Sunday, January 02, 2005

How writing about Soderbergh got to the spectacle and my latest rejection

a rushed and rambling post...

I found Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Twelve far more pleasing than Ocean's Eleven. Brings out all the best themes from old caper films and throws in fresh improvisation to boot. It drops the focus on story-telling and plays with style. Soderbergh and Co are self-conscious enough to realize the film's absurdities yet are not afraid to flaunt them all. The result is a very relaxed and well-paced film, which is hard to pull off with all the technique involved; therefore, fun and much warmer than the first effort.

I thought the only weak point was the laser-dance episode: good example of the serious spoof scene gone wrong. As a satire challenging American stereotypes for French men, it works in its own way...I guess.

Ocean's Twleve works for all the reasons that Solaris doesn't. Don't know if that makes sense to everyone, but think about it in terms of ironic homage. Soderbergh's Solaris is haunted by Tarkovsky's 1972 film. In addition, Soderbergh interprets Lem's novel regardless of Tarkovsky's work. The somber mood in the film feels like its own uncertainty of itself rather than a serious meditation on the subject-at-hand. Ocean's Twelve, on the other hand, uses everything that it translates--a strange amalgamation of hip-Hollywood caper, Italian pulp, French noir, and Euro-trash cinema--without bothering to re-interpret it. It is a film about a genre (and all its sub-genres) with all their strengths and weakeness technically intact. The chummy actors bring to their work their work: the actors are allowed a duality that only works in farce. Incredible events are not explained and spontaneity is celebrated. Music and fashion become characters as singificant as any human. And the editing is used not only to create mood and to determine logic but to realize a catalog of aesthetically pleasing moments that need not hang together in the order they are spliced together: everybody can have a favorite scene independent of other audience members' recollections of the story. The film is a hyperactive accumulation of improvised moments; the soundtrack is a uniform study in Euro soundtracks (Piero Umiliani, an Italian composer, makes an appearance.)

I have read folks complaints: it is pointless or it is confusing...well, it is pointless in an American sense: it is not itself. American audiences often complain about films not making sense when they fail to recognize reference. If a movie is about baseball and relationships--The Natural or Bull Durham--no matter how cheap the metaphors come, the movie is a hit. Unfortunately, most Americans are completely ignorant of cinema itself. We are encouraged to turn off while we look at film. So, we are trained primarily in the spectacle. If we watch film uncritically, we permit ourselves to recollect only the last and greatest spectacle. For new films to work, directors are cornered into out-doing themselves. Even our most successful directors are beginning to suffer from this (i.e., Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.)

Ocean's Twelve revels in its lack of a new spectacle. Its resolution is quite underwhelming. They stump the chump as you would in a game of cards. Not exactly a spectacular way to beat a master thief. I find that glorious. Soderbergh offers the spectacle of landscape, dialogue, and craft. But it is intelligent not cute. And so meaningful in small, rewarding ways.

The great European films are always slighted by American audiences because they are light or cute or derivative or political or simply too-smart-for-their-own-good. Nevermind that the European filmmakers we cannot live without typically pay homage to early Hollywood auteurs like Ford and Hawks, their films are everything they want to be. American directors have a hard time making a film that is what it wants to be and nothing else. (Scorsese, again.) During Ocean's Twelve, I am thinking of Truffaut, Melville, Resnais. I was confused during the film. What is it about this pulp that has me thinking of 400 Blows? I knew why I was thinking Italian cheese cinema and sex farce--the locations and the score. But we have the intellectual thief, a Frenchman, and then there are George Delerue-like themes, too. For a film so grounded in Italy farce, it is deeply rooted in France.

Ocean's Eleven was not so much a homage as it was a reinterpretation and therefore an addition. It tried to be new, to add a twist. And I found that to be extremely boring. The caper aspect of that film sucked (technical term). The relationships between the actors and the dialogue--the characters and the director--the narrative and the editor--that was engaging. And Ocean's Twelve is nothing the last scene: a self-congratulatory meeting of all primaries in a backroom for a friendly game of poker.

I am teaching tomorrow. A fresh start, new students. I always get excited.

An aside on spectacle as a tool that purposefully numbs the critical urge. I am feeling guilty about something I wrote above.
I am not naive enough to make the claim that US film audiences are ignorant and other audiences are intelligent. Rash generalization. As a teacher, however, I do know we resist critical thought as a culture and embrace gesture.

