Updike: A&P (1961)

After the Lord of the Flies epiphany, I went straight to Borders Books and Music and asked at the info desk for more books about “human nature” or “the human condition” or something like that. I remember they chuckled at me, handed me Catcher in the Rye, and suggested I continue down the path of post-war New Yorker writers, including John Updike. I remember sleeping on a sofa in Vermont, perhaps I had a fever, I’m not sure why else I’d be there, but in any case, my grandmother would wake me up every morning insisting I watch infomercials about calcium supplements, which I’m running out of time to take so I’d best start soon, she’d tell me. And I’d read Updike’s The Centaur. I wasn’t sure whether or not I appreciated it, but I finished it. It wasn’t until many years later that I decided I absolutely don’t like anything written by anyone born after 1910. And that’s final. Particularly John Updike, and Cheever, and Heller, and Vonnegut, and the whole lot of anyone born in the past hundred or so years. And that’s final! Mostly because it’s all the same: middle class kids and their middle class dreams and middle class lives. And what am I supposed to learn from that if I haven’t learned it already?

The funny thing about A&P is that you never quite get a grip on who the narrator is. The narrator sometimes speaks like a kid as written from someone who writes for the New Yorker, and sometimes speaks like a writer for the New Yorker.

But there were some lines I liked, and which made it all worthwhile for me, because I feel that same “Ah hah! Somebody gets it! I’m not the only one!” that I got from Catcher. 

…and a tall one, with black hair that hadn’t quite frizzed right, and one of these sunburns right across under the eyes, and a chin that was too long–you know, the kind of girl other girls think is very ‘striking’ and ‘attractive’ but never quite makes it, as they very well know, which is why they like her so much.

All this time, I wondered what girls were up to when they say stuff like that. You never hear guys say “oh, he’s handsome, what do you think of him?” to the girl next to him. Putting you on the spot, as a test, always looking for an excuse to feel badly about themselves or feel badly about your intentions. Human interaction is hard enough, and then there’s that shit too.

So, in conclusion:

You never know for sure how girls’ minds work (do you really think it’s a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?)

1. Notice how artfully Updike arranges details to set the story in a perfectly ordinary supermarket. What details stand out for you as particularly true to life? What does this close attention to detail contribute to the story? 

The details that stood out particularly to me were the ones that reminded me of how things have not changed. It was 1961, and yet the whole system of the American supermarket was entirely in place–you walk in, push your cart, select items on your own, bring them to a register lane at the front of the store, pay, depart. This isn’t how it was in the USSR in 1961. There are still “Special” bins. The line driving this home for me included a list of things we still buy, still need: cat and dog food, breakfast cereal, macaroni, rice, raisins, seasonings, spreads, spaghetti, soft drinks, crackers, and cookies. Except that I don’t know what spreads are. You’re reminded of the decade when he mentions the cheap albums, including “Tony Martin Sings” — reminding you of Tony Bennett and Dean Martin, Updike himself being too young to fight in World War II, just over the age that would have purchased these albums, so young enough to laugh at them. Anyway, the point is that all these details draw a portrait of a place that seems realistic to me, and, in its realism, leads me to accept the rest of the episode as real.

2. How fully does Updike draw the character of Sammy? What traits (admirable or otherwise) does Sammy show? Is he any less a hero for wanting the girls to notice his heroism? To what extent is he more thoroughly and fully portrayed than the doctor in “Godfather Death“?

Sammy is drawn real enough that we can guess the rest of his life. His parents are friends with the store’s owner, he writes like someone who writes for the New Yorker, the girls are going to the beach, I’ll assume this is Long Island or New Jersey or something, right down to Queenie buying herring snacks for her mother, which I take as more of an second-generation immigrant than WASPy sort of treat.

3. What part of the story seems like the exposition? Of what value to the story is the carefully detailed portrait of Queenie, the leader of the three girls?

4. As the story develops, do you detect any change in Sammy’s feelings toward the girls?

5. Where in “A&P” does the dramatic conflict become apparent? What moment in the story brings the crisis? What is the climax of the story?

I suppose the obvious answer is the paragraph that begins “Now here comes the sad part of the story.” And then the dramatic conflict becomes apparent at the line, “then everybody’s luck begins to run out,” at which point the owner begins scolding the girls for wearing bathing suits in the store. The climax is likely the point where the girls begin hurrying out and Sammy says he quits.

