Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Tosh: Through a Glass Lightly

"Hey, that's Wallace Berman," I said to my friend Steve. We were standing in line at our usual Saturday midnight screening at the Cinema Theatre on Western. It must have been  the autumn of 1964.  I'd been hearing Berman's name and had been catching glimpses of his collages and Verifax images in various places. I'm pretty sure I'd first  heard about him the previous summer while taking a class at Cal State taught by Hugh Bonar, at the time known to be the hippest professor at what was then a fairly conservative institution. Bonar was known for his wide-ranging readings lists, weekly film screenings, sun glasses that he wore even at night, and a laugh that would bellow out at odd places during film screenings, as if he were sharing a joke that only he and the film-maker understood. Bonar had brought John Fles, the curator of those Cinema screenings, to talk to the class. And Fles, in turn, had extolled the artistic virtues of Berman, then read from Michael McClure's newly published Ghost Tantras, the cover of which was a photograph of McClure taken by his friend Wallace Berman. 

It really was  Berman standing there in the lobby of the Cinema next to Bonar, in pretty much the same place where Timothy Carey had stood a few weeks before, a pet python wrapped around his neck,  prior to the premier of his movie The World's Greatest Sinner. I was nineteen and was suitably impressed by Berman's presence. I felt like I was, for the first time, rubbing shoulders with a real artist.  No doubt it was also from  Bonar or Fles that I heard about  Berman's  arrest a few years earlier at the Ferus Gallery for exhibiting obscene works of art (in fact, a piece not by Berman but the self-proclaimed witch, Cameron).  I'd  also somehow seen copies of his Semina magazine, and remember, in particular, the issue with a photograph of his wife on the cover. And  I had in my possession a poster he designed  advertising the Cinema Theatre's  2nd Annual L.A. Film-Makers Festival, consisting of his trademark images embedded in a series of  transistor radios. Fifty years later I still have that  poster which now hangs on  my living room wall. Then, a few years later, Berman appeared on  the Peter Blake/Jann Haworth cover of the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper,  like a  confirmation that his art meant something to the wider world, even if I had no inkling at the time that it was about to be commodified beyond anyone's expectations.

Fast forward to the late 1990s. Serpent's Tail had just published my book, Pulp Culture. I was in L.A. to do some readings and signings, including one at Beyond Baroque. Before the reading I was killing some time by browsing in their bookstore and happened to come  across a book Wallace Berman: Support the Revolution. The guy behind the counter seemed interested that I was interested in that particular book. I said Wallace Berman was one of my favourite artists. He said he was Wallace Berman's son. And that is how I met Tosh Berman.

So, of course, I was eagerly  awaiting Tosh's book on his dad and those years. And I was not to be disappointed. Tosh is not only an evocative depiction of Wallace Berman, and growing in the Berman household, it's also a perceptive portrait of a particular period in Los Angeles cultural history. Back then, L.A., at least for someone like myself, growing up there, seemed like a small town with what appeared to be a small town mentality. Then, at some point in the early 1960s, everything- from those midnight screenings at the Cinema Theatre to Walter Hopps-curated exhibitions at the Pasadena Art Museum, from jazz at Shelly's Manne Hole to  blues and bluegrass discoveries at the Ash Grove- was there, available, fresh and filled with meaning, as if the world was suddenly opening up to reveal itself as a playground of possibilities. 

Tosh Berman's Tosh (pub. date: Jan., 2019, City Lights) evokes those years, up to and just after the fatal 1976 car accident that killed Tosh's dad. Tosh, the author, relates all of this with a disarming honesty, charm, and self-deprecating humour. No doubt about it, Tosh will resonate with anyone who grew up in Los Angeles during those years, And Tosh will make those who weren't around feel like they've been thrown back into that particular time and place. A time when art in a variety of forms seemed to be bubbling up from the pavement, and it became apparent that L.A. wasn't the cultural desert I, and perhaps others, had thought. Tosh recalls all of that. Not only Wallace Berman's work and life as an artist, but what it was like to grow up with him and those who surrounded  him, from family members to comrades-in-art like George Hermes and Dean Stockwell. I hardly needed an excuse to go back and look at whatever Wallace Berman artifacts I could find, including the film, Aleph, to which, after Berman's death, Stan Brakhage would put the finishing touches. Tosh can't help but have that effect on any serious reader. For me, Tosh works as a historical document, a testimony to a time when the culture was moving from the last vestiges of bohemia into the more commercial world of hippiedom. Likewise, Tosh is also a personal coming of age book. Heartfelt, touching and honest, there's a lot of Tosh here, and I don't mean that in the British sense of the term. It seeps right through the book, down to its final two sentences in which, reiterating the depth  of his sincerity, Tosh signs off by saying, "I honestly believe that it is a blessing to be a writer or artist in our age now. It's an honor to be in the presence of those we love, and equally fascinating to be with those we despise as well."

