Thursday, February 26, 2015

Altman and Plimpton (Orally Speaking...)

An oral biography, in its assembled nature, due to the unwieldy fact of its very existence, is usually  nothing more than a shaggy beast of a book. You have hundreds of people collected together in print, commenting on someone of note, usually dead, in anecdotal form. Put that way, such a process of literary investigation sounds less like a project and more like a lark. This is the benefit of the form -- this feeling that what one is reading is not some sort of monetary assignment at all, but is instead just a goof. Its looseness liberates the very life under discussion.

ROBERT ALTMAN: THE ORAL BIOGRAPHY by Mitchell Zuckoff and GEORGE, BEING GEORGE George Plimpton's Life as Told, Admired, Deplored, and Envied by 200 Friends, Relatives, Lovers, Acquaintances, Rivals--and a Few Unappreciative Observers  are both books that are both perfectly suited to the form, because the lives under discussion were in and of themselves discursive, digressive, diversionary. They meandered here and there, and eventually assembled for themselves something very much that resembled a self.

Altman, one of the finest filmmakers of his generation, allowed his actors and environment to help him fashion his films; Plimpton, bon vivant, lover of fireworks and parties, founded the most prestigious literary magazine in America, then somehow found time to practically invent the category of 'participatory journalsit', hurling himself into various sporting, musical and artistic adventures so that we, as readers, could imagine what amateurs like ourselves would do in the same situation. Altman was our rambling guide to the raging unconscious of American life writ large on the screen, while Plimpton served as the continuous upper-class buffoon so that we might in his antics appreciate the pros all the more. Both gentlemen were solitary adventurers of the spirit  who took everyone else along for the ride.

Which is what a good book should do, too, and which these two veritable tomes amply do -- put us square in the passenger seat, comfortable and alert, and that's quite easy to do when you're guided along on the path by a veritable plethora of  engaging voices. Both of these books let their subjects' fanily and friends, enemies and colleagues speak for themselves, via their own recollections. This makes for enormously readable stuff. You can tell yourself that nothing was 'assembled', because the years flow by and the experiences add up with input from this lover, or that chum, and we can all pretend that there's no overarching editor behind the whole experience, because that would seem rather stiff. Altman and Plimpton, roughly of the same generation, lived lives that were anything but rigid, because both were immensely freewheeling, with a keen sense of glee, and their respective books revel in that uncanny energy they brought to their crafts, their almost reckless enjoyment of what their art should exude.

Reading both books within a relatively short span of time, I came away wondering: Where are the Altmans and Plimptons of today? We need more people like this -- those who alter the energy of a room and a culture simply by entering through a door partly open. Perhaps they both evolved out of a time that appreciated such immediacy more than this screened-in generation. Both Altman and Plimpton used their environments to augment their craft, but also expand the culture's underlying sense of what public space should contain. Reading and listening to all these myriad voices in a collective chorus of awe, I found myself missing men that I'd never met, wondering if I would, or even could, ever meet someone like them in my life, or if I should take it upon myself to fashion an existence that in my own individual manner resembled what they each brought to earth.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


Hideo Levy is an American author who writes in Japanese. Now based in Tokyo, he spent many years teaching at Princeton University, where he translated the famous, and poetic, Japanese historical chronicle 'Man'yooshu' into English. He has said more than once that 'language is a culture', words that are extraordinarily provocative in all the right ways. To immerse onself in a foreign language, irregardless of one's actual, physical locale, is to do battle with the essence of that culture itself. A language has its own rules, contexts, codes and sub-categories; it has implications, biases, nuances and prejudices. It has everything that exists in a real place with people, only the words by themselves create conditions that alter psychological states and impressions. Language by itself defines and creates the circumstances in which we reckon with its form. And through the folks that find a way to express the ephermal shape of their thoughts, we can witness both how the language shapes them, and how the people, in turn, mold the words to reflect the milieu from which they were born.

We all know this, instinctively, but we tend to forget it, cumulatively. Meaning, as time aggregates itself into the unwiedly mess of our lives, we use language reflexively, and persist in recognizing its impact in a manner that's almost offhand. Perhaps children are more attuned to the fabric of words, their placement and power, because it's all still new and unlikely, the whole combination of sounds.

On one of the house-league hockey teams that I played on as a child, we had an assistant coach who inserted into his speech an up-tilted 'okay?' after almost every sentence. This struck me, more than anything else, as amusing. Whether he was giving instructions, or telling us to keep our sticks on the ice, or informing us defencemen that we had to hover at the blue line just inside its margins to avoid a call of 'offside', a pleasant, inquistive  'okay?' was added to it all.

I didn't find it annoying, or peculiar -- just funny. I had never heard anyone do that before. Similarly, I had a good childhood friend who had a terrible stutter, and he was the first (and only) person I'd known who stumbled over his own words inside of every sentence that he tried to construct. That, too, I found 'funny' -- not 'ha ha' funny, but 'funny' as in odd, and unusal, and extremely unlikely, despite its obvious presence and nusiance to the rhythm of his life.

