one's own reactions to it — a double patrol of two equally fierce perimeters — is hard, and he makes it look easy. Maybe we have New York to thank. "If nothing else the seventies in New York taught me situational awareness, a vital attribute for every slow-moving mammal prone to daydreaming." This book is a must for every such mammal.

Oct 24, 2011

Travis Bickle is dead

From my piece for Slate about the accelerated careers of today's young stars:—
"You remember child stars: those tap-dancing, ringlet-haired moppets, shoved onto stage by their mothers with a bright smile on their faces that, somewhere past the age of 12, required a cocaine habit to properly maintain. By contrast, the new generation are remarkable for their minimal flame-out rate, aerodynamic flight paths and Powerpoint career plans. They didn’t need mom to elbow them onstage. Drawn by the ghostly, pixillated light of the Mickey Mouse Club, like little Heather Rourke in Poltergeist, they heeded Hollywood’s siren call themselves and, newly arrived, immediately locked into Auteurist orbit. Think of Hailee Stanfeld holding her own in the Coen’s cussed remake of True Grit, Kristen Stewart narrowly surviving David Fincher’s Panic Room, Chloe Moretz slicing and dicing her way through drug dealers in Kick Ass, and now appearing in the new Scorsese film—the model for this kind of x-rated child performance being, of course, Jodie Foster's child prostitute Iris, ducking the arterial gouts at the end of Taxi Driver age 12. The Coens. Fincher. Scorsese. These are not kiddie directors. These are not kiddie careers. They are adult careers. They’re just happening sooner.

The irony is that if you ask any young actor worth their salt which filmmaking decade they most revere, the answer is almost unanimous—the seventies—but most of the actors that decade turned into stars had been lying in wait for some time: the young turks of the counter-culture were decidedly long in the tooth. Taxi Driver is the ultimate independent-movie performance,” Leonardo Di Caprio told GQrecently. “Playing a character like Travis Bickle is every young actors wet dream” but De Niro was 33 when he appeared in that movie, having spent most of his twenties scrounging a living from the dinner theatre circuit, making movies that couldn’t even find distributors, and gluing the windows of his one-room walk-up together to keep the New York winters out. The stew of alienation and resentment that propelled Travis Bickle across the screen was very real. Gene Hackman, meanwhile, spent most of his twenties in the Marine Corps, serving as a radio field operator, and later working as a New York doorman before getting his break in movies—he was 37 by the time he appeared in Bonnie & Clyde and 41 in The French Connection. Robert Duvall was 41 by the time he got his big break in The Godfather, after serving as a Private in the US Army and worked as a post office clerk. Dustin Hoffman had worked as a restaurant coat-check, a typist with the Yellow Pages, and a stringer of Hawaiian Leis, and was 30 when he appeared in The Graduate—a good nine years beyond graduation. Is it any wonder that when placed next to that lot, the performances of today’s young stars can feel experientally thin, both too smooth and too strenuous in their search for imported texture, edge, grit? “The idea is you learn to use everything that happened in your life and you learn to use it in creating the character you're working on,” said Brando of the Method. “You learn to dig into your unconscious and make use of every experience you ever had.” What experiences can these young actors draw on, besides that of having been stars their entire life?

This moebius paradox has, in turn, become the dominant theme of today’s prize performances. For the most part, Di Caprio’s recent performances have felt like grim-faced self-expurgations, fretful with a young man’s self-war— he hasn’t taken an audience along for the ride since Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, a role he disdains—the exception being the reel of Shutter Island, when you finally felt his protracted apprenticeship with Scorsese paying off. But it’s no accident that Shutter Island shares with Inception a mazy preoccupation with veils of fantasy, and a quixotic search for the real. It is the theme, too, of Black Swan, in which Portman’s ballerina, lacking the experience that would round out her performance as the black swan, tries to speed-dial it, like Trinity in the Matrix downloading helicopter piloting skills. That’s why Black Swan was such a pivotal film for young Hollywood: over-compensating for experiential thinness was what the film was about. It’s safe to say, in fact, that one consequence of the Tween revolution is to sound the death knell of Method acting. In which case, Gosling’s advice is sound: actors should accelerate into the curve, not resist it. Travis Bickle is dead. The world belongs to Iris." — Slate