And if you haven't seen Aleph, here it is:


Tuesday, November 13, 2018

On Dangerous Ground: In a Lonely Place (Ray, 1950), The Killers (Siodmak, 1946)

In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950)

A shattered world, future so bleak 
it’s hardly worth the effort. If not for 
a post-war temper, lashing out, hairpin-
turns at ninety psychopaths an hour, 
losing a woman so beautiful she could 
pawn your breath, and schlep the ticket
from L.A. to Tijuana and back again. 
But asking that hat-check girl home to 
turn a hack screenplay into something 
saleable? So fucking cynical, yet so 
human. As if those cloying lines- “I was 
born when you kissed me. I died when 
you left me...", blah, blah, blah- were 
nothing more than an excuse. In the end, 
you couldn't even look at each other, 
so profound the betrayal. Though, in 
this version, you weren't guilty, or at 
least I don't think you were. But the 
other crimes. Much closer to the edge, 
everything played out, depicting this 
world we have so clearly inherited.  

The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946)

Night time the proverbial 
for irritable hoodlums, 
terrorising night-shift small-
town diners. Laconically 
seeking jack-of-all boxer, 
small-time criminal, gas
station pump-man. Twenty
minutes and Hemingway is
conveniently thrashed. With
a thin line separating history
from back-story. Think Citizen 
Kane for pulp-heads, albeit  
with a jones for fractured 
narratives. A frozen demeanour, 
ever the plight of insurance 
investigators, Swede's passivity 
and hat-factory heist despair. 
O'Brien, untarnished enough 
to ask lascivious Ava if she
would take to his hotel room
stands at attention, like he's
recovering from severe case 
of erectile dysfunction. Not 
condition Swede recognises.  
“She’s beautiful,” he says, 
droolinglike Bugs Bunny on 
steroids, down Ava's cleavage
leaving his girl-friend on the 
sidelines searching for a different 
angle, while only the musicians  
stand capable of calculating so
slippery a hypotenuse. But whose 
dream is this? Movies-within-
movies, planetary jail-house spiel, 
death bed supplication, a stair-
case littered with Ava’s victims. 
All to prevent premiums rising 
a tenth of percent. And what 
about the pay-out? Times Square 
humanity, five-and-ten jewellery, 
more than anyone can imagine.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

False Equivalencies: Parsing Perloff's Forward to the 50th Anniversary Edition of Ed Dorn's Ed Dorn's Gunslinger

Hard to believe it's been fifty years since the publication of Ed Dorn's Gunslinger. To commemorate the occasion, Duke University has brought out a 50th anniversary edition. Though a lot of water has passed under the bridge in the intervening years, re-reading Dorn's fin d'epoch epic of the west  is, as ever, a pleasure. While time has blunted some of its impact, Gunslinger seems as alive, as radical and as funny as ever. This latest, and highly attractive, edition comes accompanied by a handful of related texts, including Olson's Bibliography of America for Ed Dorn, Michael Davidson's The Elimination of the Draw and Marjorie Perloff's introduction to Duke's earlier edition, as well as a new forward by Perloff. For me, Dorn's poem hardly needs an introduction or surrounding texts, but perhaps Duke thought it provident to pad the book so to give  punters a reason to buy a poem that had only a few years back  appeared in Dorn's Collected Poems. Nor can I quite see the value of including Olson's important Bibliography For E.D., other than to establish the origins of Dorn's polymath credentials. On the other hand, such texts will no doubt be useful to those new to the poem and poet.

But it's Perloff's forward that I find problematical. Not so much that it's  awkward and truncated compared to her more elegant earlier intro, originally published in 1981. It's more what she's saying, or, often, not saying. My hackles were immediately on alert when she quoted her earlier introduction, that Dorn's portrayal of Howard Hughes in the poem "anticipates...the current 'legend' of Donald Trump and his empire." Thin ice, indeed. Though she admits her statement from all those years ago had nothing to do a sense of prescience, given that she knew very little about Trump at the time. As she acknowledges, back then Trump was  simply a silver-spooned property developer, hotel and soon to be casino owner. Perloff then tries to bring it all up to date, only to throw  oil on this would-be fire,  writing, "From Hughes to Trump: it seems a clear-cut example of Marx's aphorism that great men always appear twice, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce." No matter that she's putting a slight spin on Marx's aphorism, which referred to history, not to great men. But the comparison is too easy. Saying that Trump is a farce, only to leave it at that, minimizes the danger he and his presidency represent. A farce, perhaps, but a tragedy for those who are bearing the brunt of his policies. And what about her statement that Hughes in Gunslinger begins as a figure of mystery and charisma and ends up a "Trumpian comic-book character, a mere cypher."  While Hughes is certainly a comic-book figure in Gunslinger, the same can't be said for Trump,  as he twiddles his fingers over the nuclear button. Saying he's a "mere cypher" is  to belittle his responsibility in cultivating his repulsive brand of nativism. And, unlike Hughes in Gunslinger, Trump is not about to simply vanish from the scene.

