Jocko Benoit's Writing and Pop Culture Spot

Perspectives on the arts and popular culture from Jocko (Jacques) Benoit. Scattered thoughts on poetry, books, film, television, and other cultural intersections.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The Importance of Artistic Disasters

Lately I’ve been infatuated with disaster and end of the world movies. Mainstream, direct-to-video, TV miniseries – anything will do. So I’ve watched The Triangle, Revelations, War of the Worlds, Category 7 and, most recently, Absolute Zero. Now, most movie reviewers will tell you to never put a title on your film that can come back and be used against you. First strike against Absolute Zero. This movie is essentially a low-budget attempt to repeat the moderate success of The Day After Tomorrow. But there’s only so much you can do to make globally destructive weather effects for the price of a bad coffee. So the film, despite an interesting premise (scientifically speaking), just never had a chance from a financial point of view.

So don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a movie that fails because of utter incompetence. When it fails, it fails by inches (which might as well be miles). We’re talking about dialogue that is reasonable, but not memorable. The plot is serviceable, but not compelling. The effects are mostly okay, but few and far between. The acting is not flawed. But add up all of these things and you have a real disaster artistically.

But - and I direct this to all would-be screenwriters and filmmakers out there – this is great news for you. It means you can sit and watch a film and constantly think about what you would have done differently. Even I, who’ve never made a film, noticed things like establishing shots that were a beat too long. And there were emotionally unsatisfying moments such as when a key character dies (impaled by a palm tree in the least effective effect of the movie) and his loved ones look a wee bit teary eyed for a few seconds and then promptly forget about him.

Going through a movie like this is much more educational in some ways than watching a truly great film. A great film can both fill you with wonder that such things are possible in the world and fill you with insecurity about you ever being able to equal or surpass what you’ve seen. You learn from great films and are influenced by them. But bad films can show you that you already have learned more than you thought. When you see something that doesn’t work and can say why, this helps build your sense of confidence and accomplishment (at least as someone who has some knowledge in the field). And sometimes a bad film will have one or two good ideas or techniques that you can redesign and adapt for your own work.

The same goes for poetry. When I’m feeling insecure about my own poems, I’ll sometimes take out a recent literary magazine that has never used any of my work and read some of the stuff they have published. This often makes me quite happy because I look at the poems so unlike mine that are, from my perspective, bad poems and this frees me up to write something new – gives me a false sense of superiority so essential to the artistic process (and so soon undermined by having to go back and do the rewrite and see the inspired poem in all its bare-assed awkwardness and glory).

There’s nothing to protect your work or mine from being treated exactly the same way by some other creative type, of course. Just so long as I never find out, I’m happy in my ignorance. What’s important is that we learn, just like the characters in disaster movies, how to pay attention to all the right signs of possible doom and we will not make the same mistakes that led to catastrophe.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Biological Dictionary For Dummies

I have a theory that our culture is nothing more than a series of misunderstandings of everyone and everything that came before us. What I mean is that we misunderstand the civilization we are born into and as we grow older we help create something that is different than what we were born into.

Take, for example, the concept of theme. In most literary forms, a theme is the main idea or opinion a work embodies. A work may have more than one theme, of course, but usually one idea predominates. But according to my students’ essays, ‘theme’ is interchangeable with ‘subject,’ ‘motif,’ ‘mood,’ ‘topic,’ ‘style,’ ‘setting,’ and even, I suspect, ‘peanut butter and jam’ or ‘Kraft dinner’ if they’ve been at work too long without eating. In reality, “Love” is not a theme. “Love sucks” is. (Ok – not a very interesting or thought provoking theme for sure.) And a movie can’t have a fish out of water theme – but it can have a fish out of water motif.

The confusion comes at my students from all sides. I hear and read the same mistakes every day from countless shows, newspapers, magazines, and even from teachers. At a certain point I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m remembering things correctly myself.