What I'm saying is, these kind of verbal tics were duly noted and examined, if only to myself, because kids tend to latch onto what's unusual, and they either mock it or roll it around in their skull like a mental gobstopper.

Later, after university, living in Toronto, a friend of my flatmate came to visit from Newfoundland, our easternmost province, and I was startled by the twang of his accent, its almost-Irish inflections. I had also never heard some of that slang before, nor his casual affectations. Whereas I would say 'buddy' or 'guy' at the beginning or end of a sentence when talking to somebody, he would say 'bye' -- a novelty to me, like a curious whistle.

Looking back, I can see that my childhood memories of my 'okay?'-obsessed hockey coach, and my young-adult recollections of that Newfound bloke, can both kind of be read as culture itself expressed through the awkward output of language.

By that I mean, my hockey coaches were, by and large, working-class guys, many of them more of then tha not employed by the giant GM factory in town, and their speech-rhythms and vocabulary were usually not sprinkled with excess levels of diction. They sounded like the people I grew up with, the friends of my parents, and ny own friends' parents. These coaches' southern Ontario accents and rather blunt jokes and hockey-playing tips were all of a piece, and that piece was the place that had given them a voice. Ditto with the Newfoundland dude, who stuck out in Toronto like the fisherman's lad that he was. Language and tone obviously arise from the awkwardly spun tapestry of our inital tangled roots.

Yet that's only part of language, and in some ways the most obvious part, the section that sees language as part of  'a' culture, rather than language 'as' culture. As a beast in and of itself, an idea which might be easier to assess if we can look at the complexities of its potential to enlighten and confuse in whatever written form it embodies.

If language is culture, full stop, as Hideo Levy maintains, than it's understandable that a certain misreading of that culture is inevitable at some point. A Japanese book I'm leafing through by Akio Namekata deals with the problems of English education in modern Japan, and as part of his thesis he discusses the complexities of the Japanese language, its nuances and implications that foreigners can never quite grasp. (This is a traditonal, even cliche argument in some quarters of Japanese thought -- that the Japanese language, and Japanese culture itself, is far too difficult for a foreigner to comprehend. Namekata was born in 1931, so it's perhaps understandable that he clings to this view.)

In Namekata's book, two of the most famous post-World War II translators of Japanese literature into English -- Donald Keene and Edward Seidensticker, both American -- are brought up for debate, and, to some extent, ridicule. Namekata quotes a few passages from Japanese literature that Keene has translated, pointing out that the American has misunderstood exactly who's referring to what, thus resulting in an English version of the text that is acutely misleading.

In a sense, such an error is not altogether surprising; the Japanese language is notorious for not needing a subject (i.e. 'I', 'he', 'she'', 'they', 'it', etc.) at the beginning of many sentences, so that determing exactly the gist of a topic can be an adventure indeed, even for an old Japan-hand. Namekata's point is that here we have the most revered translator of Japanese into English that has ever lived -- and even he is fucking up some pretty basic shit. Keene is not 'reading' it right, in the sense that he's not grasping the mood and atmosphere behind the words that would make the true meaning clear.

Similarly, Namekata cites a famous example from Edward Seidensticker's English translation of Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata's SNOW COUNTRY -- the opening line of the novel, in fact, which I often use myself with my students to point out the different ways that English and Japanese deal with the problem of 'subject'. For Namekata, however, it's not the 'subject' that's the problem, but what's left implied and unsaid which leads to some confusion-in-translation.

Here's Seidensticker's version, in English, of the opening paragraph of the novel: "The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky. The train pulled up at a signal stop.'

Pretty straightforward, right? The thing is, in Japanese, there's no mention of a train in the first sentence. It's just assumed that it would be a train that comes out of the tunnel, because, you know, what else would it be, right? You don't need to specify the damn thing. It's possible to write that first sentence in English without mentioning a train, instead merely indicating that a border had been crossed, an exit exited, a new region entered, whatever, but it would give the whole idea a kind of circumspection that doesn't exist in the original Japanese, an avoidance, maybe. Best just to call it a train and be done with it. I always found that idea intriguing -- that even the first sentence of a novel had to be recalibrated when rendered in a completely different tongue.

However, Namekata faults Seidensticker's translation, for reasons that I'd never thought about, and still don't entirely understand. He essentially says that, for a Japanese reader, it's clear that these observations -- the the train leaving the tunnel, and the earth under the night sky, and the train pulling up to a signal stop -- reflect the spirit and heart and interior life of the main character, nuances that are not captured in the English translation.

I'm puzzled by the idea that these rather functional observations in that first paragraph are peculiar to the main character, because they seem to be basic, even clinical renditions of physical actions. How could one emphasize that they are the specific observations of one particular person? And why is it necessary, since even in Japanese the subject (the main character) is not mentioned at all? According to Namekata, Japanese readers will somehow understand that these observations do, in fact, reflect the protagonist's character, his internal essence, whereas the Western translator neglected to pick up on this tone. He couldn't read the culture inherent in the text, in other words.

I don't truly understand what Namekata is getting at, but I don't disbelieve him, either -- if he's saying the Japanese are picking up on something in the text that Seidensticker, as an American, cannot even perceive, he may be right. This is just another example of how words, by themselves, can seem to enfold and display an entire culture's intent, hiding right there in plain sight.

