27 March 2012

What Poem Was that Anyway?

I've read Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station and there's something I have to get off my chest before I can begin discussing the work itself. In an era where gorgeous books open my wallet all over town, it's unconscionable that Coffee House continues to put out such a relentless parade of ugliness. The most offensive part is that the books look cheap, like galleys. They need to put on an extra turtleneck for those chilly Minnesota winters and sort this shit out.

Moving right along...Lerner's book is one more brick in the likable, 3.5 star wall of contemporary American fiction that is recommended to the WTT. Perhaps that's not enough of a compliment. While slight in areas like love or the American expat experience, the novel is quite wonderful when addressing language acquisition.

Early in the book I nodded along to several bits that elegantly described the disconnect between knowledge of words and fluency. Like me, I sensed that our protagonist Adam was excellent in Spanish class without having any idea of how to absorb the language aurally:

She paused for a long moment and then began to speak; something about a home, but whether she meant a household or the literal structure, I couldn't tell; I heard the names of streets and months; a list of things I thought were books or songs, hard times or hard weather, epoch, uncle, change, an analogy involving summer, something about buying and/or crashing a red car. I formed several possible stories out of her speech, formed them at once, so it was less like I failed to understand than that I understood in chords, understood in a plurality of worlds.

That's a great passage, exactly the understanding I could get from a Madrileño speaking to me at the conclusion of my minor in Spanish. Or the effect I get sometimes drifting off to sleep while watching a subtitled French film.

I made it through the novel thinking the title referred to a completely different poem than it actually does. As any poetry MFA worth his salt could tell you, "Leaving the Atocha Station" is the blab of arctic honey in John Ashbery's second book, The Tennis Court Oath. If, hypothetically, one were a blogger looking for something intelligent to say about the poem and turned to the internet for help, he'd only find people using terms like "Pollock," and "obscure," and summarizing the poem thusly: "it just is." It just is the frustration of what Lyn Hejinian would say is my rage to know. I would venture that Lerner selected for his title a poem that matches his narrator's deliberately obscure verse, another writer who wished to push his readers further from narrative. Also a rather large plot detail in Leaving the Atocha Station occurs at Atocha Station.

The poem actually on my mind while reading the novel is from Houseboat Days (really the only Ashbery book I consider mine ("The Other Tradition," is the first Ashbery poem I can remember reading (that "Emblazoned" is now a word I can only associate with t-shirts))). I'll have you know that in my misremembering I at least got the train part of the station correct. "Melodic Trains" begins with a girl's toy wristwatch, its painted hands, presumably, right twice a day. Observing the anxiousness of his fellow travelers our speaker says wisely: "any stop before the final one creates / Clouds of anxiety, of sad, regretful impatience." Here I am now, waiting in a terrible hurry for trains almost every day, sometimes coming back to the lines: "there is so little / Panic and disorder in the world, and so much unhappiness."  

12 March 2012

The Black Tank Top (Rampart)

In Oren Moverman's Rampart, Woody Harrelson plays LAPD officer Dave Brown, a black tank top kind of guy if there ever was one.

But his performance in the film's trailer got me in the theater. Between Zombieland, The Messenger, Transsiberian, No Country for Old Men (and The Thin Red Line and all the way back to White Men Can't Jump) the Woodman is one of my favorite working actors, so often oscillating between sweet dude and insufferable prick in the same role.

Just from his character's nickname ("Date-Rape"), you can sense this film will push Woody pretty far to the prick side (his aggressive loner persona is underscored by recurring shots of bettas in fishbowls). Brown's own container is the patrol car that ceaselessly cruises less savory sections of Los Angeles, the windshield and his aviators reflecting the greenish "jungle" that he sees (many comparisons have been made between Brown and Keitel or Cage's Bad Lieutenant, but Harrelson's physical performance is closer to Brando's Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now). As Ned Beatty, Dave's retired LAPD battleaxe pal, says wistfully, "this used to be a soldier's department."

Moverman strikes me as a director who lets his talent lead him through filming. He does well to alternate Brown's boozing, sexing, wholly impulsive nights with bright concrete mornings on the job. His eyes are so accustomed to darkness that he puts a pillow case over head while smoking in bed. My favorite sequence begins with Brown walking in extreme long shot along rough stucco storefronts of Echo Park. The camera follows him past his destination, to a point where he can observe the Crystal Palace card game he's angling to rip off. Things do not go as planned. Brown is eventually compelled to fire a series of gunshots into the air to (partially) cover his tracks (the police firing guns for dead suspects is a favorite tactic for the screenwriter here, James Ellroy).

But Rampart is almost undone by two terrible sequences. The first is an irregularly revolving shot of a meeting between Brown and two law enforcement higher ups. A constantly circling camera could be an interesting choice over a very short stretch but this was more nauseating than anything. We don't pause on certain points (like the people who are speaking) along the circumference. And we don't get to move at a consistent speed either (for a Tilt-a-Whirl effect?). The second misstep is a woozy sex club scene that makes the gay hookup sequence in Shame looks restrained in cinematography. It's a full on cliche of mauve coloration, freeze frames and techno pulses. I wrinkled my noise in disappointment--twice in a half hour I just wanted a sequence to finish.

The film is stuffed with so many brief appearances by recognizable faces it becomes a distracting game of "Name That Guest Star." There's the matted hobo Ben Foster, an older Robin Wright (the pain of losing that Penn showing on her face) who receives Brown's best pickup line: "you are the most beautiful woman I've ever seen...in this bar," Bunny Colvin from The Wire, singer/stage actress Audra McDonald getting her toes sucked, Steve Buscemi being "Blago," Ice Cube in a Hawaiian shirt and poorly chosen wraparound Oakleys and on and on...

I'd be remiss to conclude this review without a personal revelation. I was a huge James Ellroy fan between the ages of 16 and 18. I tore through every one of his books my allowance afforded me, particularly loving American Tabloid. Of course, the onscreen results of his work have varied. There's L.A. Confidential (one of the best films of the 90's (thank you Brian Helgeland)) on one end and Black Dahlia (one of the five worst films I've ever seen) on the other. Unfortunately his Rampart dialogue reminds me of late-period Mamet: hard-bitten dialogue that 60% of the time works every time. The other 40% is distractingly false.

Ellroy loves to sink his teeth into systemic corruption so I'm shocked that the frequently mentioned, allegedly widespread Rampart Division scandal is not fleshed out in the narrative. In L.A. Confidential we felt exactly how fucked up the LAPD was in the 50s. In Rampart we feel exactly how fucked up one man was in 1999. (If you get nothing else from this post, read Ellroy's delusional, brash Art of Fiction posturing.)

It's all a letdown after Moverman's impeccably controlled The Messenger (as I recall, my first review for Seattle's City Arts). As a director he's taken a step back but can recover. In this way he is not Dave Brown. Or James Ellroy.