Imprecision is the kind of thing that George Orwell railed about in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” and I guess I’m railing a bit now too. It doesn’t matter – change overtakes all of us. I look at how he criticized people who used to say “to have an impact on” when all they needed to say was “affect.” I wonder what he would think if he heard people simply replacing “affect” with “impact” as in, “He impacted the situation”? – which, by the way, is like nails on a chalkboard for me.

Terms simply change and maybe it’s useless to fight. But I can’t help it. Watching Attack of the Show the other day on G4 Tech TV, I heard a panel of people talking about cult films and whether or not Snakes on a Plane would qualify as one. One guy argued that you couldn’t know unless the film flopped because a cult film has to fail initially. Another guy argued, though, that Star Wars never flopped and was an instant cult classic. Imagine kicking a row of ten cars to set off at least five different types of car alarm. That’s what went through my head when I heard that.

One of the guys on the show started for me by arguing that a cult film has a small fanatical following, so Star Wars, due to the size of its fan base, could never be a cult film. But the other guy shot back saying the fans for the film were like religious devotees, therefore it was a cult film. But, no, I shot back to the screen, that would make Star Wars a religion, not a cult. And it probably just about is, as far as I can tell.

But I could feel the term ‘cult’ slipping from my grasp as younger film fans can hear in the word something religious, but not something small. Meanings change. Mistakes turn into orthodoxy.

That’s why the word classic, as misused above, has changed as well. It’s a case of partial understanding of the word. People think of classic and they think “great”. Once upon a time, classic embodied “old” as well. The notion of an instant classic implies that something is instantly great, but it also implies, to my ear, that something is instantly centuries or at least decades old.

The most important thing I’ve learned about this, though, is not that civilization is going to hell. It’s that I can’t stop myself from feeling irritated by the changes. Someday I imagine myself unable to communicate with others around me. A fish not so much out of water, but in an old folks aquarium, an object of curiosity. Even now I’m looking at an old dictionary I keep around to remind me of how language leaves us all behind. It dates back to Orwell’s favorite year, 1984. There is no “internet,” “DVD,” “cyberspace” (in fact, “cyber” prefixes words dealing with robotics here), and words like “virus,” “crash,” and “virtual” have taken on new meanings. So am I just a biological dictionary that can’t keep up?

My only consolation is that I, in my stubbornness, will continue facing the students who represent the new ways of speaking, and they will continue to be martyred for the right to speak the language as they think it should be spoken because, for now, I’m the one with the marking pen. (The theme of this piece, by the way, is that we all cope with change as best we can, though most often by taking revenge on its proponents in print.)

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Curse of Humour

Yesterday I picked up the latest Selected Poems by Roger McGough, one of my favorite poets from years ago. Reading through his poems just reminds me of how much I’ve borrowed from him in my own writing, at least in terms of over-the-top bravado:

Or when I’m 104
&banned from the Cavern
may my mistress
catching me in bed with her daughter
& fearing for her son
cut me up into little pieces
& throw away every piece but one

(from “Let me Die a Young Man’s Death”)

There’s a poignancy at the end of many of his poems that makes you realize the stakes have been higher than the light tone led you to believe. I like that – the poem that catches the reader up short so they realize even the apparently trivial has depth.

I like other poets who are similar to McGough in some ways. I think of poets like e.e. cummings (so many good lines, but I always think of the opening, “(ponder, darling, these busted statues”) and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for example. cummings, not Frost, Lowell, Pound, Williams or Stevens, would be my choice for best modernist poet and Ferlinghetti would out-Beat Ginsberg in my book any day. But critics have tended to treat these poets in the past as ‘minor.’ Even Robert Browning, who I count as a strong influence on my work, has been considered a durable but minor poet.

But, then, we live in postmodern times or postpostmodern times where the hierarchies of the literary patriarchy have been toppled and we no longer think in terms of ‘best’ or ‘great’ or ‘minor.’ Those days are done. We have learned to see writers as conduits for multiple ideologies and variant readings and we have simultaneously unmasked the power politics that lay behind literary coronations of mostly white males.

