Thursday, May 25, 2017

In praise of the cigarette break

Marcel Duchamp

I was out of a job for two and a half months at the beginning of the year. During that time, I nearly stopped smoking cigarettes. I'd only buy a pack of American Spirits during my weekly or fortnightly visits to Ray's Happy Birthday Bar, and afterwards I'd give away most of the cigs that hadn't disappeared in pursuit of Johnnie Walker. This isn't to say I went completely cold turkey: I did invest in a vaporizer, but it's hardly a replacement. For one thing, I only use it at home. There's really no way to suck on one of those things in public without looking like a goober, so I deposit mine in my desk drawer whenever I go out.

In March I rejoined the workforce and resumed blackening my lungs. You might guess, prima facie, that this means I'm dissatisfied with my new gig. You'd be wrong: I can't complain too much about what I'm doing for money (and where I'm doing it) these days. But it's rarely the case that a member of the working class truly savors his time on someone else's clock, and even if he finds his wage-earning activities more or less agreeable, he'll probably need a few moments of respite from time to time. Sitting in a break room and absorbing photons from a personal device seems to be the most popular method of on-the-job decompression these days. That's not for me, thanks: I'll take a good old-fashioned cigarette break.

Look. I know it's the twenty-first century. I know the mystique and glamor of the smoker has all but dissipated. I know smoking is awful for one's health, I know that nicotine is tremendously addictive, and I know that someone who's just smoked a cigarette smells awful to anyone who isn't currently smoking one. But the cigarette break is an edifying, even ennobling thing, and I'd like to say a few words on its behalf.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Mar Saba & Melville's memory

For the last month or so I've been taking my time wending through Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876), Herman Melville's last major work and the single longest poem in American literature. (Longer than the Iliad, longer than Paradise Lost.) I'm still thirty-one cantos from reaching the end, and maybe I'll have more to say about the book as a whole at a later date. For now I'd just like to share something that surprised and touched me.

Likening Clarel to Canterbury Tales would be a mostly facile comparison, but there are areas of overlap in the bare outlines of the cast: the cavalcade we follow on a tour through the environs of Jerusalem to the Dead Sea to Bethlehem is composed of archetypal figures with differing perceptions of the nineteenth century's accelerating social transformations and the state of Christianity under the siege of science. We have the benignant but ineffective liberal clergyman, the biblical literalist millennarian, the disillusioned European revolutionary, the atheistic man of science, and so on.

The titular Clarel plays the part of the sheltered, privileged theological student who takes the trip to bolster his flagging faith and ease his doubts. But it is not Clarel into whom Melville breathes the most of himself: that would be Rolfe, a middle-aged dilettante who speaks with volubility and exuberant frankness, and who paradoxically combines a penchant for austere theology with a distrust of religious and moral absolutism. And, like Melville, Rolfe was a mariner in his youth.

During a visit to the ancient Greek Orthodox monastery Mar Saba, we have a sequence in which five of the pilgrims, positioned at different heights upon the cliffs and terraces, regard a lone palm tree on a ledge, reputed to have been planted by Saint Sabbas himself over 1300 years before. The soliloquy Rolfe delivers here is by far the most interesting, and it's eye-popping for a Melville fan.

Before we go any further with Rolfe and the palm, we'll need to revisit Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), Melville's first (and most contemporaneously successful) novel.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Animation April: [scene missing]

Well, this is embarrassing.

I'd planned to conclude the month with a large writeup on Young Justice, Greg Weisman's animated celebration of everything fun, bizarre, and dramatically convoluted in the DC comic book universe. It...didn't work out. The piece I'd almost finished wasn't much fun to write or interesting to read, and a second version I started from scratch earlier this week was practically erased when a Windows update caused my computer to restart while I was asleep. (Thanks again, Microsoft.) I tried rewriting version 2.0, but it wouldn't have been finished before May. I spent a few hours these last few nights retooling the old draft, but it still wasn't anything I could be happy with.

So I'm throwing in the towel. Please accept my apologies along with three truly excellent Betty Boop shorts from the early 1930s.

