Archive for the ‘Film’ category

My Review of “Howl”

October 16, 2010

I caught the 6:15 screening tonight of the new James Franco docudrama about Allen Ginsberg, the writing of Howl, and the obscenity trial that followed. It’s showing at the Bell Lightbox, which is the palatial cinema complex that’s the new home to the Toronto International Film Festival. I originally discussed this film here, well before it came to Toronto, so needless to say I was excited to finally see it.

I recommend the film. It’s basically a documentary with actors, taking all its dialogue direct from a number of recorded sources, including Ginsberg’s original reading of the poem at San Francisco’s Gallery Six, the transcript of the obscenity trial of California v. Ferlinghetti, and an audio interview between Ginsberg and an unnamed New York journalist. It’s made by a couple documentarians (the team behind “The Times of Harvey Milk”) and the film maintains some of the looping non-narrative energy of actual reality. It also has an eerily successful characterization of Ginsberg by James Franco. The voice is note-perfect and the mannerisms are both accurate and tied to the mental world of the character. They don’t seem like things the actor is doing because he saw the subject do them first. Franco is a writer too, apparently, and one of my favourite young actors. I’m looking forward to him getting over the small matter of his youthful good looks to establish himself in his proper role as America’s answer to Stephen Fry.

Enjambed somewhat awkwardly with all this successful realism is the film’s more controversial element, an animated interpretation of the poem that hits a lot of very literal notes in the text (the “Moloch” of Ginsberg’s imagination, for example, is an actual fire-breathing moloch). This part is to Howl what Ralph Bakshi’s 90-minute cartoon version of The Lord of the Rings is to Tolkein: loving but flat, elementary, and lacking in nuance. It does, however, inject some colour and energy to what is otherwise a very low-gear film.

The film’s most interesting sub-narrative, however, endures the filmmakers’ disinterest (or ignorance) in its possibilities as a subject. Franco’s characterization oscillates wildly between what I will call the “Two Allens”. One is Ginsberg as hippie figurehead, spouting his desire to speak “honestly” and “from this soul” with all the usual platitudes that the confessional tradition has placed on contemporary poetry, like a 4,000 pound barbell made of puppy kisses. The other Ginsberg is more recognizably a poet, and less a prophet. I say this knowing that Ginsberg is part of that Blake & Whitman family of mystical seers, but it’s perhaps best to look at those poems, and not the poets, as the visionaries. To this end, there’s a short scene in the middle of the picture where Franco talks of a prelinguistic groan, which arrives at his lips wrapped in the package of a specific rhythm (this rhythm quite brilliantly becomes the prime motif Carter Burwell’s minimalist score). In the ensuing monologue, Franco/Ginsberg repeats the pattern of the rhythm against the roof of his mouth a couple times, and begins to fill in the blanks with syllables. This was a surprising take on Ginsberg’s process, coming as it does after a scene extolling the bluntness and honesty of his first post-Columbia attempts, with things like cadence and rhythm far from the film’s mind. The product of all this is the line from Howl, section 2, that begins “Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows”. It’s such an earnest, obsessive speech that it made a couple of audience members giggle, but it struck me as the most accurate moment in the film. Ginsberg as hard-working craftsman, not Ginsberg as mystic cultural superman.

This is where my personal narrative of the Two Ginsbergs bumped up against the images appearing on-screen. The courtroom section was occasionally dull, populated by cameos from actors clearly arriving on set during their lunch breaks from their other projects (John Hamm, who didn’t even have to change his suit, Mary-Louise Parker, David Straitharn, Treat Williams, Bob Balaban, and Jeff Daniels). It’s good history though, clean and accurate and relatively free of pandering. The court case focused on the words Ginsberg chose to use, specifically these words: fuck, cock, balls, snatch, cunt, and few others. These words gone over with a fine tooth comb, and juxtaposed with some Gallery Six scenes that show young bespeckled types hooting and hollering over their every utterance from the shy young man blending them seamlessly into his new poem.

