Category Archives: Americana

Expectation Breakers


Who would have thought that Harmony Korine’s candy-colored fleshfest “Spring Breakers” would be so unsatisfying?  But that seems to be the point.  While watching the movie I kept searching for ways to “make it work” but couldn’t.  Not as a bacchanal – I found the quick cuts clinical and unsexy.  Not as a gangster movie – James Franco was more clown than crime boss.  Not as a parody – it’s too dreamlike and not funny enough. Not even as Korine’s standard detached documentary – the characters have no depth, there are no real connections.

“Julien Donkey-Boy”, a previous Korine film also featuring dysfunctional weirdos,  offers moments of real emotional connection.  There’s a touching scene where Chloe Sevigny is pretending to channel the deceased mother of Julien (Ewen Bremner).   But in “Spring Breakers” everything is detached and suspect, you can never quite believe what is happening onscreen.  Would four naive-seeming co-eds don ski masks and rob a restaurant with squirtguns and a mallet?  Would they exalt afterwards?

Throughout the film Korine has you asking such questions.  Every time you think the film is hewing to a narrative type (coming-of-age, redemption, documentary) you are thrown off base.  So James Franco’s “Alien” character initially seems ridiculous, then briefly menacing.  The next time you see him he’s jumping up and down on a bed while holding on to two machine guns saying “Look at my shit!” in a very non-menacing, non-gangster way.  This is not an organic change, it’s just an inconsistency.

Motion in this movie is created by the scrambling of these filmic conventions, rather than through character development.  This feels unsatisfying, and throws into relief the tacit agreement we ordinarily make with films: a willingness to trade the enjoyment that comes from having unspoken conventions met – for example the revenge narrative – in exchange for accepting poor writing, no semblance of real life, and a conventional, cowardly point-of-view.

Other disruptive films, for some reason I think of atmospheric French films, simply deny the viewer the usual pleasurable sign-posts.  Spring Breakers shows them in brightly-colored glory, only to have them fade and blur in close-up.



Down the River: The De-Evolution of Boy Scout Handbooks












I’ve always admired the austerity and simplicity of the 8th edition of the Boy Scout Handbook (1972-76), which I read during my harrowing time in the Scouts.  The subtle greens and no-nonsense font complement the inside illustrations, which are impressionistic line drawings:








There is a sophistication that works nicely with the simplicity of the Handbook’s messages: Be a good person.  Be a good citizen.  And the artistry of the  drawings – check out the tension lines on the boy’s pants above, how they meander outside border –  suggest a respect for the (young) reader’s imagination.  There’s a purposeful ambiguity at times: is the boy above Asian or White?  Hispanic?

Although I had a mostly-negative experience with Scouting, my Scoutmasters quit the troop and we disbanded, I continue to enjoy the magical aspirational quality that started with Baden-Powell.  The 8th edition captures this wonderfully.   The design style and artwork tell the reader “This is how things could be.” rather than “This is how things are.”   To any child growing up in the 70’s it was very apparent that the simple wholesome life portrayed by Scouting was at direct odds with the zeitgeist, which was suffused not only with the collapse of traditional values, but also with the collapse of 60’s idealism, which was an alternative set of values whose demise was particularly painful to youth due to its greater respect for children. I can remember when I very young, having “hippies” bending down to speak to me as if I were a person with an opinion, something the “straight” adults rarely did.

What a treat then, to be offered a world that both traditional values and alternative design.  And with a philosophy that looked hopefully to the future:









And in berets no less.  Yet never resorting to comic-book exaggeration, instead offering a reassuring adult sensibility.


Today’s Handbook, in comparison, is a 4th of July Happy Meal that someone has dropped on the ground:












The first thing you notice is that almost half of the cover is taken up by the patriotic tableaux of a confused looking bald eagle in front of a pixelated American flag.  The eagle looks anxious, as if the inflatable boat is about to come crashing down upon its head.  The Scouts are unidentifiable as scouts, they could be any campers or just kids out on a rafting trip.

This cover reflects anxiety.  The action is down, not up to the stars.  The visual metaphor that today’s youth are being sent “down the river”, that there is no solid ground under them.  And the demographic reality is that they will be forced to prop up the aging population, with few benefits or social safety net of their own.  The eagle has good reason to be anxious.

The imagery is realistic, like a photograph.  It says “This is how things are.” which undermines the beautiful (and useful) fiction that the 8th Edition captured so tenderly and  knowingly.