Oct 23, 2011

REVIEW: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Most filmmakers misunderstand depravity, which is a shame because they sure like to film it. Ask a director like Oliver Stone to show you Hell's innermost circle and he whips the screen into an orgiastic blur of strippers, mescalin and birds of prey. Ask Darren Aronofsky to show you the heart of darkness and he merely gets out his double-ended dildos, or — if he really wants to blow the doors of perception off their hinges — girls kissing girls. (Girl-on-girl action is honestly the worst thing he can imagine. The thing waiting for us all in room 101. The sight that will cause Western Civilization to hoist it's pantaloons and run shrieking from the room.) But look to David Lynch's Blue Velvet for a reliable guide to what lies beyond that final veil: the eerie stillness of Pussy Heaven, where Dean Stockwell gently sways, lip-synching Roy Orbison, and two giantesses sit on the couch, guarding what lies in the room beyond the whole scene as outwardly still as an opium den, a drug deal, or a pervert's beady transfixion. I found the whole of Martha Marcy May Marlene to be like that. It's a real mesmeriser, casting an opiate spell from its first frame to its last, hitting the spot that last year's Winters Bone — with which it shares much, not least a girl-in-peril theme, and a terrific performance form John Hawkes — seemed to for so many people. I was a little thrown by the way the plot circled back on itself, via a character Witholding Crucial Information, rather than pressing on deeper into the mysteries of that forest. Martha takes that plunge, courtesy of a story whose beautiful ellipses would send a shiver down the spine of Ian McEwan (the trailer, as sharp and stealthy as a paper-cut, is the best I have seen this year). I don't want to say much more about it: this is one of those films that deserves complete purity of audience reaction, not least because it is about the despoiliation of a young girl's innocence. I've the odd niggle: two years does not seem like a sufficiently long time to have forgotten basic social niceties like "don't climb into bed with people while they are having sex." And when leading another young girl through the initiation she once endured, it wouldn't have hurt for Elizabeth Olsen to have let show just a flicker of misgiving. Otherwise, she is very good: an unusually sombre actress, with a low, intelligent voice and a broad moon face, like Lillian Gish's, that seems to catch and absorb everything happening in the frame. In many ways, these slices of rural American-Gothic are The Perils of Pauline for the indie-arthouse crowd. Director Sean Durkin, here making his debut, works up a bruising sense of threat in the corners of his frame, places Olsen somewhere left of centre, like Wyeth, and allows the resulting electromagnetic hum to power his entire picture. Wonderful. B+

Oct 22, 2011

PROFILE: Saul Bellow

Here is a list of the things that have failed to kill Saul Bellow. A double dose of peritonitis and pneumonia, aged 8. A crocodile in Egypt – which gave him and Saul Steinberg a scare (Steinberg’s imagined headline ran, ‘crocodile kills two Sauls’). A poisonous Red Snapper that left him in a coma for two weeks, aged 79. Then there’s the alcoholism, cancer, AIDS and sheer old age that have silenced his late contemporaries ‘with the regularity of a drum tattoo’. At which point one can easily imagine Death simply shrugging and moving on – leaving Bellow to write yet another full–length novel, to father another child, and to contemplate the century he has done so much to document, not to mention outlast. ‘It remains to be seen what the 20th Century has made of Saul Bellow, or what Saul Bellow has made of the 20th Century,’ he said recently, with characteristically grandiose self–deprecation, as if the 20th Century were someone he met at a party last night. This gift for concretised abstraction is one of the things that Bellow fans treasure – his casual ability to be on better speaking terms with a Big Idea than most of us are with our neighbours. An article of 1990 rounded up Heidegger, Ronald Reagan, the Ancient Mariner, the Information Revolution, postmodernism and daytime TV – the usual suspects – and ran them through the blender to produce a vivid harangue against ‘the ceaseless world crisis, also known as the chaos of the present age.’ It’s that ‘aka’ I love – the Chaos of The Present Age as just another Bellovian hoodlum prowling the perimeter of his fiction, collecting poker debts and suckers. No shit, you just got mugged by the Human Condition.

So what’s the final diagnosis? What has Bellow made of the 20th Century, or the century of Bellow? You need a good head for heights to answer both questions – to negotiate both the gyroscopic perspective shifts of his fiction and to survive the sheer vertigo of the Bellow reputation. For to get to Bellow you must first get past all the praise for Bellow, most of it designed along roughly the same principles as electric cattle prods. Leslie Fielder has called him ‘one with whom it is necessary to come to terms’, which is simply a mean thing to say about anybody. James Atlas says that Bellow progressed from being ‘a promising writer, to being an interesting one, to being an exciting one, to being a major one’ – as thuggish a mob of adjectives as ever ganged up on a reader. By the end of Atlas’s book, Bellow has become such a glinting assemblage of plaques and Pulitzers, National Book Awards and Nobels that you could almost forget the novelist under there somewhere – a novelist with Russian blood in his veins, a nose for a scam, and ear for the streets, and a taste for big–bosomed women surpassed only by his taste for top–heavy rumination.