The thing about censorship, maybe, is that it doesn’t have to win to win. To wit, the obscenity trial took my craftsman Ginsberg, possessor of one of the keenest rhythmic ears in all of 20th century poetry, and reduced him to a man who could or could not say cunt, who could or could not speak frankly of homosexual attraction in his poems. This reduced Ginsberg sounded a lot like the man who spoke of poetry as simply an “outlet” for self-expression, the Ginsberg that allowed himself to be a visual punchline of the 60s counterculture, that tripped over every didactic opportunity offered by the next 40 years of American literature. It’s also the Ginsberg that the young people were encouraging obscenities from at Gallery Six. Hipsterism, it turns out, is a form of censorship. Both reduce their targets to simple verb-noun marriages, and ship that simplification off to Life magazine to be judged by the public: Allen Ginsberg, swearing poet. Are you with this or aren’t you?

I don’t think a poem like Please Master, with its abandon of Howl’s opulent jazz orchestration for flat and jokey unpoetry that plagued Ginsberg’s later career, ever occurs to the poet if he wasn’t simultaneously heralded and castigated for the vocabulary of Howl in 1957. Please Master is Howl stripped for parts. It has the vocabulary of his earlier poem, the very thing that his censors stole from the heart of his work and made stand trial, but none of its whimsical music. In other words, it is the poem that the State of California heard when it first misread Howl. That misreading, spoken on a national scale, consumed and eventually assimilated the poet.

Howl, the movie, doesn’t dwell on this, of course. It ends on a high note and fades out to a credit sequence featuring an old (real-life) Ginsberg singing one of his songs. Such are films, I suppose. Maybe this is why there aren’t many movies about poems.

I Went Into the Youtube and Brought You Back these Trailers

July 20, 2010

A few months ago I mentioned that a movie based on the Howl Indecency Trial was the opening night gala show at Sundance. That movie, Howl, would now appear to have a distributor and some sense of a release date. I’m generally wary of biopics that were neither A) directed by Milos Forman or B) acted in by a cross-dressing Cate Blanchett, but this would appear to be more period piece than birth-to-death accounting. I’m hopeful there will be no flashback scene in which a boy Ginsberg discovers his love for poetry in the aftermath of some family tragedy, but I guess I don’t know that for sure. Along with James Franco as Ginsberg, the movie costars David Strathairn and Mary-Louise Parker, as well as TV’s Don Draper, who is seen in the trailer performing the monologue from the lost episode of Mad Men in which Sterling Cooper takes on “Freedom of Speech” as a client. I don’t know. I’ll watch it, but I’m far from convinced I’ll like it.

Second on our menu of literary trailer links is the early preview for the film version of CanLit staple, Barney’s Version. I don’t know, kids. This one stinks of Generic Indy Dramedy to me. Like every Paul Giamatti movie boiled down to a thick soup of middle-aged frumpiness. I’m pulling for it, though. If only because Dustin Hoffman should have a resurgence one of these years. Is that Minnie Driver? It is, it is.

And, because the triptych is the most pleasing of artistic framing devices, and because I should post something I’m actually excited about, here’s the trailer for the upcoming Never Let Me Go adaptation. I like it. I like, especially, how the trailer never shows its cards on the dystopian setting of the story, much like the book I expect the movie will unveil its speculative set-up as needed, without the exposition that weighs down a lot of science fiction films. Without the book to guide you, this looks like the trailer for the next Merchant Ivory picture, but it has secrets that only the readers know. That Sally Hawkins is up to something…

Behind the Bohemian Embassy at T.U.C.

July 6, 2010

The Toronto Underground Cinema is hosting a screening this coming Monday, July 12th, of Behind the Bohemian Embassy. This documentary concerns the Bohemian Embassy, a major Toronto centre for poetry and folk music during the early to mid sixties, and a spiritual home to performers including Atwood and The Gordfather. The B.E. is something that I’ve heard older Toronto poets whisper about for many years now, like raw sugar and one dollar bills, but I’ve only limited concrete knowledge of the place. Getting anywhere at 7pm on a Monday is pretty tough for me, but I’m going to make an effort. Do I have any fellow travellers? C’mon, this is your history, folks!

The Toronto Underground Cinema lists their directions as follows: We are located at the basement level of 186 Spadina Avenue, just north of Queen Street West. The building is located on the west side of the street. Our theatre can be accessed through both entrances of the building at Spadina Avenue and at Cameron Street. Just follow the signs.

