Friday, March 25, 2011

Notes from Underground

I came upon a quote from Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground that made me laugh. Sudden laughter while reading Dostoevsky at a bus stop in Baltimore may be a rare occurrence, but the my fellow transit patrons didn't think that it was--for none of them looked up or seemed to notice.

The quote opens chapter two:

"I would now like to tell you gentleman, whether you do or do not wish to hear it, why I never managed to become even an insect. I'll tell you solemnly that I wanted many times to become an insect."

The opening declaration, followed by the disclaimer, are rendered immediately sarcastic and cowardly by the bitterness at the end of the first sentence. However, the second sentence changes the tone so abruptly that the quote becomes ruefully funny.

Bitterness comes from reflection. By saying "I never managed to become even an insect" implies that the narrator has failed at life, at achieving person-hood, but he remains defiant in his solitude "Underground", holding contempt for the "gentlemen" he addresses. By contrasting "insect" with "gentlemen", the narrator is showing his resistance towards becoming small or contemptible by following a life path defined by others who "do or do not wish to hear it." By not becoming an "insect" the narrator is free to self define himself as whatever he wants--a rebel, an outsider.

However, the second sentence reverses all of this. By saying that he desired "many times to become an insect", the narrator reveals his own agency in not achieving even being small and contemptible. Therefore he entraps himself into being both as contemptible and at the mercy of those who can label him as such. The defiance is completely deflated. Mock seriousness has been replaced with serious self mockery. Cowardice has been replaced with defeated candor. The outward blame and self-delusion common in bitter and cynical characters is transformed into a self-aware self-hatred. The character is not redeemed here in a moral or sympathetic sense, but rather, in the moment-to-moment consciousness and contradictory nature of personal reflection, in a more living and embodied sense.

Friday, January 21, 2011


I’ve stated that the cockatrice occasionally finds a work so robust, so vibrant, that the eye cannot turn it to stone. At best it can grab hold of a small part, but, skink-like, that art can easily drop its tail for the critics’ mouth and regenerate another. What the cockatrice did not consider, however, is art that is already mineralized before it comes under my gaze. I had this realization experiencing the dead eyes of Lady Gaga. Note the artificial enhancement of her eyes in "Bad Romance", as if in desperate compensation for their lack of empathy.

Friday, February 13, 2009

November Rain and Smells Like Teen Spirit

"Video Killed the Radio Star" by the Buggles is a nostalgic song about how the transition to a new medium affects an older generation of artists. Older not necessarily in terms of age, but rather in both formal conception and in the perspective of form on content. Depending on the time frame, the song easily could have been titled, "Radio Killed the Vaudeville Star" or "The Internet Killed the Video Star".

However, the concept of a "Star" or centralized celebrity became fully established within the mass delivery systems of the radio and then the television. The power of live performance, whether in dance, theater, sport, is specifically its personal and ephemeral nature. Performance was radically altered in the new context presented by these two mass delivery systems. First, the scope of the audience was greatly expanded. Secondly, the ability to record allowed a specific performance to be replayed continuously. The net effect was that a wider range of people was able to share a narrower, or rather unique, performance.

The convergence of radio and television was exemplified in the music video. Beginning in the early 80's, MTV ushered in a new means of conveying music to a mass audience. MTV, however, was just one of the mass content delivery systems that had been developing since the late 40's and had now reached their apotheosis during that decade. Television had a stranglehold on the popular consciousness, evidenced by the current era of recycling the concepts and brands from the 80's and the early 90's into large-scale franchises. This recycling is a result of two primary factors. The youth of that era are now in the primary consumer age bracket, and, more importantly, that time frame was the last era before the Internet created the openness of access to a vast range of aesthetic choices and broke the hegemony of the dominant media outlets, subsequently fragmenting the audience.

However, the mainstream did not accede immediately to this transition, and the resultant tension created many layered and complex works of art. The videos for Guns 'N Roses' "November Rain" and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" were both released in 1992 and they both preceded the Internet era, but they respectively heralded the change from the mainstream to the niche.

November Rain -
Smells Like Teen Spirit -

"November Rain" is a music video that is constantly aware of its theatricality and melodrama, first evidenced by the opening, displaying the title of the song overlaid on an image of the lead singer, Axl Rose, taking sleeping pills from a night stand that also holds a fifth of liquor, an ashtray, and a broken crucifix. The scene then dissolves into a concert hall audience witnessing the entire band onstage, accompanied by extra vocalists and a conductor leading a full orchestra. Within the first twenty seconds, the resonant images of the video are introduced--primarily the Christian imagery and the trappings of theatrical performance. After several quick establishing cuts of the band members, the Christian imagery is reintroduced in an wedding ceremony. These specific images--the Christ statue weeping blood, the various ornate crosses, the grandeur of the ceremony, and the vestments of the priest--create a reference to the Catholic church. For a religion that has been critiqued as overly theatrical, it is the perfect framework to convey the story of this self-consciously elaborate music video.

