Transition, Scale, and Catastrophe @ GW MEMSI 3/20/15

transition poster w correct dateThe walls didn’t fall. No flood, nor fire. The AV worked smoothly for everyone, and we even had time to luxuriate twice in Lynn Tomlinson’s gorgeous animated short film, The Ballad of Holland Island House. The bar did run out of dark rum, but by that time of night it was hard to call that a catastrophe.

So what about last Friday’s symposium makes me feel stretched, exhausted, exhilarated but also vulnerable like an oyster without a shell?

In the middle of my talk I quoted Primo Levi on almost but not quite getting right to the heart of the matter, unlocking impossible questions — what are transition, scale, and catastrophe, really? — with no working tools other than words:

Perhaps, despite the wan translation and the pedestrian, rushed commentary, he has received the message, he has felt that it has to do with him, that it has to do with all of us who toil, and with we two in particular, who dare to reason of these things with the poles for soup on our shoulders (114).

His story of Dante and the whirlpool ends the same place as Lynn’s film –

And over our heads the hollow seas closed up (114).

 We went there, but not to stay.

It’s hard to reassemble it all now, the “fierce joy” and collective willingness to play and imagine together. I remember some stray lines, rushed into coherence with a borrowed pen. I’ll stick them here like the petroleum-based clay Lynn used to build her animated house: shapes brought together into structure. A series of alternatives to the catastrophic turns that fell to the ground outside as over-large flakes of wet, late-season snow:

Karl Steel: “as optimistically as possible” “post-agentic optimism” (the latter is my phrase but Karl’s insight)

Stephanie LeManager:  “an archive of sensory knowledge” “calling out witnesses” “weathering” (I wanted to ask more about the last term)

Lynn Tomlinson: “animate art” “jellyfish feel nostalgia for the age of humans”

Anne Harris: “every work of art is a remembered ecological crisis”

Stacy Alaimo: “thinking the Anthropocene at sea”

Me: “Something always washes up on the beach”

Those words don’t get it. Not quite. Lynn’s film comes closer, from its seagull opening to the flash of the yellow perch entering the flooded house near the end: finding home in a post-catastrophic world.

Lynn's Perch

These things depend on so much that I can’t write down: on gesture, tone, community, a shared willingness to imagine. Oysters are allegories, and also exposed asymmetrical flesh, salt and patient. We all depended on Jeffrey Cohen‘s ring-master timing, bringing us forward, two by two. On the generosity of the audience. On asking ourselves to change in response to others.

The running gag during the lead-up to the symposium was that we were courting Catastrophe: that was the subject line of weeks of emails. Catastrophe is coming to DC! But for me the best things about this too-soon-over event weren’t the sudden turns of insight or brilliance, though those will linger and inform my thinking for days and years to come. Best of all were the unexpected transitions, the “anamorphic breaks” laid bare by Anne’s brilliant discussion of The Ambassadors, the possibility that an entire other thing might be there, waiting for us, visible if we only allow our eyes to turn, just so, a little more, close one eye to focus: there it is!

What we glimpsed wasn’t Holbein’s allegorical skull. Something else. Something better?

Such a pleasure to gather at GW MEMSI to reason of these things! Holbein


What is Ecocriticism?

Screenshot 2015-03-12 15.45.03On April 14, I’ll give the McElroy Shakespeare Lecture at Loyola U. in Chicago, working with local actors to present “green” (pastoral) and “blue” (oceanic) ecological threads through some scenes from the second half of The Winter’s Tale. The actors are rehearsing now in Chicago, and they’ve asked for a short paragraph defining “ecocriticism” to help them think about the project and the notes I’ve sent them about the play.

It’s an interesting challenge: describe your favorite over-flowing sub-field in 150 words or less.

With help from some books that sit within a few feet of my desk — Glotfelty and Fromm’s Ecocriticism Reader, Gerrard’s Ecocriticism, Lynne Bruckner and Dan Brayton’s Ecocritical Shakespeare were quickest to hand — here’s what I’ve come up with to send on the Loyola.

What is Ecocriticism?