Admission to the film is FREE(!). Thanks to Heather Cadsby for bringing news of this screening to my mailbox. If you want to hang around after the first feature, the TUC is showing the pretty awesome graffiti documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop at 9:30.

Turturro Week: Part Two

May 5, 2010

It continues. As Barton Fink would say, “I’m Barton Fink, and it continues.” But this instalment of Turturro Week is not about Barton Fink, as that movie A. Contains little poetry and B. Is actually about a screenwriter. Today we settle into the late fifties of Washington and New York, into the gap-tooth bewilderment of Turturro’s greatest screen character, the memorably obnoxious Herbert Stempel. Today we do Quiz Show, which happens to be Vox Pop’s single favourite movie.

The Movie: Quiz Show
Year: 1994
The Plot in 50 Words: Big ol’ American morality play set during the 1957-59 rush of quiz show scandals. This film focuses on the marquee case of the U.S. Congress vs. the producers of the rigged gameshow “Twenty-One”. A socially awkward whistleblower (Turturro as Herbert Stempel) develops a fixation on the popular current champion (Ralph Fiennes as Charles Van Doren) and his accusations raise the interest of an ambitious investigator (Rob Morrow as a young Richard N. Goodwin).
The Turturro Factor: Front and centre, Johnny. Turturro’s Stempel is a self-righteous id machine of relentless bitterness. While his two co-leads spend the story slowly arriving or departing from the truth, Stempel’s deviations are predictably scheduled and entirely the product of defence mechanisms. He’s the only person in the story not doing any plotting, any dancing around the stark truth of the film’s moral quagmire.
The Poetry: Like The Good Shepherd, Quiz Show contains a single poet, though said poet possesses a spectre long enough to shadow all the other characters and their various extra-poetic ministrations. He comes in the personage of Mark Van Doren, patriarch of one of the great American intellectual families and, in a more direct way, patriarch of the story’s would-be antagonist, a Mr. Charles Van Doren. Mr Van Doren won a Pulitzer for his poetry but is perhaps best remembered as a scholar and a mentor. Over forty years of teaching at Columbia, he worked with the likes of Thomas Merton, John Berryman, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg. In fact, he was instrumental in keeping the last two out of jail after an unfortunate round of pre-Beat Movement childsh frivolity. He was a key thinker on the subject of the “Great Books” education, and is the namesake of Columbia’s student-picked “Teacher of the Year Award”. Not for nothing, his poem “Our Lady Peace” also inspired the naming of the Canadian rock band. Thanks, Wikipedia.
The Message: What can we do with a thing we love this much except try and answer questions?

Q: For $64,000, I’d hope they ask you the meaning of life.

–Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield)

Movies move fairly quickly. The same can not be said of “films” necessarily (and here I’m employing a dreadful little shorthand, where movies = pop entertainments and films = cultural depictions) but Quiz Show is a fine example of a movie. For a movie, there is precious little time to set-up the sort of semiotic role being played by any of the 5-50 supporting characters that stop by to help or hinder your heroic (let’s face it, usually male) lead.

Quiz Show, having essentially three such leads, has even less space. Shortcuts are taken with some of these supporting players (Hank Azaria and David Paymer save their roles from the moustache-twirling villainry that was intended by performing them better than needed) but for the most part, far more clowns fit in this particular VW than you’d think. Such is the work of a competent screenwriter.

We first see supporting character-cum-actual midcentury human Mark Van Doren at an opulent and well-attended book signing. He makes some jokes, flirts with a young woman, and gravely tells a patron that the president has died (he hasn’t). Here is our shortcut to reading the poet as gentleman-loafer: wise as all fuck but prone to a certain flippancy. This doesn’t carry a lot of credibility as we get to know Van Doren better later in the movie, but it works as a point of departure. Quiz Show is a movie about the intelligentsia as a sort of optical illusion for the socially conscious class climber, something surprisingly unattainable despite the books you may read (or write) or the brain you may possess and exercise. Poetry is the ur-material of that aspiration, and the only person fully comfortable within it is this older Van Doren.