The symbols of the theater are further established in the middle of the video when the lead guitarist, Slash, walks out alone from the wedding ceremony. As he exits, the artifice of the panorama begins immediately. He is shown alone, in different clothing with his guitar, on a dusty plain in front of a small church that could not contain the expansive previous scene. He is playing a precise guitar solo, but his guitar has no trailing cords or amplifiers within the panoramic view of lunging and swooping helicopter shots. The video has now dispensed with practical concerns and instead relies on the dramatic and the theatrical to create a hyper-reality that can express intense emotion within the space of a nine minute music video.

After an aborted reception, interrupted ostensibly by the "November Rain", the video then transitions immediately to the funeral of the bride within the same church as the wedding. The full trappings of theatricality--open casket, flower arrangements, a full complement of pall bearers--continues and sustains the emotions of the prior drama. The tragedy was structurally foreshadowed by the concerned look of the bride as she leaves the wedding as well as the flowing red wine at the reception, referencing blood and thus reinforcing the connection to Catholicism. The open casket is mirrored--often used to cover facial disfigurement. Again, the themes of appearance and spectacle are recapitulated even to the final scenes.

The video ends with Rose waking up from the dream that seemingly contained the previous narrative. However, the final images are that of the bride, throwing her bouquet of white roses which transforms midair into red and falls on top of her coffin in front of a mourning Rose. The last image is the rain, washing the red from the roses until they become white once more.

I have largely refrained from analyzing the symbolism of the various images of "November Rain" other than to highlight how those images create a specifically heightened, artificial, and theatrical quality to the entire music video. The trappings of theatricality and Catholicism are just that--trappings. Within the context of the song, the orchestra has few functions other than to add sonic depth to the guitar arrangements. There are no solos, no major melodies invoked by the large string section--just chords and vamps. The Christian symbols are presented in a flurry of cuts and edits without any explanation or overarching narrative. Instead, both the orchestra and the church add something specific to the video--the aura of gravitas. Preachers, pallbearers, and the conductor all costumed in full regalia unquestionably invoke a historical tradition that extends far past the origins of Rock and, as previously mentioned, add an element of heightened emotion in the limited emotional timeframe of the nine minute music video.

The dramatic, even melodramatic, aspects of the video, when taken out of context, can easily be dismissed as laughable, overblown and even ironic. Few videos would have the audacity to show a figure of Jesus weeping blood as anything more serious than a joke. However, "November Rain" is not a joke and the conflux of theatricality, Catholicism, and Rock is completely, almost painfully sincere.

This sincerity is created primarily through tension between the appurtenance of tradition and gravitas created by the theatrical/Catholic elements and the brashness and rebellion of Rock music. It is no coincidence that the conductor of the orchestra, wearing tails and a white tie, shares the same glam hairstyle as Duff and Slash. Furthermore the clothing of each band member--especially that of Axl Rose--do not conform to traditional dress in the staid, traditional service of the wedding. They are, instead, an extension of their stage personas. Slash is wearing his signature top hat and his shirt is completely unbuttoned. Rose's coat is intricately embroidered and his shirt is heavily ruffled. In fact it calls into mind the costume of the Beast in the Disney film of the previous year. It is so elaborate that it threatens to overwhelm the wedding dress worn by model Stephanie Seymour. Starting with a pan shot from the feet up, the dress is revealed to be extremely high cut above the garter. The upper bodice is contrastingly heavy and structured, creating a virgin/whore dynamic that, in music video, is comparable only to Madonna's "Like a Virgin".

The tensions between the desire to refer to a serious traditional background and the necessity to maintain the excess and hedonism portrayed, for example in the previous Guns N' Roses' video "Welcome to the Jungle," create a hybrid video that aspires to both the rebel and epic melodrama. This clash, this uneasiness is proof of the sincerity of the work itself. If the video used purely classical imagery, it would either lose its vibrant force as a part of the Rock mainstream or become completely ironic, deliberately clashing form and content. However, if it abandoned the symbols of the past, it would stand isolated, seemingly unable through the conventions of Rock music alone to carry the extreme emotional drama.

