Hmm, what to read next? I just finished Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians and now I need to decide which book comes next. Like most readers I have a queue that gets filled up over time with future endeavors. Unlike most Readers I chip away at mine with only a casual fingertip. I read a little now and then. Traveling is best but I don't have a normal hands-free commute. I used to be better about reading and writing on Sunday's but that's passed as my weeks have edged into my weekends.
I've got the Ellis and PKD I haven't finished... but I'm tempted to let those age: I enjoy them so much that I prefer to not waste them like an adolescent furiously masturbating in the few hours before her parents return from the movies. I sip their writing. There's some Bukowski... Eggers, Calvino. The non-fiction novel. The surrealist short story. Mmm.
I also use a lot of nonfiction to fill out my reading. I especially like it when I can take an author who's fiction I like (Murakami Norwegian Wood) and have them transposed into nonfiction (Underground, about the Aum Sarin gas attacks). I love the juxtaposition. It's a great time to be alive: to know these times where criticism and the art can feed back on each other in a self-sustaining loop. I'd like to thank the French for this; I'll give them the credit because a personal favorite is the edge where film and film criticism cross edges. There's something about film... maybe its the editing process... that makes/attracts certain creators to discuss it endlessly. If they aren't making it, they are talking about it. Martin Scorsese is such a pleasure because he's Martin Scorsese- director ('cuz he makes the best fucking films, he makes the best fucking films) and Martin Scorsese- film historian. His documentaries on American and Italian cinema are brilliant documents... Scorsese inserts himself and guides us through his own personal voyage through cinema. It's the impassioned subjective: not saying what he thinks it is important to all people but arguing only for the reason's why it is important to him. Probably one of my favorite books is Kurosawa's Something Like an Autobiography because it speaks the same way: it is lucid, personal, insightful and unqualified. He hides things and tells you why. He is overcome with images and can't explain it. He just lays out what he has and hopes that those words can explain them.
This school of critique we can thank the French for: Bazin, Cahiers du Cinema and the like. When the rest of the world was moving from just analysis of literature and drama, gangs of upstarts in the 50's began to look at this evolving art form of the moving picture. They began to develop theories and syntaxes, crafting a way to discuss movies as more than just empty entertainment. Film became something for the intellect. And from that we can trace a direct line to Pauline Kael and Ebert and the rest.
My favorite of that generation was Francois Truffaut... and not because of his movies. I must say I have no endless adore for his movies. 400 Blows seems to be one of those "you had to be there" moments. I respect the crosspollinating splash of Shoot the Piano Player but I can't say I'm his biggest fan. What truly attracts me to Truffaut is how he too bound himself to the art and became fused with it.
For Christmas my Dad got me Truffaut's The Films in my Life, a collection of essays on films, genres and directors he edited together. Reading through the first few dozen pages I remembered what made me love Truffaut while being so indifferent to so many of the other French vanguard thinkers. From the beginning his films were personal: if not autobiographical than dogeared with his own lifelong experience with movies. He was brash and combative. This made him unbelievably quotable. And yet none of his venom came out of insecurity. Because of that you never get the feeling of him being a villain. At worst he seemed Quixotic.
Truffaut loved Hitchcock almost to a fault. My friend Andy, any time I bring up Truffaut, will mention how he can only read so much about how great Hitchcock is.
Truffaut is usually considered a film intellectual and held to the breast by many elitists... but then he appeared in Close Encounters of the Third Kind as one of the lead scientists. Talking about movies it would only be a matter of time until he would bring up his childhood, going to the movies and being astounded. He never once seemed to lose that latent joy we all came into movies with. That years after crafting delft and "important" cinema that he would want to take part in a large studio blockbuster with the hottest director in Hollywood must have thrown some people off. But to know Truffaut is to know it makes perfect sense: what better way to fulfill the childhood love of these glorious Hollywood extravaganzas than to appear in one?