Poetry (and, by extension, intellect) is the family business of the Van Dorens. Mark is a poet, Dorothy (his wife) is a novelist, there are critics and scholars and poets at the dinner table. They refer to Edmund Wilson as “Bunny” and they call each other on the phone to chat. The three younger men at the centre of Quiz Show yearn for a similar comfort with this rarified intellectual air. Mark Van Doren’s son, Charie, is oppressed by the unearned quality of it as it applies to his father’s son, while the other two (Dick Goodwin and Johnny T’s Herbert Stempel) are various degrees of outsider. They can quote all the Emerson and Shakespeare they want, but at best Goodwin straddles the line and Stempel is locked out completely.

It seems like a somewhat alien idea that poetry is a class signifier. Surely, there are a lot of upper-middle class poets (thank you, academia!) but most of the history of American poetry, from literarily right after Quiz Show closes to maybe the 1990s, has been dominated by outsider figures from the Beats to Hip Hop and beyond.

And likewise, poetry has lost something of its cultural cache. Stempel and especially Goowin refer to it in the same way that a person would make a historical allusion, as an act of reaching back to the shared material of contemporary life. That this is a dying art (how many NY Transit employees, like Stempel, or Congressional investigators, like Goodwin, have Dickinson at their fingertips today?) is sad, maybe, but it’s also secondary to the presentment of poetry (and, by extension, intellectual life) in the film. It’s not about what is shared, it’s about what’s reserved for the few, and how arduous and dangerous it is to try and move in uninvited.

Q: I feel we speak the same language.

-Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) to Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow)

Quiz Show is a rare drama in that it gives you the full educational history of each of its characters. These three CVs are clichés of class, surely, but we can’t fault them for that, as they’re also true. Charles Van Doren took a M.S. in Astrophysics before realizing, as he said in the film, that “all the great physicists were great before they were 25. It just wasn’t in the cards.” He then returned to the family business and got his PhD in Literature and wrote a book about a patricide, of all things. Goodwin, meanwhile, despite the Cambridge accent, is from Boston and carries a sort of working-my-way up demeanour when he says (in every introduction) that he finished first in his class at Harvard Law. Stempel, meanwhile, followed the American Dream as it was dictated to him from the army to the GI Bill to City College of New York. They’ve all done the expected.

A word that keeps popping up throughout Quiz Show is “erudition”, which is not quite the same word as “intellect” (and of course, not the same word as “poetry” at all). Erudition is the difference between the working class polymath of Herbert Stempel and the purebred academic of Charles Van Doren. Again, our investigator, Mr. Goodwin (easily the most subtly written of the three leads) keeps dropping us hints that he aspires to be the latter but may be more of the former.

Goodwin wants to be Charles Van Doren so bad he can’t prosecute him, and chooses instead to prosecute an idea. “I want to put television on trial. Television” he says, like he’s Marshall McLuhan and not a civil servant with a chip on his shoulder. When the Van Dorens make the slightest move towards incorporating them into their “we”, his eyes light up like the cute girl across the classroom just blew him a kiss. When Fiennes asks “remember what it was like for guys like us growing up?” he just smiles. Maybe he remembers. Maybe he doesn’t.

I find myself thinking of this broad intellectual classism in terms of poetry. Ours is an era of self-directed knowledge and, by extension, an incredible variety of the knowledge bases on display by the curious-minded (some of whom will, by their natures, decide to be poets). I would suggest, though, that the bias towards the academic that seems so obvious and unchallengeable in Quiz Show lives through to today. In the movie, some random dude in the audience of Twenty-One expresses his happiness at Van Doren’s victory over Stempel by saying “now we have a clean-cut intellectual, instead of a freak with a sponge memory.” This is harsh to freaks, surely (and sponges), but encapsulates the view of Stempel’s intelligence as a sort of loose assortment of parlour tricks. He’s not a smart guy, he’s “the guy who knows everything”.

I know some poets with PhDs, and I know some poets who dropped out of college. I don’t want to sow the seeds of class divisions where none exist (some of those drop-outs have national reputations, while some of those professors can’t get their poems arrested) but I will say that there remains a tendency to see the academics as authors of books concerned with systems: of thought, of language, or of interrelated poetic histories, while the non-academic poets maybe get written up as lone wolves, doing their thing as they see fit, separated from any theory or community. Feel free to disagree with this generalization (it’s a big, sloppy one, full of holes and weak patches) but understand that there’s no quality distinction being made, and there’s as much to be said for belonging, as for not belonging.