After viewing the elaborate, cinematic, and highly structured video for "November Rain", the video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" seems to be the complete antithesis. Rather than multiple locations, this video is set within a darkened high-school gymnasium with bleachers and basketball nets. The band consists of only three members rather than an entire range of instrumentation. The narrative is simple, even minimalist--a band plays in front of a young audience that gradually becomes more chaotic until both band and audience are moshing together. This minimalism is very important when considering the Baroque excess of the previous video. It reflects the main cycle of destruction and rebirth that has characterized Rock music since its inception. Note that both videos portray the bands playing in front of the audience. In "November Rain" the audience is totally passive, existing only to add to the aura of the theatrical. In "Smells Like Teen Spirit", the audience is shown as active participants, even to the point of disrupting and destroying the band and its instruments. As the dominant form of the music becomes too crafted and excessive, a new movement arises that emphasizes purity, simplicity, and just plain rocking. The fundamental example was the advent of Punk in the late 70's. Nirvana was the vanguard of Grunge in the 90's that swept away the primacy of Metal--of whom Guns N' Roses was an exemplar.

However, Nirvana's video also has a suite of images that affect the tone and theme of the work as greatly as "November Rain". During the opening pan, several cheerleaders are shown in a loose formation. Later in the video, their uniforms are shown to bear the representative "A" for anarchy. This identification immediately signals the rebellion and upheaval present in the music. However, by juxtaposing cheerleading with anarchy, these paradoxical elements combine to create the sense of irony. Another ironic element is the character of the bald janitor. In the video he is shown separate from the rest of the cast, swaying back and forth with a mop. He may be enjoying the music, but since he is shown asynchronous from the main beat as well as not participating with the rest of the audience, he becomes separate from them as a character--to be incongruous, to be humorous, and to be ironic.

The minimalism presented in the video is also influenced tonally by the need for destruction and anarchy. Many shots of the band are in slow motion and often the notes or drumbeats played are not matched to what is presented on screen. Tellingly, the primary guitar solo of the video shows Cobain restringing his guitar and then using both hands to finger notes near the head of the guitar. The final chaos drops any pretension that the band is playing the music being heard as the audience is shown carrying cymbals, bowling over the bassist, and watching Cobain destroy his guitar.

This destruction signified the desire to remove from Rock the convoluted symbols and epic pretensions that reached their height in "November Rain". In essence, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was the anti-video, denying any need to heighten or evoke any emotion other than its own nihilistic energy. The song itself reinforces this notion lyrically since, at the time, Cobain's singing was considered unintelligible. "Weird" Al Yankovic created an entire parody song, "Smells Like Nirvana," revolving around this fact.

However, by creating its own language of chaos--paradoxical images, slow motion, quick cuts, unsynced musical performance--this video created the groundwork for irony and a retreat from sincerity. Cobain was not a disingenuous or insincere performer--see his performance of "All Apologies"--although Nirvana's videos are not always as straightforward--see "In Bloom". As mentioned before, Punk had already gone through the stage of destruction and renewal, but the key difference is now that this rebellion and nihilism had been exposed heavily to the mass market through the medium of the music video.

Both videos of "November Rain" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" gained widespread popularity during 1992. Both singles reached the top ten on Billboard charts. However, Guns N' Roses would not have another song in the top 40 whereas multiple singles from Nirvana's Nevermind reached top ten positions. Nirvana was the sea change that signaled a new generation of listeners that had abandoned the pomp of the 80's Rock bands and gravitated towards the new Grunge aesthetic of nihilism, apathy, and irony. However, listening to the music of Nirvana, or other Grunge bands such as Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, very little irony or apathy is present. This movement retreated from the almost absurd sincerity and pretension represented by Guns N' Roses. The mass media codified this retreat not as a return to open simplicity, but rather as a recoiling away from all sincerity. Thus the portrayal in video becomes ironic, not entirely through qualities of the songs itself. Rather than create a new visual language or investing their symbols--clothing, posture, piercings--with meaning, the music video instead interpreted this new aesthetic as solely a denial of the previous generation, resulting in a movement portrayed as apathetic and ironic. Some bands, like Pearl Jam, realized the effect of the mainstream on interpretation and retreated from the popular view.

By aligning with this specific interpretation of Grunge, mainstream Rock had now lost its grip on sincerity, however pretentious or bizarre. It is no coincidence that Meat Loaf's "I Would Do Anything For Love" can be considered the last mainstream rock epic on video. This loss, however, applied primarily to Rock music. Two other forms in the 90's had begun to supplant Rock's place as the dominant form for artistry and popularity. Hip Hop, with the advent of Gangsta, maintained for an extended period of time an almost maniacal grip on integrity and sincerity. Furthermore as the business of music became more savvy, SoundScan revealed that mainstream Country music was dominating the charts in the 90's, and the marketing and subsequent effects on musicians were manifold.