That there might also be a man in there has always been a strong possibility, too, although so far Bellow has only attracted the attentions of the biography industry’s more lunatic fringe. Mark Harris’s dotty, meandering U&I–style book on Bellow elicited the following response from his subject: ‘It was as if one of my joints were to turn author and write its own chronicle of one of my joints.’ At 674 pages, James Atlas’s Bellow (Faber 25 pounds) is much the weightiest specimen to date – tirelessly researched, rich in incident, and fleshed out with shrewd critical judgments. Atlas is clearly the man for the job, from the ringing endorsements offered by his CV (a previous biography of Delmore Schwarz, the model for Humboldt) right down to the seemliness of that surname: try and keep up with the young Bellow’s globe–trotting – France, Spain, Mexico, Egypt, Eastern Europe – and you’ll find an Atlas comes in pretty handy. AS for keeping track of the wives, well, the Manhattan telephone directory is a fairly good place to start– once it listed two Mrs Bellows in West End Avenue alone. And the mistresses? How much time do you have on your hands? More to the point: how did Bellow find the time? If all references to novels and novel–writing were to be excised from this book, you would not, I think, guess that its subject was a literary man. You would think: playboy, financier, jewel thief, airline pilot, superhero, sugar daddy, heart–throb. You would not think Nobel Laureate. You would think Bruce Wayne.

It begins on the hoof, in 1913, with Bellow’s parents – Russian Jews – fleeing the St Petersburg Tsarist police to relocate in Canada, where Bellow Snr, emboldened by a heady rush of pioneer spirit, tried his hand at a variety of jobs, only to prove a rousing failure at them all. One cannot but warm to Abraham Bellow, ‘a sharpie circa 1905’ who tried on occupations in much the same manner that Inspector Clouseau tried on disguises: peddling, bootlegging, matchmaking, insurance broking, selling cemetery lots, before finally moving from Montreal to Chicago where he became a baker. We clearly have a lot to thank him for. Abraham was not a literary man – a letter congratulating his son on the success of one of his novels urged him to ‘wright soon’ – but there’s as distinctly Augie March–ish tinge to that wild roster of misfitting jobs: it’s not hard to see how that fecklessness might, refitted with sufficient ambition, be turned outward as the hard–nosed yearning which was to be his son’s speciality. More importantly perhaps, he stopped his peregrinations at exactly the right point of the map. His son was to grow into a writer set on transforming his ugly, anti–poetic home city in ‘the place – incredible, vital, sinful, fascinating’ – as recognisable as Joyce’s Dublin, or Proust’s Paris. But there is a limit to what a writer can transform – the world was not, I think, quite ready for Bellow’s Montreal.

Bellow almost didn’t get to grow up at all: that peritonitis and pneumonia laid him up in hospital for six months, taking him close to death. Death, having failed in its first run–and–grab for the boy, returned for the mother, who succumbed to breast cancer when Bellow was 17. These two events became crucial elements of Bellow’s self–mythology – the life–epiphanies, the ‘batch of poems’ which every man carries around with him – although the keenly–judged pathos of that phrase should serve as both goad and warning to trauma junkies. To scan the outlines of this childhood, you’d have the child pegged as a sickly melancholic, bookish and inward, but the portrait won’t quite stick. Admittedly, an early job working for his brother’s coal truck company was severely compromised by Bellow’s tendency to read rather than count coal trucks. But on the other hand the book he happened to be reading was a soot–stained copy of Marx’s Value Price and Profit, which I guess beats Mallarme when it comes to explaining why you got fired.

The life of the young Bellow is instead marked by a Huck Finn–ish taste for adventure. Aged 17, and with the Depression in full swing, Bellow and a school–friend spent a summer hitching lifts with the hobos on dustbowl freight trains. This was followed by a night in jail, and then college, where Bellow was more drawn to performance than study, spending most of his time arguing the merits of Trotskyism with his friend Isaac Rosenfeld, improvising skits – a dissertation on beet Borscht, a Yiddish version of ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufock’. Atlas gives us a lovely portrait of Bellow at the time: standing out form the student mass of grubby corduroy in his navy blue suit and white shirt, ‘a sensuous mouth, a gap between his teeth, and wide eyes that were like a doe’s. He bounced on his toes as he walked’. Your basic dish. After the success of Dangling Man, Bellow even got a call from an agent convinced Bellow had a future in Hollywood – not as an Errol Flynn or George Raft type, perhaps, but as ‘the guy who loses the girl to George Raft or Errol Flynn type’. AS a prophetic act of literary criticism, this is well–nigh unsurpassable – it’s pretty much the plot of Herzog – and one can only mourn the possibility of a double career. The Nobel Prize ceremony – a notorious stiff – would surely be enlivened considerably, were its winners to bound onto the stage in green tights, plant their feet a yard apart, and let loose with one of those Errol Flynn laughs where it sounds as if you’re counting all the ‘ha’s.

