Thursday, February 26, 2009

Now here's a bookstore

All the books in his store, Fowler explains, are "books that fell between the cracks of history. Subjects you can't believe anyone would publish a book about."

There is Woman's Place in the Rural Economy, for instance, published in 1913 ("Some stylish lesbian will come in and buy it for her girlfriend and everyone will be happy," Fowler says); a 1983 copy of Erno Kunt's Folk Art In Hungarian Cemeteries; a 1952 Avon Cosmetics and Toiletries catalogue ("Smell it," he says, "that's macabre"); John Guthrie's Bizarre Ships of the Nineteenth Century; and the 1973 non-bestseller, Illustrated Guide to Natural Haircare.

These, of course, are the types of things many of us hunt in disorganized second-hand bookstores and thrift shops. Too many libraries are so aggressive about deaquisitioning (ie not being a library) that this stuff would be long gone, if indeed they ever had it. (I'm lucky in being able to use an old, well-funded library at a private university. Some of the stuff they have--particularly half-forgotten early 20th century fiction--is truly amazing.) In a way this store resembles the old Amok catalogs but with a bit more whimsy and life than dour industrial shuttervision.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Two artist documentaries

Two artist documentaries: a good one about a bad artist and a bad one about a good artist. Glib certainly but close enough.

The good film is In the Mirror of Maya Deren (Martina Kudl├ícek 2002). Deren certainly led an interesting life and this film follows her childhood in Russia, immigration to the U.S., excursions to Haiti, jaunts through the NYC avant-monde, dance and of course her films. Deren was one of those people who seemed to know everybody and be everywhere though of course that’s just PR. What isn’t an illusion is her films which as ground-breaking as they were at the time today are leaden and obvious. They’re sort of like reading Spenser or Bunyan - you need them for historical context but their aesthetic value has long passed by. In the Mirror helps pin down why. First Deren considered herself mainly a poet and that must be why her films have so little visual imagination - they are actually verbal images that have merely been filmed. (Cloaked figure with a mirror for a face, check.) Deren was not a person of the cinema, she was a person of words. And second she insisted on proper interpretations. Put another way, she wanted the films/images/poems to mean one thing and not something else - she lacked the openness of a real artist. (The DVD includes fragments of unfinished films that are of no interest whatsoever.) But even as a boring filmmaker Deren certainly is the subject of a not-boring film, not just because of her life but because the film traces the (or at least some) relations among life, art, ethnicity, cities, the usual fun stuff.

Much less interesting is In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger (Jessica Yu 2004) which attempts to bring Darger to a wider audience and to that end consistently dumbs down everything. Instead of simply showing Darger’s art Yu adds animation to it so that the figures move, not completely flexible like cartoon characters but still enough that she’s basically saying the art isn’t good enough on its own. (And if you’ve never had the chance to see a Darger in real life it’s like seeing a Pollock or Van Gogh the first time - reproductions don’t really prepare you for the experience.) Darger also left very little in the way of biography or documentation (well other than his massive pieces) so the film fills out with info about Chicago though it’s not at all clear this is even remotely relevant. Darger lived so much in his own world that his physical location seems unlikely to have affected his work. And the film just very briefly touches on a topic that I think occurs to anybody who encounters him - was he sane? Darger never hurt anybody or acted bizarrely but could art like his have been made by anybody who wasn’t, well, seriously disturbed? In a way that doesn’t matter but In the Realms just glides over the entire topic. I suppose it’s better to have one inept, uncomprehending film about Darger than none at all but that’s a close call.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Save us from Poets

The second collection of Robert Haas’ “Poet’s Choice” columns for the Washington Post seemed like something of an ideal anthology so I decided to try another such, Edward Hirsch’s Poet’s Choice (2006). This is an altogether different experience. While Haas has an overly “sensitive” moment or two, Hirsch is so riddled with poetic stereotypes that he’s practically a parody. Hirsch is the kind of person who constantly lets you know how powerfully he was moved, how hard he has thought, how long he has read, how much better he is that you. Basically that POETRY is the only thing worth living for. And I can’t help but wonder every time he frequently praises a translation from any of a variety of languages - is he really fluent enough in Bulgarian to evaluate it? Odd that he never qualifies such praise but then he thinks criticism is simply finding synonyms for "good". The only reason I kept reading was to see if I can find any writer I didn’t know about but should have (and at least two: Wendy Cope and Tomaz Salamun).

So try not to giggle too much while skimming this short anthology of Hirsch’s lapses:

* “Poetry speaks with the greatest intensity against the effacement of individuals, the obliteration of communities, the destruction of nature. It tries to keep the world from ending by positing itself against oblivion.”

* “She has an extremely sarcastic surface, but one detects under that surface a lyrical and effusive imagination.”

* “A. Van Jordan combines the tragic poignancy of the blues with the cinematic sweep of a documentary in his deeply humane and highly imaginative second book[…].”

* “There was always in his work an element of catastrophism, a grave open-ended lucidity about the twentieth century. His work was initiated by the apocalyptic fires of history.”

* “There are poems that tremble with human presence, that put the suffering of a single human being squarely in front of us. Such poems have a dramatic simplicity that rivets our attention.” (And then he presents a poem about a young girl that’s basically lined prose and doesn’t even bother to provide anything specific - I’m not exaggerating by saying that your local newspaper has a headline with more “simplicity” and “suffering” than this poem.)

* “He is a maker of myths and texts, an observant explorer who delights in following and then leaving the ancient trail, taking the self into the wild, letting the wilderness into the open house of the self.”