Even so, I find the writers I most admire don’t get much attention from the literary establishment. It can’t be because they’re no good because ‘no good’ doesn’t exist anymore. It could be that they’re just not interesting or relevant to critics these days. But I think the truth is much simpler. These poets are often funny.

It’s the last literary bulwark – the one between serious meaningful literature and humorous writing. It’s a barrier that goes all the way back to classical times and has been maintained and dusted by its Christian overseers for centuries (just ask Chaucer). And it survives, oddly enough, in post-Christian postmodern criticism and its almost humorless humour, despite the widespread evidence that postmodern writers themselves are often self-referentially funny – though it’s a sense of humour that most readers have no access to.

Even in pop cultural circles it’s the dramas that tend to win the Academy Awards for Best Picture while quality comedies are often noted but not rewarded (except by the Golden Globes – a comedy act all on its own). Even most viewers think of comedy as something they can turn their minds off for and just relax (they’re wrong, of course, but that’s an argument for another time).

With my own work, I notice that in poetry events I’ve been involved with, for the first long while I was often slated as the opener because I had become known as a humorous poet. I was someone who could get the crowd going. Over the years, my position in the order has moved toward the end of these evenings, possibly because hosts have noticed a darker side to some of my work and a.) they wanted to avoid disturbing listeners too early on or b.) I was being recognized as a more serious poet. On the other hand, it could just be a coincidence.

If you want proof of the hegemony of the serious, just grab any poetry anthology and browse. Let me know how many funny poems you find. Or even how many poems you find with a funny line. There are of course exceptions, such as the book Stand Up Poetry, edited by Charles Harper Webb. This is an anthology designed to highlight poets that are currently using humour effectively in American poetry, featuring poets as diverse as: Billy Collins, Lucille Clifton, Charles Bukowski, Jeffrey McDaniel, Russell Edson and Stephen Dobyns.. Read poets like these and you’ll feel like someone opened a window or sprayed you with a hose on an oppressive summer’s day. And I’m willing to bet that somewhere in mid-laughter you will have an epiphany about life – even if it’s only about what you’ve been missing in terms of poetry.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Why I Will Never Make the World A Better Place

I’ve been reading Tim Bowling’s latest book, Fathom, and have been struck yet again by the power his poetry often has. My favorite image so far has to be one from the poem “I Didn’t Go In At the Recess Bell.” The narrator comes across a cat raiding a bird’s nest and eating the “almost-foetal blind” young. The cat’s meal becomes a horrific image:

the crack-eared cat looked once
at me through jaundice-yellow eyes
but did not cease to chew
and quickly swung back,
drool-strings rendering it
an awful puppet.

It’s Tim’s dark take on things that I find appealing, despite the considerable focus on nature in his work.

Years ago we had an opportunity to exchange ideas on poetics and, on the surface of things, we certainly have little in common in terms of our poetic interests. His world is the natural, mine is the artificial. He writes lyrics poetry, I prefer satire. But it’s only lately occurred to me why I’m drawn to his work: he is a fatalist. His world view is not too distant from that of Thomas Hardy who himself inherited fatalism from an ancient English tradition and before that the Greeks. My fatalism is more of the prophetic variety, inherited from the likes of Cassandra, William Blake and Irving Layton. Tim’s poetry reflects the belief that we cannot overcome life’s deepest most essential difficulties because they are built into the nature of existence. I can get on board with that, and I also subscribe to the belief that everything good is bad for somebody and vice versa. Dead bird, fed cat. And you’ll note the drool as puppet strings takes on new meaning in the larger context of Tim’s poetry as a whole.

This doesn’t mean that either of us are grim people and natural born party-killers. In fact, the most fatalistic of writers have often been quite good at parties. Think of Mark Twain and his lively if occasionally vicious sense of humour. Or even O. Henry who was one of the most widely read American writers during his lifetime and whose stories were considered quite funny even though they were often about people’s utter inability to change. (See, for example, “The Cop and the Anthem” and “The Roads We Take.”) The same could be said of Chekhov. Funnily enough, O. Henry’s work was popular for many decades in Russia where they know a good fatalist when they read one.

