Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Presence or Testimony

I am embarrassed to admit that I had a rather one-note, reductive reading of Piers Moore Ede's Honey and Dust. That reading might be summed up as "What about the women?" In his celebration of honey and, by extension, traditional culture, the lack we may feel as city dwellers is part of the destruction we wreak upon traditional culture without appreciation for its natural values and balance.

That his experience of these cultures was often mediated by a male guide similar to Moore Ede in age and often seemingly in inclination and included only the male (and relatively high status men) voice while women peeked around corners and made the food while the author droned on about natural ways of life at times made me want to shriek.

This boiling irritation is mostly personal. I have an unsatisfied taste to see things that I haven't and plenty of empty space in my currently jobless life to go and see them. I have a serious jones to see New York City from the a sidewalk park or a street corner in Manhattan, to see Chicago from an art museum window...heck, to see Austin from a taco truck somewhere in the city. The idea that it's easier for a guy to drop everything and take off is something of sore spot for me.

When the author speaks of clay being kneaded like a woman's breast in the hands of a potter, I wonder if he sees all those nameless women as a pack of Galateas waiting for the sculptor to carve away modernity and set them all back in their proper forms. He spends so much of the narrative pressed so deeply inside of himself, though, that this metaphor reading extends as much to him as it would to the nameless women he brushes past in telling his story.

Each guide and each forgotten way of keeping bees and searching for honey seems to offer the potential for a healthy mirror in which to look at who he (and we) could be. The scenes are beautiful and arresting. The book is a chronicle of the choice that witness can make a sort of presence out of the absence of the traveler. Even so, I can't help but feel discomfited by the absences that seemed inherent in the witness itself.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Summer Returns

My grandmother, once upon a time, was a nurse in Pennsylvania. After the death of her first husband, she supported herself and my mother there until she met and married my grandfather. She came south to Texas when my mother was a teenager with her second husband, a captain of a tankers out of Port Arthur, and lived in a small house in Port Arthur until, at my grandfather's retirement, they moved into a house down the street from my family.

Her story tumbles through me when our a/c blows a faint scent of vinegar heat beneath the coolness. Her Lake Jackson living room develops from this tang, the ironing board stiff before the great cabinet television while the iron clicks and slides in the dimness. My grandparents had purchased a house with few windows in the living room to counter the dark paneling and dark carpet. It was a flat cave for the TV. The rest of the house felt exposed by comparison.

In the living room, you could read in the one chair by the glass door (the only light in the room, save the TV, during the day) or dump the old plastic toys out across the white marble of the coffee table and arrange endless iterations of cooking and cleaning for the molded families while grandmother performed endless examples of the same. Iron or wash or fold or cook or just sit and watch the over-shampooed soap stars glitter through whatever brittle venality kept you moving and shaking your head.

Those toys were generations removed from my experience. The men wore hats and smoked pipes. The women wore kerchiefs and kept baskets of eggs. One family was pressed into the same clothes as the Leave it to Beaver clan. Their material was soft, almost like rubber, and they were monochromatic: the farm family yellow, the suburban family and eerie pink flesh color, as if their skin included sweathers, bobby socks, and shoes.

Perhaps the heat in the garage and in the attic is pressing that smell through the vents. The summer is encouraging me to remember today my former places of refuge. Until now, I had only had intimations of threat.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Something That I Have Mislaid

I am racing through the stack of books beside the bed. Today I put down The Mays of Ventadorn and scooped up Stirring the Mud, pausing for a bit of coffee in between. Both books are discursive memoirs, both by writers, and both explore the idea of land reflecting through a writer's mind and becoming grammar and verse.

The traces of thought in Stirring have a more personal feel, with the writer deriving her ideas and building an alien imagination out of the ground of her present habitation. It is a vacation from my own imagination, tangled as it has become. As I read, I rub the cover of the book with each shift and slide the paper cover in to mark my place as I pause to let my eyes rest.

Distracted from the bones of a short story, the text before me wavers and fades. I am still reading, but softly. There is another image growing in the verge of my own imagination, a comfortable closet of a Half-Price Books, the one down near the city where we used to shop before we moved out here in the suburbs that have soaked all the way out the highways to beyond the airport. Did this book come from that bookstore?

We shopped there because it was cheap but also because it was homey, wooden shelves, alcoves, and sections that spilled out into smaller shelves along the walls. It was a place that had toys and blankets along the top of the shelves. Once, it also had a book on weaving dog fur. I should have bought it; I carried it a bit, then left it behind.

Because of that one book, Wynn is also here, snoozing at the edge of my thoughts. He was a American Eskimo, standard size at 40 lbs. and a master at producing free-roaming fur clumps. I could have a scarf of his softness against my neck, had I the wit to realize that a random find is a treasure only once lost.

It was easy to say to myself that I neither spin nor knit and wouldn't have learned just becuase of a fuzzy dog. That first small denial, the refusal to be curious, was enough to bar the way. Soon enough we had moved from that area, north as I had once fervently hoped. We live within an easy drive of two Half-Price Books, neither of which feel like welcoming hideouts for interesting books and my curiousity is blunt anyway, having been dashed again and again after the same shallow interests and short travels.

