Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A walk to remember

“In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work…” So goes the first of many elegant sentences describing, among many other things, a walk; sentences paced like walking, chronicling thoughts, discoveries and investigations that emerge from walking, that make up W.G. Sebald’s famously unclassifiable book The Rings of Saturn, first published in German in 1995, and in English translation in 1998. The book engenders its own pilgrimage, complete with occasional, enigmatic, caption-free illustrations, and immerses the reader in its author’s melancholic yet endlessly curious mental landscape, in his many attempts to preserve the memory of endangered themes, such as the industrialization of silk and the writings of 17th-century English polymath Thomas Browne. Sebald was born in Bavaria near the close of the Second World War, but he made his academic career in England, and died there, in a car accident near Norwich in 2001. Sebald has remained in print and beloved, beguiling and endlessly blurbable for certain publicists seeking haute literary cred. He remains a writer’s writer, but he is also a vast wood where any patient reader can wander, remember, and then forget many things so carefully memorialized.

Which is also to say that Sebald is ripe for fresh exegesis—there is both a genuine desire and a market. But I suppose it is a niche market, which would explain why even the fevered readers among you mightn’t have heard about Grant Gee’s Patience (After Sebald), which follows the footsteps of Saturn. It first appeared in select cinemas in 2011 and has since been released on DVD by Cinema Guild. It is nearly as resistant to category as the book it’s inspired by, bearing traces of biography, criticism, homage, travelogue and atmosphere-piece. Much of the film consists of slow dissolves between stark black and white landscapes, while rarely seen commentators address Sebald’s life and work in voice-over. As a way of invoking The Rings of Saturn for the uninitiated, I find Patience a little misleading: such a muted, limited visual field doesn’t reflect the calm yet constant cascade of data, narrative and conjecture on offer in the book (or, for that matter, any Sebald book). Not that we should expect Patience to be mimetic—if we want a film that feels more like reading Sebald, perhaps we should watch Sans Soleil (1983) or Buñuel’s The Milky Way (1969). Better to regard Patience as a valuable accessory rather than a parallel artwork, and to enjoy it as a sort of meditation object in its own right.

Some highlights: software developer Barbara Hui sharing her brilliant digital map of the Saturn walk, which includes footnotes explaining what digressions each spot prompted in Sebald; poet Andrew Motion on the Orford Merman; a consideration of the similarities between Suffolk and the Zone from Stalker (1979); visual artist Tacita Dean on itinerary maps one can “follow” without ever leaving home; psychologist and essayist Adam Phillips on how Sebald’s is the kind of Holocaust writing we need; and the voice of Sebald himself discussing the use of fog in literature. Patience marked the first time I’d ever heard Sebald’s voice; how ghostly when placed amidst all these other living voices. But living and dead intermingle always in Sebald, so how fitting, then, that Patience allows this particular ghost to linger, and to wander with us a while longer. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

How science made a monkey out of Dr. Jessup

Did seeing Altered States (1980) on VHS help prompt my teenage enthusiasm for drug experimentation? I’m fairly sure that Aldous Huxley, Rimbaud, myriad musicians and the Beats probably beat it to the punch, but the film’s protagonist, played by William Hurt, certainly seemed to encapsulate precisely the sort of dazzled longing for chemical-induced transcendence that wooed by hungry young consciousness. Until he goes ape, at which point things get pretty silly. But that’s nearly two-thirds into the movie, and by then it already had me. I still retain enormous affection for Altered States and am happy for whatever excuse to revisit it. 

Hurt remains central to the movie’s appeal, his baby-blues and beatific arrogance. He introduced a new, liberal ideal of Aryan beauty, ambition and intelligence. He must have been pleased that for his big screen debut he would play an irresistible genius. Eddie Jessup is a whiz-kid professor spending all his spare time in a sensory deprivation tank, studiously chronicling his head-trips to his dutiful bearded lab buddy Bob Balaban. The movie starts with Jessup just floating there in the tank in silence, the embryonic hero-shaman. His next big entrance has him surrounded by warm white light in the threshold of a party full of pot-smoking academics halfway through the organ solo of ‘Light My Fire.’ He quickly corners, or rather kitchens, Emily (Blair Brown) the second-smartest-prettiest person in attendance; within hours he beds her, the sex accompanied by religious visions; post-coitally he confesses his psychic need, the childhood realization on his father’s deathbed that death is a harrowing void, so best to break on through to the other side while still kicking; within two months Emily’s proposing marriage to him.

Flash-forward to prestige gigs for both at Harvard, two kids and a martial crisis, and Jessup’s off to the arid Mexican north to hang with Indians and swallow some bubbling brown hallucinogenic concoction that looks like mole but seems meant to resemble ayahuasca. (Wrong hemisphere, but whatever.) The stamp of director Ken Russell, maestro of overstatement, is most clearly seen in the hallucination sequences, which are largely very literal-minded and corny, though there are startling moments, such the extended sequence in which Jessup and Emily lay still on a cave floor, in fetal and sphinx poses, respectively, while a sandstorm first engulfs them and then erodes their bodies down to dust. That bit is about as inspired as Altered States gets, but let us praise the movie for its likable supporting characters, such as Charles Haid's ornery, perpetually gasket-blowing doctor-assistant, and its remarkable fleetness, the way it gallops through exposition without stopping for breath.

The script and source novel were by Paddy Chayefsky, though he would withdraw his name from the finished product, for reasons one can guess at. I haven’t read Chayefsky’s book and thus can’t comment on Russell’s treatment of it, but could anyone, even, say, David Cronenberg, have convincingly realized the story’s final third, in which weird science makes a monkey out of Jessup? Taking more and more of the Mexican brew and spending more and more time in the deprivation tank, Jessup learns the hard way that regressive states of consciousness can be externalized. The movie becomes a little like Cat People (1942/82), with Jessup morphing into a hairy, aphasic version of Iggy Pop, going to the zoo, and slaughtering a goat before waking up naked, incarcerated and temporarily amnesiac. Eventually the movie remembers that it’s actually a love story, which is sort of endearing. Yes, yes, it’s mostly ridiculous, but I can still fantasize a version co-directed by Stanley Kubrick and Henry Jaglom, and I can still let myself fall under its audacious, strangely earnest spell. The movie's title being an instruction as much as a description, it helps, of course, to get totally loaded first.