A thriving and contentious academic field, ecocriticism defines itself through a shared interest in examining the relationship between human beings and the non-human environment. These investigations range from cultural histories of human ecological entanglements to critical analyses of the meanings of such terms as “human” and “nature.” With its origins paralleling the birth of modern environmentalist politics, ecocriticism produces historical and theoretical models that engage the rising tide of ecological awareness. Diverse strains within the field explore matters such as environmental justice, gender, ethics, economic development and the global south, various articulations of critical theory, the relationship between the sciences and the humanities, and multiple strains of activist politics. Ecocritics collectively bring the tools and methods of the humanities to bear on urgent questions for today’s age of global ecological crisis. The discourse represents an attempt by humanities scholarship to come to terms with a fractured world.

It all sounds very presentist for a scholar of 17c literature like me, though I do believe, as Sharon O’Dair has argued, that presentist energy drives ecocritical thinking.

I’d love feedback from the many ecocritics who can help me see what I’m omitting!


Shipwreck Modernity: coming next Fall

Just got the cover image from University of Minnesota Press. It’ll be out next fall…

MentzBits and pieces of this book have been filtering through this blog for years, but now it’s time to start a fuller rollout. Starting with the table of contents:

Two Prefaces:

Epochal Claims and the Age of Shipwreck

Ulysses and the Global Ecology

1: The Wet and the Dry: Shipwreck Hermeneutics

2: Angry Gods: Theologies of the Ocean

3; Isle of Tempests: Bermuda in the Early Modern Imagination

Interchapter: Pearls that were his eyes

4: Metis: Jeremy Roch

5. Metis: Edward Barlow

Interchapter: Philosopher on the Mast-Head

6. “We Split”: Sea Poetry and Maritime Crisis

7. Castaways: Surviving Disaster

Three Short Epilogues

The Bright Light of Shipwreck

The Bookfish

Seven Shipwrecked Ecological Truths


Songs of Lear by Song of the Goat Theatre (Teatr Piesn Kozla)

Yale Rep poster

Yale Rep poster

About a third of the way through this riveting, devastating performance, director/conductor Grzegorz Bral introduced the next song or “painting” by saying that Cordelia’s experience in the love test had been nothing new. The king had been betraying his daughter for years. An actor came forward and sat in a chair, surrounded by the other nine actors dressed in black. She sang the same lines three different times: as a four year old, a twelve-year old, and the seventeen year old princess who opens the play:

The jewels of our father, with wash’d eyes

Cordelia leaves you.[…]

Love well our father

To your professed bosoms I commit him

But yet, alas, stood I within his grace

I would prefer him to a better place. (1.1.268-74)

Cordelia and the Fool

Cordelia and the Fool

Rich harmonies swelled up behind the seated singer from the chanting cast. Tears glistened on her face. Words hung in the air, deepened and changed through repetition: “jewels” “love” “commit” “grace.” Fear and love became anger and — perhaps? — resignation.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a more moving five minutes of theater. I am sure I’ll never hear those lines the same way again. See better, Lear!

This production, which won all the awards at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2012 and, as its own website notes, “has already passed into legend,” wasn’t a version of King Lear so much as a series of song-paintings that engage some primary moments. Gloucester got a brilliant drum solo but kept his eyes, and the parts of Lear, Cordelia, and the Fool occupied center stage. The twelve sections included lyrics based on Gregorian chants as well as Shakespeare’s play.

Lear’s curse to Goneril was another highlight, with some interesting overlap between Cordelia and her evil sister.

I’m listening to the CD over and over right now, wishing the next two nights weren’t sold out so that I could go again. I also like this You Tube trailer.

Some friends of mine in San Francisco have been telling me for a while that Poland has the best avant-garde theater in the world. Now I know what they’re talking about.images

To the list of companies who I’d pay to see do anything, anywhere, any time, I’ll now add Song of the Goat.



The Winter’s Tale at the Pearl Theater

Winter's taleLast Tuesday, chatting with a friend about going to see The Winter’s Tale with my students, I let my professional demeanor slip and admitted that I think this play is “maybe the best of Shakespeare’s plays, not counting the ones that make you want to jump off a bridge.” Excluding the canonical joys of high nihilism, it’s hard to beat The Winter’s Tale‘s combination of paranoia, emotional intensity, music, festive comedy, and — eventually — artistic transcendence. I know as a Shakespeare prof I’m not supposed to have favorites but…

The Pearl Theater production on W. 42nd Street comes straight at you, with clarity and emotional intensity. If live theater is on some fundamental level a machine for concentrating emotions — and I think that’s a fair definition, though maybe not an exclusive one — what’s distinctive here is the directness of the production. In a small theater with a non-fussy modern set, the show dives directly in. Directed by Michael Sexton, Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Society, who directed a lively Titus at the PublicLab back in 2011, this production leveraged the play’s waywardness, its self-conscious resemblance to an “old tale,” for emotional power. Parts of it felt like opera, and not just during the music.