This column began with a discussion on the mainstream and how the Internet permanently fragmented the audience. Nirvana was in the mainstream, but it was representative of the last movement in Rock that can be considered the dominant popular form. As irony became more developed and self aware, its messages retreated further away from the simple and sincere. The mainstream thus focused on more easily marketable paths which resulted in opposite directions--the rebirth and almost naked commercialization of the boy band culminating in The Backstreet Boys, and the hyper developed sense of integrity and street credibility culminating in 50 Cent. The Internet, with its immediate access and range of choice, finally directly realigned audience with artist without the mediated exchange of the major labels.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Shook Ones, Pt. II

"Shook Ones, Pt. II" by Mobb Deep thematically focuses on the designation between "crooks" and the "shook ones" of the title. However, the poetic devices in the first verse by Prodigy establish the mutualistic relationship between actions and words in rap and highlight one of the key strengths of the genre--an almost fanatical regard for the power of rhetoric.

Shook Ones, Pt. II (mp3)
Transcription of first verse and chorus (doc)

Full transcription (outside source)

A note on the lyric transcription. The spellings are my own. Because lyrics are rarely provided by rappers, I have transcribed a version different from most sources. This transcription begins each line with the word, or pause, that coincides with the main downbeat. Since the vast majority of the sentences in rap lyrics (and less so in song lyrics in general) begins on the upbeat, this format preserves the interplay between sentence construction and the underlying beat of the music samples. In fact, the most interesting manipulations of meter exist in the space between downbeats, but I will reserve a wider discussion of the various relationships in rap between meter and beat later, for a more in depth analysis. If desired, most internet transcriptions are loosely based on both end rhymes and the ends of sentences and are more conventionally readable.

The verse begins with rather bald descriptions of the violent capabilities of the narrator. He identifies with the "Mobb" (ln 4), referencing the group name; the "Queensbridge murderers" (3), pronouncing an aggressive regionalism; and the "crime family" (5), indicating a kinship with gang or mafia ideology. However, when the speaker drops the group identification and changes to a more considered use of imagery, rhyme, meter and metaphor, the rhetorical effect is significantly strengthened and lays down the foundation of a more intricate argument.

The line "Rock you in your face, stab your brain wit your nose bone." (7) is the first notable instance of multiple poetic devices. The imagery is particularly brutal, even despite the possibility of driving cartilage of the nose into the brain with a blow is largely a myth, although a popular one. Metrically this line is very singular. It is the first line in the song to have the first word of the sentence coincide with the first downbeat. This difference separates it from the previous lines and interrupts the flow of the rap. Also, notice that the previous line ends on the downbeat coinciding with "pose" (6) with no other words following. This pause is the first time that no syllables are pronounced on the upbeat and further isolates the proceeding sentence. Thirdly the next line "You all alone in these streets cousin." (8) begins not on the first downbeat of the sample but on the second, further isolating the previous line metrically from the beat. The line itself is also unique since it is the first that has all monosyllabic words. Furthermore, each of the four downbeats coincides with nouns or verbs have heavy vowel sounds: "Rock", "face", "brain", and "nose". The line is doubly end rhymed with the previous line by "nose" and the assonant "bone". By its rhythmic isolation from the other lines, and the solid, almost plodding word choice, this line is given particular focus. Generally in any metered verse, only the strongest statements and most declarative statements require these devices, and in terms of content they coincide with this image of dominance through violence.

Another example of this usage of meter and rhyme with imagery is in the lines "Your crew is/featherweight. My gunshot'll make you levitate." (20-21). The primary rhyme is between "featherweight" and "levitate". These words are both end rhymed, but the first syllables of each word, which are the primary stressed syllables, correspond with downbeats and the emphasis then becomes on a rarity in most western poetry--the front rhyme. These words are not just multi-syllabic rhymed pairs, but rather two sets of rhymes, front and end, that happen to be in two words, tying the two lines and two metaphors very closely. The first metaphor uses a boxing reference indicating the lightest weight class, and by association, alludes to the trifling or unimportant. This metaphor then heightens the second's image of "my gunshot'll make you levitate". A popular misconception on gunshot victims is that they are lifted off their feet from the force of impact. The previous "featherweight" adds the extra power and coherency the line Also, the word "levitate" connotes being suspended in air rather than flying back and "feather" adds to the airiness of this particular image. The image becomes slowed, suspended here, becoming a dynamic and, importantly, fixed mental picture--which I consider to be a primary goal of imagery and metaphor--through the employment of meter and rhyme.

The song has further examples of poetic constructions to give a beautiful vibrancy, if it can be called, to the extremely violent images. Think of the multiple images brought to mind in lines 13-14, "Cowards like you just get their whole body/laced up with bullet holes and such", and the transformation of experience in lines 29-31, "When the/slugs penetrate you feel a burning sensation, getting/closer to God in a tight situation" by the use the enjambment alone. However, rap, especially gangsta, is rife with equally powerful and brilliantly conceived metaphors. In "Shook Ones, Part II", the aggression and violence in the verse by Prodigy operates on a still higher level that separates it from the majority of lyricists "who wanna profile and pose".