Bellow resisted these blandishments, as he resisted anything that threatened his freedom: politics, marriage, and later, his Jewishness (asked if he felt he’s won the Nobel as a Jewish writer or an American writer, he replied ‘I thought I’d won it as a writer’). After he graduated, he did the customary tour of Europe, but found Paris a ‘sullen, grumbling city’. ‘One suspects that the main problem with Paris was the Parisians,’ writes Atlas, ‘they didn’t seem to know who Saul Bellow was.’ Actually, one suspects that the main problem with Paris was Hemingway – the last writer single–handedly to reshape American prose. What Bellow had in mind would resist Hemingway’s terse ruggedness just as surely as it would resist nail–paring exquisiteness. After his first two novels, Bellow rejected the Flaubertian standard and wrote at a gallop, abandoning wholesale what didn’t work – starting from the beginning again, storing what did work in the freezer, in case the house burnt down. Like Dickens, Bellow felt domestic chaos was a spur, not a hindrance to his creativity. ‘I feel like a man trying to sign his name in the back seat of a rollercoaster,’ he said, only half complaining.

The result of all this ferment was The Adventures of Augie March, a novel barrelled along by its own distinctive strain of brainy garrulity. The book was its own rollercoaster, as outward bound as it was inner–directed. For one thing, was ever a Bildungsroman so well populated? Dickens’s Pip meets a few colourful folk along the way and Stephen Dedalus talks of forging, in the smithy of his soul, the conscience of his race, but he prefers his own company. In Bellow’s novel, we get to meet the race. It is thronged with the peoples of America and their movements – ‘Danish sility, dago ingenuity’ – and Bellow’s powers of observation are sharpened into Instamatic indelibility by the need to catch the swarm of faces, the Brueghelian frieze, as it goes milling by: “We came up the walk, between the slow, thought–brewing, beat–up old heads, liver–spotted, of choked old bloodsalts and wastes, hard and bone–abare domes, or swollen, the elevens of sinews up on collarless necks crazy with the assaults of Kansas heats and Wyoming freezes, and with the strains of kitchen toil, Far West digging, Cincinnati retailing, Omaha slaughtering, peddling, harvesting, laborious or pegging enterprise from whale–sized to infusorial that collect into the labour of the nation.’ It is one of those extraordinary reverse–zooms that are a Bellow speciality: from a single set of sinews to the collective labour of the nation in a single sentence. His crowd control would be the envy of D W Griffith. The Adventures of Augie March at times resembles not so much a novel as a population explosion between hardcovers.

And where is Augie in all of this? To come to this novel from late Bellow novels, which are self–centred in every sense – launching into sustained orbit around a single soul – is quite a shock. For the first 200 pages or so, Augie is more of a satellite, physically undescribed, without character traits. All we get are the crowds, the people, and Augie’s reactions to them. ‘I’m not sure Augie can bear so much traffic and yet he must bear it,” worried Bellow. The gamble paid off. Augie’s is that peculiar brand of passivity which attracts events and people to him as surely as a lightning rod, yet hides a deep stubbornness of soul – a sense of self–determination so fierce that the only option is to echo the personalities of those around, all the while waiting the moment to strike. Augie March is unquestionably a young man’s novel, fired up with cunning and brio, and was received with appropriate rapture, succeeded by an expectant hush: how on earth would Bellow follow it up? How top the radiant verve – the ‘grand vital discord’ – of a novel like Augie? With a slim, infinitely sad novella like Seize the Day, of course – death whittled and dusted with melancholy, bone to Augie’s flesh.

Such a display of reach confounds our traditional ideas of the way careers should proceed. It also serves as warning to anyone trying to get the measure of a man so clearly capable of chopping and changing at will. Bellow seems to have conducted his personal life along similar lines: a terrible husband who left his wives before they could leave him, yet juggled events to portray himself as the wronged party – a selfish lover, whose legendary list of conquests concealed terrible technique in the sack – and a lousy friend who regularly pillaged his friends’ lives for material, and refused event to attend their funerals. There is something a little seamy and dispiriting about this portrait of the artist as Utter Scoundrel. The problem is not that one doesn't’ believe it. One does believe it: the problem is that the psychological profile echoes that of most literary biographies you’ve ever read.

After all, it is in their work that writers achieve distinction. In their personal lives they are second–rate copyists and rip–off merchants – plagiarising the same subset of personality defects and character flaws. The rich and varied language of Freudianism tends to hide one basic truth: that personalities tend to fuck up in roughly the same way. You are either fucked up or you are not. One day, someone will write the literary biography of a modest, monogamous, thick–skinned sweetiepie who cleans out his mother–in–law’s budgerigar cage every week: that would be an event worth recording. Whether he would be a writer worth reading is another matter. Personally, I distrust any writer still on speaking terms with more than half of his telephone book. Surely a writer’s primary duty is to louse up as much of his private life as he possibly can, so that at the end of a hard day I can curl up with a book that is of marginally better quality than the book that would have been written had he not. In this, readers are quite free from the normal constraints of etiquette and morality. If Bellow felt it necessary to steal his friend’s stories – and if he further thought that not attending funerals would help matters any further – then so be it. If it will help his books any, he is quite free not to attend my funeral. I will not mind.