The strongest performance of the night was Jolly Abraham as Hermione, with a Bohemian turn as sexy country lass Dorcas in act 4. Her commanding presence was strong enough that for her final appearance as statue she didn’t ascend a pedestal, but instead stood still at center stage, drawing the audience’s eyes to her.  While the audience gazed at the statue, the actors stared out over our heads, searching for what they couldn’t see. Once she started moving, they turned to see Hermione with wonder. Both both during and before her trial, the Queen ruled the stage while her husband cowered to one side.

Photo by Richard Termine. Tom Nelis as Camillo and Peter Francis James as Leontes

Photo by Richard Termine. Tom Nelis as Camillo and Peter Francis James as Leontes

Peter Francis James’s Leontes reminded me of the desperately child-like version of Lear that Derek Jacobi brought to Brooklyn in 2011. The king was needy as an infant, spewing his emotional desperation out into the theater. The force of that emotion made his jealousy explicable, because we all know that children can’t control themselves, but at the cost — as in the case of Jacobi’s Lear — of leeching away some of his monarchial majesty. The Sicilian king’s need to occupy the center wasn’t matched by his capacity to hold himself there.

At the break, one of my students confessed that she was really looking forward to getting to Bohemia. Since I’ve just written a Shakespeare Association of America conference paper that springboards off of the first couplet in Time’s speech — “terror” rhymes with “error” — I was also anticipating Time’s transitional speech in 4.1. The full cast returned to the stage with the house lights still on, some not all the way back into character — Polixenes was doing the Times crossword, and I think Leontes had a script in his hand. They started back in by playing an actors’ game: one nodded to the next and said “I” (Ay?), and then each in turn passed the hot-potato of attention around the stage. Hermione, not looking very dead, started the speaking with the couplet that (I would argue) focuses the play’s interest in transforming errancy into productive change —

I, that please some, try all, both joy and terror

Of good and bad, that makes and unfolds error…

The rest of Time’s thirty-two lines were parceled out among the full cast, a couplet or so at a time. Of the production’s scattered meta-theatrical gestures — a glance back at the audience before opening the dinner party in 1.1, the complex staging of the statue scene, Autolycus’s asides and soliloquies — this one seemed to me the strongest and most original, drawing the audience into the conspiracy and insisting on the need for everyone in the room to help re-order the fractured kingdoms.

Photo by Richard Termine. New York Times. Steve Cuiffo as Autolycus.

Richard Termine. New York Times

I’m always a sucker for an Autolycus who channels Bob Dylan, and Steve Cuiffo, whose card tricks had entertained Mamillius in Sicilia, burst on the scene with guitar, guitar case, “pack,” and as many sheets as he could stuff into his pockets or drape over himself. He was great fun, though perhaps not sufficiently threatening to seem a true outlaw. His “Come buy” song during the sheep-shearing scene was less exploitation of the gulls whose purses he would later pick than simple celebration: no anxieties about capitalism or the money-print nexus in this production, though I think there are some in the play.

My long-ago student Alexis Soloski’s review in the New York Times thought the air went out of the balloon in Bohemia, or at least that the bitter winds of the West Side somehow snuck under the Pearl Theater’s door. It was hard to keep the energy up for the full three hours, but for me the only flagging came during the return to Sicilia, before the statue scene, when a final encounter between Autolycus and the Clown and Shepherd, newly “Gentlemen born,” did not yield many sparks. Perhaps if the thief had been more of a threat before, his final taming might have seemed more urgent?

The final moments on stage are everybody’s favorite image of theatrical magic, the last stop on a long road of show-stoppers. The text is somewhat ambiguous about the resumption of the marriage after sixteen years: “She hangs upon his neck” (5.3.112) says Camillo, played expertly by Tom Nelis, but when she speaks it’s only to her daughter. Three women take center stage and Leontes, as he had for much of his madness in the first half of the play, slinks over to one side. Hermione claims her daughter and her power:

Tell me, mine own ,

Where hast thou been preserved? Where lived? how found

Thy father’s court? For thou shalt hear that I,

Knowing by Paulina that the oracle

Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserved

Myself to see the issue. (5.3.123-28)

Leontes makes on last grab at the reins after this speech, marrying off Camillo and Paulina, insisting the Hermione and Polixenes look on each other, asking that Paulina lead everyone offstage. But I’m not sure — in this production, at least, it seemed pretty clear that Hermione hadn’t come back for him.