Another puzzling example of the inherently cultural nature of language comes from another book I'm making way through by a Japanese writer named Sukehiro Hirakawa, who's examing Japan after World War II in terms of where the Japanese language has been, and where he thinks it should go. (This is what I'm sort of/kind of/a little bit understanding, anyway; Japanese is an extremely round-about language, and just when I think the topic is 'this', the text somersaults itself into a variant version of 'that'.)

At any rate, Hirakawa, as with Namekata, was also born in 1931, so he has a view of language, and Japan, that is in accordance with someone who hails from that era. The Japanese have a very different version of World War II history than the West commonly depicts; I won't get into whether it's 'right' or 'wrong', but the Japanese don't often see themselves as being entirely to blame when it comes to that conflict. Hirakawa takes issue with the very title of a relatively recent book of Japanese history written by an American, John Dower, named EMBRACING DEFEAT, which deals with how quickly Japan rebuilt itself after the end of the war.

According to Hirakawa, the English words 'Embracing Defeat' are extremely misleading, in that there was no widespread acceptance of loss, as such, and that those very words most likely come from those Japanese prostitutes who serviced American soldiers during the years of military occupation. I read that particular idea and went; "What the fuck?" Had to read the sentence two or three times to wrap my head around its contents, and I still don't think I'm getting it all, but Hirakawa seems to be implying that the very title of the book is setting up a sociological reading of the national situation that is akin to a whore cuddling up to her potential customer. Or something like that. Translated directly to Japanese, the book's name may have a more intimate connotation that brings to mind the prostitution of the time. Or perhaps the conciliatory tone of the title does not accurately reflect the true mood of the people.

Elsewhere in the book, Namekata also takes issue with THE RAPE OF NANJING (the translated title of which would sound just as blunt in Japanese as it does in English) by the late Iris Chang, which deals with the Japanesde military's rampage of that Chinese city during World War II. In the West, this event is pretty much recognized as being historical fact, a slaughter of innocents of almost epic proportion, in Japan, amongst many scholars, there's still the belief that much of the tragedy is exaggerated, if not invented ,and Namekata seems to fall in line with that view. If I'm reading correctly, he sees THE RAPE OF NANJING as being another case of Western historians dabbling in Eastern affairs without having the proper linguistic or cultural understanding to make their case clear.

The question of historical accuracy aside in that particular case, Namekata may have a small point, in terms of linguistic and cultural interpretation. When scholars write, in English, of events that happened in a foreign, predominantly non-English speaking country, it certainly helps if they speak, read and write the language well enough to assess just what the hell did go on. There are countless books about Asian history that I've skimmed through and wondered: "Does 'this' author speak 'that' language -- and, if not, can I trust what he says?"

Through the language, one learns the culture, and if you're delving into socio-political aspects of war and occupation, self-rule and coercion, public response and government intentions, to not be able to access and comprehend orginal sources in their native language is to not truly examine the issue at all. And, in the case of American translators Donald Keene and Edward Seidensticker, even if you do speak, read and write the language, there will still be accusations that the language by itself is not enough to comprehend the culture. The people themselves lie both in and outside of the words that they use.

Which brings me back to Hideo Levy's phrase -- that language, on its own, is a culture, of its own. The hockey coaches of my youth uttered words that not only reflected the environment in which they were raised, but also created a cadence of their own that created their own casual world; the Japanese books that I'm trying to understand now wonder if the Japanese language can survive as a force in a world dominated by English. The language arises from the people, initially, then shapes the people, subsequently. The words exist on their own, as almost physical things that create meaning by themselves, yet they are always balanced, if not anchored, by those who continually employ their usage, who twist it and bend it and hope that it won't break, or somehow break us in the process of simply trying to make sense of it all.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

THE DOCTOR'S WIFE by Brian Moore

At various points throughout Brian Moore's 1976 novel THE DOCTOR'S WIFE, there were collections of episodes and incidents so embarassing and anxious for the characters that I started to physically cringe, the way I used to do as a kid while watching Jack Tripper get into trouble on THREE'S COMPANY. I had to turn away from the screen during those moments, and there were times, while reading this book, that I wanted slam the thing down. It's a testament not only to Moore's skill as a novelist, but also to the power that words can still have, that the concept of story itself can continue to muster, if we only allow give ourselves up to the lanuage of imaginary acts.

It's also the kind of literary novel that seems to straddle the line between popular fiction and its more snootier brethren. Brian Moore, who was born in Norther Ireland, and attained Canadian citizenship before eventually moving to Malibu, California, was considered by Graham Greene at one time to be the best novelist in the world, With this book, if you went just by the story you might be shaking your head at high praise such as that. The plot is nothing to write home about, after all: The wife of a small-town doctor in Ireland goes on a holiday in France, expecting her husband to arrive in a few days to join her, but instead she finds herself falling in love (lust?) with a young American tourist, and they begin an affair. And there you go.

