Friday, March 31, 2006

M. Butterfly goes to White Castle

David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly is a masterful post-modern play. Hwang completely inverts the Madame Butterfly myth to subvert, expose, and destroy it.

Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle is a solid companion to Hwang's play. We begin with the inversion: what appears to be a typical white guy buddy movie gets abandoned as we follow the Asian-American "supporting" characters. But this becomes not so much an inversion, as every cliche of the raunchy buddy movie gets screen time, but these cliches are experienced by two Asian Americans (two Asian Americans seeking not something particular to their race, but simply seeking the same things any white, black, or other pot-smoking buddies seek in a buddy film). And as Harold and Kumar make their way to White Castle, they are essentially second-generation immigrants crossing the landscape of America: they confront members of an Asian American club that seem to fit the stereotype of the studious nerds, they deal with racist punks, they deal with the police, they deal with parental pressure. Throughout all sorts of racist and stereotypical words and images are shown...but now we are seeing them from the side of the Asian Americans who don't act remotely like any stereotype. They are simply young, high, hungry males--which is enough to show the ridiculousness of the stereotypes.

Stephen Holden of the NY Times wrote a solid review of the film (the Times has made the review very difficult to link to, so you can search for it yourself under "Reviews" on the Movie page). Holden begins,

The stoner, gross-out comedy ''Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle'' has one foot here and one foot there. The here is a politically savvy universe where the title characters, 22-year-old New Jersey roommates who are Chinese-American and Indian-American, puncture ethnic stereotypes. But the other foot is rutted knee deep in the muck of perpetual puerility according to Hollywood.

Holden's assessment is spot-on. There's subversion of stereotypes...and there's also Neil Patrick Harris sniffing coke off a stripper's ass. You laugh...but then you realize that you are able to laugh with the Asian Americans as they deal with the stereotypes that you may yourself occasionally hold (think Asians are smart? Good at math? Hard working? That Indians run convenience stores, or become doctors, scientists, or computer experts?)

In the end, M. Butterfly is far out of Harold and Kumar's league. Hwang is a first-rate playwright. But Harold and Kumar are reaching an audience that Hwang might not.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Critical Theory and TV

Some prominent literary and critical figures, such as Kingsley Amis (who was involved in James Bond fiction) and Leslie Fiedler (whose theories on homosexual undertones in American literature should be examined closer after Brokeback Mountain made explicit what Fiedler showed to be implicit; Virginia Heffernan brings up Fiedler in her analysis of internet parodies of Brokeback Mountain) suggest that popular literature and culture is serious stuff, and needs to be respected in critical examination.

And the canon wars are all about examining what literature we take seriously and study and teach, and what literature we lay by the wayside, ignoring to the point it becomes insignificant. The canon wars are about examining the reasons why certain works are included or excluded in the canon. In some ways, the canon wars are about examining and potentially tearing down the dichotomy between "high" and "low" art. A lot of critics tend to look down on the popular literature as being beneath the consideration given to the greats.

Genre fiction usually gets dismissed. What is the difference between "literature" and a spy novel? Something, perhaps, but it's harder to put into words than you think. So Stephen King, who I consider to be one of the truly brilliant writers ever (insightful, inventive, experimental, masterful controller of form), gets dismissed as a "horror writer." He is a horror writer, but he's also writing serious stuff and doing incredible things with form. But the horror genre itself is a dismissed, disparaged genre.

This may be in part because so much of horror is rather terrible (who cares that much of most things is terrible--the really brilliant horror, the Dracula, the Frankenstein, King at his best, is on the level of anything else). But many horror movies are terrible in part because they are cheap, easy ways to guarantee profit.

And where else does "genre" get disparaged more than in film? How many comedies get nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars? Science Fiction films? Horror? The academy likes its serious dramas, and genre is considered lesser quality film.

But that's nothing. Film is considered my many to be "art." To be a film student, to be a film geek, to be a film expert, to be a film aficionado, is something respected. People use the same critical skills they use to understand literature on film. There is a "canon" of all-time great films.

But what about TV? To assert expertise in TV does not bring with it the prestige of asserting expertise in film. But why? There's a lot of bad TV...but is anybody denying that there's a lot of bad film out there too? And I'd put the best of TV (Seinfeld, Arrested Development, The Simpsons, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The X-Files, Nip/Tuck, Six Feet Under) against any film. TV as a medium can be just as great as film in every way--in form, in insight, in philosophy, in quality.

The same skills we use to examine The Odyssey can be used to examine Nip/Tuck. The comedy of Arrested Development is worthy the comedy of Don Quixote.

TV can aspire to the quality of art. I can't see any legitimate argument against it.

So to triumph film as "art" while smugly disparaging television is nothing more than pretentious snobbery.

And so, in this blog devoted to contrapunctal discussions of literature and literary theory...the medium of television is fair game for discussion.

But only the best of television: we can remain snobs, too.

"for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life."