And being fatalistic doesn’t mean I can’t be moved by heroic struggles and attempts to change the world. Just tonight I watched part of the American Film Institute’s tribute to inspirational films, 100 Years… 100 Cheers. Many of the scenes from these films can get me a little bit teared up. And some of my favorite films made the list, but then so did the absolutely satanic film, Forrest Gump. Oh well, sympathy for the devil and all that.

What I do take issue with, though, is all those people who say they want to make the world a better place. It sounds good, but before I let anyone go ahead with their plans I’d like to take a look at a mock-up of the better place they have in mind. Do they mean the better place that groups like Greenpeace and Doctors Without Borders are working toward? Maybe, then, that’s a good thing. Or do they mean a better place like Hitler was striving for? A contemporary example would be someone like George Bush who I truly believe is trying to make the world a better place. I wish he would stop. I do not want to live in his better place.

Fatalists know there can be no better places. Fatalists do not necessarily resign themselves to the gloom of the past, but they do try to look carefully at what is right in front of them and study what has happened before. They know that deep meaningful change may never happen and that when it does it’s over millennial stretches of time.

As for all of you who want to make the world a better place in your lifetime, I wish you all the best. But I hope I’m gone by the time you succeed.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Art of Dating In the Arts

Okay, so I’ll admit it. I’ve been peeking at the dating books at the bookstore. The first thing that occurs to me is I’m too old for this #%@&. The second thing is that one-third of the books are about how a woman can get a man and another third is split evenly between how a woman can dump a man and why a woman doesn’t need a man. Fair enough.

I’m of course browsing furtively through the final third of the books, careful to regularly shake my head with a wry smile and let out an occasional faint mocking chortle whenever someone else comes down the aisle.

In one book from the eHarmony dating people I come across a startling revelation. The book outlines several key points of potential compatibility and one of these points is about, of all things, art and artistic sensibilities. The chapter is even more specific in that it says if you are an artist of any type you might want to consider dating another artist. This all has to do with the care and feeding of your artist lover. According to the eHarmony folks, the artist has unique sensibilities and lifestyle preferences. I can right away list my own idiosyncrasies: I’m a junk food loving, night owling, work-phobic, lifetime non-drinker who’s never owned a car. Kind of a snappy description maybe, but not the type of thing you send in as a personal ad.

The important thing, according to this book, is that the artist has to have someone who understands the need for bouts of privacy and for a more individualistic approach to life – not to mention a tolerance for bizarre utterances (a more benign but nonetheless disturbing version of Tourette’s whereby, say, the poet might suddenly cry out “The fish dreamed of being a monkey!”). And the obvious candidate for such understanding is another artist. You can certainly see how this works among actors who, spending so much time on the set and having not much privacy or mobility, turn to each other with, if the tabloids are any indication, much success – no matter how often they have to keep succeeding, one divorce after another.

My own dating habits have gone completely counter to this. My girlfriends have been far more practical and level-headed than I am. And they’ve still been fairly open-minded about my poetic predilections, averting their eyes whenever they have caught me in mid-ink-spilling on a page. When we broke up it was usually over things that had nothing to do with artistic sensibilities.

I have had fantasies about dating other artists, though. When I was younger, the fantasy was about dating the female lead singer of a band. But I know with my own button-down lifestyle that would never have worked for someone like that. Painters have always had a certain appeal to me, but I have never found myself in those particular artistic circles. A dancer – now there’s someone I could have understood. Me with my soul of a dancer but body of a bowler. Of course, there was always the possibility of another writer. Why not? I can take the subtle but never completely out of mind competition.