UPDATE: Bear thinking…

Since tweets once tweeted are lost forever (I think), I’m going to add some “Pursued by a Bear” thoughts that emerged from a twitter chat with @BoydaJosa. The famous bear of 3.3 was performed by the whose cast except Antigonus, who plays the part of the bear’s dinner. I enjoyed the collectivist implication of a six-person bear-train in fur coats: as with Time, the cast performs the key transitional parts as a group. I also thought it was an interesting choice to have Hermione carrying the bear’s head and open jaws. She remained powerful even when supposedly dead; she also also came on stage to speak the lines her “ghost” says to Antigonus during his relation of the dream of shipwreck. My students and I also talked about the great visual moment in which the bear-collective surrounded Antigonus, tearing him to shreds and pulling out his intestines in long white sheets, which would become the sheets that transformed the set from arid Sicilia to festive Bohemia. The price of spring’s arrival? It also made a striking contrast to the several funny bears I’ve seen, including Propeller’s use of Mamilius’s teddy bear in the part.


Caroline Bergvall’s “Drift” at Calicoon Fine Arts

Poetry through fog

Poetry through fog

Last spring I discovered (and blogged about) Caroline Bergvall’s amazing book Drift, which brings together an experimental translation of the Old English poem The Seafarer — one of my very favorite poems — with the story of the Left-to-Die Boat, packed full of Algerian refugees in the Mediterranean in 2011.

Yesterday I parked on top of a 10″ high slab of ice to go see an installation version at Calicoon Fine Arts on Delancey St.

The show is a great extension of the book. Headsets dangling from the ceiling loop two audio clips, one of Bergvall reading a section from the translation and the other of her narration of the Left-to-Die Boat.

A half-dozen foggy panels reveal, if looked at from the right angle, selections from the poem.

A video screen in the back room mashes up other linguistic fragments in an ongoing cycle.

The guy who worked at the gallery said they were working on trying to bring Bergvall’s full multi-media performance of Drift to New York, maybe next year.A

A great way to re-view and re-think a great poem!

The Left-to-Die Boat

The Left-to-Die Boat

I can make my sorry tale right soggy truth. (25)

Blow wind / blow, anon am I. (25)


New York Shakespeare Exchange’s Titus Andronicus

posterDuring a great pre-show conversation with me and some of my students, director Ross Williams emphasized that his New York Shakespeare Exchange production of Titus Andronicus would be relatively low on stage blood. He talked about wanting to distinguish his production from some others — he mentioned the 2011 production at the PublicLab, and I wonder if he was also thinking about the intensely wet glory of this past fall’s Tamburlaine the Great — and also about his desire to have the language be heard. After the talk but before the show, a student admitted to me that she had been hoping for gore. The full spectacle was what she’d come down to Soho for on a cold February night. There were no red liquids until just before intermission — but I’m pretty sure she got what she wanted.

The Times review crowed that the show was “electric.” I’ll happily concur. The energy started with what, in retrospect, remains my favorite scene, a dumb-show bloodless bloodletting induction, in which all the characters appeared together before the action started and melodramatically cut each others’ throats. No language yet, and no blood, just great movement and the first appearance of a very effective audio prop, a pull-operated old-fashioned grain dispenser, which poured what I think were kernels of unpopped popcorn into an aluminum tub each time a character was killed or assaulted. Over the course of the full play, that’s a lot of corn flowing into the basin — and the repeated rain-like sound made a kind of refrain throughout the evening.