Q: Geritol cures “tired blood”, and I’M supposed to be ashamed of myself?

–Howard Stempel (John Turturro)

If Quiz Show wanted to divide its characters up into two groups (and it doesn’t, it’s too good for that, but I do, as I’ve been writing far too long and need a shortcut) it could do so the following way: Team A is for the men and women willing or able to speak in terms of individual choices and mistakes, without attaching them to greater cultural failures that might apply to more than one individual at a time. Team A, in that case, would contain most of the film’s “villains”: the producers, the network boss, and Martin Scorsese’s cameo appearance as the pharmaceutical mogul who sponsors the show. Team B would be home to the moral absolutists, the people who refuse to segregate the scandal at the center of the movie into anything less than a societal phenomenon. The captain of Team B would definitely be Dick Goodwin, though we are free to doubt his motives. Mark Van Doren coaches Team B. There are a scattering of bit players riding the benches (chief among them would likely be the two wives: Stempel and Goodwin’s).

Harder to classify would be Stempel and the younger Van Doren. Surely, our friend Herbert is able to spread wide the blame, from the contestants to the network to the sponsor to the “schmucks who watch it”. However, he can’t blame himself. Van Doren, on the other hand, plays for Team A for most of the movie before belatedly (and, somewhat weakly) trading themselves to their rivals in the climactic scene.

I’m not interested in talking about morality. Rarely has a person ever done that well while also talking about poetry. But, I’d like to suggest that the north-south thinkers of Team B have something of a stronger sense of metaphor than those in Team A. The ability to construct a metaphor is tied very closely to what education psychologists have coined for us, “lateral thinking”. A person with a gift for metaphor arrives at the link between the fraud of the sponsoring product (the “Geritol” itonic n Stempel’s above quotation) and the fraud of the show itself. Stempel gets to metaphor well. One could assume, then, that he knows he did wrong.

Of course, because Quiz Show is a work of art and not a historical transcription, many more of these beautiful metaphors and analogues are sewn into the work. Characters are shown watching professional wrestling, which was presented as athletic contest in the 1950s. They smoke, oblivious to the health impacts that were even then being attacked and underplayed by the corporations responsible.

Don McKay said, “There is at the heart of metaphor a delicious amoral joy.” Quiz Show is populated by people imaginative, intelligent, and well-read enough to be able to employ metaphor in their quest for sense and self-awareness. Many of these people live amorally (which is not the same thing, of course, as immorally, though it’s easy to make the jump between the two if your goal is passing judgement). To those of us romanced by the idea of the noble artist, as naive and anachronistic as it might be, this is perhaps not the coincidence we’d prefer to end on. So let’s end on it, shall we?


I’m finishing this and running out the door, folks. I’ll go over it again tomorrow and try to iron out the problems. I hope to see many of you at Pivot in a few hours! Should be a good one: Couture/Apostolides/Vermeersch.

In the interim, the folks at Youtube appear to have the whole Stempel v. Van Doren episode of Twenty-One on file. Here it is in three parts, speaking of good actors:

Turturro Week: Part One

May 1, 2010


I said I’d do it. And I did it. This is now John Turturro week on Vox Populism, the week in which I focus my wicked discursive glare on God’s gift to character acting, the boy from Brooklyn himself, Mr. John Turturro. Let it not be said that I shy away from my ridiculous ideas.

Though it’s not quite that ridiculous. Mr. Turturro’s film career has intersected in many strange ways with this blog’s chief concern. For the several dozen of you who will get to this post by googling “John Turturro”, that’d be poetry, though perhaps one of you will actually be John Turturro, perhaps poets aren’t the only professional-interpreters-of-the-human-condition prone to the masturbatory shame of self-googling. Anyway, that’s neither here nor anything. The point I was making is that John Turturro’s oeuvre has included several films with references to poetry, with poetic roots, and even with poets as main characters. This week we’ll look at a few, with a tongue in cheek and an eye cast on the bigger picture, the one that finds itself a frame whenever the big-business art market that is the American Movie Industry intersects with the delicate itch that is poetry. We’ll start with something fairly recent, methinks.