Of course the Hollywood of the 30's and 40's was not the commercial conglomerate that it had become in the 80's. For some it would be disappointing, an insult, or damning. But I think that it says more of the nature of intellect and the world than anything else. As I sat back remembering this the first thing I thought was "There's something very French about that" and then I laughed.
They say that the end of childhood is when you realize your parents are mortal. How you deal with that is what your adolescence is.
Most people when they become adolescents find their parents' humanity to be disgusting. You find out your Dad can't control everything. He has a boss. Mom drinks. Dad is weak. They shuffle, fail. And at sometime their limitations are exposed.
In some people this is a time of resentment and they feel rotten. Whatever simple morality and ethics they were taught and held to- are undercut like a sow hit at the knees with a hammer. Often it is easiest to still appreciate justice over inaction, ethical clarity over small selfishness. Our parents failed because they were not strong enough. Because they spoke and did not believe. Adolescents pledge: we will act were they did not. Say hello to your teenage socialists, reformers, young politicians and everyone else out there ready to make a mark on the world.
Adolescence ends then when you are struck by the realization you have become in part your parents. All of our young heroes go out and find the world to be hard, complicated. Every bright and hallowed thing they have casts a shadow in the sunlight. And they might not notice until one day when they see themselves from someone else's eyes. They get to see that they too bowed under gravity as they grew. That's when our adolescents become men and women. Your adulthood is all the remaining days you spend trying to reconcile the two.
Of course things aren't really that way: many people never become adults even though given chance and chance to do so. On a right and shitty day I'd say most. Children still become sick at their juvenile parents but never grow to be more than them. They are always suspended over the world, seeing it but never feeling its shape for themselves. Call it the nurturing womb of Suburbia. It's the flaw of a just civilization were we would rather rescue someone over and over than throw them to the wolves with finality. The damage is mitigated and some place deep in their brain their mistake this for immortality.
The lesser of this (but the most annoying because it is so damn common) is perpetual intellectual adolescence. The reason why it is so malignant is that it only takes simple intellectual exercises to never have to grow the fuck up. We can always reason selfishly- reason ourselves right out of a logical hole. We can undo our opponents as deceivers and take away their humanity. We can make it about everything but the question. We find then that it is simpler still to just ignore the inconsistencies and blissfully carry on.
When I was in High School I went to the local university as a part of a day they had there for HS journalism students from the area. I was glad to go: nothing like blowing off a day of classes and tooling about with a girl I like who would pen her eyes with eyeliner so she looked Egyptian, the girl who's surplus Army bag was covered in a dozen fascinating pins. It was a good time wasted on youth. While we were sitting there I was approached by this scraggly dude who handed me a flier announcing the next monthly meeting of the local Communist party. I looked at him askance. How old is he? Nearly forty? A beard? A beret? The olive drab? As much as he would deny it I knew it to be only fashion. Shit, kids I knew dressed like that. The last steel mills had shut down and left for China years ago then. In his eyes, he and I were probably no different. Psychologically we weren't: he had never left the protective sac of our suburbia. All the injustice he could cite, all the indignity he could spin up... what did it mean? He was the expression of his own fantasy. He could not realize the world as it was; how goddamn ridiculous he looked, how stupid he sounded.
I thought of him later too when reading about Sartre and Camus. Both French resisters and intellectuals they reacted to the Second World War by becoming Socialists. Not uncommon. This fed and grew from their writing and helped many a Baby Boomer get laid in college. The Soviets loved them and so they were feared by some on the West. It must have been very exciting, to be so polarizing. But then a curious thing happened: the Russians invaded Hungary to put down the rebellion there against the puppet regime.
So how did these two intellectuals, voices of social appeal respond? Usually an ethic is applied and a judgment found. That's what Camus did: the Hungarian suppression shocked and sickened him. It shattered his naive faith in a kind Socialist world order. He made appeals and when that fell on dumb ears he turned his back on his previous allies. He wrote Man in Revolt and at that moment Camus became an adult.