Brenden Averett as Titus © Kalle Westerling

Brenden Averett as Titus
© Kalle Westerling

The other great innovation of this production was the prominence of the Clown, played by Kerry Kastin with a bow-tie and white face-paint. As the Times review emphasized, the Clown showed up to play the roles of the (many) characters who appeared on stage to be killed. Starting with a pair of  sons in the opening scene — Tamora’s Alarbus, whose limbs are lopped to appease the spirits of dead Roman soldiers, and Titus’s Mutius, who dies defending his sister from his enraged father — the Clown’s part formed a visual counterpoint of brightly-colored doom. I loved Kastin’s performance, and in a way I thought she made theatrically visible one of the things we Shakespeare scholars tend to say about this play, that’s it’s half dark comedy, riffing off of Marlowe’s bloody hero-villians (including Tamburlaine). Combined with restraint in the use of blood, the Clown’s smiles and the sounds of circus music, mostly after intermission, brought out the aesthetic beauty of the verse and the symbolic force of spectacle. This Rome is, as Titus calls it, “a wilderness of tigers,” but we the audience loved watching it.

I thought Terence MacSweeny’s Marcus gave the strongest readings of the language, but the towering center of the play was Brendan Averett’s Titus. I’d seen him before as the tallest and slowest of the mechanicals in Julie Taymor’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in Brooklyn, and in a few moments, especially early in the play, some of the sleepiness of that performance clung to him. After losing his hand and the heads of two more sons just before intermission, however, he surged into madness. Dressed “like a cook” in the final scene, delicately spooning out what looked like raspberries to Tamora and Saturninus, he dominated the second half of the play with wayward intensity.

My (predictably) favorite speech in the play has the tormented hero imagining himself and his mutilated daughter as ocean and sky, raging into violent contact:

And wilt thou have a reason for this coil?

I am the sea. Hark how her sighs doth blow.

She is the weeping welkin, I the earth,

Then must my sea be moved with her sighs… (3.1.225-8)

I didn’t quote this passage in my book on Shakespeare’s Ocean, but I think I’ll want to dig into the violent ecological imagery in this play at some point. The sea-sky-earth system in Titus is self-consuming rather than sustaining. In perhaps the most notorious mismash of comic bluster and horrific violence, when Titus bakes Tamora’s cruel sons into pies that he’ll later serve to their mother, he imagines that when the Queen eats her children, she follows Nature’s pattern:

Kate Lydic as Lavinia  (Westerling)

Kate Lydic as Lavinia

Like to the earth [she will] swallow her own increase (5.2.191).

It’s a play full of child-killing, and particularly of parents who destroy their own children, from its first to last scenes. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Roman and Gothic warrior cultures that send the young off to die resonates uncomfortably with the rise of militarism in 21c American culture. (The archery scene was played with paper airplanes, but I thought about “American Sniper.”)

The play also exposes popular entertainment’s interest in sexualized violence, and Kate Lydic’s Lavinia, perhaps the only straightforwardly sympathetic figure in the play, mutely bore witness to the cost of building cultural values through violence against women. Lydic’s speaking performance was powerful, especially when she appealed to Tamora to save her from the Goth Queen’s lustful sons. When she returned mute after their attack, her hands covered with stocking-stumps and her mouth permanently closed, her presence created a kind of counter-Clown on stage, recalling the tragic loss that offsets the comic play.

It’s hard, after so many deaths, including this production’s extra dozen-plus in the silent Goth War opening, for another stage killing to shock. But when old Andronicus took the advice of the bad emperor Saturninus, filtered through the morally fraught example of Livy’s Virginius, to kill his beloved daughter, the play’s balance shifted for the last time. Titus himself had been playing something like the Clown’s part, spooning out bits of raspberry-flavored child flesh to the imperial couple, but in killing Lavinia he tipped back into pure madness.

I drove home on frozen highways and through a maze of road construction in the Bronx thinking about cultures that write their own violence onto the bodies of their children, and about how this play engages these dark questions with parodic and disturbing touches. I was also thinking about the Super Bowl — but maybe that’s another post.

Go see the show before it closes this Sunday!

The circus set (Westerling)

The circus set


Ground Hog Swim Meet

The pool in Westport

The pool in Westport

This morning I swam in the Conn Masters Swimming meet in Westport. It was the first time I’ve raced in a pool with a timer since…maybe the 1980s? I was faster as an 18 year old, but I was pretty pleased with the results. Winning my division in the 200 IM isn’t a great triumph — I was the only 45-49 year old man who swam the event — but overall I feel pretty good about my 6:49.02 in the water this morning. A very different feel from open-water races!