Being a smart man, Atlas knows all this. He quotes at length a letter from Bellow to Dave Peltz, who accused Bellow of pilfering an incident about a poker debt for Humboldt’s Gift: ‘The name of the game is Give All. You are welcome to all my facts. You know them, I give them to you – if you have the strength to pick them up, take them with my blessing.’ Aside from being magisterially cocky, this also happens to be the absolute last word on the subject, the debate clincher, an end of the matter. Atlas, however, has a biography to write, and so on it goes, the parade of pettinesses, the repeat revelations of Bellow’s beagling self–interest. ‘In Bellow’s case, the process of mourning was intensified by his habit of experiencing his dead friends as aspects of himself. Or, of his letter–writing style: ‘it was as if he was writing to just one person: himself.’ Do letter–writers – or mourners, for that matter – ever do anything else? You find yourself wondering if these criticisms don’t amount to much more than the observation that lives tend to get lived from the centre out: each heart, as Bellow once noted, beats only for itself. A certain self–centredness is surely bound to hang over any biography, as over any life. To write a book about Saul Bellow and then complain about the amount of undiluted Saul Bellow in it comes close to unfairness – like grilling someone at a party about their career and then complaining that they seemed a little career–obsessed.

The best comment on Bellow comes from his shrink, who confessed, after many years of administering Reichian therapy: ‘To put it quite frankly, I never quite figured this man out.’ He added that even when Bellow was caught in the middle of some domestic travail, ‘I could never make up my mind how unhappy he was’. This frank bafflement is infinitely suggestive, and furthers an understanding of Bellow’s achievement more than any amount of mother issues or narcissistic complexes. Read and reread his work as you may, it is well–nigh impossible to say how unhappy he is exactly – whether the work is ‘optimistic’ or ‘pessimistic’. At a distance certain novels seem written on the up – Augie, Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift. Others – Seize The Day, Mr Sammler’s Planet, The Dean’s December – seem written from under a king–sized depression. But close to, certainty crumbles: the two moods break up and bleed into one another, the joys come limned with sadness, the anguish tinged with wit. Bellow suffers in great style.

Take Herzog, having a high old time feeling down about himself: ‘To his own parents he had been an ungrateful child. To his country, an indifferent citizen. To his brothers and sisters, affectionate but remote. With his friends, an egotist. With love, lazy. With brightness, dull. With power, passive. With his own soul evasive. Satisfied with his own severity, positively enjoying the hardness and factual rigour of his judgment, he lay on his sofa, his arms rising behind him, his legs extended without aim.’ That final sentence is the killer, detecting self–satisfaction where you least expect it, as if consciousness were a false–bottomed drawer. It is one thing to purge yourself ruthlessly of vanity, but an altogether different order of insight to detect still more vanity in the severity of your attempt. The self–regard of self–criticism: this is prime Bellow territory, treacherous underfoot, fogged with self–doubt, and delimited by boundaries that seem to shift and shimmer the more you look at them. Is self–knowledge a form of transcendence or simply another trap?

Herzog sets the pattern for most of Bellow’s future protagonists: a bruised and brooding, soft and sore of heart, apt to panic under pressure, and with a weakness for abstract thought so chronic they almost seem in the grip of a brain fever – a swoon of higher thought. Bellow’s novels are seized by such constant, if casual, urges towards transcendence that at times they seem like the child’s balloon in The Dean’s December, ‘snatched upwards’ by the Chicago winds. His heroes are men caught in the updraft, dangling men all, unable to stop the ascent of their thought balloons, equally unable to let them go. ‘Could I say that morning I had been reading Hegel’s Phenomenology, the pages of freedom and death?’ thinks Charlie Citrine in Humboldt’s Gift. ‘Could I say that I had been thinking about the history of human consciousness with special emphasis on the question of boredom? Could I say that for years now I had been preoccupied with this theme and that I had discussed it with the late poet Von Humboldt Fleisher?’

For many readers, the simple response to this will be ‘no’. Miss Ferguson, Bellow’s high–school teacher, used to chant the words “Be specific!’ to the tune of Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’. I’d love to know what she thought of her ex–pupil’s novels, with their speedy powers of generalisation and inflation, like over–sensitive life rafts. For we are here at the much–debated heart of Bellow’s achievement, the moment of truth, the point where fans and mere admirers part company – where those who are capable of being World–Historical before 9am in the morning shoulder the burden of their World–History city, while the rest of us shrink under the bed–covers. In short: what is the correct height at which to pitch our admiration for Bellow’s ideas?

One of the more instructive antagonisms that Bellow nursed through–out his career was with Nabokov. The two men took one of those instant snarling–dog antagonisms toward one another, Nabokov dismissing Bellow as a ‘miserable mediocrity’, Bellow gently condescending to Lolita: ‘I could write a better novel from Lolit’as poitn of view.’ It’s not too hard to see why this should be. For Nabokov, a novel of ideas was a contradiction in terms, novels no more needing to concern themselves with ideas than with dairy products. If your novel happens to be about a philosopher, there’s no ducking a certain amount of Hegel, just as if your novel is about a milkman, then a certain amount of Dairylea is t be expected. But the amounts are the same – no more and no less. Bellow, however, is a self–confessed ‘greatness freak’. His heroes are plumed philosophers, tenured intellectuals, great men wreathed in thought. Their unabashed grandiloquence embarrasses a slovenly anti–heroic century, but it also loosens Bellow’s hold on the Great American Novel, precisely because his protagonists have the head–start of their own greatness before the novel has even begun. How much of an aesthetic challenge is it to smuggle intelligence into a novel about an intelligent person?