Not much to it, right? Yet if we can argue (broadly) that literary fiction is more concerned with 'character' than 'narrative' (and I think we can), and that its focus tends to dwell on 'language' over 'plot' (which is the case here), then the novel is a shattering success at creating the kind of confident literature that simply does its thing.

Moore initially keeps his omniscient narrator's point of view on the wife, but gradually, over the course of the book, we shift to the perspective of her friend, her brother, her husband -- but never her lover. His motives and psychology remains as murky to us as they do to our heroine. Yet by giving all the other intimates in her orbit the virtue of open introspection, we can see how her actions, so relatively tame by modern standards, shatter notions of goodwill and expectations that lock so many peoiple in, and the wider world at bay.

The language is not overy fussy, just direct, yet there's nevertheless an abiding, understated elegance that comes when a writer knows just when to relent. Nothing is forced, and we quitely, relentlessly observe all the wrenching heartache of a woman who allows herself to relinquish an old life in favour of something more. This is the plot of a thousand and one Harlequins, true, but it's also the stuff of real life, and Moore's care for his characters allows this story to take on the emotional texture of your neighbour's secerts.

Reading it, I became amazed anew -- at the oddness of words themselves, how they could correlate with one another to create an alternate world. Here we have a novel that was published before I had even reached the first of my birthdays, by an author long dead, in an edition.that has probably been shuffled around the bedrooms of the globe for the past thirty years, yet it felt so immediate and true, intimate and wounding. Even as I'm studying the literary style of the writer, I'm sucked right into the world that he's melding, and a spell has been cast, and I feel all the while like a kid of fourteen wandering around the stacks of the library downtown, searching.

Monday, February 16, 2015

'The War That Was Lost' or 'The War That Was Finished': How A Single Japanese Character Can Alter Education

Given their relatively rapid rise from the (literal) ashes of post-World War II, the Japanese people have always been obsessed with the end of the war, and consquently its meaning for how they should consider their lives. Sometimes it's instructive to see how a culture teaches various aspects of history to its youngest citizens, which is why I'm leafing my way through a Japanese book written by Ryuichi Narita, aimed at students age fourteen and up, whose title roughly translates as: "The Way To Think About, And Learn About, Post-World War II Japanse History". One of the most fascinating arguments is expressed in one of the first chapters, and involves a knotty linguistic problem that probaby couldn't be replicated (or en be much of an issue) in English language materials. Maybe by looking at these two seemingly plainspoken phrases we might learn something about how the Japanese try to regard themselves and their past.

Because much of Japanese vocabulary is composed of Chinese characters that have a visual meaning completely independent of any phonetic pronunciation, it's relatively easy to combine these kanji together to create a new word, one whose meaning is quite clear to process and comprehend, even if you're not exactly sure how it's supposed to be said by your lips. (This is also why both Japanese and Chinese are so useful on Twitter; concepts that would require dozens of characters to express via English can be succintly summed up in these Asian tongues without too much fuss.) An early chapter here focuses on how, exactly, to define the period of time that occurred after the conclusion of the war, during the American occupation.

The chapter's heading, translated, would read something like: "The War That Was Lost? The War That Was Finished?"

Admittedly, in English, this chapter-heading reads (and sounds) rather awkward and confusing, but in the Japanese language, the distinction between the two terms has certain implications for how one should linguistically (and thereby historically, intellectually and even emotionally) process the events that followed Hiroshima and Nagasaki's final booms of intent. 

"The War That Was Lost" requires seventeen alphabetical characers in English, but in Japanese, we need only two pictographs -- one representig 'lost'. the other representing 'war'. You slot those two babies together, and you get the word 'haisen', which literally means 'lost war'. The next part of the chapter in question, namely 'The War That Was Finished', is also composed of two Chinese characters, one meaning 'end', the other signifying 'war'. Combine these pair of kanji, and we're left with 'shusen', which translates as 'finished war'. 

So the chapter poses this dilemma: Is it better to refer to this war as a 'lost war', or a 'finished war'?

In English, such a problem most likely wouldn't even come up, because there's any number of ways in wihch one can refer to events that chronologically follow the conclusion of a war, and it's not all that important to rigidly define how such a period of time should be classified and represented. For example, the United States, by pretty much unanimous agreement, lost the Vietnam War, yet when historians, journalists, novelists or laymen refer to that time, they could choose to say 'post-Vietnam', or 'after the war', or any other number of rather innocuous expressions. The Japanese, too, have a phrase for 'postwar' -- 'sengo' -- which literally means 'after the war', and it's also in common usage in the media and textbooks, but there's a larger linguistic issue at stake regarding the problem that this chapter is gingerly trying to explore.

To wit, he Japanese language seems to require a kind of solidity and squareness that English does not require. By that I mean, the very nature of kanji (those pictorial characters imported long ago from China) implies a fixedness -- these images are pictorial, and they have distinct meanings. You join one 'meaning' with another 'meaning' and a third 'meaning' is created; it's a very logical, cohesive process, resulting in a rigid definition that allows no leeway or slant. It's thus ironic that Japanese is considered (rightly so) a very vague language, but it is, paradoxically, the concrete nature of their expressions that allows such ambiguity to surface. 