It was after watching several episodes of Nip/Tuck that I came to an understanding of the definition and purpose of art.

Great art should inspire you to be something better than what you are.

As Rainer Maria Rilke may be saying in "The Archaic Torso of Apollo." Enjoy.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Genius in Art

In the Bakhtin post below, I borrowed from Bakhtin's ideas to suggest one of the signs of genius in an artist is the ability to penetrate the souls of others. To examine and understand and show the psyche of one outside the self.

I would suggest another sign of genius in the artist--the ability to interlock themes so closely that to discuss them separately is pointless.

In David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly, Hwang explores the stereotype of submissiveness. When I teach this play, I write that on the board in capital letters: Stereotype of Submissiveness. It could be a simple theme, I suppose. In Hwang's skillful hands, though, it is extremely complicated. You cannot separate issues of sex, gender, race, culture, and nation from a discussion of this stereotype. Hwang develops the relationships between these topics tightly. You cannot in any meaningful way discuss one without the other. Hwang also uses his considerable skill to examine how art, culture, and fantasy contribute to this stereotype of submissiveness, and then shows the devestating effects.

You can't peel a theme away from others in M. Butterfly; Hwang too closely connects them.

I see similar interlocking in Morrison's The Bluest Eye (though a certain level of cause-effect relationships between these themes makes them less interlocking and more, I don't know, cause-effect related).

Perhaps this interlocking is what can make a political or social work of art truly great. To make insightful connections, and present them in a personalized, humanized way (nobody does this better than David Mura in Where the Body Meets Memory: an Odyssey of Race, Sexuality, and Identity, where Mura makes an incredible connection between his own sexual addiction and the Japanese internment camps).

Thoughts while reading Bakhtin

In Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Bakhtin writes of how Dostoevsky invented the polyphonic novel, where several consciousnesses simultaneously coexist, even if their ideas are contradictory. Bakhtin argues that D does this is a dialogical manner, rather than bringing the ideas together under a monological development. He cites Kirpotin on what Bakhtin calls D’s “special ability to see precisely the soul of others” and what Kirpotin calls D’s “capacity to visualize directly someone else’s psyche.” Kirpotin says of D that "His world is the world of a multitude of objectively existing and interacting psychologies, and this excludes from his treatment of psychological processes the subjectivism and solipsism so characteristic of bourgeois decadence."

It might not be that hard for a writer to write a fairly narcissistic story about one individual's psychological struggles. The reason is that each writer is an individual, and every individual has experience with individual psychological struggles. A skilled and insightful human being like Dostoevsky has the ability to not write a solipsistic novel, but to examine different people, different psychological struggles. In The Brothers Karamozov he gets into the heads, I mean really, really gets into the heads, of Alyosha, Ivan, and Dmitri. Three different characters with different issues, and he presents not their narcissistic struggle, but their interactions with the world and with each other in facing these struggles.

Of course, a postmodern writer like John Fowles openly admits, within his novels, that he is incapable of penetrating the souls of his characters (see chapter 13 of The French Lieutenant’s Woman).

But I see a fair amount of good writers really writing these solipsistic stories of an individual (at the very least, narcissistic). Often they show real skill in the writing. But I'm not sure it shows a great deal of insight, since, as I said, any reflective individual knows of the solipsistic emotional, spiritual, intellectual, psychological struggle. A true genius penetrates outside of that and into others.

Bakhtin also notes that a dialogical, polyphonic novel exists over space rather than time. It contrasts to Hegelian evolution in that it does not monologically develop an idea, even dialectically—contradictory ideas exist in different consciousnesses without being resolved. Some modernists, I think, picked up on Dostoevsky’s dialogism and wrote what could be called polyphonic works of literature. In Faulkner’s works, for example, we see multiple voices, and multiple ideas, coexisting, and I don’t think Faulkner tries to resolve these voices monologically.

But I’m really simplifying Bakhtin here, and perhaps bastardizing him, and most surely making his ideas confusing, so perhaps you should just read Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, or at least the first chapter, “Dostoevsky’s Polyphonic Novel and Its Treatment in Critical Literature.”

Other works I’m thinking about in light of Bakhtin’s theories:

Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater
When reading this novel, I thought it suffered from a lack of an objective correlative; Sabbath’s inability to cope with loss was not matched with any loss in his life that is atypical of human existence. Another problem is the narcissism. The book doesn’t attempt to penetrate anything other than one man’s totally narcissistic problems. Perhaps this novel is the epitome of the anti-Dostoevskian novel.

Sartre’s The Age of Reason
On the one hand, this is a dialogical novel—it’s a book of ideas, and ideas are held by different consciousnesses, and they seem to coexist and interact. On the other hand, it’s a dialectically evolving monological novel. Sartre the existentialist guides the novel, and for the most part it conforms to his individual worldview. He doesn’t, as Dostoevsky, allow his ideas/consciousnesses to coexist without resolution; he uses these different ideas/consciousnesses to develop his monological ideas.