Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Walter Mosley: Six Easy Pieces (2003)

This actually contains seven stories, not six, so the title is a misnomer...or is it?  Actually, I'm going to say it is, and I don't understand quite why it's there.  Yeah, I know that six is the next number after five, and the title is a reference to the film Five Easy Pieces (with Easy taking on a double meaning here, of course).  And the first six stories in the volume were excerpted in simultaneous reprints of the first six Easy Rawlins books.  So was Mosley actually only planning to write six, but then added a seventh for the book, but it was too late to change the title?  I dunno.

So these middle books - A Little Yellow Dog through Six Easy Pieces - in the Easy Rawlins series form an interesting cluster.  In Dog, Easy has settled into a job as a junior high custodian.  That it's beneath a man of his talents and accomplishments goes without saying, but he turns out to be good at it - this is his Candide period, when doing what he can to protect and cultivate young minds is its own reward.  And it provides good stable cover for his unofficial private eyeing, not to mention his under-the-table landlording.  He's got two adopted kids now, and by the end of the book he's in a committed relationship, a common-law marriage, with a sexy Caribbean stewardess named Bonnie.

Domestic bliss is what Easy has now.  Security.  Even a certain measure of prosperity.  But is it a false sense of security?  After all, Easy's still black in a racist city, and he's still an unlicensed p.i., constantly in danger of being sucked into the criminal shadows.  Plus, he's been here before.  Earlier in the series we saw him married, we saw him owning a house, we saw him playing stand-up citizen, and it didn't last.  We can't help but wonder, all through these middle books, if this is a false sense of security, if problems universal or particular are going to take it all away.  It's bliss, but it's precarious.  That's in the background of these middle books.

In the foreground is Easy's relationship to Mouse.  As we've realized by now, Mouse is Mosley's take on the Staggerlee archetype:  he's a badass motherfucker who'll shoot a man over a Stetson hat easy.  In the early books of the series, Mouse isn't much more than Easy's ace in the hole, or his chickens come home to roost.  But in these middle books Mosley explores Mouse's more mythical dimensions, and more importantly what he means to Easy.  What it means for Easy to have a man like Mouse on his side, and then not to have him on his side.

Mouse is, of course, a great destabilizing factor in Easy's life.  "Just when I think I'm out, they pull me back in" - and here, as often as not, they's Mouse.  And so as we see Easy blissing out with Bonnie and the kids, puttering around Sojourner Truth Junior High, we like he come to dread Mouse showing up.  So it's kind of a relief when Mouse dies. 

But in his absence, as we discover in Bad Boy Brawly Brown, Easy is forced to confront the fact that it's only been Mouse's shadow over his shoulder that has kept him alive all these years.  That continues in the first stories in Six Easy Pieces.  The idea is that a man like Easy - a black Everyman - couldn't possibly have survived the Jim Crow years without someone like Mouse.  Staggerlee was necessary.  And so in Brawly, Easy finds himself hearing Mouse's voice - he finds that he's internalized Staggerlee.  And that of course forces him to realize that he's conscioned Mouse's violence far more than he'd ever intended.  It's a powerful idea.

Six Easy Pieces was mostly, I think, written concurrently with Brawly - it had to have been, judging by the publication dates.  That might explain why, although it mostly seems to take place after that book, Easy's relationship with the Mouse in his head doesn't have quite the intensity it does in that book.  Gone are the internal debates.  Mouse is no longer the devil sitting on Easy's shoulder.  Instead he's the ghost that haunts black LA - rumors are spreading that Mouse is still alive, and Easy finds he can use those rumors almost as effectively as he could use the real live Mouse. 

All of this plus the serious, non-mystery mythmaking of Gone Fishin', contributes mightily to investing Mouse with some serious subtextual mojo.  And so when he reappears late in this volume, it's almost inevitable that it's going to be anticlimactic.  In fact, his reintroduction is so low-key that you half suspect it's an extended dream of Easy's.  But it's not:  Mouse is back.  And the very anticlimax of his reappearance becomes eery by the time you finish the book.  He's like a bomb that lands but doesn't explode.  You know he's got it in him to wreck Easy's life like never before.  But when?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Daniel Mendelsohn on criticism

I don't have much to say about this article, except that you should read it:  Daniel Mendelsohn's spirited defense of the professional critic.  He has some nice thumbnail ideas on what makes a good critic, and what critics should do, and the place of critics in the current media environment.

For example.  Writing about the critics he read as a boy, he says:
I thought of these writers above all as teachers, and like all good teachers they taught by example; the example that they set, week after week, was to recreate on the page the drama of how they had arrived at their judgments.
Yeah.  That's it.  I felt that too, as a young reader.  And that's what I aim for now, as a blogger.  (Don't bother telling me that I seldom achieve it!)  Later he says:
What I was really learning from those critics each week was how to think. How to think (we use the term so often that we barely realize what we’re saying) critically—which is to say, how to think like a critic, how to judge things for myself. To think is to make judgments based on knowledge: period. 
Yeah.  That's it.  The best criticism is an exercise in thinking, and therefore a lesson in thinking.