The song does not only contain specific images of physical violence, but is fully interspersed with the references to speech, words and their definite rhetorical effects. Within the first lines the word "Infamous" serves not only as a reference to reputation--often conveyed by word--but also as a reference to the title, or label, of the album which contains the song. The line is followed by "you heard of us--official Queensbridge murderers" (ln 2-3). Again the power of words is displayed in "heard" and "official", defining authority without necessitating its direct exhibition. In the logic of this opening, reputation alone is almost enough to dissuade challenge.

This theme is extended further in the work. In lines 14-15, "Speak the/wrong words man and you will get touched" and in lines 17-19, "Your/simple words just don't move me. You're minor, we/major." The first quote makes the direct correlation between words and their consequences. The "wrong" statement is enough to instigate reprisal. Again, a trait of rap (it also can be interpreted as a weakness of the genre) is a hyper-awareness of threat and a need to answer challenges. The second line seems contrary to the first since the "simple words just don't move me" would imply that action is not warranted. However, this quote begins the new argument within the work that equates violent actions with words themselves. The construction of the two sentences in lines 17-19 create a parallel between "your simple words" and "me" and the designations of "minor" and "major". Here, the sentences suggest that the words, or rap, of the speaker serve as proxy for the speaker himself. Again, the speaker uses meter to highlight the difference. "Minor" and "major" are on downbeats, but "major" is emphasized since it falls on the first downbeat of the next measure. This simple poetic device is enough to symbolize the difference.

The equivalency of words with action develops further by another use of parallel construction, "Another nigga deceased, another story gets told" (23). The two parts of this phrase do not have a grammatically causal relationship, but a rhetorical and metrical one--the repeated use of "another" and the downbeats falling on the both subsequent nouns. Thus, this phrase becomes unsettling because it makes a direct association between killing and words used, as if they are interchangeable.

The final lines make this association completely explicit: "take these words home and think it though or the/next rhyme I write might be about you" (32-33). The many previous examples of violence actions have already been in "rhyme" and, with the rhetorical strategy of making words--specifically the usage of words--equivalent to the violence they contain, explicit violent images are, finally, no longer necessary.

This conclusion then adds immediate force to the following chorus. The "next rhyme" is ostensibly "Son they/shook cause ain't no such things as halfway/ crooks" (34-36). The chorus begins on the final upbeat of the last measure of the 32 bars of the verse and becomes rhythmically and thematically linked to the final line. This chorus is justly one of the most famous in rap and is referenced continually in this genre that reveres rhetorical and poetical skill.

This song is filled with violence and almost exultant brutality. Is it condemned to just be an exemplar of one of the three thematic pillars of gangsta rap--violence, materialism, and misogyny? Take another look at the final lines of the verse, "take these words home and think it through/or the next rhyme I write might be about you". For a rhetorical strategy of equating words with direct violence, the italicized words seem to refer more to reflection and, more importantly, craft. The lines serve as a warning, but also as something much more. "Words" and "rhyme" are, by definition, associative. The craft of the lyrics blurs the designation between reference and referent. Violence and words have been shown as equivalent; however this relationship works both ways.

The word "rhyme" is often used, in context, interchangeably with rap or poetry in general. The final two lines have multiple references to deliberation and thought, which is apparently contrary to direct action. Rhymes require at least two objects to exist since it is an associative construction. Writing rhymes requires time, skill, and craft--not only the immediate propensity to act. By threatening to write the "next rhyme", the speaker acknowledges the skill of writing verse and shows its potential ability to be as effective as action. If violence and rhetoric have been shown to be interchangeable in these lyrics, then words can become the proxy for violence and by extension, action. This relationship is more than a symbol/object association because both come to exist in this work on a equal level. Words become invested with immediate force and life. Violence becomes symbolic, but craft transforms its negative power and connotation into the sublime dynamism of art. Rap and Hip Hop as a whole are based primarily on the symbolic contest. The normally negative aspects of competition are marginalized because the craft of rap renders easy arguments, like open violence, moot and ineffective. Very few art forms have this crucible where artist, audience and critic are coeval and are so closely tied with the immediate performance of the artwork itself. This relationship highlights the inspiring capability of rap to elevate discourse to the level of art and action.