The Movie: The Good Shepherd
Year: 2006
The Plot in 50 Words: Traces the career of one Edward Wilson (a veiled James Jesus Angleton) from his youth through his work as a founder of the CIA and later his moral and professional decline in the years following the botched Bay of Pigs invasion. A highly fictionalized biopic from director Robert Deniro. Who apparently used to be an actor.
The Turturro Factor: John plays someone called Ray Brocco. In a

(How they do it in Brooklyn.)

<cast of characters rife with thinly-maske analogues, Brocco stands in for the infamous CIA bruiser and tactician, Raymond Rocca.
The Poetry: Most of the film’s first third concerns Wilson/Angleton’s college years as a stand-out poetry student at Yale university. His entry to spycraft comes from his complicated relationship with his teacher (played by the forever-excellent Michael Gambon), a potential Nazi sympathizer. References to everything from Homer to Victorian light verse populate the next two and half hours of spirited (if mostly fictional) spy games.
The Message: Poetry is the first thing that Edward Wilson is seen taking seriously. The character exists in a perpetual state of grim concentration for most of the film, it’s when he’s reciting for his professor that we first see the insular frown that comes back in each of the film’s tensest moments. Wilson is played by Matt Damon, who has the right mix of boyish charm and introversion for the role.

It’s always interesting to see what mobile-metaphor-device a screenwriter will choose for poetry. Appeals are often made to the instinctual, the romantic, and the nostalgic, but that’s not where the writer, Eric Roth, goes. Roth also wrote Forrest Gump and its 2008 sequal, Benjamin Button, two films with ample amounts of romantic nostalgia. However, the key word in Shepherd’s poetry motif comes when Gambon’s Hitlerphilic Ph.D. mumbles “it’s mathematics” while discussing our hero’s recitation. The Good Shepherd is essentially the origin story of the Central Intelligence Agency, and as such, it is populated by very confident men who believe they can solve the world like it’s an extended math problem. The cast of analysts, programmers, code breakers, and diplomats that wander in and out of Damon/Wilson/Angleton’s gaze begin their various careers confident of the presence of specific answers, and the film then maps out a sort of moral antiproof to those increasingly frustrated attempts.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a CIA story without some closeted homosexuality, and its disappointing that Roth and Deniro didn’t think it enough to make Gambon’s character a Nazi, but rather only in being a gay Nazi could he demand the proper amount of suspicion from the young spy-to-be. The professor’s means of expressing his sexual affection for Damon is done through poetry, as he offers to share some of his own work before leering at him with his suggestively positioned walking cane.

Part of what’s interesting about the poetry motif of The Good Shepherd is the presentation of Damon/Wilson/Angleton as a reader, and never a writer. Damon’s reaction to his teacher’s inappropriateness isn’t to write back a refusal. Rather, he goes to the library, tracks down an old volume, and finds that the professor had pilfered his verse from another author. For the first time in the story, research wins out. Edward defeated the subjective (as found both in the poem and in Gambon’s offered intimacy) with the cold hard facts of the text.

It would have been an obvious choice to let poetry stand as a sort of unchanging, forgotten nostalgia-marker for the rest of the character’s slow descent into paranoia and bitterness. However, Angleton himself remained a loyal reader throughout his career, though he was predictably put off by many of the new inventions of the late 20th century, from the beats to the black nationalists and beyond. He kept reading what he loved, though, until he couldn’t read it anymore. The filmmakers deserve credit for displaying poetry as a living system rather than some ethereal superaesthetic ideal with no voice or depth, some abandoned widow for the audience to pity and vaguely remember.

The film opens with the delivery of an audiotape and grainy black and white photograph to Wilson’s suburban home. Bringing it to the office, Wilson and Brocco (our boy Johnny, again) perform what amounts to the audiovisual equivalent of a “close reading” on the evidence. Working their way through everything from the filmstock to the make of airplane heard overhead to the song of the neighbouring church bells, Wilson narrows the possible locations of the incriminating photograph down to a specific town square in a specific city, and locates the hotel on foot. Not bad for a close reading.