Hence the slight frictionlessness – the suspicious ease – of Bellows later books, as if he were simply decanting his sensibility whole onto the page. As Martin Amis said in his review of The Dean’s December: ‘not a jot of Bellow’s intellectualism is withheld’, which is one way of putting it. Another might be that the books are straight brain transplants. Amis is one of Bellow’s more generous and perceptive critics, but he can sometimes sound like a force–fed man trying to convince himself that he’s a bit peckish. Later in that review, he praises something he calls Bellow’s ‘didactic generosity, as if such a unicorn could actually exist.

It can’t, of course. Didacticism is death, whichever way you cut it, and as the intellectual musculature of the novels increases, their blood thins, their fictive tissue weakens – the hero’s swoons of thought seeming more like fiction’s dead faint. The key text here is Humboldt’s Gift, which isn’t so much comic as light–headed, giddy: failed seriousness sending up its failure as it falls. ‘This wasn’t the time to remember certain words of John Stuart Mill, but I remembered them anyway,’ thinks Charlie Citrine, while getting arrested, of all things. When, eleven years earlier, Herzog got arrested, you really felt the hard crunch of reality – not to mention the actual thwack of a car bumper – muscling in on his cogitations. But throughout Humboldt’s Gift, Charlie’s collision with reality is softened, finessed by an inexplicably reciprocated friendship with the gangster Canile – one of the ‘reality instructors’ who traditionally serve in Bellow’s fiction to bring his heroes down to earth. The difference here being that Canile, incredibly, seems aware of his literary function – taking Citrine on a helpful tour of Chicago’s seamier sides with the words, ‘I figure it’s your duty to examine American society from the White House to Skid Row’. No it’s not, just as it’s not Canile’s duty to point it out. At times, Bellow seems to enlist his entire cast to carry out duties which are, strictly speaking, his alone to perform. His themes come self–indexing– his characters characterise themselves – his writer heroes do his writing for him.

All this is maddening, but it never quite proves fatal. For the net effect is the required one: American society from the White House to Skid Row does get itself examined. For 300 pages of a Saul Bellow novel, Saul Bellow is doing the writing, and Bellow in full flood is something to behold. Humboldt’s Gift also happens to be Bellow’s best Chicago novel – and the images of urban hellfire worked into The Dean’s December are as haunting a vision of modern apocalypse as you could wish for. Of course, there is a bathetic, over–strident side to the Bellow Jeremiad – sometimes when he sets about describing the inner circles of the moronic inferno – whether it be Hitchcock movies, or the Beatles, or Nintendo, or, most recently ‘The Simpsons, jittering away on TV’ – he has an uncanny knack of describing exactly what I happened to be doing last Thursday night. But with didactic talent, disagreement is the true test, because it frees you up to roam the books unfettered, scouting for epigrammatic and descriptive gems: an ex–wife whose ‘fig leaf turned out to be a price tag’ – the debt collector who ‘breathed the air as if he were stealing it’ – a father ‘brought down by the heavy tackle of death’ – a corpse’s face with ‘the subtracted look of the just dead’ – the wrinkles on a lover’s face identified as the work of “Death, the artist, very slow’.

Bellow has matched him. Death has been a lifelong subject for Bellow – a life’s work, requiring all the patience and cunning of the enemy – and all of his heroes have had to make room for it. From Einhorn, that ‘Thanatopsis stoic’ doing daily battle with the ‘cheating old rascal with bones showing in buckskin fringes – to Sammler, emboldened by his ‘earth–departure objectivity’, now free to make ‘sober, decent terms with death’ – right up to Ravelstein, a memoir of his friend Allan Bloom, who died in 1992 of AIDS. Bellow’s last novella was written after his own most recent skirmish with the grave – courtesy of that Red Snapper, which Bellow ate while on holiday with his fifth wife, Janis, in the West Indies. It sent him into convulsions, and then a coma and had him in intensive care for three weeks. ‘I was given up for dead. The doctors told me so themselves,’ he recalled, ‘I had some brilliant hallucinations, so great that what I was writing dwindled by contrast with these visions.’ The incident makes its way into Ravelstein, whose narrator, Chick, also makes a Lazarus–like recovery: ‘If I had stopped to consider it, I would have been aware that I was underground digging myself out with my bare hands.’