But none of these vague fantasies have ever come to pass. I’m not sure why. I suspect it is because for all my interest in the arts there is something anti-artistic about me – something that doesn’t donate to Greenpeace or ignores recycling bins – not out of malice but simply out of too little concern. I prefer McDonald’s to the (formerly) smoke-filled cafes and I preferred Coke to coffee or espresso. Given my late night junk food-fueled marathon computer gaming sessions, I might have been more compatible with a computer geek with a soft spot for weirdness, even if it was expressed in poetry that didn’t rhyme.

The lesson here is unclear to me. Maybe it’s that art can emerge from the most unlikely of sources. Or that we can’t get the heart to read dating books before it starts beating. Or that some lives are simply misspent on art when they should be getting on with the business of getting laid. Or – more likely – just because one knows their way around the contours of art they may not be able to navigate their own heart – at least not without a trained instructor.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Messrs. Locke and Hobbes Arrive in Deadwood

I’ve been spending my time lately indulging in long ‘DVD weekends’ with my favorite TV shows. Who would have thought that DVD’s would do even more for TV than for film? But that’s the way things have gone with lower quality films lately and incredible TV shows, many of which are serial in nature. And if a serial show gets things right, that means you’re not going to sit down and watch just one episode.

And look at the lineup: The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Desperate Housewives, Lost and on and on and on. If you were too late to catch a series in first run you can catch it on DVD. That’s what happened with me and Buffy. In fact, Buffy’s popularity continues to grow even though the series ended in 2003.

So I’ve just recently caught up on what I missed in Boston Legal’s first season. Then I dove into Battlestar Galactica and got really upset when I made it to the last episode on the last disc. If the disc had been an orange I would have been squeezing it in a press for just a few more seconds of the action. Finally, I turned to Deadwood because I had been hearing a lot about it.

I suspect the main reason acquaintances recommended it to me was because of the swearing. I, ladies and gentlemen, am from Cape Breton where there are swear words you non-islanders have not yet heard tell of. We watch over these words as if they were nuclear plant runoff and we are careful not to expose them to an unprepared public. But when I watched my first episode of Deadwood, I’ll admit I blinked. I looked down the one-hour barrel of profanities and I blinked hard. Repeatedly.

I was home.

But the gold mining camp (later town) of Deadwood felt like home in more than that one way. What I like about the show is that you get to watch creator David Milch’s vision of civilization and community emerge. Yes, the town is full of murderous no-accounts and people who are running from pasts they would just as soon leave under the rock they crawled out from under. But gradually, as the series progresses, you can see the relationships forming, almost against the characters’ wills. His vision of people is that we are hard nosed individualists and yet we can’t help forming communities.

And with that world view he manages to capture the ongoing contradiction in American literary art – the tension between individualism and community. Especially compelling is the slow transformation of Al Swearengen in our eyes. Part of this is character growth, but part of it is also us being allowed to look closer over the time that a TV series allows and see that as much as he wants to be king of this small outpost, he also understands how the world works, how people want order after a while and they also want to be close to other people. Even Swearengen, despite his protestations and occasionally violence, has a soft spot for Mr. Woo, the head of the contingent from China. So even the worst of the worst can have a conscience and a need for being a part of things. Take that Locke and Hobbes!

Milch’s world is a very dark and very optimistic one. He shows us that the brutal period of no government that the philosophers Locke and Hobbes leveraged to bully us into being glad we signed the social contract (even though we must have been drunk when that happened because we had no recollection of it) can be short and productive. At the same time, as these no-account characters gradually take up positions of authority, we might want to turn back a few pages or so in our history books and see founding fathers everywhere as a little less noble and a little more human. Deadwood takes the piss out of the civilizing project and at the same time shows how necessary it is. You’d have to call that a draw.

The series also illustrates how TV can lead a return to the long-form story of the epic poem and the eight-hundred page novel. You can take the time to say the big things and still entertain with one cliffhanger after another. Sure, my anarchist soul might prefer that the citizens of Deadwood refuse to be drawn into power politics and instead form a separate communitarian culture, but as far as television goes this show is still one of the finest examinations of social development I’ve ever come across.

