Sometime in the 1920s . . .
Sometime in the 1920s . . .
Today, Cotty Chubb and I drove up to the marina in the man-made harbor
at Santa Barbara and rented a small twenty-foot day sailer. We had to
answer a simple questionnaire about sailing. The only question I knew
the right answer to was which buoys are conical (red) and which are
cylindrical (green). Cotty got this one wrong but all the others right,
so we were qualified to operate the vessel.
We cast off and went out onto the ocean.
A slight breeze took us down the coast as far as the Biltmore Hotel in
Montecito, where Cotty was staying, then the wind freshened
considerably and sped us back, rails almost to the water, spray in our
faces and elsewhere. (Fortunately, being an old sea dog, I had wrapped
my wallet in a zip-loc sandwich bag.)
From the water, there is nothing visible of Santa Barbara that could
not date from the Forties — it must be what Los Angeles looked like
back then. Lines of palms along the curving shore drive and promenade,
exactly like Nice, Spanish-style buildings climbing the hills beyond to
the point at which the mountains rise very suddenly and sharply.
A seal appeared dead ahead of us, diving and resurfacing — dove just
as we came up to him and reappeared in our wake. He looked at us
quizzically as we proceeded along, as though to say, “How did those
guys pass the sailing test?”
Still, we raced back, at the end, with flying colors, exhilarated after
two hours at sea. Twenty buck an hour. “In a world where a plate of
pasta can cost twenty dollars,” said Cotty, “this is a bargain.”
It was — the mental equivalent of two days of rest. Because there is
only so far you can head up into the wind . . . if it blows against you
you have to tack — and this is the shortest route you can take, even
if it looks like nothing but zigzagging on the chart.
Because there is no appeal to the ocean, you and all your problems are
quite irrelevant to its whims. Because everything you get from it is a
gift, which you don't have the power to repay.
We went swimming in the surf afterwards, and I felt a kind of preposterous cordiality with the waves.
Lillian Gish, Way Down East.
A 1936 magazine ad by the great N. C. Wyeth.
In his brilliant and eccentrically revealing memoir Chronicles: Volume One, Bob Dylan talks about a crucial inspiration in his development as a songwriter — the first time he heard “Pirate Jenny”, from Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera. The lyric is written in the voice of an oppressed young girl, who recounts her fantasy of a pirate ship which will appear in the harbor of her city and bombard it in her name, destroying all her enemies and rescuing her from a life of servitude.
It is thus a surreal fiction set within the slightly less surreal fiction of the opera itself, both modes operating here within a single song. Dylan says this expanded his notion of what a song could be. He was of course already familiar with the narrative conventions of folk songs, especially the murder ballads, and he would follow these conventions in many of his own works, telling self-contained fictional or historical tales, usually with a strong social message, but “Pirate Jenny” set him off on another strategy, involving fantastical tales within tales.
In “Bob Dylan's 115th Dream”, from Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan tells a tale in the voice of a crew member of the Mayflower, which is somehow commanded by Melville's Captain Ahab and lands in America for a series of comic anachronistic adventures. (Among the artifacts surrounding Dylan in the photograph on the cover of Bringing It All Back Home is the Lotte Lenya album on which he first heard “Pirate Jenny”.)
“Desolation Row”, from Highway 61 Revisited, offers a similar bit of jumbled-up, surreal narrative but has become less buffoonish, more poetic.
“Desolation Row” conjures up a vision of a very specific place inhabited by an improbable cast of characters, drawn from every aspect of culture. The real-life poets Pound and Eliot have a mythical fistfight, The Phantom Of the Opera shares the scene with Ophelia and Cassanova. It's a vision, on one level, of culture as it's actually experienced in the imagination. Lon Chaney and Charles Laughton and Victor Hugo are forever linked by The Hunchback of Notre Dame — Desolation Row is that precinct of the mind where all four of them meet up and hang out together.
On the same album, in “Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues”, Dylan presents a variation on this fractured narrative strategy, this time with a series of vignettes and anecdotes about some beat characters hanging out in Mexico. Each element of the song seems to open onto a whole narrative episode which, however, is only suggested, not recounted. It's like shards of a Kerouac novel discovered at an archaeological dig and displayed in glass cases, inviting the viewer to reconstruct the whole from them. (This is, of course, just an extension, or extreme compression, of the fragmented narrative style of Kerouac himself.)