When you're language is flexible and loosey-goosey and can boogie-woogie like English, you can slip and slide all over the place, and in that relaxed mode of expression, any number of interpretations of thought can be processed and discussed. In Japanese, the use of kanji, more often than not, creates a kind of codified standard that says 'this means THIS', period. By employing these terms, one thereby becomes sort of stuck. It means what it means; it is what it is. Yet it's because of this solidity that one can then allow a door of interpretation to be opened, because ten different people might hear or read this same expression, and thus come away with ten alternate beliefs in what is being said. By being so broadly direct, the listener or reader is forced to ponder what other ambiguities might exist underneath such firmness.

So, for example, if the phrase 'lost war' comes to be known as the de facto means by which the Japanese language (and people) term that time in the past, that repeated emphasis of 'lost', as part of the fabric of the word, stresses something, by its very usage -- namely, the fact that Japan did, in fact, lose the war. The 'loss' becomes all important. Every time the term is employed, it will be 'lost' that is seen as part of the word, and thus, being a language that thrives on ambiguity, the reader (or listener) will necessarily wonder in each context that it's being used if this 'lost' aspect has relevance to the larger point being made. (Of course, this may all be happening at that subconscious level where language seems to dwell inside us.)

Similarly, if the phrase 'shuesen', or 'finished war', is more often employed, then the fact that Japan 'lost' the war is no longer as relevant to the greater points that are under dicussion. The linguistic implications of that one word, 'finished war', are that Japan may not have won the war, true, but it's the 'finished' part that's important -- not the fact that it was a defeat. 

These may sound like enormously fussy arguments to be made for a concept that pretty much means the same thing -- we are, after all, simply talking about words that refer to the end of a war. Yet they could have ideological or political ramifications, depending on who's using them. For example, if a particular Prime Minister of Japan is notoriously right-wing, and he chooses to use the phrase 'shusen' when talking about post-World War II society, wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that he's not so sure that in fact Japan's 'loss' should be stressed? Or, conversely, if a left-wing journalist repeatedly uses the phrase 'haisen' to explore that very same period of time, we might think that he or she is indeed emphasizing the fact that Japan lost that conflict. 

Again, all of these assumptions of ours (and theirs, the users of these words) would probably be existing on some unconscious level, but that might be the point of this chapter -- that kanji is such a visually striking element of linguistics that employing the proper Chinese character must be dealt with in a considered fashion. If children are being taught about their own country, and its own past, which aspect should be stressed -- the fact that the war was 'lost', or the fact that it was 'finished'? This is semantics (quite literally so!), but it also shapes in some ways how their citizens start to think.

I don't believe that Ryuichi Narita, the author of the book, comes to a conclusion one way or the other; like many Japanese books (and the tone of this one in particular), the ideas seem to be meandering and questioning, broadly exploratory and discursive, rather than firmly instructive one way or the other. (In the same chapter, he brings up the notion of 'destruction' and 'humiliation' -- that these were vocabulary children after the war habitually came to think of when considering Japan's post-war era, and it seems like Narita is stressing repeatedly the importance of language itself in how history is projected.)

Trying to understand how one culture teaches what it does. the extent of its self-introspection and objectivity and using which particular vocabulary, is a goal that right now is, admitteldy, a little bit above my pay-grade (in Japanese-language-comprehension terms, that is). My insights here might be far off the mark. Yet I do find the broader implications of 'lost war' and 'end of war' enormously interesting, both as examples of the Japanese language's dexterity and possibilities, and also as indications of how language and its usage can almost telekinetically connect to actual human responses, as well as link to those real emotional states of consideration that affect how one chooses to look at life as it was lived.

Sunday, February 15, 2015


AMERICAN GRAFFITI is now so far in the past as a movie that it's mere presence as a film has become a familiar, even innocuous emblem of the very kind of nostalgia it so helped to celebrate. We take it for granted. Yet considered again, it still seems darkly daring, ostensibly celebrating a carefree time in everyone's collective past, but constantly reminding itself and the viewer that this too shall pass.

Set in '62, released in '73, George Lucas's second feature film looked fondly back on an era that was barely a decade in the past, but with hippies and free love and the Vietnam War in the interim, those ten years might as well have been one hundred or more. And now nostalgia as a force in TV and cinema has become so commonplace that it's hard to remember a time when the tone and style of this film wasn't perpetually with us. Yet AMERICAN GRAFFITI, in a very real way, created the way that we look at the past, at least cinematically, and on closer inspection, what's surprising is how dark the film's centre actually remains, its freewheeling tone constantly uprooted and shadowed by the uncertain future that awaits everyone once this night finally decides to be done.

Four friends -- the nerd, the student body president, the honor-scholarship academic, and the local street-racing thug -- wander around their small city during the evening before some of them will leave town. Heading on to colleg -- or not?  Not much of a plot. More than enough.

