Wouldn’t it take an outsider to aptly critique the American scene, the American people, the American culture? Hugh Kenner, a Canadian, did this at the end of a section devoted to Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams in his book A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers. A book dedicated to Guy Davenport. A book on Donald Barthelme’s syllabus.
I was at Odd Obssession a few years back, and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky told me he had a film he wanted me to see. It was Le monde vivant. I went home and watched it straight away. It’s an utter masterpiece.
Le monde vivant is a minimalist medieval fantasy, replete with ogres and knights, but also Lacanian witches. Its writer and director, Eugène Green, shot it in the French countryside using, for the most part, everyday dress and objects—an inverted response to Jean-Luc Godard’s science-fiction film Alphaville, which used sections of Paris in which the future had already arrived. Le monde vivant continuously illustrates William Faulkner’s famous quote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The film is also about language, and the power of our declarations to reconfigure the world. Two kids are playing, and one of them tells the other, “I am a giant.” And so he is, within that game. (He claims that it’s natural that he should be the giant, since he is bigger.) Then the kids are kidnapped by an ogre, who is an ogre within the larger game of the film. Another example, from a later scene: the ogre’s wife tells the heroic Lion Knight, “We are alone.” “It is strange that we can be alone,” he counters, “even though we are two.” She replies, “Grammar makes it so.”
I could go on about this movie all day, noting how Green conflates contemporary slang with more formal speech, or mention his deep debt to Robert Bresson—but you should just watch the thing. It’s only 70 minutes long, and consistently witty and charming, and easily one of the best films of the past ten years.
To start, we have two simmering, searing proclamations:
In A Temple of Texts, William Gass quoted Arnold Bennett’s book, Literary Taste:
…your taste has to pass before the bar of the classics. That is the point, if you differ with a classic, it is you who are wrong, and not the book. (6)
In the comments section of a wonderful article, “Henry James and the Joys of Binge Reading,” by Charles-Adam Foster-Simard at The Millions; a person called Bill had this to say:
Thanks so much, Ward, for explaining why James isn’t really worth reading. While we’re at it, let’s get rid of all those other neurotic feedback-dodgers who write impossibly long sentences, like Faulkner and Woolf. These folks aren’t artists so much as mentally disturbed loners, incapable of engaging in the rich, healthy social contact that Flesch and his short, simple sentences give us. I plan to go to every bookstore now and throw away all the copies of James I can find, since it’s insane that this self-absorbed reader-hater is still in print. I can’t understand it: it’s almost as if bookstores are trying, doubtless because of their own neuroses, to create the illusion that there are people out there who like to read James. But of course that can’t be true, not with someone who suffered from a prolonged lack of feedback.
(First post on The Recognitions)
In the middle of this wonderful book, many characters are running around trying to one up most everyone else–most significantly the character Recktall Brown (yes, Recktall Brown) has the forger Wyatt making false masterpieces of 500 year old Flemish Art. But Otto, the failed and flailing playwright, in love with a willowy heroin addict Esme, takes on more of a pivotal role in the middle of the book.