Many Dylan songs can be seen as collages of poetic images, but most are more acutely perceived as collages of story fragments, micro fictions, which suggest great narrative vistas seen fleetingly through a narrow window whose shutters open and close quickly. His song “Floater”, from Love and Theft, suggests a whole cycle of Faulknerian novels glimpsed in this way. Ironically, many lines in “Floater” were lifted almost straight from a Japanese as-told-to autobiography called Confessions Of A Yakuza, yet Dylan has used them in the context of a series of interconnected micro fictions about a place and time and characters that seem indigenously, essentially American.
Here are eight lines from “Floater”:
My grandfather was a duck trapper
He could do it with just dragnets and ropes
My grandmother could sew new dresses out of old cloth
I don't know if they had any dreams or hopes
I had 'em once though, I suppose, to go along
With all the ring dancin' Christmas carols on all of them Christmas Eves
I left all my dreams and hopes
Buried under tobacco leaves
I doubt if any of this reflects actual memories from Dylan's own life, but the lines do seem to sum up the whole life of some particular person, in a kind of generational saga told through lightning flashes of imagery.
The precise details, the dragnets and ropes, the old cloth, the ring dancing, seduce us into emblematic episodes, in somewhat the same way that the brief flashbacks in A Christmas Carol seduce us into emblematic episodes from the happier early years of Scrooge. And Dylan doesn't just leave his hopes and dreams behind, he leaves them “buried under tobacco leaves”. Here the detail is more symbolic, more open — did the narrator lose his hopes and dreams in the drudgery of work, or just in wasted hours marked out by the smoke of cigarettes?
The details and episodes evoked in these lines propel the story Dylan is telling into our own imaginations, prompting us to fill in the rest, to travel back in time like Scrooge, to visit the narrator's lost world, to construct our own sense of it, our own dream of it. And this, of course, is what all good stories do. What's left out of them is what eventually belongs most securely to us, almost as if they were our own experiences, because we have collaborated in the making of them.
This was one of the secrets of storytelling that Hemingway knew well, and consciously, almost from the very beginning of his career as a writer. All of his best work uses this “strategic opacity”, as Stephen Greenblatt has called it, referring to Shakespeare's method of storytelling — this uncharted space that the hearer of the tale must fill in for herself.
Dylan is a great singer, a fine tunesmith and poet, but not least among his gifts is the gift of storytelling, in a fragmented, micro-fictional form of his own devising.
Cover art by Ben Prins.
Augustus was sensible that mankind is governed by names; nor was he deceived in his expectation, that the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom.
– Gibbon, The Decline and Fall Of the Roman Empire
Corporate America and its servile functionaries on the U. S. Supreme Court have learned the lessons of history well — the American people sink into servitude in their ignorance of them. (With thanks to Tom Sutpen . . .)
When new technologies appear, the instinct is to try and figure out ways to make them the vessels for existing content. But new technologies usually need a new kind of content — or old content wholly re-imagined.
When it became possible to distribute movies on the Internet, everybody tried to figure out how aging, worn-out Hollywood content could be shifted over to the new venue and monetized. It was an effort doomed to fail. Content can never be considered apart from the means used to distribute it, and thus the ways it is consumed.
What we need to do is look at what kind of movies are working on the Internet, and proceed from there. What's working are short comedy bits, short sexy images and actualities — real-life anecdotal videos of a cute or startling nature.
It's strikingly like the content that first made movies popular, when the technology of projected film first hit the scene at the end of the 19th century. Films were novelties then — people had no way conceptually of consuming them as self-contained works. So they were shown as peep-show attractions in arcades or as interludes on vaudeville bills. What people responded to were . . . short comedy bits, short sexy images (a dancer showing a bit of leg was soft porn back then), and actualities, real-life anecdotal films of a cute or startling nature.
Plus ça change, huh?
But people soon grew tired of these snippets. They wanted longer, more coherent pieces, which meant that they wanted stories. But it wasn't possible to jump straight to any existing story form. Attention span still could not support film stories the length of plays, much less novels, or even short stories. Ten minutes was the absolute limit of attention one could count on from an early film viewer — about the length of a vaudeville skit. So a whole new form of storytelling was developed — one that incorporated short comedy bits, sexy stuff and documentary footage (of trains, for example.) But now these were integrated into a narrative.
Audiences had to learn to absorb these short narratives before they could be expanded into feature-length film narratives — into an evening's entertainment. It happened remarkably fast, primarily because the ten-minute and then the twenty-minute form was developed with such brilliant invention by storytellers like Griffith. The density of content and suggestion in Griffith's one-reelers and two-reelers, and the extraordinary beauty of his images — like the one above from The Country Doctor in 1909 — eventually made it clear (to some) that movies could hold an audience's attention for even longer than twenty minutes.