Unfortunately he ends his meditations with a couple of overly-facile statements.  Like so many people writing for pay, he Mendelsohn seems to harbor disdain for those who haven't Made It like him.  Apropos of some current contretemps about criticism, he concludes that
...I wonder whether the recent storm of discussion about criticism, the flurry of anxiety and debate about the proper place of positive and negative reviewing in the literary world, isn’t a by-product of the fact that criticism, in a way unimaginable even twenty years ago, has been taken out of the hands of the people who should be practicing it: true critics, people who, on the whole, know precisely how to wield a deadly zinger, and to what uses it is properly put...  Yes, we’re all a bit sensitive to negative reviewing these days; but if you’re going to sit in judgment on anyone, it shouldn’t be the critics.

Yeah, but.  First of all there's a "no true Scotsman" kind of thing going on here.  Even before the advent of the Internet, a lot of the people practicing criticism would have failed to live up to his "true critic" standards, right?  Obviously it's not amateur vs. professional (i.e., do you get paid to do it) that determines the "true critic."  It's all the things he's detailed over the course of his article (passion, knowledge, taste, etc.).  Print-based professional journalistic critics have no monopoly on those things.  Certainly the internet has loosed a lot of idiots to drool on the keys, but it has also given voice to a lot of people who have passions, knowledge, tastes that could never have qualified for mainstream media patronage.  If criticism is a thing worth doing (as he's convinced us it is), then surely it's worth doing well - it's possible to do it well, and therefore it's possible to do it badly.  And when it's done badly, why shouldn't we sit in judgment?  Why should critics be immune to criticism?  And yet he says they should be.  Hmm.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

I haven't read many reviews of Wes Anderson's latest, Moonrise Kingdom (which just made it to us here in our own little moonrise kingdom).  But I can well imagine that this might prove to be a divisive film.  Those who like Wes Anderson but think he goes a little heavy on the quirkiness - those who like him in spite of his style, in other words - might find this one a bridge too far, while those who like him because of his style might decide this is his best film yet.  I'm in the latter jamboree.

For a description of that style and how it's manifest in this film I'd commend you to Jim Emerson's description.  I agree with every word except two.  He writes:
How many more distancing devices can we get?
Now, I think I know why he's calling Anderson's obsessions "distancing devices."  That is, they are such from the point of view of traditional Hollywood filmmaking, which developed a film language of shot designs, acting styles, editing techniques, etc. that we have all become so thoroughly accustomed to through repetition that their use allows us to, or seduces us to, forget that we're watching a film, an artificial creation, and believe that we're watching real life unfold before our eyes.  This point of view privileges realism, and therefore artifices that produce an illusion of realism.  Artifices that are thought to destroy an illusion of realism, that take us out of the suspension of disbelief, are thought to do so by distancing us from what should (from the p.o.v. of realism) be an intimate immersion in story.  That is, if we're thinking about shot composition or set design rather than story, it's because shot composition or set design have alienated us from what should be the natural experience of watching a film.  Turned what should be an emotional catharsis into a coldly intellectual exercise.

This privileging of realism, of immersion in the illusion of reality, is the film-world equivalent, I think, of the mid-20th-century literary fetish for clear, direct prose in fiction - the Hemingway-inspired worship of journalistic writing as the most effective and truest because it rejects all the Victorian ornamention of rhetoric.  Style, in this view, is essentially a distraction from what should be the business of fiction:  telling stories.  Communicating.

As a lover of popular fiction and popular film I can see the utility of such prose, or such filmmaking - as I wrote about Walter Mosley, I love to be immersed in a good story almost more than anything else.  But I no longer, and I'm pretty sure Jim Emerson no longer does either, believe that this point of view is right or true in any absolute way.  In other words, we're long past the point where many of us would seriously argue that the realist point of view should be privileged, should be the norm. 

So the term "distancing device" doesn't work for me when describing Wes Anderson.  Partly because he takes these devices so far, particularly in this film, that immersion in style becomes immersion in story.  This is another way of saying that here, to a degree not quite true of his previous live-action films, story and style are utterly fused.  You can't separate the story being told from the way that story is told.  Well, you never can - the invisibility of the Hollywood realistic style is a kind of deception, as we all know - but in any case I don't find "distancing" as a concept to be informative when talking about Anderson's style in this film.  I want another concept.

I found this film as fascinating as his others for its art direction, its scene construction, its camerawork and editing.  But I also found it utterly entrancing and even moving on an emotional level.  The term "distancing device" seems to say that this shouldn't be possible.  But it is.