Sunday, November 09, 2003


Got a hold of the new Martin Amis novel, Yellow Dog. Haven't finished it yet, so I'll forestall my comments until then, but reading it did bring to mind a piece I wrote (for the presumably disinterested readership of Lollipop magazine) a few years ago. As literary parody, it's probably lacking: in fact, it's probably one of the least successful things I've ever attempted (there have been worse, oh lawdy yes, but unlike most of those pieces, I had a very clear goal in mind and fell well short of the mark, owing to deadline pressure, general fatigue, and the toxins in my editor-in-chief's breath. Oh, and lack of talent, too; musn't forget that). Still, I have a strange affection for this Thalidomide babe o' mine, and I really need new content for this damned page, so here 'tis:

Vanity, Thy Name is Lucre

Editor's Note: The writer usually held responsible for this feature remains incapacitated with a number of purely literary ailments - a dermatologically rambling outbreak of Kerouacne, several drawn-out and convoluted Pynchon nerves, and a mock-epic bout of Tennyson elbow - therefore, the column will continue to be assigned to a panoply of guest writers until he either recovers or lapses into a delirium so entertaining that simply watching him try to work the keys of his Power VIC-20 with his earlobes will prove funnier than anything he's contributed to these pages in several years. This month's feature comes to us from Merkin Aimless, noted second-generation British satirical novelist and author of such best-lenders as The Lode of Auld Wanque and Spent Advances.

Writing short comic essays is, on the whole, difficult, isn't it. Isn't it. Words tremble out, don't they, thick with time-bloat and city-belch, scalloped with celestial seasonings, the pre-prandial paprika of night: the sky with its abscessed swells, its baked-on calculus, its periodontal table of the elements. One wouldn't blame the long-suffering essayist, would one, if he refused to assay the essay, to uproot his gingivitic muse in an attempt to straighten her orthodontal embrace (and they're always "her"s, aren't they. The muses, I mean. I think. I mean to say, I think, that I don't know. About the muses. I mean, they are, aren't they, always "her"s. Aren't they. Or aren't they).

I've been assigned a 1000-word comic essay. I have. If anyone were to ask me what I were doing, right now, at my award-winning word processor whereupon all my words are, after a fashion, processed, with the dolorous clouds of the London dusk as swollen and disproportionate as the cheques I receive from my British bullybag of a literary agent or the checks my American advance-attaché posts me in the post, this is what I'd say: I've been assigned a 1000-word comic essay. I have. On what subject, they did not specify. This is what they said (they did): "A comic essay. Yes. That would be the done thing to do." That sounds a bit awkward, doesn't it. Doesn't it. It does. But that is how Americans, that is how they talk. This I know because I've been to America, as everyone must. I've been to America, that land of nuke-lag and sack-hacks, of hard-ups and soft-ons, of pain-gloat and slip-ache... what was I writing about? Oh, yes, America. I've been there. I've heard how Americans talk. And Americans talk like that. As Americans must. And I know Americans, know Americans as only an outsider can. This is the thing: I am an outsider. Weaned on pub-grub and sick from ale-ail. I am not, you can tell, an American. Look at my pall-pallor, my sodden street-terror, my eructated erudition, my well-thumbed copy of the OED. Above all (above all), look at my teeth. Look at my teeth. The crumbled queue of decayed dentrifice, the rot-ridden rank of insipid incisors, the faux-feral file of unenamored enamel. Those... those are my teeth. My teeth. They are. These are teeth that have been to America.