30th Annual Ground Hog Meet

Steve Mentz (CONN) Age Group 45-49

Event Seed
HT/LN Time Place
5 Mixed 50 Y Free 35.00 7/6 29.33 2
9 Mixed 200 Y IM 2:45.00 1/2 3:07.54 1
11 Mixed 50 Y Fly 45.00 4/4 39.06 5
13 Mixed 100 Y Free 1:10.00 4/2 1:07.80 4
14 Mixed 100 Y IM 1:25.00 3/3 1:25.29 6
Total 500 Y 6:40.00 6:49.02

S15: Shakespeare and the Rhetoric of Performance

TitusI’m excited for my S15 Shakespeare class, which starts tomorrow. I threw out my tried-and-true structure for writing analytical papers and am going to try something different: writing in response to contemporary performance. All the writing assignments — three short and one long paper — will be in dialogue with contemporary performances, in most cases things we’ve seen together, but perhaps inevitably some filmed performances also. Here’s the four-pack of shows we’ll see this spring in NYC. So excited!

Titus Andronicus: by the New York Shakespeare Exchange

Tuesday Feb 3, 8:30 pm. At the HERE theater, downtown Manhattan. 145 6th Ave (1 block south of Spring)

 The Winter’s Tale: at the Pearl Theater, 555 W. 42nd Street (between 10th and 11th Aves)

Tuesday Feb 17, 7 pm.  Winter's tale

Cry, Trojans: by The Wooster Group (an experimental version of Troilus & Cressida). At St. Ann’s Warehouse, DUMBO, Brooklyn

 Fri March 27, 8 pm. Cost TBA

Two Gentlemen of Verona: by Fiasco Theater at Theatre for a New Audience

Fri April 24 at the Tfana theatre in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

 I’m especially looking forward to seeing what different kinds of writing this course will generate. At the risk of over-sharing, I’m going to send my class (via this blog post) to my 2014 year-in-reviews compilation of the performances I wrote about last year, including an earlier version of Cry, Trojans. Here’s the list with links, and a few notes to help contextualize the shows(for anyone who missed this list in early Jan):

Cry, Trojans

Cry, Trojans

1. Twelfth Night with Mark Rylance (1/17): An all-male cast from the UK brought this production to Broadway from the reconstructed Globe Theater.

2. Cry, Trojans by the Wooster Group (1/31): A workshop building up to the production we’ll see in March.

3. Twelfth Night by Pig Iron (2/21): A brilliant, rowdy, musical version of the play.

4. Antony & Cleopatra at the Public (3/13): An Angl0-American cast, in a show also over from London.

5. Red Velvet at St Ann’s (4/4): Not Shakespeare but about the life and performance history of Ira Aldridge, the first great African-American actor to play Shakespeare in London.

6. Lear at Tfana (4/23): The second production at their new space in Fort Greene.

7. Rumstick Road by the Wooster Group (5/2): This one’s a film, and not Shakespeare at all.

8. Macbeth with Kenneth Branagh (6/6): Staged at the Armory uptown, this was Sir Kenneth’s NYC debut, apparently. The production had been previously staged in an unconsecrated church in the north of England.

9. Antony & Cleopatra at the Globe (6/28): I saw this one in London, standing room at the Globe.

10. Two Gents and The White Devil in Stratford (8/7): The first two of the four plays I saw at the International Shakespeare Conference in Shakespeare’s hometown.

11. 2 Henry IV and Roaring Girl in Stratford (8/9): The next two at Stratford-upon-Avon.

12. Gaia Global Circus (by Bruno Latour) 9/28: Another non-Shakespeare show; interesting for the eco-minded.

13. Tempest 1 at LaMaMa (10/6): First of three productions of The Tempest in the East Village this fall.

14. The Master and Margarita at Yale Drama (10/26): A great production of the modern Russian masterwork.

15. Tempest 2 at LaMaMa (11/22): The second production was in Korean!

16. Pericles at the Public (11/26): A great traveling show, to which I brought last semester’s class.

17. Tamburlaine at Tfana (12/7): John Douglas Thompson, fresh from playing Satchmo on Broadway, conquers world.

18. Inherent Vice (12/15): Another film, and non Shakespeare. Further thoughts here.

19. Tempest 3 at LaMaMa (12/20): An Italian company combines Shakespeare with activism, sci fi, and late 20c history.


Further thoughts on Shasta Fay

Feeling a bit under the weather, I treated myself yesterday to a matinee second-helping of Paul Thomas Andersons’s film-homage to Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, which I wrote about after catching it last month during its limited opening in NYC. I went back to luxuriate in Pynchonomania, of course, but also to try to figure out what’s been bothering me a bit about the film. As I said last month, among a slew of great comic performances I thought the only one that rang false to me was Katherine Waterston’s Shasta Fay Hepworth, Doc’s “ex-old lady.” Anderson’s film,  perhaps inevitably, focuses on the enigmatic romance core rather than the paranoid discursive rind of Pynchon’s novel. He treats Shasta as the story’s keystone, its visual ideal, and perhaps — as this very smart review-essay in Avidly by Evan Kindley shows — its excuse for indulging cinema’s semi-pornographic male gaze.