Even the film’s weird multileveled sense of identity works both with the structure of spycraft and structure of poetry. Every individual has three names. Damon’s Wilson/Angleton compromise sits next to William Hurt’s Allen Dulles (fictionalized as “Phillip Allen”) and Billy Crudup’s Kim Philby (renamed “Arch Campbell”). There are dozens more. The performer, the performed, and the suggested seem like logical analogues to the author, the poem, and the subject, at least as it applies to poems with specific individual “subjects”. Though perhaps most of the good ones don’t.

James Joyce’s Ulysses comes off the shelf for another trip through the allusion-wringer. Here, it exists in both physical form (after being passed from Campbell to Wilson as a gift, it reveals itself as a holder of the film’s greatest secrets) and via a surrogate antagonist of the same name. Ulysses the character exists as the personification of the entire KGB operation in a single man. Those familiar with Angleton’s life will also know that he is likely a complete fabrication, the culmination of all of the career spy’s paranoia, a sort of imaginary enemy that was given a CIA codename from a great work of literature, but likely never existed beyond Angleton’s addled mind.

It’s interesting to watch poetry’s progression as a supporting character in The Good Shepherd. Like many of the film’s fictionalized 20th century figures, it becomes difficult to deduce its true intentions. Surely, some element of youthful nostalgia carries through to our hero’s somewhat tragic naming of his doppelganger, nemesis, and (the historical record would suggest) imaginary best friend. However, the hyperanalytical element of Wilson’s approach to poetry becomes his most apparent character trait as he matures from young adult to professional spy. One wishes, for him, the quiet life of academia he seemed destined to lead. I know quite a few associate professors like Edward Wilson.

To conclude: There’s a lot of poetry in The Good Shepherd, though sadly not nearly enough John Tuturro. In its favour, it does have several of my favourite working actors, including Baldwin, Pesci, and Timothy Hutton. It also has Martina Gedeck, who is rapidly becoming my favourite European actress (did anyone see The Baader-Meinhoff Complex?) and Angelina Jolie, who does what she can with her underappreciated wife role. Moreover, if features the somewhat-true adventures of Angleton, Philby, and Dulles, owners of three of my very favourite midcentury lives, three of the men I need to constantly guard myself against the urge to try and write the great Canadian biopoem about, a la Billy the Kid and Susanna Moodie. It’s a good movie. And moreover, it’s good to poetry. And John gets a couple of lines. He swears a bit. At one point, he waterboards a guy. That being said, I promise more Turturro next time around, when we delve into another examination of the slow-bleed of American morality, picking up our US History at around the same time The Good Shepherd ended.

Optimisms One/Lowther and Lamperts

April 1, 2010

Tis the first of April. Meaning, among many other psychocultural shifts (towards gardening, towards birdsong, towards baseball) the beginning of the I-know-it’s-silly-but-buck-up-and-do-it-anyway tradition of National Poetry Month.

As followers of this blog are aware, I’ve hitched my wagon to The Torontoist’s Book Blog for the next thirty days for the shameless promotion of positivity we’ve decided to call “The Optimisms Project“. My introductory essay is up this morning, with the daily parade of new contributors starting after the holidays. A selection to follow, but really you should just go read the whole thing. It ain’t long.


Dear Whiny Poets: An Introduction

I am not an optimist.

I understand that as the point man for this operation, it is my duty to be an optimist for a single thirty-day period, and I can manage that, if I concentrate. But it’s not my default position. My worldview is tilted down. I stare at my feet when I walk.

To clarify, I’m fairly content. If my rent is paid and my friends are happy and there’s at least some faint idée of a poem tickling the inside edges of my brain, I can’t complain. But, if made to choose a single narrative for the world and all its ancillary dramas, my prediction tends to skew down rather than up. Shittiness, eventually, consumes us all.

So I approach this job as Quarterback of Optimistic Poets with all the focus of an aged lady sitting down to her morning crossword puzzle. I don’t do crosswords all day long, but I feel I should do them regularly, to keep my mind sharp. Such is how I feel about optimism. We can not let the patterns of thought that define us burrow deep holes in our brains.


