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Jacket 21 — February 2003   |   # 21  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

A Poet at (and of) the Movies

Nathaniel Tarn reviews

Castaways of the Image Planet, by Geoffrey O’Brien

Washington D.C.: Counterpoint, 2002. $26.00

Wishing to celebrate this very distinguished twentieth century ‘Art of Memory,’ I was inhibited at first by the notion that ‘this is not my subject’ — only to remember very quickly that the movies are everybody’s subject. It is possible, however, that Geoffrey O’Brien’s upbringing made them — together with a panoply of images from our time’s popular culture — into his subject more than anyone else’s. Again and again, the author’s childhood becomes an arena of nostalgia deepening into elegy, the place from which a  series of variations on the subject of hard past/ soft and frangible present can be generated.  
       O’Brien is a distinguished writer of poems; he is also a kind of poet laureate of moviedom: if we had any doubts about cinema being an art, O’Brien would resolve them; if, indeed, it were not an art, O’Brien’s writing would make it into one by sheer force of the poetic fiat. The book, in short, is beautifully written. The texts themselves are like experiencing a movie, waiting for the successive scenes to erupt.  But this author’s erudition is such that they are written as if the pieces were about the consensually accepted classics: any remaining sense of high/low culture here (with less importance ascribed to the latter) would evaporate under the gentle pressure of O’Brien’s encyclopedic view of  our time, his sympathy with it, his ability to find the valuable and educative in the apparently most worthless stuff, and above all the pervasive elegance with which he comments on every one of his topics.
       O’Brien lets us know at every turn of this book that things which do not appear to change as you look at them will at some point move radically into wholesale unfamiliarity, become hard to recognize as daily fare, become indeed our ‘history.’ O’Brien’s enemies, if there are any, include the ‘emphasis’ he finds in contemporary film criticism ‘on  semiotic codes and quantitative analysis’ tending ‘to reduce movie going to a rather impersonal experience’ and, more broadly, the enormous homogenization and impoverishment of language in TV culture and the ‘global triumph of showbiz as ultimate reality.’ (Some of us may wonder whether the academic sterilization of pleasure and the triumph of ‘showbiz’ are not in fact part of one dehumanizing phenomenon).
       Yet, even in some of the grossest phenomena (the televised ‘show trial’ of Bill Clinton) or the most lowbrow (The Republic of Seinfeld), he can discover aspects which redeem the product and make it valuable to us. And there are always the unforgiving ‘numbers:’ ‘Perhaps ten thousand people have not forgotten Cezanne’s apple, but a billion spectators will recall the cigarette lighter in (Hitchcock’s) Strangers on a Train.’ This quote I believe from Godard?

There are some twenty-eight pieces in the book written over a period of 16 years (1985–2001) for such periodicals as the New York Review of Books, The Village Voice, The New York Times, Film Comment, American Heritage, etc. Not one is without distinction. There are studies of individual actors; Welles’s definition of himself through metamorphosis and his ‘total absorption in technical invention’ as the only way open to such a personality; Brando’s art of acting ‘which could be read above all as an art of inducing unease;’ as a proposal of ‘a different way for men to be;’ as a myth ‘consonant with the more or less contemporary myths adhering to Jazz and Action Painting and Modern Dance and Coffee House Poetry’ — or Cary Grant, Dana Andrews, the Marx Brothers inter alia. The essay ‘Groucho and his Brothers’ showing the lone survival of Groucho whose ‘lot is total intelligence without an ounce of charity’ out of a comic art defined as ‘experimental science.... breathtaking because of a moment-by moment control and rapport that distills years of trial and error’, the brothers repeatedly saving themselves ‘by leaping from one declining medium to another’ — vaudeville, Broadway musical, movies, television...
       There are studies of directors: John Ford (two) for whom the world ‘amounted to everything that had just ceased to be the case’ and who ‘commemorated an extinction’ of a certain kind of joy in social participation — The Searchers being for O’Brien the movie of the century; Hitchcock (two) — one of them a poem about the poem Vertigo; Fritz Lang who showed that ‘spy stories are a century-long graphing of our psychic relation to ineluctable bureaucracy conceived alternately as protector and oppressor, invader or home team’; Preston Sturges who broke ‘every rule of movies by putting language at the center and making the whole film swirl around it.’ Add to this studies of Louis Feuillade, Michael Powell, Kubrik and Spielberg’s A.I., Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, etc. etc.
       There are studies of individual phenomena, ranging from the photographer Edward Curtis who ‘photographed his subjects as if they were already ghosts’ to Bing Crosby ‘the very incarnation of the middle of the road,’ in whom ‘the concept of leisure was woven into every aspect of his public image... as if he were enjoying himself on behalf of everybody else.’  And there are the studies which range across a broad field of concerns.
       Three are amazing in their rich width of presentation. One studies the interaction of geographical proximity, nostalgia, political pressures and inter-Asian reactions against globalism and multi-national production in the films of Mainland China; Hong Kong, Japan and Asia-in-Hollywood. Another re-visits the early days of Lumiere and the pioneers with thoughts on how the movies might have evolved: ‘They might, for one thing, have remained that short. The pleasures of the one-shot movie elicit a keen regret that they aren’t made anymore; it’s ironic that the simplest possible cinematic form should be out of bound to film-makers, that brevity should be the most forbidden of virtues.’
       And there is the essay on the films made out of Shakespeare plays in which we find the elegy for the richness of language I mentioned earlier; the inevitability of poetry in the films and what this does to the film’s reception and much else.
       Above all, that point of vantage in 2002 from which O’Brien looks back on a lifetime of gain as well as loss and on the discomfort, the dis-ease which in one form or another, and to whatever extent, afflicts everyone of us: ‘Shakespeare is the past, and the past is something we don’t quite know what to do with; we toy uncertainly with a millennial sense of impending drastic rupture, as if preparing to say goodbye to everything, even Shakepeare.’  
       I do not believe that I have even begun to do justice to the beauty of this book.  For sheer lucidity, critical savvy and compassionate wisdom, I can think of nothing in its class which comes near it, nothing for which one can be as grateful.

Jacket 21 — February 2003  Contents page
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