Friday, November 17, 2006

ARTS REVIEW. It's been a slow month for me art-wise. After 200 pages I gave up on One Hundred Years of Solitude -- it's beautiful writing, of course, but I kept thinking, wait, haven't I read this part already? The Russians can be hard to keep track of, too, but they have more conversations to jolt one back to attentiveness. Maybe I'm a horrible philistine, but I could have done with less magic and more realism. With that admitted, on to some impressions:

Borat. I guess what's got many people excited about this movie is the permission it gives us to enjoy ethnic humor in a public place without any consequences. Sasha Cohen's smart move was to pick a barely-known former Soviet satellite as his dummy's country of origin -- though to be fair, Al Capp did it first with Lower Slobbovia -- so only a tiny part of his audience would be directly offended, and the rest of us could cover ourselves with the excuse that we aren't laughing at Borat's ethnicity, but at his cultural isolation. It's really more like hillbilly humor than Polish jokes, all the way down to the incest and arranged marriage bits. Jeff Foxworthy gets away with this sort of thing all the time. But Borat isn't regionally distinct in the same way, so for American viewers there's nothing culturally at stake. Even Borat's anti-Semitic ravings provoke no internal second-guessing because Borat represents no recognizable constituency. Even when morons agree with him, there's no chance that an audience will. He's a perfect buffoon, and audiences sense it immediately: no shibboleths were harmed in the production of this movie.

This is liberating, on the simplest level. Cohen takes the freedom Borat grants him and runs amok with it, crashing through guerilla to gross-out humor. The result is way too loose to be called satire -- compared to Borat, "The Beverly Hillbillies" is Aristophanes. The ending is sweet -- I especially liked Borat's decision to free his chicken: "Run, run to your life!" -- but really, it's barely necessary, just a pleasing way of tying up loose ends. Wider claims for the movie are absurd and unnecessary.

The Information. I enjoyed London Fields and its hothouse-dense literary riffs, and I figured, if the hi-lo theme of toffs vs. chavs didn't play out as cataclysmically well for me as I'd hoped, it might have something to do with my relative unfamiliarity with the vagaries of London, to which Amis devoted so much space that I had to assume it was part of a deeper meaning I was missing. Well, this book takes place mostly in London, and there is an underworld part and a middle-class part, and there are lush thickets of description, but I felt more sure-footed in this one and thus less forgiving.

Amis is unparalleled at capturing the top, middle, and bottom notes in the stink of despair -- "he was more pleased than vexed if a bee buzzed him, flattered that anything, however briefly and stupidly, could still mistake him for a flower" -- and his central conceit, of a failed writer consumed with jealous and moral outrage that his unworthy buddy has become a credentialed literary success, is catnip to such as me and mostly well-played. Also, unlike his smugly fraudulent Gwyn Barry, Amis can write for toffee and often for non-pareils, too. But this time he couldn't snow me with the regional guff -- no punk chick, however rarified, behaves like Belladonna, and I'm pretty sure no one like the emblematic thug Steve Cousins, a virgin murderer steeped in pornography, could find a deep connection with the literally unreadable (and sadly unrendered) fiction of Amis' hero -- sorry, that's a metaphor way too far, however Anglicized.

Two books is too few on which to base summary judgment, but what else of his am I going to read? Time's Arrow? The one that goes backwards? Briton, please. As much pleasure as his prose gives me, I smell a rat. As in London Fields, there's a lot of guff here about decay and malaise and the bad end of the old Empire. I'm naturally sympathetic to the theme, but here Amis is observably working too hard at it; the simple comic reversal of the arranged beating in the movie theatre toilet, for example, gets so cluttered with existential dread that the joke gets spoilt. Maybe it is an English thing after all: I understand Amis is all about jihad and the death of the West these days. Yeesh. I prescribe Sullivan's Travels.

Drinking, Smoking, and Screwing and Lying, Cheating, and Stealing. Two 90s anthologies I found in the trash. Good fun, though their titles oversell them; why no frank erotica, or real crime narratives? Probably the editors considered such fare too raw for the joy-popping "transgression"-seeking audiences they targeted, but why? Had they never been to an airport bookstore? Still, anthologies are a great way to shop writers you'd never given a chance before. I feel more justified in ignoring Anais Nin now -- but, Good God, how'd I miss The Ginger Man and Tobias Wolff? My favorite find is Corey Ford, a glib mid-century magazine writer whose 1950 "Office Party" bit is very dated but charming. Manners come and go, but style -- if the author has put in the work to obtain one -- persists.

And, oh yeah, the Cezanne to Picasso and Americans in Paris shows at the Met? Massive big ups. If you've ever doubted Gaughin, go stand in front of Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? for fifteen minutes. It'll put color in your cheeks. While you're there, go look at Winslow Homer's Prisoners from the Front and tell me if you think it's as hilariously homoerotic as I did. Like I said, I suspect I may be a philistine.

UPDATE. As always, this sort of post is redeemed by the genuine cultural information in the comments.

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