However, this elevation is brings its own dangers, equating words with action and vice versa. Listen carefully to the first line of the next verse by Havoc. Also, instead of considering both elevated, some consider both reduced--words as merely violent. "Shook Ones, Pt. II" was released in 1995. By 1997, both Tupac and Biggie were dead.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Excerpts from Finnegan's Wake

A complete analysis of
Finnegan's Wake would require a lifetime's worth of knowledge and effort, as it consumed all of Joyce's powers and creativity for two decades. However, it not necessary to understand all the sixty-odd languages used, the endless allusions and elusions and illusions, or even the basic workings of the narrative in order to enjoy the many aesthetic qualities of the book.

If you enjoy any sort poetry on a sound level alone, Joyce is a master poet, just on his ability to hear, combine, mutilate, mate, bowdlerize, satirize words. This weekly series will highlight fragments chosen at random because, as someone once told me, you can literally turn to any page of Finnegan's Wake and find something interesting and beautiful.
"Chuffy was a nangel then and his soard fleshed light like likening. Fools top! Singty, sangty, meekly loose, defendy nous from prowlabouts. Make a shine on the curst. Emen." (pg 222)
The first sentence already demonstrates the prolific amount of puns and portmanteaus. Also, in a contextual view, the combination of the sacred and profane. Just by shifting a letter, "a nangel" suggests a hard "g" sound, sounding close to angle or mongrel, or perhaps the name Nagel. There is an "Anne Nagel" silent actress. Perhaps Joyce was an avid moviegoer? Regardless, the notion of an "angel" is already removed from the divine both by this transposition, and the name Chuffy--something that is fat and swollen or rude and morose.

The next part of this sentence again combines the sacred and profane. "Soard" is an archaic spelling of "sward" which is defined either as green turf or bacon rinds, however it also can be seen as the "sword" of the angel, referencing Ezekiel 21, or Michael from Paradise Lost who brandishes the sword to protect Eden, or as "soar'd" as "in flight". "Fleshed" is a pun on "flashed" but again references the body or the worldly. "Likening" is a pun for "lightning" and it seems in context to be pronounced "like-ning", yet it also is its own word. The metaphor then becomes a beautiful inversion, comparing all the previous combinations of words; they liken or compare to themselves. So this sentence, the angel, his sword, flight, and lightning are melded with fat, flesh, rinds and turf and is concluded with a reference to its own power of comparison.

"Fools top" can be seen as "fool stop" like the previous transposition, or "fool's top" referencing the foolscap, a jester's hat or, notedly, printing paper. In the next sentence the sing-song quality is doubly referenced in "Singty, sangty" both on meter and context. Indeed almost anytime Joyce uses closely sounding pairs, the sentence uses poetic meter. And indeed, the two sentences beginning with "Fools..." are in perfect trochees. Remember to read Finnegan's Wake aloud! Also,
the "oo" sound is repeated and emphasized by appearing on only stressed syllables. Fools, loose, and nous share this assonance and, if you take the previous sentence's demonstration of Joyce's skill to subconsciously change our pronunciations, I would suggest "prowlabouts" would sound almost like a Scottish "prowlaboots". Another interesting wordplay is on the word "nous". Nous is the french pronoun for "we" and makes sense grammatically, but the repeated ending "s" sound of the other rhymed words and the child-song quality of the sentence (it is preceded by "defendy" in order to maintain meter) would suggest that this "s" would be pronounced as well. The french "nous" also affects "sangty"--"sang" being the french for "blood". The religious connotation then adds an extra level of punnery--sangty and sanctity.

The final sentences continue the rending and recombining of language and by extension, religion. Joyce, again, plays with puns and our subconscious idea of what is "correct". "Makes a shine on the curst" is a manipulation of "make a sign of the cross". Indeed the latter phrase has become enough of a cliche to subconsciously inform our pronunciation and understanding of the former. "Curst" operates as the pun on "cross" and is an archaic spelling of "cursed". I think that Joyce here decides not to use the more closely sounding "curse" as a pun for "cross" because of the germane difference between a abstract curse and those cursed, the use of "soard" in the previous sentence (the abbreviated soar'd seems akin to curs'd grammatically and auditorially), and finally--amazingly--the final letter "t" in fact is the cross in miniature, thus giving an ending visual referent to the pun and removing doubt about the final mating together of Christianity and a blasphemous glee in the manipulation of language.

The final "Emen" punctuates the paragraph. As for meaning beyond the pun of "Amen" I leave the reader to decide. However, think of any limerick, and read the first sentence of the quote again, aloud.

Joyce, and Finnegan's Wake in particular, are open to multiple interpretations. This quality can be positive or negative, but the power of this work is that it can withstand the closest scrutiny and provide sublime moments on every page, even every sentence.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Woman in the Dunes

Woman in the Dunes
by Teshigahara addresses the complic
ity of a main character in his imprisonment. This imprisonment is either as the workings of fate or of society, but the critical distinction relies on the choices of the main character.