In other exciting news, the shortlists for the League of Canadian Poets’ Gerald Lampert Memorial Award (for best first collection) and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award (best collection written by a woman) are out. I have to say, forgetting a couple of snubs to books I thought had specialness in them (Moez Surani’s Reticent Bodies and Stephen Rowe’s Never More There for the Lampert, and Susan Holbrook’s Joy is So Exhuasting for the Lowther) this is a pretty strong list. Kudos to the six judges: for the Lampert, Barbara Pelman, David Seymour and Sheri-D Wilson and for the Lowther, Gloe Cormie, Maureen Hynes and Rhea Tregebov.

Gerald Lampert Award Shortlisted Poets, 2010:

Kate Hall for The Certainty Dream(Coach House Books)
James Langer for Gun Dogs (House of Anansi Press)
Marcus McCann for Soft Where (Chaudiere Books)
Soraya Mariam Peerbaye for Poems for the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names (Goose Lane Editions)
Marguerite Pigeon for Inventory (Anvil Press)
Robert Earl Stewart for Something Burned Along the Southern Border (Mansfield Press)

Pat Lowther Award Shortlist, 2010

Elizabeth Bachinsky for God of Missed Connections (Nightwood Editions)
Ronna Bloom for Permiso (Pedlar Press)
Sina Queyras for Expressway (Coach House Books)
Damian Rogers for Paper Radio (ECW Press, a misFit book)
Laisha Rosnau for Lousy Exploriers (Nightwood Editions)
Karen Solie for Pigeon (House of Anansi Press)


In other-er exciting news, Thomas Hayden Church’s biopic treatment of the earlier years of the great Canadian nature poet, Don McKay, opens in select cities this weekend. Simply titled Don McKay, the film is a first feature from director Jake Goldberger and co-stars Oscar winner Elisabeth Shue and nominee Melissa Leo. Hopefully, this will widen its release in the coming weeks.

Howl at Sundance

January 24, 2010

Marking, for 20th Century poetry, a rare foray into the more legitimate echelons of popular culture, the new film Howl, about the 1957 Allen Ginsberg obscenity trial, opened the Sundance Film Festival last week. For context, that’s the film festival in Utah. And Utah, for the geographically challenged, is the one with the Mormons.

The movie stars James Franco, who maybe looks a little too much like the Grecian God of Handsomeness to play a poet, but comes across as reasonably similar to his character and, most importantly, seems to have some literary ambitions of his own.

Fact: Any black-haired actor + giant glasses = Allen Ginberg

The structure of this thing has me excited, both as a lover of poetry and a hater of biopic formula and excess. Made by a filmmaking team (Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman) who have worked solely in documentary before this, it pulls all its dialogue from three sources: a reading of the poem in its entirety, the transcript of the trial, and a contemporary interview given by the young Ginsberg. The minimalism is intriguing, and moreover, I’m all for experimentation in authorial biopics. The sub-genre has, with maybe one exception, become a parade of unexceptional stories about the lives of exceptional people.

Beyond Franco as Uncle Overalls, the cast includes character acting’s two most mid-century personas, namely David Straitharn (Ed Murrow in Goodnight and Good Luck, as well as Pierce Patchett in Vox Pop’s all-time favourite movie) as the prosecution and Don Draper himself, John Hamm, as the defense. The list of characters also includes a Cassady, an Orlovsky, a Ferlinghetti, and a Kerouac, all played by people I’ve never seen. Alessandro Nivola plays the critic Luther Nichols, Mary-Louise Parker is a conservative talkradio lady, Jeff Daniels is a Columbia professor though apparently not Mark Van Doren, and Bob Balaban is the judge presiding over the obscenity trial.

Here’s a selection of the early reviews:
…the great film blog Cinematical likes Franco but is unsure if the structure works.
…those crazy kids at MTV give it two thumbs up, or whatever the youthful term is nowadays
…IFC thought it was powerful, but too ambigious. Obviously they’re new to poetry.
…and it’s the local SLC paper that seemed to like it the best.

I remain optimistic. No word yet on a distributor, but I imagine the combination of Franco and the buzz means we’ll see it at TIFF at least, and quite possibly in regular release.