Monday, April 24, 2017

NPM: The rape joke

I make a point of buying the newest volume of the Best American Poetry series whenever I see it on a bookstore shelf. There's never been a bad one, but the overall quality does vary with the tastes of its annually rotating guest editor. At least once in the best volumes, and several times in the iffier ones, I'll read a poem for the second or third time and wonder how the hell it got published in Ploughshares or Tin House or one of the more esteemed Quarterlies to begin with, to say nothing of how it ended up between the front and back covers of a book claiming to represent the acme of American not-prose.

Patricia Lockwood's "Rape Joke," which I first read in The Best American Poetry 2014, is not one of those poems.

Rape Joke
Patricia Lockwood (1982 – )

The rape joke is that you were 19 years old.

The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend.

The rape joke it wore a goatee. A goatee.

Imagine the rape joke looking in the mirror, perfectly reflecting back itself, and grooming itself to look more like a rape joke. "Ahhhh," it thinks. "Yes. A goatee."

No offense.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Animation April: Rock & Rule (1983)


This...this is a weird one.

It's much weirder than Project A-ko, even though A-ko is a movie about dueling schoolgirls and men with vaginas directed by a pantyshot-obsessed twentysomething missing at least two of his incisors. A-ko can't even touch Rock & Rule.

At least A-ko belongs to a distinct and recognizable clade in the evolutionary annals of animation. It's an anime from the 1980s, iconic during its time, and it had a perceptible impact on the cartoons produced in Japan. For all its screwiness, we can place it. Rock & Rule is an aberration.

It would probably be best grouped with the Bakshi-and-allies aggregate. (Incidentally, bootleg copies of Rock & Rule passed around at conventions erroneously attributed the film to him.) Ralph Bakshi is/was a ballsy chap: he had the then-outlandish idea that feature-length cartoons could be something other than family-friendly adaptations of children's storybooks, and made a handful of films during the 1970s and early 1980s that were not, not, not for kids (and he also cast Tolkien onto the silver screen decades before Peter Jackson). Other Western animation studios took notice, and followed Bakshi's example in pushing the envelope in which Disney had sealed the industry for almost half a century. Watership Down (1978) and The Last Unicorn (1982) were a couple of films about rabbits and a magical horsey marketed to general audiences—but everyone I know who watched them as youngsters walked away seriously rattled. (Alex McLevy of The A.V. Club wrote a very nice piece about The Last Unicorn and how it once scared the hell out of him.) Oppositely there was Heavy Metal (1981), brimming with graphic violence, exposed breasts, and lurid juvenility, and inappropriate for anyone but seventeen-year-old males.

And there was also Rock & Rule, but nobody noticed.

Friday, April 14, 2017

NPM: Wordsworth's daffodils

Had you pulled me aside when I was seventeen and asked me about English class, about what we'd been reading and which author I least enjoyed, I might have answered William Wordsworth. Long, dense, meditative pieces like Tintern Abbey and Intimations of Immortality had absolutely no chance at pulling my attention away from Final Fantasy IX, and lines like "trailing clouds of glory do we come/from God, who is our home" were anathema to to a kid whose entire wardrobe consisted of Marilyn Manson and Johnny the Homicidal Maniac T-shirts. But I did have enough patience to read and digest his lyric verse, and I found I liked him even less when he wrote stuff I could understand. He was too quaint, too twee in his sentiments, and even a little fruity. Daffodils, William? Who gets all goopy about flippin' daffodils? Take it back to Hallmark, you damn Care Bear.

Over the last six years—or so—I've changed my mind about Wordsworth.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Animation April: Project A-ko (1986)


I'm sometimes amazed at the depths of the inroads anime has made into United States pop culture in just twenty years. Americans are a bunch that doesn't much care for other countries' pop music or watches many foreign films, and yet we love Japanese 'toons. Bros gush about Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, and One-Punch Man. The internet brims with thinkpieces, written in English, examining and lauding Sailor Moon as a feminist keystone for Generation Y. The manga section at a given Barnes & Noble easily sees more traffic than any other aisle in the store. Cosplay! There are cosplay magazines on the rack at Walgreens, for god's sake!

Two decades ago, things were much different.