Short comic essays, you may notice, have gone the way of the universe. They've gone that way because I just said they have. You remember. Three sentences ago. They've gone that way as the universe has: haemorraging astral hours without hope, without hope of space-clot or cosmo-stanch. The life, the life is bleeding out of it. And I'm the same way: I'm bleeding out of it. Could be the draught-draft, the glacial gust that wafts through the door, the d'or, of the pub where I spend my hours doing research for my latest novel, which itself has gone, not so much the way of the universe, more the way of America. Or my teeth. I can't tell: I'm bleeding out of it. Just like the universe. Except with italics. I go to the pub to seek, to seek, to seek the yeasty waft of pie-sloth and the inverted motor-smog of fag smoke, and also to listen for new low-life slang I can place in the scorched mouths of the dart-slags and bollock-bashers that form the supporting cast, the supporting caste, of my novels. "Don't cock me under, mate. Don't cock me under, right?" That's one I just heard. In the pub. At least I think that's what I heard: I can't be sure because I didn't dare (I didn't) bring my Oxford-educated second-generation novelist form too close to them to hear them right, lest I get a right nosing from them. That's another one, another bit of yob-slang I overheard: "Don't cock me under, mate, or I'll give you a right nosing, right?" Put that in the mouth of a quim-quaffing Cockney layabout, give him a dingy white van and a name like Kif or Biro or Shizz, and I've got a character. A walking metaphor to counterbalance the protagonist, who himself is a walking metaphor. Don't tell anyone (don't tell anyone), but he's me. He's me. A writer obsessed with the universe, America, and his teeth, except he's not me, or he seems not to be me, although I'll give him a name like Nigel Scribe or Denis Me, because I'll have him meet up (in the pub, I reckon. In the pub) with a recurring character called Merkin Aimless, who himself is a writer, and they can have conversations like this:

"So, you're a writer as well, are you?"

"That I am. That... I am."

"What are you writing now, then?"

"I'm into short comic essays. Right up to here."

"Ah. Ah. What's your subject?"

"They're Americans. They didn't specify."

"That must make it difficult, then."

"Not really. Not, not really. I've found, from writing critically-acclaimed novels these many years, that once you find your voice and become recognized for it, that you can pretty much slather any sort of blather onto the page, so long as you give the vague impression of significance, cosmic metaphor and sociological commentary and the like, and get away with it."

"I see. See: I see."

"Add a little post-modernism, like casting an idealized version of yourself in it somewhere, and you'll be set. Lauded worldwide. Get steady income. Enough to pay for a new set of teeth. They don't even have to be funny."

"The teeth?"

"The essays."

"Sounds brilliant. But there's one more thing: one more thing to ask. What if you do all that and you still don't have enough to fill the space?"

"Simple - just use a lot of repetition.

"Yes, that's it.

"Just use a lot of repetition."

Friday, November 07, 2003

Cripes, I've been one slack motherblogga. Almost two months without a post. Let's try'n redress the balance...

LAST MOVIE WATCHED (THEATER): Lost in Translation.

Lots of ink has been spilt in the name of Sofia Coppola's sophomore directorial effort already (of the sort that translates into just enough buzz to slide it into the local googolplex for a two-week run attended by a sparse smattering of suburban cineastes and people who couldn't get in to The School of Rock), which would be enough to make me clam up no matter how much I liked the thing - a little hype is a dangerous thing; a lot of hype might lead to mass prolapse - but, screw it, sing it out, soap it on the windows and leave a flaming bag of praise on every doorstep, this is a fine, fine movie. The things that the film's detractors keep pointing trembling fingers at (the lack of an iron-clad, Syd Field-approved plot matrix, the repeated shots of Scarlett Johanssen's backside) work just beautifully for me (that long, languorous opening shot of Ms. J's glutes works symbolically, you see, both stripped down and restless, much like the two main characters... aw, who'm I kiddin'? Drool*).