For something from the WWII era, check out this illustration from my father’s Boy Scout Handbook:
















Here, the Scout, a Tenderfoot no less, is placed directly in the historical pantheon in between a Founding Father and an explorer.  It looks like an illustration from “Treasure Island”.   And although the collapse of civilization was a distinct possibility at the time, the tone is confident, the Scout’s identity secure.   As always though, I have to point out that the good old times were not so good for those who were different.   I doubt you will see many brown faces in these lovely drawings.

What then would a non de-evolutional edition of the current Boy Scout Handbook look like?   It’s a cliche, but today’s world is even more complex.  There is less direct disappointment than in the early 70s: you no longer see the flag-draped coffins on the evening news, there is no draft and no there are no protests.  Today’s youth are numb.

A solution would wake them up, and make use of the identity-strengthening archetypes, like the WWII edition did.   Another book from the 70’s that offered a way out from the turmoil was the “Whole Earth Catolog”.  It featured all sorts of interesting projects and facts that were clever and low-tech.   A new Scouting handbook would show kids ways to use their energy and resilience to turn reduced prospects for traditional prosperity into a positive rather than a negative.  You can see this with locavore and permaculture movements.  To get kids to turn away from the video game and build a lean-to is a daunting task.

I think a return to seriousness, as opposed to the current edition’s candy-apple style, might be a way of getting through to the younger generation.  A new type of handbook that would convey both “This is how things are” (Wake up!) and “This is how thing could be” (Use this for inspiration).   A darker, more brooding BSA Handbook is the only one that will be successful.


Midwestern Gothic

Around the time I got back from my trip down South. I heard David Lipsky interviewed on NPR. It’s embarrassing how little I listen to music in favor of talk radio on NPR. I come from a very verbal family, perhaps it reminds me of being a kid and the comforting feeling I would get hearing my parents talking downstairs when I was in bed not yet asleep.

Lipsky was speaking about his book “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself”, which is an annotated transcript of his road trip with David Foster Wallace in 1996, during the publicity tour for “Infinite Jest”. David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008 at age 46.

I admit to the twisted thinking pattern that committing suicide grants an artist emotional legitimacy. They are Sincere. This bona fide, and the fact that this was an account about the end of a road trip, prompted me to buy the book. Although I was grateful to be excited about reading something again, I found that the book’s insider literary focus obscured what I really wanted to know: how someone with a highly-attuned of a critical mind (David Foster Wallace) navigates his way through the meaninglessness of modern life.

David Foster Wallace himself points out, that having a writer interview another writer can make for an unrevealing article. Lipsky wants DFW to tell him how great it feels to be a famous writer. DFW doesn’t want to appear prideful so he hedges. Stalemate.

Does Wallace not want to jinx himself? Does he just want to appear more appealing? Or is he genuinely self-deprecating? That one extra question would have helped me enjoy the book more.

Lipsky otherwise is suprisingly aware and insightful. He notes that Wallace wants to impress him, but doesn’t want to be seen wanting to impress him. He notes that when Wallace’s dogs appear to like him, Wallace makes sure to comment on it – he flatters Lipsky via proxy.

I enjoyed the fact that Wallace, older than myself, considers himself a Gen-X’er, and I found it quaint that a major concern of his was T.V.-addiction. The road trip occurred in 1996, even given the times though, the idea of being concerned about watching too much t.v., watching until the 11 o’clock news comes on and then going through the Late Late Show, strikes me as kindly and nostalgic, especially compared to the massive internet addiction almost every person I come into contact now has.

After I finished “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself”, I went out and bought “Infinite Jest” which I’ve just started. A few times in being interviewed, DFW emphasizes that he is asking the reader to do work, for which she will be rewarded later. That doing these sort of “adult” difficult things will add meaning to one’s life in oursuperficial culture.

Dave Eggers writes the glowing preface to “Infinite Jest” and although I haven’t finished the book, I’m feeling like theres a sloppiness to DFW’s writing that I also found in “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” Wallace at times writes dialog that sounds like it’s coming directly from his head:

( Dean of Athletics speaking about a tennis scholarship prospect)

“Just so, Chuck, and that according to Chuck here Hal has already justified his seed, he’s reached the seminfinals as of this morning’s apparently impressive win, and that he’ll be playing out at the Center again tomorrow, against the winner of the quarterfinal game tonight, and so will be playing tomorrow at I believe scheduled for 0830.” (p.2 “Infinite Jest”).

If this is page 2 I’m not sure I can make it to page 1,079. This is supposed to be one person talking to another, I’m bothered by “this morning’s apparently impressive win” and also by the whimsical “Just so”. Would you vouch for someone by saying their win was “apparently impressive”? It’s like a movie director said “give me an eccentric coach, now TURN ON THE FAUCET”.