6. Why, exactly, does Sammy quit his job?

7. Does anything lead you to expect Sammy to make some gesture of sympathy for the three girls? What incident earlier in the story (before Sammy quits) seems a foreshadowing?

“Poor kids, I began to feel sorry for them, they couldn’t help it.”

8. What do you understand from the conclusion of the story? What does Sammy mean when he acknowledges “how hard the world was going to be…hereafter”?

9. What comment does Updike–through Sammy–make on supermarket society?

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film: Fellini: 8 1/2 (1963)

8MezzoObviously, I’ve been putting writing about this film on hold for nearly two weeks, and I’m still not particularly eager to think about it, but it must be done, and so that’s that.

I suppose a good starting point is Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. The turning point for me, when I stopped judging books on their entertainment value and began considering them as ways to learn about life and myself, it took place over a month or so when I was 15. I’m sorry to say it involved precisely the books one would expect, but the truth is that around here we simply don’t have access to the names or titles necessary to an education–that is, if we’re not introduced to it, we don’t know what the right questions are. So when Lord of the Flies brought me to my knees, the people at the bookstore told me I should read Catcher, and from there I was assigned Catch-22 for school. I was more than 200 pages into it before I realized that it was supposed to be funny, and that all the things I hadn’t understood were because I was trying to read it as an entirely serious novel. And then I read 17 books by Kurt Vonnegut–usually I read about one per day. Vonnegut is a starting point, and I don’t think he’s much more than that. Mother Night remains my favorite work of his because it doesn’t fall into the trap that is the decades long retelling, retelling, retelling of his philosophy on life. At some point it occurred to me that I was simply reading the same book repeatedly. And the worst thing one can do is to look for what’s next by moving forward in time–it’s not difficult to move from Vonnegut to any number of postmodern authors, I don’t know, Pynchon or Barthelme, or simply look for the strange, Bataille or Beckett or Sartre, but at some point, one will be shown a door to the past, and refusing to open it is a terrible mistake. Doing otherwise, I think, leads to a hell of circles and confusion, of endings and false beginnings, and no concept of gravity or greatness. Luke and I once argued, his position being that the aesthetic or creative value of all works of art must be judged against both what came before and what came after them. This is wrong, wrong, wrong.

That was a tangent, and I was hoping it would lead nicely into what I wanted to discuss, but it didn’t, and so it’s very likely that I’m not really going to discuss anything at all, but I have to write until I make some sort of point. Oh, well, here’s the comparison between Fellini and Heller: the opening to 8 1/2 chilling. During a traffic jam in which no cars are moving, the cars are close enough together that they cannot open their doors. It’s summer, everyone is very hot. In one of the cars, smoke begins pouring out of the dashboard, but the man cannot open his door, nor can he break open his windows,  all while people in other cars look on not with fear, but as if at least something entertaining is occurring. And then he dies. The face of the man is never shown, but the hat is the same hat worn by the protagonist, so things begin making sense. What’s difficult is that nobody tells you that this film contains many comic elements–what’s also difficult is that I don’t know how it gained such wide success when it seems to address a problem faced by a small minority of people: artists: writer’s block. I’m led to wonder if perhaps everyone else simply has to deal with life-block, since satisfaction in life seems best attained through creativity of one sort or another, whether that means painting or fucking. So, life-block.

Guido’s ‘dead father complains about the size of his tomb’ (‘8 1/2.’ John C. Stubbs. Journal of Aesthetic Education © 1975 University of Illinois Press. p97), there’s a ‘Mack Sennett’ chase scene on the beach, ‘Gloria’s phony intellectualism, Guido’s cowboylike flick of his hat in the harem sequence, Jacqueline Bonbon’s dance, and the hanging of the pessimistic critic, to name only a few examples.’

But what I think I got wrong is Fellini’s use of comic elements–rather, they happen to be comic caricatures amongst a great number of varied caricatures. Here:

1. The episodic nature of the film.

2. The ugly faces.

3. Lavishness.

4. Comic treatment of dreams/fantasies

5. Grotesques of the mundane

6. Characters’ own grandeur.

Briefly, Fellini got his start as an artist of caricatures, line drawings; he went on to study comedy and become a comedy/sitcom writer, and only then went on to directing. But I think his interest in caricatures strongly characterizes his treatment of nearly every subject he explores in this film.

1. The episodic nature of the film: Fellini summed up the film as one ‘”in which parts of the past and imaginary events are superimposed upon the present“‘ (ibid. p102). And while this is something that undoubtedly occurs at all points in our lives, almost constantly, it’s not something usually addressed nor dissected. In this case, it is, all three seamlessly given equal attention that, through the unnecessary weight is nothing short of caricature.