But as adorable (cutest baby fat in the biz) and convincing as a young woman adrift as Scarlett is, it's Bill Murray's show all the way. Of course, we all knew that. If he doesn't steal the show, it's not worth pilfering. Murray's screen persona, the thing that's given him far more staying power than any SNL vet to adapt their schtick to a larger canvas, is a kind of focused non-committment. Few performers have ever put quite so much energy into looking like they were just dropped off at the set minutes before shooting; his cinematic CV is full of wry, (at least seemingly) improvised asides and deliveries of written lines that clearly signal to the audience, "Yeah, I know, I'm not buying any of this either." Which, of course, is nothing special in and of itself - most comic actors these days aren't really actors (and many ain't that comic, either), they're basically shpritzbots plunked in the middle of a moribund celluloid wasteland and expected to power the whole works by themselves. The persona's the thing, which leads to either a sputtering mania that sucks all the life out of its surroundings (Jim Carrey, Robin Williams) or a smirky, superior indifference that makes everything around them irrelevant (Chevy Chase) - after all, if they don't care to get involved in what's going on around them, why should we? But there was always more to Murray than that - never as offputting nor as chilly as his comedic lessers, he's mastered a sly and impressive balancing act, not just the ability to be in the scene and apart from it simultaneously, but also the means to use that disconnection to draw the viewer in, (often) being the exemplar of silliness while somehow convincing you that there's something in the silliness that matters. (His closest showbiz equivalent is David Letterman, a guy who shares much of the credit/blame with Murray for ushering in the Age of Irony but who, over time, has revealed himself as the only sincere fellow in the superficial miasma of late-night talk - his every exasperated aside and disbelieving glance into the camera shows a refreshing lack of patience for show-biz bullshit, and, when it counts, has thrown aside the nutty entertainer mask altogether to share a humanity and sensitivity with scarcely a trace of mawkishness [his return from a quadruple-bypass operation, his moving post-9/11 monologue, and the full hour he gave to his dying friend Warren Zevon being the most obvious examples].)

This quality, always there even in the worst movies he's done (he expended so much energy in Charlie's Angels trying to remain steadfastly above his surroundings while affecting a laid-back, casual air that somehow still broadcast to the faithful that he's absolutely miserable being there that he, the least hyperkinetic aspect of the movie, was absolutely exhausting to watch), has been recognized and utilized by some of our more inventive young directors - well, two of them, at least. Maybe three, pending proof of Michael Almereyda's age. Wes Anderson's Rushmore, of course, finally managed to convince certain people that Murray is indeed an actor rather than just a walking smirk (something that some of us already knew, dammit - he may have worked just a bit too hard in the live-TV-redemption scene at the end of the much-maligned [but pretty durned clever and funny, despite Richard Donner's sledgehammer direction] Scrooged, but watch carefully when they run it this holiday season and notice how skillfully he peels away the layers of nastiness in Frank Cross and, beneath the mania, clearly shows exactly how each one crusted over him in the first place), but, if anything, Coppola captures Murray's inner Emmett Kelly even better than Anderson did there (and definitely more than Anderson did in The Royal Tenenbaums, despite a couple of crackerjack deadpan line readings from Murray). Murray's of-it-but-somewhat-out-of-it demeanor suits a picture whose theme is dislocation (temporal, spatial, emotional, spiritual - it's all there). He's never quite fit his surroundings (slightly awkward height, stomach, face), but here it's ramped up - everything in Tokyo is just a little too dark/bright/loud/quiet/fast/slow, a place where even images of yourself look alien. (One of my favorite moments in the movie is when Murray's [unlikely, yeah, but in a world where Steven Seagal continues to get even straight-to-video-worthy roles instead of being shot in the head and dumped in a desert grave, I'm willing to suspend disbelief] American action star runs across one of his old pictures on the hotel TV, a perfect cobbled-together abstraction of his life's work in a few seconds: one shot of a younger Murray [looks like the "Samurai Hit Man" sketch from SNL], one shot of a grimacing chimp, one shot of a car crash.) In such an environment, you gravitate to anything even vaguely familiar you can find, bad news for a fading star still prone to being pestered by fans (a situation, other than the "fading" part, to which Murray can certainly relate), good news in that contact with your fellow aliens can sometimes produce surprise confidantes, even soulmates. Not that fiftysomething Murray and somethingteen-playing-twentysomething Johanssen get up to anything creepy or gross (though the food at that one restaurant...shudder), which is a big relief. What they get up to (even without the meaningful, charged-but-chaste touch they share on the hotel bed) is far more intimate than mere May-December porking anyway. (not finished yet. starting to wheeze. i'm trying, lord, i'm trying...)

* Query: She's 18 now, so it doesn't matter either way, but if a girl under the age of consent plays a character over the age of consent, is it okay to lust after that character?