Prose Roundup

Jack Sargeant, Naked Lens: Beat Cinema

(SoftSkull, 2009)

Jack Sargeant’s Naked Lens: Beat Cinema is a stimulating, informative book, which provides a careful depiction and reading of films that can be (sometimes loosely) associated with Beat writers as well as interviews with many principals in the making of those films, from Robert Frank and Ginsberg to Jonas Mekas.

I say “loosely,” because the only question the reader might have about this work is whether all the films profiled fit the category. Indeed, when it comes to discussing Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, in a presentation that testifies more to his honesty than his discretion, Sargeant gives more reasons for excluding it than including it. The problem with Smith is that he emphasized artifice and campy costuming while the author shows that the hallmark of most Beat films, from Pull My Daisy to The Flower Thief, was their emphasis on capturing moments of everyday, lived spontaneity, as, for instance, in the scene in Daisy when Corso, Ginsberg and others horse around, pretending to be cowboys. This cinematic emphasis matched a similar focus in Beat writing. The story (or myth) of Kerouac’s one-shot, uncorrected outpouring of prose that birthed On the Road is simply the most graphic example of this spontaneous exuberance.

To what degree this might have been a pose in relation to literature remains to be seen, but, as Sargeant insightfully shows, in film, and particularly in works such as Daisy that used a large technical crew, any improvisation had to be highly mediated through editing, rehearsal and other devices. Even the most minimally edited work, such as Wholly Communion, a record of a Beat reading in London, done by a single cameraman, Peter Whitehead, is a personal interpretation, with each reader given a very different framing by the filmmaker.

Remaining with the theme of naturalness, it should be said that one of the strongest and most original of Sargeant’s analyses is his discussion of Burroughs, who often seems attached to the other Beats through friendship but little else, since he didn’t share much with them in writing style or attitude. After all, how can a writer of stylized works of sci-fi, like The Soft Machine or The Wild Boys, be authentic?

Sargeant explains that Burroughs and the Beats are parts of the same equation. If the premier Beats sought a free naturalness both in writing and living, Burroughs pondered how society’s (often surreptitiously active) organs of control blotted out the possibility of acting impulsively, often by convincing individuals that their programmed moves (watching TV, shopping) are expressions of free will.

Not surprisingly, while the first attitude, the valuing of undiluted spontaneity, crops up in many American films, including, besides those mentioned, Cassavettes’s Shadows and Rooks’s Chappaqua, Burroughs’s beliefs are most fully expressed in the German Decoder, a narrative in which Muzak in a chain of burger joints is used for mind control, and only a handful of punks (musicians, not lowlifes) can save the world.

I’ve underplayed the interviews, which are an important component of the book, but suffice it to say they are always lively, resourceful and engaging, and so add another reason to put this volume in your library.

Jim Feast

Jeremy C. Shipp, Sheep and Wolves:Collected Stories

(Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2008)

Sheep and Wolves by Jeremy C. Shipp from Raw Dog Screaming Press.

I don’t know what the manifold narrator of the fictions in Jeremy Shipp’s collection Sheep and Wolves did, but he has incurred some very bad karma. That would be one explanation for the disjointed nightmares that propel each story. These slippery compositions each inhabit a different reality, sometimes from one paragraph to the next, but they bleed into one another in their detailed mayhem and in the voices of the hapless victims and perps who narrate them.

Looking for love in such wrong places as among the dismembered, the undead (rather, re-made), or along the blade of a carving knife, has rarely been rhapsodized so vividly. Whimsy this dark is unsettling and, in most of the stories, the only redemption lies in accepting an evil fate.

Getting your bearings in each new story is a key part of the game, but once you’re in, you hear the door lock. Each seems just long enough to let you into its parameters, and conceptually rich enough to suggest a larger world, but only a few let you into what else that world may have in store. The unvarying tension makes for an uneasy read, like a string of uncut Grimm’s Tales, with their casual brutality and suspendible logic. For all their surgical specificity, the horrors of these tales are so varied as to be almost random. In “American Sheep” we read:

I wake up to a room filled with (adjective) (noun). Disemboweled sheep.
Inside Room 9 there are (adjective) (noun).
Cannibalistic clowns.
But no, inside Room 9 there are actually dead bodies…

His intention seems to be to rattle his readers rather than grip them.

In the final story, “Flapjack,” we get butchered language that implies a world where some cultural perversity, call it footbinding on stilts, requires cosmetic amputation to be attractive. Maybe the teller’s tongue has been tampered with, but the pigeon-gibberish that comes out has a dreadful pull. It’s one of the few stories that goes beyond the claustrophobic personal realm to hint at a social critique.

All told, Shipp has generated an alarming science-fiction meteor shower that moves extreme fiction closer to the edge.