The comparison, in any case, is, at best, superficial. At least Hughes refrained from doing the country a disservice by running for office. Moreover, Hughes actually produced things. Something Trump can never be accused of doing.  Sure, Hughes was a right-wing narcissist, obsessed with Hollywood starlets. But he was hardly  a danger to the world. Neither did he inculcate or exploit a social movement. Hughes's allure, as exemplified by his presence in Dorn's poem, derived from being a mega-wealthy one-off, someone with buying power, but without much concern for demographics, other than who flew his planes, bought his parts and watched his films. Trump might have begun  as a "mere cypher" (think Gunslinger's "Talking Barrel"), but he quickly mutated into a brand. As president his presence is that of a fifth-rate stand-up comic, devoid of irony and humour. Unlike Hughes, he has his army of followers, many of whom are armed and dangerous, and he  delights in feeding them red meat. At the same time he offers the Mercers, the Kochs, Murdoch and Adelson something to exploit. Perloff calls Trump's rise a case of "marvelous accidentalism," but Trump was no accident; he'd had been planning his assault on the presidency ever since the 1980s. It was then just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and a willingness to be the embodiment of a set of historical circumstances stretching back as far as one wishes to take it. Traces of those circumstances can be found in Dorn's work, from Geography and North Atlantic Turbine, to Gunslinger and beyond, in which he logs the contradictions and impact of corporate politics, supply-side economics and trickle-down neo-liberalism.

If, as Perloff contends, Gunslinger anticipated the bizarre pronouncements and rhetorical games of the Trump campaign, she's definitely over-estimating Trump's linguistic and mental capabilities. Because Trump's fractured rhetoric and over-heated pronouncements, however bizarre, are tailored-made for his base. Unlike anything in Gunslinger, his  language is not only sickeningly prosaic but devoid of so much as a shred of irony or perspective. It's simply  pressing emotional buttons. Lacking any semblance of  linguistic virtuosity, he's as far from Gunslinger's linguistic tropes and games as one can possibly imagine, his non-linearity constituting a mental incapacity that only extends to the nearest slogan or soundbite, the more vile and violent the better.

But Perloff has her moments, citing  Amiri Baraka regarding Dorn's origins and class to the effect that Dorn  "reflected that tribal sense of being somehow distanced from an America he was obviously so deeply part of." "Michael Moore-land," Perloff calls it, and, yes, Dorn did share a similar background and was all too aware of  the effect such demographic marginality brings. But Baraka would have been attuned to the function and drift of Dorn's poetics enough to point out the difference between Dorn's ability to read the fluctuation of historical circumstances and Moore's all-too-easy reductionism, no matter how laudable the latter's politics might be. Nor can one argue with Perloff's claim that Trump's playbook and stunts come straight out of the Barnum and Bailey (Barnum and Bigly). After all,  he's exactly the sort of huckster Americans have long been fascinated with. But this is hardly a reason to conclude that Gunslinger  can be said to "look ahead" to the Trump era, rather than simply stating  what was, and is, embedded in the culture.

In the end, Dorn would have dissected Trump in the same way he had everyone up to Bush II, critiquing  his abuse of power, dodgy logic and language. But Trump might well have been too easy a target. Never one to toe the standard line, Dorn might have opted to double down on his own brand of contrarian politics and set his sights on those who brought Trump to power: not those who voted for such a complete shower, but the power brokers, regardless of political affiliation. Fair enough, Perloff does point out that Dorn would not have had much patience with the way the media, from bottom feeders like Murdoch to respectable news outlets, have dealt with Trump, profiting from him in direct proportion to their depiction of his incendiary rhetoric. And, importantly, she does citie Jeremy Prynne to the effect that  Dorn sought to keep "the language from falling into the hands of those who want to promote it as an oppressive instrument." Of course, Dorn, as Gunslinger aptly illustrates, always had form in this regard, relying on his own tangential approach to subject matter, linguistic turns and phenomenological asides, all to blow the lid off the intricacies of narrative poetry and the language of power. There are few before or after so wide-ranging and radical in their application and critique. Too bad  Perloff doesn't fully explore the contemporary implications of Gunslinger, but mostly settles for what she wrote all those years ago, which isn't enough when it  comes to imagining Dorn's possible critique of Trump.  Perhaps it's just that Gunslinger is a more radical poem and Dorn a more radical poet than she credits. Certainly, Gunslinger was never intended to be a "mock-reality show," as Perloff maintains, but an imagined journey into the heart of the American west. Too bad her forward only skims the surface, pointing towards the relationship between the poem, now fifty years old, and the present but without fully investigating what is really at stake.