The film opens with a credit sequence that forces the viewer away from any easily recognizable setting. The extreme closeups of symbols and words with a repeated atonal sul ponticello motif playing the background establishes a foreign and de-localized tone. This effect is immediately paid off by the first shot--an extreme closeup of a pebble. By denying an easy point of reference in the beginning, this pebble can take on a sinister or alien appearance. It looks like the head of a dead ant or a malformed beetle. As the camera pulls back into a wider shot, the grains become general, and the quivering movement of the sand calls into mind insect eggs or larva.

These references to insects are especially important as we see the main character. Listed in the credits as Niki Jumpei, his profession as entomologist is frequently alluded to, but, tellingly, his name is never spoken. In the foreign landscape that is presented, almost anyone would be an outsider, but he is especially since he is carrying a large net, camera and collection jars. He is not of this place, and it is critical that he outside of this society and environment so that it is a separate world with which he will integrate. Metaphorically, this separation allows the film to represent the various ties and obligations that we choose or are imposed as we first interact and become part of our social networks.

In the film, the protagonist muses on these bonds, calling into account the "certificates we use to make sure of each other--contracts, licenses, ID cards, deeds registrations, carry permits, letters of consent, income statements...Men and women are slaves to their fear of being cheated. In turn they dream up new certificates to prove their innocence. No one can say where it will end." He thinks while sitting in a boat, beached and full of sand. This image is strikingly beautiful, aesthetically and symbolically, emphasizing his belief in the futility of these social contracts, and is referenced later when he rails against his fate comparing it to the futility of building a house upon the water.

The aesthetics of these opening shots establish the focus on the sensual immediately. The severity of the various landscapes and the extreme closeups of the geometrically perfect insects are examples of the power of black and white cinematography. The high contrast and the focus on texture are suited perfectly for black and white. The constant focus on sand and its movement allow the various shots to become austere, beautiful, menacing, even erotic. However, the physical sensation of sand, its omnipresence in all interactions, is continually reinforced so that we are constantly aware of the body.

And the body is the first tie the main character has to his new situation. He is tricked into helping a widow shovel sand daily in order to preserve her home and subsequently keep other homes in the village from succumbing as well. Placing a home in the middle of collapsing sandpit seem completely illogical, but a moment's thought could provide legions of similarly misguided projects.

After the initial attempts to escape his imprisonment fail, the entomologist binds the woman, stopping the shoveling of sand. The other villagers respond to this threat by withholding food and water. Rations are given only when the household loads sand to be hauled out of the pit by the other villagers. Interestingly, the villagers then only provide alcohol and cigarettes. As both characters suffer from the lack of water, the camera focuses more closely on their bodies. Sweat beads on their skin and sand is stuck to all parts of their body. The previous aesthetic choices emphasizing the physical are now used to highlight the human body itself. The first real acknowledgement of the woman's body occurs when he observes her sleeping naked. The scene is hypnotic and voyeuristic--her body at rest is rendered statuesque by a light dusting of sand.

The lack of water, and with the help of alcohol, finally drive the main character into a frenzy and he attempts to tear the house apart in order to build some method of escape. The woman forcibly stops him and in their tumbling he clutches her breast and then both become acutely aware of each other's body. The sensation of physical privations is now replaces with that of physical desire. These subsequent scenes are intensely erotic. The camera does not pull back; instead it draws closer, and it is lowered to the eye level of one who is lying down, showing hand splayed on back, toes gripped to the ground. Only the woman's face is occasionally shown, with an almost desperate expression, perhaps out of loneliness, or from a physical need for contact. The camera is so close, and the characters have no dialogue, forcing the body to become the primary focus.

Only after suffering from the lack of basic human needs and satisfying a basic human desire does he concede to his situation and play by the rules of his imprisonment. He accepts the terms and becomes part of this society, albeit unwillingly. He has one more escape attempt, but only learns that the bounds of his prison (or society) is larger than the house and sand pit.

After this breaking of his spirit, the movie moves forward in time to the point where he has abandoned his outsider clothes and follows his new role. His hope for escape now becomes mostly passive--that someone will rescue him from his fate. Indeed like a Stanford Prison experimentee, he has so identified with his new role that he accepts the authority of the other villagers. When first trying to escape he shouts that they "have no right to keep" him there. but now he pleads with them to be allowed to merely see the sea under supervision. His hope of escape is reduced to the symbolic viewing of the sea.