What keeps Chick alive is his promise to write a memoir of his late friend, Abe Ravelstein, a world–class brain whose book on American academia has made him millions. Now holed up in a luxury penthouse, his Japanese kimono parted to reveal ‘legs paler than milk’, Ravelstein discourses on everything from Thucydides to Mel Brooks. We never get to hear many of those ideas first–hand – enough to recognise a facsimile of Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, but no more. Chick is as keen to note the appearance of this head as it contents: ‘On his bald head you felt that what you were looking at were the finger marks of its shaper.’ Bellow has always known that the best way to get to souls is through bodies – he is the fleshiest of transcendentalists – but here his method is given added punch because body and soul are at ware with one another. For Ravelstein is dying: ‘this head was rolling toward the grave.’

The result is a portrait designed to revivify the dead, but also written to keep the writer alive – almost an I–V drip of ink, feeding both ways. ‘Ravelstein expected me to make good on my promise – To keep my word I’d have to live. Of course there was an obvious corollary: once the memoir was written, I love my protection, and I became as expendable as anybody else.’ The memoir could well prove Bellow’s last full–length work – I hope not, but the man is 84. If anything, Ravelstein feels even later than that, a work from beyond the grave – a self–penned obituary handed out from the coffin, written right up to the line. And as epitaphs go, it’s pretty accurate. Two friends, both dying, having one final head–to–head across a hospital bed, finding the words they want for the things they still have to say: the image sets the benchmark for the exacting level of truth Bellow has set for himself in his fiction. For Chick on Ravelstein, read Bellow on Bellow: ‘This was his way of laying open a subject – not entirely flattering, but then he never flattered anyone, nor did he level with you in order to put you down. He simply believed that willingness to let the self–esteem structure be attacked and burned to the ground was a measure of your seriousness. A man should be able to hear, and to bear, and the worst that can be said about him.’

my review of James Atlas's Saul Bellow for Arete

Where my A+ grades go

I never used to give grades when I reviewed movies professionally, possessed of a young man's unwillingness to tabulate his passions, plus a desire to signal my disdain for my editor's unhealthy precoccupation with the chicken-sexing aspect of the job, as opposed to its pearlescent-prose-writing aspect. I didn't issue grade point averages to my girlfriends ("Susie's attendence is good, her concentration levels continue to improve but she must resist the temptation to issue her teachers with assignments") so why would I do the same to movies? But age is a numbers game, and the older you get the more statistically-inclined your grow. When I started this blog, I started handing out grades, a little guiltily at first, then accompanied by increasingly knotted bouts of deliberation, and finally a certain camp-scholastic enjoyment. (Scholasticism is camp, I think: just look at all the silly gowns and hats). As some readers noticed, my rankings had a tendency to shift a little over time, not so much a consequence of me changing my mind about a film, and more to do with the relational realignments that happened when I looked back at a given year and thought "can Inception really beat Animal Kingdom?" I think of it a little like building subsidence, all the bricks and mortar of those individual judgments having shift a little before locking down into adamantine, lasting judgment. I didn't want to be one of those graders that hands out A+s as if they were candy — giving, say, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind too high a mark and leaving no room for Chinatown to stretch. I wanted a grading system that encompassed the weekly hustle and flow of my on-the-ground enthusiasms and also the films, released in my lifetime, that I think of as classics. Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Blue Velvet were going to have to duke it out against one another, by the same metric, and to hell with what that did to Bueller's chances. But nor did I want it miserish, spiritually parched, or mooning over some lost era of cinematic greatness — an endemic problem with film critics who tend to plucked from the same gene pool as the connoisseurs of historical ruins. I feel the same way about nostalgia as I do about deep vein thrombosis — a regrettable, if inevitable, human frailty.

Anyway, I just finished the retroactive bit of the assignment. The pictures that received A grades were as follows:—
The Wild Bunch, Klute, The French Connection, The Godfather Part II, Mean Streets, Shampoo, Taxi Driver, Star Wars, Halloween, Alien, The Elephant Man, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Aliens, Dangerous Liaisons, The Double Life of Veronique, Pulp Fiction, Before Sunrise, Kundun, The English Patient, The Piano Teacher, Catch Me If You Can, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Hurt Locker, Toy Story 3, The Social Network.
So, in the course of my lifetime, 27 films have transported me — solid-gone, nape-of-the-neck, what's-my-name-again transports of delight.

An A+ grade, meanwhile, went to the following:—
Badlands, Chinatown, Jaws, Blue Velvet, Goodfellas, The Last of the Mohicans, Brokeback Mountain.
So now I know. Near mystical reverence — honest bafflement as to how such a miracle could come to pass, closely followed by the urge to get down on my knees and pray that the rest of my cinemagoing life will not be downhill from here — is reserved for just seven films. Three from the seventies, one from the eighties, two from the nineties and one from the 2000s. That feels about right. Which means that somewhere in there is may favorite film (released in my lifetime). I'm not ready to work that out just yet.