"Leave no child behind." Pure gesture.
Standardized Exams. A gesture. Students are taught--are mandated to be taught--how to write a more or less grammatically correct sentence that looks like a reason and how to recognize correct answers. They are not encouraged to write meaningful sentences and derive well-explored answers based on useful questions asked.

"Mission Accomplished" was a meaningless and poorly engineered spectacle that worked for the majority of Americans simply because we refuse to ask meaningful questions about spectacular events. Morevoer, most social criticism relies on this non-critical response for the material with which to construct quips and jokes. Even activism stoops to the spectacle and never rises above the gesture. What would have happened if the majority of Americans asked each other, "What does 'Mission Accomplished' mean?" "What mission?" Question a spectacle and it vaporizes. And left with nothing, we are left with ourselves. Then we can construct meaningful statements.

No wonder, then, we cannot maturely handle catastrophes like the recent earthquake and tsunamis. Our President couldn't even attend to matters personally. He held a press conference from his private compound he calls a ranch.

As the numbers of dead pass 150,000, I am reminded of Hiroshima. We are, after all, the folks who killed 200,000 people there in a matter of seconds, instantly altering the destinies for generations of Japanese. Afterwards, we silently permitted our President to thank God for the bomb that did it.

When I see a film like Ocean's Twelve, I get in a mood like this...introspective and goofy. I was thrilled with Soderbergh maybe because his film celebrates the medium in a technically proficient manner. And it references its material. He allowed me to look beyond the fluff of farce. I think we all should look beyond the entertainment value we exchanged our money for. Otherwise, what's the point.

Tie-in to recent rejection letter from LIT: When I received the polite rejection, I didn't get upset. Most of us are used to these letters as a matter of business. I put the letter away and sat down to look at my story--the old man is reading books he read as a kid trying to find some reason for being where he is at: in a well-worn house, in a cul-de-sac--and I thought about what got me writing in the first place. I decided to write when I was a kid because of all the shit tumbling through my head, all of the voices and words. I was reading one day, I think I was twelve, and decided I should do this. You learn pretty quick when you're a kid who begins to speak like an adult with adults about rejection--all those painful hours I spent wondering about what I was doing any thinking for and who I was supposed to be doing my stuff with. So, I guess I am looking for somebody to do something with when I write. I figured the "with" aspect out about fifteen years ago. I was in the Navy, suffering a horrifying political awakening to my identity and the mistake I had helped my parents allow me to make. But I had nobody to do anything with and neither did any of my shipmates. Lots of booze and fists as a result. But I finally began thinking of writing as a project that might lead to something other than writing alone. And I can say the key to my decision was that I would write not to or for but with others. Might explain why I left the military to get a philosophy degree rather than a writing degree, which I was encouraged to do. I quit the only workshop I registered for as an undergrad.

My Marx and Phenomenology help remind me that readers at journals are looking for a look to fit a predetermined for. "Will this fit our publication?" is the question asked on a good day. "Do I like this?" is the question asked on most days. Neither will produce a useful result for 97% of the authors who send in anonymously, almost as poor a result for those of us who come recommended or with references. This designed and cultivated for--for our look--might have helped cultivate and secure radical communities in the recent past, now it serves to dilute the strength of any writerly community because there are too many publications competing for a small group of writers. Let me get it right: more submissions than ever, fewer seriously working at the craft than ever. Therefore, the market publishes the look, an easily reproducable tag, more often than work that does anything with the craft with others. I call the work "sound-alikes." Journals that publish "sound-alikes" tend to promote debate about the worth of the journal in competition with other journals in the market. The writing within becomes a sign for the value of the journal rather than a dialogue writers engage in through their craft with other writers and readers. The "sound-alikes" are more available than the journals truly engaged in cultivating and shpaing craft.