Filmmakers need to start anticipating what story forms are going to work on the Internet. There will not be a straight jump to feature-length narratives, or even half-hour narratives. Even the length of a ten-minute vaudeville skit is probably too long. What's needed are stories no longer than a cute cat video.
Can stories, real stories, be that short? Of course they can. Micro-fiction is as valid a form of fiction as any other — if it is dense with content and suggestion, if it can conjure up whole worlds beyond the frame of its images and brief running time.
Hemingway was once challenged to write a six word story. He came up with this — “For sale, baby shoes, never used.” That tells a real story, and a good one. It resonates in the mind and in the heart, like any good story. The micro-movies that will introduce real narrative content to Internet cinema will have to learn that kind of dynamic compression, and they will have to be told in images of genuine beauty, depth and inventiveness — there will be no room for the slick, throwaway non-images of the current Hollywood cinema, which have to be hurled past us at lightning speed because they would not reward close scrutiny.
This path is really the only way forward for filmmakers of the Internet era. It may seem like re-inventing the wheel, but filmmakers of the nickelodeon era were also re-inventing the wheel when they tried to figure out how to put over a grand Biblical epic in ten minutes. They seem to have had an awful lot of fun doing it, though, and in the process they created a new art form.
An essay like this can't really suggest the kinds of films I'm proposing, but my friend Jae Song is currently directing a series of movies in New York — I call them Majestic Micro Movies — which will make the whole thing clearer. You'll be able to watch them soon — here, there and everywhere.
At the time of America's founding there were very few organization which might be recognizable today as corporations. They were held in the deepest suspicion by the class of men who made up the Founding Fathers. Their right to exist, for limited times and specific purposes, was held to be entirely dependent on government sufferance, and wholly subservient to government regulation. They owed that sufferance only to the condition that they might promote the common welfare, in addition to the enrichment of the corporation's members.
The word “soulless” was commonly used in discussing corporations formed for profit, and Thomas Jefferson was concerned that corporations, if allowed to grow too wealthy and powerful, might subvert the Republic itself. (What a worry-wart!)
The idea that business corporations might, as entities, claim the right of free speech, comparable to that of individuals or the press, would have been as surreal to the men who framed our system of government as the idea that a herd of cows might claim the right of free speech. Cows were not thought of as human beings in the early days of this republic, and neither were state-chartered corporations.
The growing power of corporations in the American economy has resulted in a creeping diminution of views like Jefferson's. This was inevitable, but it still had a logic to it. It was recognized that corporations quite often contributed greatly to the common good, sometimes in spectacular ways. Their potential for ill was never lost sight of, though, and the government always retained its right to reign in the corporations when their wickedness grew too potent, or too blatant.
This was what underlay the Progressivism of Presidents like Teddy Roosevelt, at bottom a conservative Republican, who saw nothing un-American about restricting the right of corporations to contribute to election campaigns or otherwise seek to subvert popular government — that is, government by actual human beings.
All of that changed with the recent ruling by the Roberts Court, expressly granting the rights of an individual human being to any corporation. The “original intent” of the Founders and one hundred years of explicit legal precedent were simply thrown out the window.
All Americans need to read Justice John Paul Stevens's dissent against this disastrous ruling. It may be the last time we ever hear the voice of Jefferson, the voice of the Founders, on this issue. Barack Obama, who thought he could fight the corporations with attitude and supplication, is not going to be re-elected in 2012. His successor will be a Republican, who will in all likelihood appoint the next new Supreme Court Justices — and they will all be corporate lackeys.
Justice Stevens's is a voice crying out in the wilderness, and it may have come too late, but as an American, I'm proud that it came at all. It is a voice from the depths of all that was good and reasonable and humane in this country.
It's now official — America is, not just practically but technically, a plutocracy. The Supreme Court's decision yesterday to recognize corporations as individual human beings, with all the rights of individual human beings, opens the door to the full totalitarian control of the United States government by corporations.
It's comparable to that moment in Soviet history when Lenin decided that the central executive of the Bolshevik Party was the supreme and unchallengeable ruling body in Russia. Chief Justice John Roberts (above) is the Lenin of the new totalitarian America. He can now become President if he wants to — all he needs is a few big beneficiaries of his ruling yesterday to purchase the office for him. And why shouldn't they? He has delivered the whole nation into their hands.