Everyone trying to hook up with girls, or break up with girls, or cruisng around simply in search of some girls. A constant parade of Fifties and Sixties tunes serving as the soundtrack, the local DJ WolfMan Jack in a way our omniscient narrator. Storylines intersecting and colliding,crosscutting from scene to scene in much the same manner that Lucas would do in the first STAR WARS, four years to come. The suspense pretty much pertains to: Will Ronny Howard go away to university, or stay here at home with his girlfriend? Can Richard Dreyfuss put away his fears of the future long enough to hop on the plane that will take him to college? The night is mostly one of prank-making and leavetaking, hooking up and chilling out, all underscred by the decisions that will have to be made by morning's first light. The frivolosness hiding everything.

As fun as it is, as light as it is, as rollicking and adolescent as the events of the film prove to be, there also exists a simultaneous world of impending adult issues and regret that looms over almost every scene. When Dreyfuss pops out of the gymnasium of his old school to share a smoke with his former teacher, the instructor teases some mild sexual innuendos to the giggling girls he chats with, then tells Dreyfuss that he too once left town, but only for a semester, he couldn't quite cut it. We then see another female co-ed awkwardly tell the teach that she needs to have a word with him, and there is the palpable sense that this dude is a creep and a perv. Just outside the exit-door of the good-time innocence of this homecoming dance, where young boys and girls harmlessly bop and get down, there's another, darker engagement going on, tentative and hushed.

Other adults in the film -- from stick-in-the-mud high school teachers, to a sloppy drunk shambling into the liquor store, to a sleazy car salesman, to authoritarian cops, to the clueless game-centre manager and his Moose-Hall friend who do not  seem to get that their currently being robbed, to the elderly couple who watch Terry The Toad violently  heave his booze, all seem vaguely buffoonish and clueless, existing in another, simultaneously existing world that has no place in the rollicking uncertainty that our lead characters dwell in; they have no fears or fun, are already dumbly rooted in place.

Then there's John, the drag-racer, who right from the beginning is already not quite buying into the supposed nostalgic glow of this film. He mourns how happening the strip was only a few years in the past, how the chicks were better looking; he later mentions how he can't stand all this new beach music; he worries that he's no longer number one on the strip. Everything is not what it once was. Even in the midst of the movie's nostalgia, there are those currently longing for yet another shot at the past. In one of the film's best, quietest scenes, he wanders around an abandoned junkyard with Mackenzie Phillips, his geeky teenage companion, and for one of the few times in the movie, there's no music at all, just some softly blowing wind, and the darkened husk of those cars visible in the shadows, as John mentions a few of those who've been killed in drag races, and how close he himself come in the past to checking out of this life. It's a short, stark scene, and one that makes even more thematic sense when we finally get to see the last title card on the screen.

For it's this sudden,moving ending that puts everything in this film into its proper place. And, having seen the film once, when you watch it again, the whole movie takes on this rather sad and gloomy disposition amidst all the ensuing horseplay. After barely surviving a drag race featuring our hero John and a young Harrison Ford, as the wide morning sky finally makes itself felt, Cindy Williams rushes into the arms of her on-and-off boyfriend Ron Howard, who vows that he won't leave her behind, not now or ever. John worries that he had almost lost the race from the start, but Terry reassures him that he's still The Man, to which John reluctantly agrees. They all say good-by to Richard Dreyfuss at the airport, who's boarding the plane that will take him to college, away for good from this godforsaken place which he can barely let go of. Howard tells him that he'll join him next year, but we all know the deal. All the collective threads of the film quickly come together and tie themselves up.

As the plane takes off, Dreyfuss glances out of the window and spots far down below the white car that just might contain the dream-girl he's been searching for throughout the whole film -- the beautiful blonde goddess who he's followed all down the night, who he convinced Wolfman Jack to dedicate a song to, who that very morning talked to him on the pay phone and told him that she'd be cruising the strip again the next night, she could meet up with him then. She represents a dream a vision, what he wants but can't have. (And, tellingly, earlier in the film, the head of the Pharaohs, the gang that pseudo-kidnaps Dreyfuss, indicates that he knows the chick, and she's just s a prostitute -- a possibility which Dreyfuss does not want to even consider, that what we most long for could be had for a quick buck.) Just as the illusion of the all-knowing DJ was revealed to be as something as basic and pedestrian as a funny beareded man in a back room sucking down popsicles, so, too, is this girl in the car something else that must be disembodied, and finally just left behind.

I could go on and on about the plainspoken yet evocative visuals of the film, its gorgeous compositions as cars on the move (and the make) cruise to and fro, its dynamic colour schemes, its mixing of background sounds and conversations that augment and enhance the real sense of a town coming alive in the night, but it's that final image that keeps bopping into my brain, the one that features high school photos of each of our leads, with short text informing us that one of them went missing in 'Nam, and another died in a car crash, and another now sells insurance in Modesto, and another is a writer in Canada. It never fails to get to me, those words.

We've just spent a hell of a long night with these folks, and suddenly, it's over, and we learn that the drag race is dead, and the nerd somewhere lost in Vietnam, the student body president is a square, and the intellectual probably a draft dodger. It's the real world, the adult world, essentially annhilating most of the dogged romanticism that had been so carefully rendered. All in a less-than-thirty-second bluntness of an ending. It's what makes the movie, this ending, this abrupt transition from Dreyfuss staring out of the airplane window at the sun to the plainspoken reality of what they would all come to be, as we witness the airplane itself as a mere speck in the sky. It's extraordinarily sad, and surprising, and it's the honest brutality of this ending, in stark counterpoint with everything that we've just seen, that made this film stand out in my teens as a harbinger and warning of what adult life might someday mean.