Wynn isn't curled around my neck and the words, into which I had relaxed, have scattered into silence like the frogs in Stirring the Mud. I will finish it soon and slip the paper covers back into their proper places. I will not think about the casual ease of the words to turn the mould of my own stagnant imagination. There are other books on the shelves.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Conan Rant, Day 2

Driving to lunch this afternoon, we passed through the haze of the wildfires to our north. This morning, the news was carrying a story about asking random people to evacuate their house in 5 minutes and finding out if they could. A few days our governor was cheered by a bloodthirsty crowd for his vicious idea of justice. These are things that I cannot handle today.

Instead, I am posting a second day of Conan ranting. Let me start by saying again that I think the writers and the director and producers of the movie that we saw fundamentally didn't understand what they were making. In their hands, they were making a simple, bloody story in the form of so many other stories recently come through the multiplex. They were making a dress in a particular shade cut to the same specifications as 15,000 other dresses in slightly different shades--instead of one of yellow spandex or one with glowing green lines or one with a nifty cowl, this one is fur and leather, accessorized with a missing sword that must be eeeeeaaaaarrrrnnned. Work it, hero.

Grrrr. Each twist of the story was a simple wooden mallet on a single xylophone note. Tough childhood--ding! Advanced skills from an early age--ding! Immature understanding of heroism--ding! Geas of dead parent--ding! Some willful child is banging on the notes, but the resonance is missing.

What if Conan had emerged, not the toughest child in what appeared to be a rather fearful bunch, but the best among an already tough (not bigger, but brave, skillful, and deadly) group? What if we'd seen none of this as fact, but received it as rumor throughout a movie that involved a quest that was motivated by a warrior with his own purpose? Would it have mattered if none of the childhood stuff were true if the character himself had been strong and interesting from the start?

It seemed to me that most of what we saw in city settings in the movie were cages of people (or taverns, but that's not to the point) being held. If I thought that this was some kind of metaphor for the way people are hemmed in by civilization rather than growing up free and muscular in the wild, it might be interesting. As set dressing, it was boring. The cities themselves were rarely interesting or evocative. Most of the action seemed to take place in dark, undistinguished caves. Again, unevocative. This is world riddled with sorcery and myth and one matte painting of a skull cave should not be the extent of the wonder and/or horror portrayed.

The flat tone extended to the female monk. What kind of monks sit around having the equivalent of slumber party visions? What is the purpose of becoming a monk? Why didn't this character have any spark at all? Random sidekick/love interest--ding! The dialogue between them often sounded as if they were in different movies.

When a familiar character misses his or her chance at the movies, the books remain. Movies can reopen the wonder of the characters, though, and they are one thing that I can share with my husband, whose tastes and mine diverge rapidly despite beginning in similar genres. I hate having to suffer through crap and then hear him say, yeah, I enjoyed it because I wasn't expecting anything. We should expect something. I expect to be entertained.

Perhaps tomorrow will be pleasant (I'll swear off the news for the weekend) and we can all move on from Conan The Deafening.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Legend of Our Legend Precedes Us

The AMC theater in Deerbrook has, like the mall itself, little shine left for adult eyes. Their sound system is painfully overpowered and last night blasted our viewing of Conan into shards of boredom and pain.

Perhaps my reaction to the movie was influenced by the theater. It was a standard beginning--special child acting special--and had for me no emotional heft (save for the birth scene). Is this a flesh and blood character or a mythic hero? The voiceover hints at myth but the scenes are so plainly shot that no aura of myth adheres.

Why not make of this opening sequence a series of tales told about the birth of this "Conan" who is harrying the slavers and minor despots around Cimmeria (or Land X, whatever). Are these stories real? We as the audience
don't need to know. Instead of bloody "realism," we could have jumped in to the "quest that made his name known across the world" or some such thing.

In this way, the thrust of the story wouldn't be on avenging his father--that's a single story that's fine, but doesn't put you on the path to future glory (and sequels)--it would be on giving energy to a mythic character that would carry us forward into his story and leave us wanting to see more.

This is the problem/challenge for so many recent superhero movies. Becoming a hero doesn't necessarily make for an interesting story and 50 stories of "special kids becoming special" is just dull. Did we have to see how Indiana Jones got through his thesis while battling for treasure before we understood his character? Heck no! Did the first Batman films slavishly insist on showing us the story of Batman's transformation from the beginning? Again, no. The Hulk (the second movie) didn't waste too much time on this either.

When you make me wait to see Conan as an adult and you give him only one purpose in life (looking for his father's killer) and then solve that arc, you kill the story. I don't need to know how he became a barbarian and neither does anyone else who paid to see the movie. The poster sums it up: Conan is a barbarian. There will be sword fighting in this movie. What else do you need? Oh, yeah. Why we should care.

There were a few flashes in the movie of wonder and myth, but they didn't come until well after the halfway point. These are the elements that could expand the story from a character's quest to something larger. At the end, I didn't wonder where he was going next (maybe why he was leaving--what's left for him to do at this point?). The story ended.

The truncated story is a shame because epic fantasy can make for a fun movie and the actor who played Conan was fun to watch. It's too bad that his director/scriptwriter/etc. didn't give him a whole movie.