Inherent Vice Poster

Inherent Vice Poster

Kindley’s essay opens by showing one of the promotional images for the film (I reproduce Kindley’s close-up here), which shows a young woman’s, presumably Shasta’s, legs dominating the screen, with the good ship Golden Fang (aka Preserved, in a subplot the movie doesn’t really have time to explore) barely visible in the upper right of the screen. The primacy of female sex appeal in the image interprets itself, though if you think of the ship as a representation of the novel’s confusing paranoid conspiracy plot — what readers of Pynchon call “history” — then the relative size of the woman’s body v. maritime symbol indicates the desire of the publicist, at least, to sell more sex than paranoia. (A reasonable choice, perhaps.)

Like Kindley, I think Anderson’s decision to narrow the focus onto the Shasta Fay plot represents the film’s major reshaping of its source-novel. I’m not enough of a Andersonista or film historian to judge the movie through the visual history Kindley lays out in his review, but I think the sentimental shaping, in which the film coheres as a story of lost love, is worth thinking about. My sense is that it distorts Pynchon in two ways. Most obviously, as the poster’s asymmetrical split-screen shows, Anderson’s film squeezes out the novel’s paranoid vision of history, which really is the center of Pynchon’s project, around which sexual hi-jinks are mostly a particularly intense side-show. Secondly, the centrality of the love-plot sentimentalizes Shasta Fay herself, in ways that are worth exploring.

As you might expect from a figure who mysteriously vanishes early in the narrative only to just as mysteriously reappear — the novel’s storyline is more complex but not really clearer — Shasta appears in relatively few scenes. I count four main appearances in the film: 1) the opening scene, when she shows up unexpectedly at Doc’s place dressed in “flatland gear”, 2) the ouiji board flashback, which also includes a sentimental walk-on-the-beach scene of uncertain temporality (to me, at least), 3) the visually shocking reunion sex scene, which Kindley calls a “calculatedly unpleasant” example of “softcore sadomodernism,” and 4) the ambiguous final shot of the film.

(It seems meaningful that of these four, only the first and third are in Pynchon’s novel, even though Anderson, by all reports, has tried to represent the book faithfully. His film gets Pynchon right to an amazing degree — but in this particular case, I think he gets Shasta wrong.)

The first scene is the worst of the four: Shasta dressed to fit into Micky Wolfmann’s “straight-world persuasion” appears too obviously a Hollywood fantasy of vulnerable beauty. Pynchon describes her as illegible to Doc: “she was laying some heavy combination of face ingredients on him that he couldn’t read at all. Maybe something she’d picked up at acting school” (3). But Waterston’s face is mostly too easy to read. Shasta’s little-mentioned Hollywood career, which Anderson’s film mostly omits, though Doc does tell Sortilege that he’d always assumed he’d next see Shasta “on the tube,” gets presented in Anderson’s opening as simple fear and a plea for help. Waterston mouths Pynchon’s sentimental dialogue — “You never did let me down, Doc” (5) — but with Anderson’s connivance, she makes Shasta Fay, for all her mystery and power, simply a damsel in distress. The independence and power, not to mention the sense of humor, of Pynchon’s opaque heroine gets lost in the shuffle. The novel’s Shasta is much more resourceful, variable, and less easily interpreted, than she is in the film.

(Incidentally, Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of Assistant DA and Doc’s current semi-girlfriend Penny captures the force and independence that Waterston’s Shasta lacks. Perhaps b/c Penny remains, like all the characters in the story including Doc himself, a bit of a caricature? No space to consider this here, but I do think all the complaints about Pynchon’s characters not being “realistic” misses the point: he’s not a realist, but an allegorist. His characters, especially but not only his women characters, may be “paper-thin” (as Kindley observes), but they represent points in a system, not universes unto themselves. The disintegration of Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow is probably the signature example of Pynchon’s baseline anti-individualism: “he is being broken down…and scattered….no clear happiness or redeeming cataclysm” [738]. But perhaps that vision of the corrosive force of history is harder to film than the lure of sexuality!)