And whenever I think on this conclusion (which is more often than I should), it makes me remember a night when I was fifteen, in Myrtle Beach, hanging out with a bunch of strangers that we met from Port Perry, Ontario, a gaggle of Canadian kids goofing around down in the States on Spring Break, and we stayed up most of the night in somebody's room, laughing about silly shit, and I knew then that none of us would probably ever hang out again in that way, that, if we were lucky, we would just remember it at some point in the future as simply another fun night from our youth, one where the clear sound of the ocean waves lapping the shore seemed to get ever harder to hear as the morning crept close.  

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


Sometimes you read a book for one reaon before being confronted with another. That Japanese paperback I mentioned a few posts back, the one where the dude is trying to convince his audience of the moral superiority of the Japanese people to their Chinese and Korean Asian counterparts, took a momentarily odd turn when the author revealed at the start of a chapter that he happened to be the first cousin of Ms.Yoko Ooo.

Ah. Hm. Okay. He went on to explain that her beau, John Lennon, was a diligent student of Japanese, and that his favourite word was 'okagesamade', which roughly translates as 'thanks to you', used when you want to convey a notion of gratitude to an individual or gorup (or quite often, it seems, to some invisibly generic group of societal benefactors). Above and beyond this little bizarre textual interruption of familial connections, I found it curious that, similar to most other Japanese publications, Yoko Ono's name was written in katakana, the script usually used for foreign words that have been transformed into Japanese. Japanese names are usually written using the Chinese characters of kanji, which makes it doubly odd to see a famous Japanese name rendered in such a a 'foreign' way.

So what's the deal here?

A few years ago in Japan, browsing around a bookstore in the boonies with a Japanese supervisor, I noticed for the first time that Yoko Ono's name, in the title of a book, was rendered in katakana. I asked my boss why this was so, given that she was not only Japanese, but from a rather prominent family at that. My supervisor looked puzzled, muttering words to the effect of: "Well, she left Japan a long time ago."

I understood that many Japanese who live abroad for most of their lives are often culturally ostracized (to varying degrees of exclusion), which I could sort of understand, given that it's hard to stay prominent in a group-oriented culture when you're away for so long from the hub of that group, but I couldn't quite figure out why that should result in one's very name being depicted in characters usually chosen for distinctly foreign concepts.

I didn't get that much of an answer, and it's a phenomenon that I've occasionally noticed now and then in the Japanese media. Kazuo Ishiguro, for example, noted literary author of REMAINS OF THE DAY and WHEN WE WERE ORPHANS, also has his name depicted in katakana, despite his Japanese roots (and very Japanese name). However, he left Japan by the age of seven, was raised in England, speaks little Japanese, and cannot read or write it at all. That his name is not written in Chinese characters sort of makes sense, since he is truly, for all intents and purposes, a foreigner. And sometimes in the Japanese press katakana can be used as a stylistic device, to look 'cool' or 'offbeat', but such an advertisint gimmick is usually limited to pop stars or facile media 'idols'. So what's the deal with Yoko?

Maybe it's because, long ago, decades ago even, Yoko Ono became much larger than her roots, even exceeding internationally her own esteemed clan. As a romantic partner of one of the Beatles, who were, and remain, extraordinarily popular in Japan, she sort of transcended the noble family background that she emerged from, and as voluntary exile in America for decades, the media must have at one point decided that she was jow less of an ordinary Japanese person, and more like a symbol, a representative of a particular time and its mores.

In that context, from that point of view, abandoning her kanji makes some sort of sense. 'Yoko Ono' is a familiar enough Japanese name -- both the first name and surname are not all that uncommon -- but written in katakana, her name takes on a heightened, even eccentric flavour, a traditional Japanese moniker is now depicted in a script that accenuates the foreign flavour of her life.

That's what I'm guessing, anyways. Pure spitballing. I actually don't have a clue if I'm right. It' simply fascinating, to me, that the very nature of the Japanese language contains the innate capacity to alter the visual means by which one's own given name comes across in its linguistic form. Katakana, a phonetic script crafted to deal with the influx of foreign words from afar a few centuries ago, is not nearly as old as kanji, whose history dates back to ancient China, but it still strikes me as bizarre that the language can readily be adapted to alter the most basic representation of one's own self-expression. English as a language doesn't have such mutant powers.

And this whole discussion (or monlogue?) came about purely because of an anecdotal offshoot in the book that I'm reading. It's strictly tangential to the author's main thesis, but I'm gradually learning, and appreciating, that it's the backroads and dead-ends of life that allow one to stop and assess.