Lipsky, when he errs, goes more for a Kerouac-style jumble:

“Wipers making weird rubbing noise because ice is caught underneath the blades; a frozen, Midwestern-style problem.” (p. 90 “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself”).

This is not a frozen problem. It’s a real problem. And I’m sure it happens in Alaska and Siberia and the Urals. But it’s fun to decorate the narrative with that glob of paint.

I’m nitpicking here, but it’s in order to show that there is a forced “Midwestern” “average guy” sensibility being promoted that doesn’t reflect the realities of what I experienced growing up in the Midwest. And I think it does a disservice to a class of people I call “Midwestern Gothic”: guys – they are almost always men – I grew up with, now in middle-age, with an artistic sensibility, who either didn’t have the talent or the connections to become successful in the art or publishing worlds.

These are the art-school aspirants who end up staying in the Midwest and EATING IT, working low-paying jobs and making the kind of impoverished contract with modern life that strikes terror into those who have achieved greater professional success. They often are single, due to both an introspective nature and not making enough income to attract and keep a wife. They have opted-out. Society considers them to be losers. Interestingly many have cats.

Nobody cares about these guys and I wish writers like Eggars and Wallace had left some of the acrobatics aside in order to explore what it would mean to get up everyday and NOT BE SPECIAL.

In “A Heartbreaking Work…” Dave Eggars lauds brother Toph as “the greatest kid ever” at length, he describes trying to get onto MTV’s “Real World” to gain celebrity. Is the “extraordinaryism”, for lack of a better word, of his characters meant to be legitimized by the tragic circumstances they endure? That sounds like a Lifetime movie concept to me, and has little to do with a real life “loser” going to the dollar store to pick up some cat food after working his shift at the copy shop, hoping he’ll have the energy to do some digital art after dinner.

Do people just not want to read mundane stuff like this? DFW quotes Updike who says that if you write the truth and possess powers of observation, anything can become compelling. The sad fact for me here is that, once again, I am more interested in the truth of the writer’s life, than in their writing. I hope this changes as I get through the book, and I’m aware that the mundane world of an IRS office was the setting of DFW’s subsequent effort.

Sometimes not a great notion


Last night I caught about 30 seconds of Ken Burn’s latest paean: “The National Parks”, which was quite enough.  I already feel as though I’ve watched the entire series. “The National Parks are the enduring treasure of the great experiment that IS the United States….”  Substitute “Jazz”, “Baseball”, “The Brooklyn Bridge”,  “The Statue of Liberty”, the works of “Mark Twain”, buildings by “Frank Lloyd Wright”, the legacy of “Lewis and Clark”, “Susan B. Anthony”, “The West”, the experience of being black in America…

It’s not that these subjects aren’t fascinating and historically significant, it’s that he’s putting them all through the same Ken Burns sausage-grinder.  I loved watching this treament perhaps twice: Civil War, Lewis and Clark – great stuff, tear in my eye.  But not everything can be THE sepia-toned emblem of the great notion/dream/experiment that is America.

What next?  Pike’s Peak, Amelia Earhart, the automobile, Father Coughlin, Vaudeville, Vietnam, Kennedy, Television, Robber Barons, Country Music, Los Angeles, Newspapers.  What is this guy going to homogenize next? I don’t want to see these archived in his gimbel-eyed  exhausted style.  They deserve a fresh attack.

To me there is something about the narrative style of documentaries that invites corruption, after all, they are always “telling” you something, and leaving other things out.  If somehow a documentarian could focus not on substantive events, but on patterns, might this be more revealing?

I remember watching David Frosts’ interview with Nixon, where Nixon utters a heartfelt mea culpa, saying that he had let the country down. He seemed genuinely aggrieved.  I can’t imagine this coming from a modern politician (“Were errors in judgment made, yes…”)   Assume Nixon is neither good nor bad, and I know this is hard to do,  then you are free to focus on his ambition, and the way it manifested itself compared to a dessicated clinician like Barack Obama.  Can Nixon’s way of doing it not succeed today?  Why not?  These are  interesting questions to me and are not dependent on the question of right and wrong.

There was another quote from the “National Parks” documentary:  “50 years from now my grandaughter can visit this place and it will look to her just like it looks to me.”    I think Ken Burn’s wants us to feel that we are dots on a timeline of an immutable “American” (thus special) narrative.  While this is comforting and makes us feel kinship with historical figures, I don’t buy it, with history, things are never as they seem.  Burn’s intellectual contribution is fading and curling at the edges.