2. Ugly faces: when we watched the first half of Juliet of the Spirits, I was crushed to be so disgusted by a film whose soundtrack I’d so long loved. Indeed, one of the difficulties for me watching Fellini’s films are that I know the music of Nino Rota pretty damn well, so that I already have associations with each song, they are not connected to the films. But, to the point: he not only chooses ugly and obese people, he gives them many close-ups. John Waters also chooses ugly and obese people, but he does not treat them in the same way because he rather abuses them while Fellini lets them just exist so that he might study them.

3. Lavishness: in Juliet this is obvious because of the colors, so bright and offensive I can barely breathe. They’re somewhat unnatural, which is also the nature of technicolor (whose day had already come and gone, which makes me think it likely he chose technicolor precisely for this reason), but there are enough examples of technicolor subtlety that his decisions are another example of, indeed, caricature.

4. Comic treatment of dreams/fantasies: comic because it’s the sort of things we think about: while being criticized many people may imagine the death of the critic. In this film the fantasies are carried out, and then swept away just as quickly. The death of the critic is very, very funny, as a result. Guido’s own fantasized death is less funny, as in his shame he crawls beneath a table and shoots himself during a press conference. But it makes us chuckle because it’s also true. Perhaps dreams and fantasies are inherently caricatures because of the depth of focus we give them as they consume us, but, regardless, treatment of them in a film is uncommon, and thus…

5. Grotesques of the mundane: In the meantime, everything commonplace in the film becomes outlandishly grotesque, silence is softer, the elderly older, parties more frantic, time moving faster. Scenes occur in places that seem unreal yet familiar.

6. Characters’ own grandeur: the spaceship launch pad that has no known purpose, but will be used somehow, the columns, the sizes of all buildings and the extent to which Guido carries everything is simply beyond what’s necessary.

Okay, I’m completely done with this.

film: Truffaut: Jules et Jim (1962)

Jules et Jim. It’s too great for me to speak of. When I first saw it I was sitting in an uncomfortable chair at a desk in a basement. I thought “what’s so great about this film–there’s nothing special about it.” Perhaps you cannot recognize greatness in anything until you’ve witnessed the vastness of mediocrity surrounding it, which sometimes takes years. Perhaps that is why it took me so many years before I was struck by the genius of Lord of the Flies after being repeatedly unimpressed by Orwell’s work. I should have been impressed long before–but something finally struck me. Same with this–I think I needed to see many more films–i wonder that beauty and greatness are what we are born to expect as the norm–as babies it is all beauty and greatness we experience, and why should it be any different, why should we not continually be amazed by life? So amazing things are dull, naturally. But when life finally grows duller than that–then we can look at amazing works of art and see how they rise to our infant expectations of beauty and the sublime. Jules et Jim did it this time–I wanted to see it all, over and again, I wanted to be part of the film–of the filmmaking–of the cameras and the words and characters. It’s a beautiful film–when you can appreciate timing and movement space–which I did not before, and perhaps I do not to the extent I should now–it is a great wonder. I love it.

The Tempest

The idea of isolating a group of people on an island is a popular one for authors to express their views of human nature. Perhaps the most well-known examples are Lord of the Flies, by Golding, and the opposing Island, by Huxley. Though Shakespeare’s The Tempest does not especially debate the topic of the inherent good or bad in human nature, it certainly presents the seeds of later utopic and dystopic writings. The way Shakespeare does this is through his characters’ perception of the island. Many view it as a new beginning with possibilities for the lives they dream of leading. The Lord Adrian admires the island’s natural beauty, speaking of it as “of subtle, tender and delicate temperance” (II.i.41) and continuing that the “air breathes upon us here most sweetly” (II.i.45). Antonio, during the same scene, detests what Adrian adores, calling it “tawny” (II.i.47) and “perfumed by a fen” (II.i.47). The old Gonzalo sees possibilities for change and argues that if it were under his control; it would become a place of purity, leisure, and abundance without labor. In other words, a garden of Eden. Caliban sees the island as his home, the place he has always lived and on which he would like to reside in peace (III.ii.40); and Ferdinand would like to make the island his home (IV.i.130). Finally, the butler Stephano would like to take the island over by killing Prospero and becoming king. Considering the characters’ opinions about the island and its fate, if Shakespeare had human nature in mind when he wrote this, what might be his own views?