Kevin Riordan

John Adams, Hallelujah Junction

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008)

Why does anyone care about classical music anymore? Why should I subject myself to the jagged mirror worlds of Elliot Carter when I could listen instead to Rich Boy, whose formal innovations are less rigorously thought out, but whose jams are certainly more relevant to contemporary experience? There is an unspoken sense among the culturally inclined that New Music, for all its intellectual clout, is passé as an art form. And to be frank, I can think of no convincing argument against this, other than that it has always been so and that it’s just more so now. Popular folk idioms have always been more adaptable, more capable of reporting the news and more capable of reflecting the shimmering surface of culture. Classical, “composed” music isn’t a necessary fact of the social world like pop music, but, like poetry, is pretty much a frivolous art form, as non-utilitarian as it gets. But so are most strange and beautiful works of arts. Like poetry, composed music is the only art form that does what it does. It is a specialist’s field, but one in which the instinctual and the intellectual interweave in search of the beautiful and strange experiences that only sound can impart. The composer John Adams, in his entertaining, insightful, and unfortunately titled new memoir Hallelujah Junction, makes the case that classical music, while marginalized, remains singular in its capacity to impart those experiences.

Adams, whose most recent work, the opera Doctor Atomic, is currently being performed at the Met, has written a book, chock-full of fascinating anecdotes, that returns again and again to the roots of his creative process. He traces his artistic development from his youth as a clarinet prodigy in Concord, Vermont through his eventual blossoming into one of the major American composers of the late 20th century. After attending Harvard, he “drops out” and heads west, settling in Berkeley where he finds work as a forklift operator before landing a teaching job at the ramshackle San Francisco Conservatory of Music. This is where he begins to flourish, staging “happenings” based on John Cage’s theories and teaching baffled fourteen-year-old students aleatoric compositional techniques. This long apprenticeship of sorts allowed him to develop his unique musical language, a blend of ’70s minimalist techniques and an unabashedly Romantic, ironic approach. Tellingly, Adams titled one of his most richly harmonic works Harmonielehre, after Schoenberg’s manifesto, a sort of slap in the face to the schools of atonality. His writing reflects this. Moving casually between anecdote, autobiography and musical theory (for laymen), Adams displays the same good humor, intelligence and sensitivity that come through in his music.

Adams’ inclusive approach to his creative work is refreshing, especially in the field of classical music, so riddled with manifestos and pompous doctrinal statements. Wagner, Glenn Branca, Frank Zappa, and Steve Reich are all noted as important influences, indicating the composer’s Catholic taste and open-minded approach to music. Adams cites the outsider-turned-national-treasure Charles Ives as one of his primary influences, not only in terms of technical innovation, but more importantly, in terms of approach. Both Ives and Adams create works that are steeped in the contemporary as well as the traditional, in low as well as high culture. Both found ways of keeping a unique art form alive in a hostile environment. Hallelujah Junction is a testament to the continuing importance of composed music, if not to its relevance.

Clinton Krute

Jaime Lowe, Digging for Dirt: The Life and Death of ODB

(Faber & Faber, 2008)

Jaime Lowe’s Digging for Dirt: The Life and Death of ODB explores the internal struggles of rugged rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard (ODB; aka Russell Jones). It is a uniquely grassroots attempt at a typical music biography. Lowe’s articulate prose may be underappreciated in this genre, or even viewed as too exhaustive. Her adept use of language and well-researched information add an academic approach to a field that too often produces mass quantities of conventionally controversial reading.

This fan’s account of ODB’s life is an attempt to clarify some of the more disturbing facets of ODB’s reputation. As such, Lowe does not include a glossy photo section insert for fan-readers who have come to expect candid shots with celebrity friends, grainy photos of amateur shows in small venues, and early childhood snapshots. To her credit, Lowe resists the urge to appeal to that side of us which craves the dirt-dishing approach of gossip magazines and shows. The book appears somewhat disorganized, however, perhaps due in part to its intense offering of information in lengthy segments and its basic, no-frills format.

Lowe is perhaps too protective of ODB at times. In some circumstances, her defense of him borders on the absurd, though it does build a substantial case in support of the theory that ODB suffered from mental illness. Interviews with friends and family affirm this suspicion, as do references to the medical criteria of schizophrenia and other mental disorders.

Lowe has clearly done her homework. She took the time, effort—and in some cases, risks—to meet with those in ODB’s inner circle. They confirmed many of the rumors about him; his erratic behavior, his views about authority, etc. They also discussed his intelligence and dedication to his craft, sharing their fonder memories of his life. This book was written by a true admirer, not a posthumous bandwagon fan. The result is a serious attempt to set the record straight about a misunderstood record-maker.

Tatiaana L. Laine

Contributors

Jim Feast

Clinton Krute

Jim Feast

Kevin Riordan

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