The villagers agree to let him out for a time, but only if he performs for them. At night they gather round the pit and request that he and the woman have sex for their viewing entertainment. The shock of this request is accentuated by the atavistic trappings of the event--the watchers are in masks lit by firelight, some dancing, some drumming. The man is desperate enough to surrender his dignity but the woman refuses. They struggle. Teshigahara changes the camera completely in these scenes of the man and woman since it is shot from distance and from above, as if we are watching along with the other villagers. The only closeups are now that of the masked faces. The physical is replaced by distance and performance. The previous emphasis on the body provides the approximation of touch; the visual representation of sex is the realm of the voyeur. Here the voyeurism of villagers (an easy analogy to the voyeurism of the audience of the film) expects the performance of the man. Like any story of a man and woman alone together expects them eventually to have sex. Yet the woman resists this particularly telling. She has previously stated that "if not for the sand no one would bother about me" and that it is her home and the graves of her husband and child that she works to preserve. She has an importance and definition within her social group. The man has no other role other than prisoner and, by proxy, performer, thus his acceptance of the terms of this exploitation is much easier.

By the end of the film, the man has come to an acceptance of his current role and fate. In his previous life as an entomologist he explains his desire to find rare insects because "getting my name in a book is at least something tangible". Contrast this statement with his previous musing on the role of certificates and their proof of "innocence". Ironically, his tangible goal in his previous life is to be published. Up until this point of the film, the main character has become more accepting of his role, but he has not yet found a purpose or reason to stay there. He asks rhetorically, "am I living to dig, or digging to live?", and by extension, asking the same for anyone perceiving their work as drudgery. Two events change his perception. One is that the woman is pregnant and is suffering from possibly an ectopic pregnancy. The other is that he inadvertently discovers a way to extract water that may help the wider community. His real emotional connection to the woman and his possible child give him new responsibilities. The discovery of water give him a wider and, importantly, a dignified role in this village.

The final test comes when the woman, suffering terribly, is taken by the villagers to get treatment. They leave a rope ladder leading into the pit, accidentally or maybe purposefully, that would allow the man to leave. He climbs up and it is not certain if he means to escape or wishes to see the sea. He goes to the beach and, like Doinel and Zampano, seeks answers from the vastness of the ocean.

Instead of escape, he returns to the pit and his water collection. The man has become increasingly tied to his new role. First he had to satisfy the basic need for food and water. Then he found a companion, first for sex, and then more as emotional and familial bonds developed. He was accepted into the group and given work. The final step was to find meaningful work and purpose. He rejected a last escape, and chose to remain. The evocative final scene reinforces this choice. As he looks into his bucket of collection water, he notices in the wavering reflection that a boy has appeared at the edge of the pit and is watching him. This boy could symbolize his unborn child or even the potential of other children in the village and the boy may remind him the real effects of his discovery. Also, the mute appearance of the boy allows the man time for self reflection. Unlike the other villagers who are adversarial or authoritative, the boy offers no critique, but he exists solely as observer and the man then views his situation from outside, indeed from the edge of the pit. This seeming objectivity is the final tie to his new life. The appearance of the boy gives him the impetus to stay.

The man has found sustenance, a home, a family, work, and purpose. These are what almost everyone strives to attain, and the gradual growth and acceptance into society as a whole is a key element of the bildungsroman. Is this a positive film then? The man has been adrift in the empty forms of society and is now grounded like the boat in the sand. Yet, it was not his initial choosing to be in his current situation. Teshigahara makes this point repeatedly by his many attempts to escape. He chooses to remain, but his choice is based on the almost comic image of him kneeling and staring into a bucket. Is he reduced then into a kind of madness or has he given up and compromised? I believe that this is Teshigahara's main point--the man's gradual transformation represents the integration into society that all individuals face. We are bounded by societal ties that that either can be imposed or can be completely unnoticed. Ultimately we still have the ability to choose our lot, but one choice is never explored by the main character. He could have refused the terms of his imprisonment until death. The noble sacrifice of self in order to preserve an ideal. However, the demands of the body and the developing relationship with the woman make this choice untenable, even narcissistic.

The final image of the film is that of a missing person's report and reveals the man's name for the first time. He has been missing seven years. Another document to explain the situation but to provide little context. The shot is superimposed over another shot of the sand, making both ephemeral. The proof of the man's existence is unknown, only a piece of paper remains. No other scene shows his success or failure or even survival in his new role. He may have found happiness and fulfillment. Here, Teshigahara presents the terms of our own acceptance into the world. The terms are not fully negative, but at the least require an immense amount of will to accept. We can either be purposeless and free, but adrift, or we may be happily grounded, but forgotten or marginalized. Either a house built upon the water or a boat beached on the sand.


The cockatrice is a mythical creature that can petrify with its gaze. Thus, it becomes an appropriate metaphor for the critic and the ossifying power of judgment. However, as in all mythology, there is the exception--like the weasel, the most robust art is able to withstand or even defy the eye of the cockatrice.