The second of Shasta’s scenes, an extended flashback dance-in-the-rain with Neil Young soundtrack that represents the once-happy couple’s past, is lovely to watch but entirely un-Pynchonian. The novel’s Shasta is never this easy to see. I understand why Anderson might have wanted such a scene, but it further puts Shasta’s legs in the foreground and the ship of conspiratorial history in the background. The whole things is pretty but misplaced.

The third and most striking of Shasta’s scenes brings her to Doc’s place for reunion sex, with dialogue almost entirely taken verbatim from Pynchon. The scene features extended nudity from Waterston and some SM role-playing, in which Shasta regales Doc with tales of her dominating lover Mickey Wolfmann. “Sometimes he could almost make you feel invisible,” she says, gliding naked across the room to descend upon Doc, who uncomfortably mutters, “Guys love to hear shit like this” (307). The scene’s sexual tension shocks, especially within the generally easy-flowing pace of the movie. The sound of the “half dozen sincere smacks” that Doc gives Shasta’s bare ass set up an ambiguity that Shasta’s immediately post-coital line, “This doesn’t mean we’re back together” (307), doesn’t dispel. (That line appears in the novel too, but notably after a second, less disturbing, sexual episode. Pynchon’s novel is also careful to specify Shasta’s “intentions” [307] in the scene, which are harder to parse on the screen.) Kindley’s review suggests, persuasively, that this scene is pure exploitative male fantasy, the beautiful helpless naked woman. It’s a hard point to dispute, as it’s shown visually, but in the novel the scene also includes an explanation of Shasta’s trip on the good ship Golden Fang, the two characters’ mutual lamentation of the complex fate of Mickey Wolfmann, and in general much more of Pynchon’s tangent-zooming than the sexualized gaze of the camera allows. The visual opulence of film overwhelms viewers in the way Mulvey theorized, so the ironic turnings of Pynchon’s signature method aren’t as available during this scene.

I don’t think Anderson could really have filmed all of the novel’s plot, nor am I sure that it would have been worth it to chase down all Pynchon’s blind alleys. I am sort of hoping for a Director’s Cut DVD that will serve up another 45 min or so of what got left on the floor, but the structure of Pynchon’s novels involves disorientation, not solutions.

No, this is not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into… (Gravity’s Rainbow 3)

During my first viewing, I slightly misread Shasta’s final scene, which I had thought was a pure addition. Based on the hazy back-lighting, I now recognize the scene as a version of the  driving in the fog vignette with which the novel ends. Doc, in Anderson’s version accompanied by Shasta, has been driving south down the 405 when a dense coastal fog brings everything to a halt. As the “third dimension grew less and less reliable” (367), the cars formed themselves into a “temporary commune to help each other home” (368).

In Anderson’s version, Shasta nestles into Doc’s shoulder, and he looks a little foggy himself. He repeats her line from the earlier scene — “This doesn’t mean we’re back together” — and she replies, as if hiding a secret, “Of course not.” The romance fantasy-plot has other ideas, of course, and we’re left with the hope of something like a happy ending.

Kindley suggests that the Shasta plot parallels Anderson’s own doomed romance with Fiona Apple, which suggests that the film “Inherent Vice” may represent Anderson’s coming to terms with a lost love (Apple) as well as a literary master (Pynchon). That seems plausible, though I don’t know the Hollywood history. As a Pynchonista, however, I’m not entirely pleased with the distortion of Shasta Fay, who gets transformed from a mysterious source of power — her name echoes Mt Shasta in Northern CA, where, according to hippie / New Age legend & lost Inherent Vice subplot, three Lemurian sages first set foot on sacred California after the inundation of their homeland — into a masculine fantasy about female beauty, vulnerability, and sexuality.

Even as I was working out these distortions in Waterston’s Shasta Fay, I found myself enjoying the film the second time through. I think by the end I was pleased to have found something on the screen that couldn’t quite touch the real Pynchon. It makes the moments of real contact between visions and artistic modes more striking.

I know the oversized masterpieces Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon are impossible — but I’d love to see him try Bleeding Edge or Lot 49!