Monday, February 09, 2015


I was alternately moved and fascinated throughout the first few hundred pages of 2009's WHERE MEN WIN GLORY, Jon Krakauer's account of former NFL player-turned-solider Pat Tillman's bright life and sad death, but it was the description of his friendly-fire killing itself that combined those two feelings into a sick kind of weight. Not only was Tillman instantly shot dead by multiple rounds of close fire by his own fellow men, but his brain was literally ejected from his crumpled cranium, leaving the rest of his face looking like a withered ballon. To read a passage like that, after examining, in detail, the life of an actual person who held fast to his own brand of honour, made me actuely realize once again that life plays no favourites in the rewards it hands out. The book is simultaneously a biography of the man and a chronicle of the American military involvement in two wars of dubious choice and we see through these pages the means by which the most personal aspects of one's character can combine with the indifferent goals of larger states than ourselves.

Pat Tillman gave up a lucrative career in the National Football League to sign away three years of his life as an Army Ranger, and the book examines not only the arc of his life, but also parallels his upbringing with the American army's multiple escapades in Afghanistan and Iraq. Narratively, such an alternating style of approach adds a gathering sense of impending doom, each non-descript example of a California boy's suburban upbringing quickly counterbalanced by an examination of Soviet and C.I.A. policy in dusty Middle Eastern backwaters. Even as we see his personal and professional success, we also know what darkness with come.

Tillman was a fireplug of a kid who learned life-lessons early on, serving a short period of jail-time for beating up a fellow high-schooler soon before graduation. He ended up playing football in university, despite his small frame, and earned a place on the Arizona Cardinals professional NFL team, drafted in the low-rounds. A few years later, when his talent had increased, his playmaking skills fortified, he received an offer from another team for over nine million dollars, but Tillman turned down such a lucrative contract, remaining loyal to the team that had chosen him when he was an unknown, even though his salary would be little more than five hundred grand. As an observer points out, no professional athlete has ever turned down such a shitload of coin out of his own sense of loyalty. Such uncommon adherence to principals was a harbinger of the kind of integrity that would lead him to quit professional football to join the military soon after 9-11.

That the book charts his familial and professional life contemporaneously with American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq is a quiet masterstroke of storytelling, letting us as readers witness how real-world political events inevitably coincide with the humans they affect from afar. Such a technique also allows us to see the political terrian that Tillman grew up in, the archetypal Americana atmosphere of bravado and pride that enabled him through the crucible of sports to concoct his own kind of morality that would eventually do himself in.

Despite his voluntary decision to enter the army, Tillman was not some blind patriot, and his own journals, retrieved after his death, let the reader know almost every step of the way his personal struggle to reconicle his chosen miltary path. Quoting Emerson and Thoreau and Homer, Tillman seeks to assure himself that he's done the right thing, that his individuality is justified and upheld. Upon joining the military, he's rather disheartened to discover that his fellow soldiers are mostly nienteen year-old fuck ups. It's not what he thought it was supposed to be. After war is declared in Iraq, he wonders just what the hell he's doing there, what their occuption of that country is truly all about. We see a man who has made a decision, who sticks with it, who still believes in a kind of martial honour that enables him to act patriotically -- but we also read, through his own words, his critiques of the miliatry, its pettiness and pointlessness. Ultimately serving in Afghanistan, which is a little more palatable to his sense of justice, he eventually emerges as someone who is glad he has served, but boy does he want to get home for good.

Which he doesn't. Killed by friendly fire, the book does a remarkable job of showing how, for over two months after his death, the American military brass did everything in its power to prop him up in death as a national martyr, lying to his family and the country about how he truly met his end. We can see a military-industrial complex that does not practice what it preaches, that does not honour its own codes, that is willing to forgo common decency for the sake of wartime p.r. The final fifty pages of the book plainly demonstrate the ultimate irony of Tillman's death -- that this patriot who grew up believing in the values embedded in him by his family and country, who refused all media interviews when joing the army, who struggled to do the right thing in a cause he did not precisely believe in, was ultimately used as a pawn by the very forces he so longed to uphold. The indignities his physical and spiritual self suffered after death are both banal and disgusting in their bureucratic contempt.

One doesn't have to believe in Tillman's (or his country's) cause to gain a feel for the man, and a sense of  regret for the pointlessness of his death. The book gives us the detailed upbringing of an American boy who strove to uphold the (supposed) virtues of his country, only to have the institutions that he fought for and died for twist those ideals into slick propoganda.

Near the end of the book, Krakaeur quotes a fellow soldier who helped carry Tillman's corpse in a bodybag from his death-site in the mountains of Afghanistan. At one point, the body sort of falls completely in half, its upper and lower parts diassembling, making the whole thing pretty hard to carry as one. Something like that, anyways. The details have left me. I almost had to put the book down right there. Such a physically descriptive detail tends to stick in one's craw. Only pages before, I was reading one actual man's own private words about his increasing urge to escape the squabble of combat and make the long way back to his wife, and now I learn that the body behind those longings kind of squished in on itself and basically oozed apart. This book's overarching themes -- namely, for me, the grand ambitions of war, and the fiercely (or bored) nationalistic soldiers who pursue moral worth in its name -- came tangibly clear to me in that scene, and kudos to Krakauer for including such awful and actual examples of what can come to pass in this life.