My rejection is not tied to this, it simply reminds me of the problem. Young writers who seriously engage craft tend to take their time with work and write less as a result. If I am bitter about rejection in any way, it's a self-reflective bitterness. I cannot write faster than I do. But I am seriously beginning to wonder about the value of much of the fiction and poetry in the smaller journals. Some of the work is on its face worthless beyond the publication. We have the Ben Marcus syndrome to wade through at the moment, which is similar to the David Foster Wallace syndrome. It's worse for the poets. How many of my students and colleagues write like their fave? All but one or two. We have a failure in the market that points out our refusal to distinguish between influence and copying. I do not believe the authors I have in mind are thieves, I mean that they cannot do anything with form because they have been encouraged to focuse on writing for a look. They learn a voice; if lucky, they have a bit of their own to add; yet they never get beyond content. The work all looks alike. There is no meaningful innovation. And where innovation is found, rejection is often met. Because the innovative does not sell. Now this is the circle--by publishing work that has a look and more or less adheres to a set of formal conventions, the market fashions a look from the form. Form, then, becomes static and a more efficient writing process develops where innovation need not move beyond the spectacle of content. Is the character cool? Is there any violence in it? Is there a strong yet deranged woman at hand? Is there a sexually ambiguous dude cracking wise? Is there a useful number of pop-culture references? Is he into Pound; Is she into Jarnot? etc. That we very much write for a look is a problem for writers and readers in the same way that standardized test problematize the relationship between student and teacher, for that matter, or a blockbuster presents a director and audience. The spectacle. I cannot do it. Who can? What I write comes from me with you. Nothing is invented; I represent; I testify; at worst, I simply confess. So, I get all foggy-minded thinking about my fantastic youth spent in creeks and on bikes creating stories for myself that I very much wished to share with others. We all get sappy like this. You should see my colleagues at DU. Ha!

So what I was thinking about was what gets into a guy like Soderbergh to make the films he does? Why another Ocean film? Well, I think he revised his first attempt. And I think he is adding to the body of work that includes two other caper- or noir- like films. He is toying with the form. And he gets bad reviews because he doesn't consider the content much more than for what it's worth: the look.

Which gets me to: What keeps me writing? Not publishing that's for sure. I am much happier becoming a successful teacher. (Not that I do not want to publish...but you all know what I am getting at.) I am not writing for myself. I am writing with you. All those lines you haven't seen, there regardless, with all the others. The market is what is invented; the lines are crafted and determined and not exchangeable.


Laura Carter said...


You keep me going! Thanks.

I agree about the Tarkovsky: but I think Solaris was almost cast in Zerkalo's shadow, so to speak, to work backwards. Zerkalo was the movie Tarkovsky needed to make, I think, although Andrei Rublev was good, too.

I'm still trying to figure out the question of innovation, publication, etc. I don't send work out anymore. When I did, I was a kamikaze sender, just throwing things together....

I'm thinking about PhD programs this "year," & any light you can shed on UD would be helpful.

I think the teaching aspect makes it worthwhile.

I have a new blog:

Happy new year.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Happy New Year, Gary. Great start here. Like you, I think the point is becoming a good teacher, and that good teachers encourage good writing in students. But I think we need to encourage imitation much more than we do. Especially when we teach. So I guess I'm not worried about "Ben Marcus syndrome" (I've got a piece of Marcus imitatio coming out in an organizational studies journal, of all places, some time soon.) I think Lara Glenum's "How to Discard the Life You've Now Ruined" is a useful contribution and (I'd guess) part of the syndrome. I'd like to see a good deal more Wittgenstein imitation in philosophy, rather than gestures "beyond" ordinary language philosophy, or whatever he gets labeled as. Literary language needs a workaday site along with its (rare) innovations. Besides: Mohammad, who pointed me in the direction of Glenum, called her stuff old-school Duchamp rather than a wade-through Marcus. (I know you haven't talked directly about Glenum and I take full responsibilty for this comparison.) I think of Marcus as a sane, professional Artaud or Burroughs you can read for the language rather than the authorial myth, and who gives us the hope of writing well without having weird lives. It's just so competent. Glenum is much easier to read and use knowing that she is doing her job well rather than hallucinating strange novelties. In a sense, Marcus and Glenum are bringing us from the innovative spectacle (Duchamp, Artaud, Burroughs), from which too little is learned, to the permanent transformation of language, which is the always of course the real teacher. Thanks again for getting us thinking.

shanna said...

Happy new year, Gary. And for the record, I enjoyed both of your stories. Too many cooks, etc.

Gary Norris said...

Thanks, Shanna, I thought you'd like them...smiles all around!