Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Film Noir Fest

Before he'd been arrested, the only thing I knew about Declan was that he liked nice girls. That's what he said in class to his friends before the bell would ring and I'd have to shut them all up. Never thought too much of it. Some students like to boast that their players and Declan was one of those.

"Like 'em cellophane shrink-wrapped," he'd say, and his buddies would laugh like they were barking. The girls didn't really understand Declan. He seemed too shy by half to be as boastful as he was.

I was teaching a Film Studies unit in class, the focus that year being Film Noir -- you know: those dark films with a detective doing a voice-over through a big chunk of it. It was rolling that year; the students all loved it. Always nice when something goes well.

Declan had put his sites on a girl in my class. She was a giggly kid -- cute, sweet-natured. He liked to mouth to her across the room. I'd catch him and bust him down for it a bit, but he always took it in stride. He was older than her -- that I did know. That might've been the problem.

He wanted to take her out, he said, to his dad's place some weekend. His dad lived some twenty miles away, and from what I understood, wasn't home much. Declan wanted to do a film noir film fest-- just the two of them. The Big Sleep to start. Followed by Chinatown. Then Blade Runner. They'd finish the night with Sin City. I wouldn't mind doing that one myself.

She didn't think it was such a hot idea. So he asked again. No, she'd say. And he'd ask again.

Finally, he got down on her knees -- I saw him do this, right outside my door, out in the hall -- and begged.

Everybody talked about it that following Monday. But nobody seemed to know anything. The cops even came around and asked me. They were particularly curious about the film noir unit. I said, Isn't that something? Seems they fell into a film of their own. Wonder how that happened? The cops didn't get it.

I got a note in my mailbox the other day. It was from Declan. On it were the words to this song. I haven't told the cops yet. But check this out:

Nice girls, not one with a defect --
Cellophane shrink-wrapped, so correct --
Red dogs under illegal legs
She looks so good that he gets down and begs

She is watching the detectives
"Ooh, he's so cute"
Watching the detectives
When they shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot
They beat him up until the teardrops start
But he can't be wounded cuz he's got no heart

Long shot of that jumping sign
Visible shivers running down my spine
Cut to baby taking off her clothes
Close up of the sign that says, "We never close"

You snatch a tune, you match a cigarette
She pulls your eyes out with a face like a magnet
I don't know how much more of this I can take
She's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake

You think you're alone, until you realize you're in it
Now fear is here to stay, love is here for a visit
They call it instant justice when it's past the legal limit
Someone's scratching at the door, I wonder who is it?
The detectives come to check if you belong to the parents
Who are ready to hear the worst about their daughter's disappearance
Though it nearly took a miracle to get you to stay
It only took my little fingers to blow you away

Just like watching the detectives --
Don't get cute --
Watching the detectives --
I get so angry when the teardrops start
But he can't be wounded cuz he's got no heart

Watching the detectives,
Watching the detectives

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

a Review of ON MORAL FICTION by John Gardner

Strong-willed, a bit Athenian in its language, and passionate, Gardner is arguing here more than anything else for art to uplift the spirit of its audience.

This seems to be an important stand to take when critically approaching literature. This book, I believe, is important for educators to study so as to more effectively lead their students in developing their critical thinking skills.

Moral judgments, I agree, should be made towards our literature -- and not, as Gardner makes clear, in some weary dogmatic fashion. He makes no bones about recognizing talent; he sees, for example, Pound as a gifted writer, even as he rejects the negative aspects inherent within Pound's work.

Is the book easy? No. The book is difficult and demands an incredible amount of focus. It is, however, worth the effort.

Interestingly, it also has had an effect on my view of some classics. _Lord of the Flies_, for example, I will now freely claim as destructive in its worldview. Do I think it still needs to be part of the high school canon? Of course. But primarily to get the students to develop their arguments for or against its nihilistic view of humanity.

An important work.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

a review of DEVILS by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

For me, the most fascinating thing about Devils by Dostoyevsky, are the power plays seen in many of the key relationships. Nothing is upfront, everything is subterfuge -- whether it's in Peter Stepanovich's manipulation of the governor's wife, Yulia Mikhailovna or Varvara Patrovna's often mean-spirited way of controlling the weak-willed but incredibly sweet-natured Stepan Trofimovich.

It's a huge novel. The Oxford Press softcover edition is 756 pages, and it requires some focus. It isn't a demanding novel, however, but a surprisingly snappy read. The story begins with an introduction of Stepan Trofimovich, the above-mentioned weak-willed character. A well-traveled, well-educated man, who gained some fame/notoriety early on because of some political lectures he had given early in his career, he came into the service of Varvara Patrovna, a matriarch in the town in which the novel is set, who basically held him fast to her with money and by holding over his head his impetuous, overwrought emotional letters of anger and regret with her. It's a frustrating relationship to watch. Stepan Trofimovich is essentially tied down with comforts to a lifestyle that in his early lectures he actually railed against. This wealthy widow even dresses him, choosing his wardrobe and making disparaging remarks when he strays from it. And he is an intelligent enough man to recognize it, referring to himself early in the novel as "an ordinary hanger-on -- just a parasite." This sense of self-hatred pervades and is explored through the first part of the novel.

It isn't until Peter Stepanovich Verkohvensky, Stepan Trofomivich's grown son, raised from an infant in a distant town, also educated and well-traveled, appears on the scene at the end of the first part of the novel, in a chapter titled "The Wise Serpent" does the story, already interesting and curious, kick into a higher gear.

In addition to Peter Stepanovich, Nikolai Vsevoldovich Stavrogin, Vavara Petrovna's son, also appears. We're introduced to him earlier, actually -- a willful, ill-mannered, strong, and handsome young man who shows no respect for behaving in a traditional fashion. He is also the most tragic figure, desperate for some strong moral guidance, but cynical to any who might offer and also considering himself throughout the story, completely unworthy.

Dostoyevesky's played with this notion before in Crime and Punishment. Stavrogin has done something horrible in his past, and this act has bred a self-hatred and cynicism towards the world that frees him to do whatever strikes him in the moment. It's what many people dream they wish they could do, but it has uprooted his spirit. His attitude towards family, religion, town, nation, any ideal whatsoever, is not present. He's an incredibly charismatic figure, but is ultimately tragic because he cannot connect with anything -- try as he might. Most of his over-the-top actions throughout the novel seems to be some attempt to wrest a sense of purpose from his life and from the world.

Peter Stepanovich attempts to behave in the same way -- but it isn't motivated by a deepfelt wish for a spiritual connection, but rather a vicious self-centeredness. It results in a coldly detached method of manipulation and deceit and eventually murder.

All but Peter Stepanovich seem to wish for connection, and most are manipulated by Peter Stepanovich by playing to their weaknesses or sins: Yulia Mikhailovna, for example, is easily controlled by her vanity, her wish to appear a particular way to the town, and -- it would seem ultimately -- to herself. She wants to matter.

That seems to be it. The novel is about characters hungering for a connection, characters who want to commit to something higher, but the atheism professed by a number of them, the rationalistic approach to living, or the weakness of will, the desire for comfort or control, keep them from it.

The delight of the story is also in the fact that it is actually a surprisingly funny novel. It gets dark towards the end -- very dark, actually -- and then is redeemed by Stepan Trofimovich's final quest, his ultimate break from the control of Varvara Patrovna and his connection with regular folk, most particularly a woman who sells bibles, a gracious, giving woman who he connects with because she simply and easily gives with no regard for herself.

A strong novel, written with humor and insight.