And Sartre? It's fascinating really, the amount of intellectual gymnastics he worked himself into. His assumption was in the rightness of his philosophy and out of that be bent and warped the rules until the world was made right again. He forgave the violence in Hungary and found blame in everyone but the Soviets. It would be hard to call them ethics- that implies standing for something (I like to call what Sartre did "Tail tucked by dog").
In greater and lesser forms most thinking seems to go. Where some seek truth as a vehicle to evolve their thinking, others hold on pathologically, for an endless domain of petty and all too human reasons. Ironically most are often in some way derived from a rejection of the human and the petty: they are achieving something by not accepting that part of their nature. As if it is somehow "giving in" or "giving up". Whatever it is a failure of the first order: the failure to empathize. The point were we lose our ability to see others in ourselves is the end of all functioning civilization.
You can see this in film criticism too. In The Films in my Life Truffaut talks about the wonder that overcame his generation when freed from the curtain of occupation and to see the outside world again for the first time. How they were enchanted by them: the dashing elegant musicals, the westerns where the spaces were from some place beyond the imagination... and they would go to the sky and on to forever! They would talk about these movies, talk about the people in them, people they had never met. And shared among them grew an idea of what these films represented: America.
Sure, if they thought about it, they might have agreed that what they saw and thought were probably only a fraction of the truth. That a part of it was myth. And even as seductive the myth was that they understood the humanity that crafted this artwork. But lurking in this too is an antipathy: the fiction of childhood fulfillment.
There is something very enthralling about the possibility of bulletproof men, places bigger- larger- purer than you've ever known. It haunts us the possibility that there is a place unlike this one: one that won't disappoint us.
Sadness then when it comes to the reality having to live up to this growing expectation... that some mortal must stand chest high with these gods these people have concocted.
I think that is the root of the French antagonism with America, beyond even just film. Every time you read an article about francophobia or its counterpart you get the appeals of "You have to understand- our people really do like Americans! We see all their movies! We buy all their clothes!" But have they really fallen in love with America? Or some company's marketing? The most powerful thing in the world is a blank space were everyone can paint their very own expectations.
And so who's fault is it that we can't live up to that? Who's fault when we didn't even know it to be? It's like joining a game at halftime and being admonished for not knowing the rules when no one told you what they were.
Truffaut had a great quote about American filmmakers and the Hollywood system: "We said that the American cinema pleases us, and its filmmakers are slaves; what if they were freed? And from the moment that they were freed, they made shitty films." It's funnier in context because the venom isn't directed at the Americans but at his fellow French critics. He seems to shake his head at the casual throwing around of Slavery; the sort of implied notion of a Gallic Moses bringing the Red Sea down on the gates of MGM.
These great filmmakers were magicians. To the critics they were exposed. Mere illusionists!
Truffaut too saw that these men who spun magic did nothing of the like. But like an adult he saw clearly: that it wasn't magic but stories they cast. And that was a more powerful and emancipating thing. Anyone could do it, participate, contribute. He would live his life, not pine for a world of spellcraft. That is a great thing.
Sadly a tumor took Truffaut's life. My dad and I were driving somewhere I don't remember. I can't remember what we were talking about. But he said "I wish that Truffaut was alive. I'd think he'd have something interesting to say about all of this."
Truffaut once said the greatest shame of dying would be not being able to read tomorrow's newspaper. Camus died early too. Automobile accident. Maybe it is somehow mystical: having a dead man you can project your thoughts on- instead of some crusty old man who can refute them.
It could be said the reverse is true as well: the shadow cast from that country's stylish cafes and art and the delectable tones of Flaubert. All weighed down by the horrific cliches and Jerry Lewis and Derrida. It would make you laugh: America and France answering each other's wonderful ads on Craigslist, meeting for the first time and being at once horribly disappointed. That sharp and instantly painful disappointment and we drift only further and further apart. But it appears the same as to see ourselves for the first time in a mirror with no soft lights and no distortion. To watch ourselves on video and hear our voices on answering machines. It's a horrible time to be alive. No one knows anyone. It is a shame.