The great American experiment in democracy is over. It may not be revived in our lifetimes — it may never be revived. Reviving it will require what Lincoln called, in the midst of the Civil War, a “new birth of freedom” — and probably a cataclysm as great at the Civil War to spark it.
In the 1857 Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (above), speaking for the majority, wrote that black people have “no rights which the white man is bound to respect.” It was, sad to say, a theoretically justifiable opinion, from a Constitutional point of view. The framers clearly had no intent to grant blacks the rights of American citizenship. Good sense and common decency might have stretched the legal niceties a bit, but that didn't happen. What the decision meant was that the issue of slavery could never be solved except by war, by the shedding of blood.
Ironically, the new Supreme Court decision is a kind of demonic mirror of the Dred Scott decision. In the latter, the insane notion was proposed that blacks were not human beings. In the former, an equally insane notion was proposed — that institutions which embody vast agglomerations of wealth and power are human beings. Neither decision is compatible with a rational, humane society.
But if one is tempted to abject despair, it's a good time to remember what Frederick Douglass wrote after the Dred Scott decision was handed down:
The highest authority has spoken. The voice of the Supreme Court has
gone out over the troubled waves of the National Conscience. But my
hopes were never brighter than now. I have no fear that the National
Conscience will be put to sleep by such an open, glaring, and
scandalous issue of lies.
Can American democracy save itself one more time from the madness that runs so deep in the American soul? Is there another Teddy Roosevelt out there who will fight for real human beings against the great, faceless juggernauts of the “trusts”? (The Supreme Court ruling yesterday overturned a law passed under TR which prohibited political contributions by corporations.)
The time of the temporizers, of the cosmetic progressives like Barack Obama, is over. It is a time for patriots — or slaves. There is no more middle ground.
The choice will be ours, each individually, but being an American in spite of myself I say, with Douglass — my hopes were never brighter than now. The issue has been laid out starkly, for all to see. Only those who accept the condition of slavery for themselves and their children will close their eyes to what's at stake, and if they do, their enslavement (if not the enslavement of their children) will be richly deserved.
These are the times, as another patriot once said, that try men's souls. May those of our generation not be found wanting.
New York, 1920. (With thanks to Little Hokum Rag.)
Left-wing commentators and Democratic Party officials are making quite a spectacle of themselves in the wake of Scott Brown's victory in the race for Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat. They are offering sarcastic insults to Brown and self-righteous insults to the woman he defeated, Martha Coakley, for her inept campaign.
Only Fox carried the whole of Brown's victory speech. The left-leaning news organizations apparently just don't want to know what defeated them, what they're up against. (The ever-smug Keith Olberman announced MSNBC's termination of its coverage of the speech by saying, “We're going to cut away before he gets down to offering his family chowder recipe”, utterly tone-deaf to the down-home appeal of Brown and his family — it was the “chowder recipes” which got him elected.)
I watched the whole speech, even though I had to switch reluctantly to Faux News to do it, and I can tell you this — Scott Brown is a star.
His populist rhetoric, his attacks on the special interests, made me, a progressive, feel good — just as Obama's populist rhetoric and attacks on special interests made me feel good.
Feel is the operative word here. I don't trust Scott Brown further than I could throw him to fight the special interests in Washington, to work for the people — like all Republicans he will serve the corporations. But I did trust Obama, with all my heart, to fight the special interests in Washington, to work for me, and it all turned out to be a fraud.
The first thing Obama did when he got to the White House was pull his pants down, bend over and beg the big corporations to be gentle with him. He begged the heath care industry and its shills in the Congress to let him pass something that looked vaguely like a heath care reform bill — he's still down on his knees to the large financial institutions begging them to behave morally and responsibly.
Faced with that, it doesn't matter that Brown and many of his supporters are hairpins, mad as hatters — all they have to do is cry, “The emperor has no clothes!” to gain credibility, because everyone, of every political stripe, can see that's it's true. Even if they won't admit it, they feel it in their gut, the place where most votes by most people originate.
People don't vote for policies, they vote for stories. Brown can tell the story people most want to hear now — that we can fight the systemic corruption in Washington, that we can take the country back from the special interests. He can tell it and Obama can't, because Obama has proved, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that he doesn't believe in it anymore, if he ever did.
You can draw your own conclusions about what this is going to mean next November, and in 2012. I'll say this, though — expect Brown to be a player in the race for the Republican nomination for President in 2012, and if he gets it, expect him to beat Obama.
The Democrats won't even see it coming, just as they had no desire to watch Brown's victory speech last night. They're far more interested in explaining why he shouldn't have won than in understanding why he did.
From The Wedding March, 1928.