And those bastards Locke and Hobbes wouldn’t have lasted two rings of a spittoon in that place.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

High Concept Poetry

Sometimes I wish poetry were more like the movies.

For one thing, the movies have comedies, thrillers, science fiction, western
s, and a whole posse of other genres. Most times these days it feels like poetry has two: experimental and lyric. Now of course you can write about nature with free verse, prose poetry, villanelle, and several other forms, along with a slew of rhythmic schemes. Same goes for writing about love, family and death. And the experimental poets have an ever expanding arsenal of forms in lieu of having anything to say. Despite this, it often feels like poetry has a paucity of subgenres.

At the same time, people criticize the genres of film because they are shoddy replicas of real life. Film genres embody formula and repetition and are antithetical to originality and art. And yet they still manage to get us excited on a regular basis. Is this because film appeals to our baser selves – the selves so many poets try to escape in graduate creative writing programs?

Does my interest in poetry and film create a conflict between the subtle and nuanced vs. the hit-you-over-the-head simplicity? Can a person who has studied poetry still want to see a movie like Snakes On A Plane?

That movie in many ways sums up the differences between some films and most contemporary poetry. Ask any poet what his latest poem is about and you will likely get a fairly lengthy answer that doesn’t let you know what the poem is about. In fact, if you ask again what the poem is about, the poet might even get testy and say something like, “A poem doesn’t have to be about anything. It’s an experience, a journey with no destination.” Meanwhile, ask the guy who first pitched the concept of Snakes On A Plane what the film is about and he’ll just excitedly repeat the title at you.

This type of film is what’s known as high concept. High concept means many things, but it’s the kind of film you can sum up in one or two sentences. For example, an archeologist must stop the Nazis from obtaining an ancient artifact (Raiders of the Lost Ark). Man disguises himself as an actress and becomes a better person (Tootsie). And my very favorite for its succinctness, Jaws – underground (Tremors). You can actually hear the guys in the studio exec’s office blurting out their ideas this way and then fleshing them out. And you know the story right off. You know the stakes. You know what train you’re on for the two-hour celluloid trip.

Your first reaction might be that poetry just isn’t about that kind of oversimplification. Let’s see. Pilgrims of all walks of life tell their stories on the way to a shrine (The Canterbury Tales). Fallen from grace, Satan seeks revenge against God (Paradise Lost). A man discusses the former wife he may have murdered (“My Last Duchess”) If you want more evidence of this kind of useful reductionism, just refer to Shakespeare’s plays: Man and woman from rival families fall in love. Man hesitates in avenging his father’s death. Man suspects his wife of an affair and murders her. Man plots with wife to kill the king and assume power. People stranded on an island encounter strange forces and must atone for their pasts (okay, this one could also be the pitch for the TV series Lost). You see, Shakespeare was high concept from the start. That makes me think if he were alive today he’d be in the Biz.

I have a few high concept poems myself. Rival female Mafia groups shoot it out in modern day Italy (based on a true story). Man falls in love with a Valentine’s Day card. Man gives a lift to a mysteriously silent young female passenger. Mother unknowingly takes underage son to see topless dancers at the Moulin Rouge. Man discovers there are ancient books for each of the seven deadly sins. Man seeks operation to change him into a cartoon. And, finally, I have an entire manuscript that can be summed up with: tribal queen of Briton stuns and defeats the Romans in bloody struggle.

So what I’m proposing for any poets out there is that you not be afraid of what I’d like to call high concept poetry. Keep some poems like that in your personal repertoire so that when someone asks you what you write about you can toss out a few one-liners to get your interrogator interested. You want some poems that can hook people before you even read a line. Sometimes we can get lost in the craftsmanship of making every single line of a poem mean volumes. This type of poetry is rewarding for the careful reader. But sometimes it’s fun to try and bring an entire poem down to one line. A single unified effect that conveys the gist of it all.

My next poem? On the paper’s broad white space, no one can hear you scream.