Oct 20, 2011

My favorite news story of the year so far



Sheriff's deputies shot nearly 50 wild animals — including 18 rare Bengal tigers and 17 lions — in a big-game hunt across the state's countryside Wednesday after the owner of an exotic-animal park threw their cages open and committed suicide in what may have been one last act of spite against his neighbors and police....

Ohio Sheriff Matt Lutz said he is confident that the monkey missing from a Muskingum County exotic animal farm was dead on Wednesday, and therefore the active search for the primate was called off, reports CBS 10-TV. According to Lutz, the monkey is thought to have been eaten by one of the escaped cats." — CBS News

I find that monkey's death almost unbearably moving. On CNN, the police who had to shoot down the tigers and lions were speaking, in haggard tones, how hard it had been to tell their kids what they had had to do that day. But at least one of the escaped animals — that monkey, who also had Herpes, it later transpired — enjoyed the dignity of a natural death, at the hands, or claws, of his oldest nemeses, one of the big cats. What a fantastic way to end his sudden, last-minute burst of freedom. Freed briefly, but ultimately doomed, the monkey and the cat squared off like Samurais to engage in one last blood rite, a last hurrah of Darwinian tooth and claw , a final flurry of jungle law in rural Ohio — the ape going down with all the pathos of the great Kong himself. My favorite news story of the year so far by a long mile.

Oct 15, 2011

Fall Screengrab 2011: Actors

From top: Michael Fassbender in Shame; Peter Mullan in Tyrannosaur; Max Von Sydow in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close; Eddie Murphy in Tower Heist; Gary Oldman in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; George Clooney in The Descendents; Ben Kingsley in Hugo

Oct 9, 2011

REVIEW: Living in the Material World

Things we loved about Martin Scorsese's George Harrison: Living in the Material World, all prompting the thought that is one of the most penetrating portraits of a rock musician ever made:—
1) Olivia Harrison's take on being married for a long time "knocking the edges off you". The fact that Scorsese included it and the way his presence worked throughout, by virtue of the compliment it entailed, to induce more candid answers from the interviewees.

2) Her vivid, harrowing account of the stabbing: the Biblical detail, the fire poker, the sheen of blood down his blond head, his refusal to die. Like the De Niro break-in in Cape Fear. One McEwanesque detail in particular stood out: Harrison's surprise at finding himself in the act of trying to murder someone — not something he had expected to have to do when he woke up that morning, or indeed, ever.

3) Jackie Stewart's self-confessed surprise at the length of his bereavement for Harrison, given how many racing drivers he has had to bury and how many people were closer to Harrison. A massive, accidental compliment — he really was trying to figure it out.

4) Eric Clapton's impersonation throughout of the Rebecca de Mornay character in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Still sick and suffering.

5) Ringo's tears.

6) The line "Nobody had ever asked 'what is making you sad, Klaus?'"

7) The affection in the portrait of Astrid Kirchherr — particularly the quote from Lennon, making it clear the respect was reciprocated.

8) The jump-cuts in and out of songs, also the scarcity of album versions.

9) McCartney's "fookin' turban" quote and the brief hope it entertains that he is not going to sound so throttled, this time, by the sheer pound-per-pound pressure of defending himself.

10) Harrison's hair, particularly circa Sgt Pepper. Also the slowness of his reactions to things, his expressions and smiles all dawning at half-speed — English wariness meets Eastern detachment.

Oct 5, 2011

Kathleen Edwards: the female Springsteen

Edwards's new album, Voyageur, released in January, is co-produced by Edwards and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. (Her 2003 album, Failer, is one of my favorite albums of the previous decade). 'Change The Sheets' is lovely, with Edwards singing in a slightly higher register than usual, atop a bubbling Fender Rhodes. She has a wonderfully heedless singing style — a mixture of throatily impassioned and regretful — that, like Springsteen's, feels the opposite of performing. She's thinking about anything but how she sounds, and when she hits those high notes, there's nothing to her except the note: her feet are off the ground. I'm going to be listening to this a lot.

Getting through the Oxford Interview

"Why do lions have manes? Would it matter if tigers became extinct? Why are both ladybirds and strawberries red? If the punishment for parking on double yellow lines were death, and therefore nobody did it, would that be a just and effective law? In a world where English is a global language, why learn French?" — sample interview question used by Oxford dons
I wish I'd been asked more questions like that. (Mostly they just asked me questions about an essay I had written about painting, although I do remember one of them asking at one point whether Nietzsche's theory of eternal return could be applied to the color circle, a question I still don't really understand). Why do lions have manes? Maybe their whole bodies would like to have fur that thick but it gets in the way of running. Would it matter if tigers became extinct? It would matter to the tigers but strictly speaking it's none of any other species' business. Why are both ladybirds and strawberries red? Ladybirds so they don't get eaten, strawberries so they do. Death for parking would be neither effective nor just since it would encourage lawlessness in areas less stringently punished. Why speak French when English is a global language? To communicate with those who speak French but not English.