Film Review: American Beauty

This review of American Beauty was written in 2010. I republish it today because I stand by the underlying arguments about the film, as well as my remarks on Laura Mulvey’s specious concept of the “male gaze.” I would not write this piece today in the same manner that I did in 2010, as I think that the growing sense of exasperation can overpower the actual arguments.

american-beauty-1999

Film Review: American Beauty

Why is it that these movies about miserable WASPs in suburbia always have to have someone die at the end of the film? Oh, yes. It’s because instead of being dramatic pieces that really explore these characters, these films are usually melodramas that have to have a ‘big moment’ that emotionally affects the audience. Though released years after the subject of this essay, American Beauty (1999), the film Lymelife (2008) was similar in that it featured a fairly humourless white family struggling with their own unhappiness in their suburban environment. The father also gets shot at the end of the film. Rather than accuse the writer of Lymelife with ripping off American Beauty, I think this is simply a result of un-great minds thinking alike. The fact is, American Beauty is a very formulaic film, both in its script and its cinematic execution, and this is why so many of its components are recognizable.

The film opens with a video recording of actress Thora Birch, who plays Jane. She is in conversation with a male voice who is later revealed to be her boyfriend, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley); they are talking (jokingly, we later find out) about killing her father, who Jane describes as a bit of a loser. Following this introductory scene, her father Lester Burnham (played by Kevin Spacey) begins a voice-over narration where he indicates that he is narrating as a dead man, and that what is unfolding in front of the audience is to detail the events up to his death. Therefore, the ‘ending’ of the film is already revealed, leaving the audience to wonder how he comes to end up dead. This setup wouldn’t be a problem if the film were truly a character-driven piece; as it is, the characters are stereotypes, and the film indulges in melodrama and is a slave to ‘plot’ in order to reach the conclusion of Lester’s death.  Greater creative talents could have done so much more with the premise.

The Burnham family are all selfish and unlikable characters; each of them are entirely focused on themselves and give little thought to the other members of their household. This unlikeable quality does not make them inappropriate subjects for a film, but they are all so narcissistic, and their problems so self-induced, that it becomes impossible to really sympathize with them. And sympathize is what this film would like us to do, though I’d argue that it is hard to even empathize with them, since these creations don’t truly resemble real people. Lester is yet another office worker who hates his dull job (a recurring figure in contemporary American film).  His marriage is a loveless one, and his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) keeps her libido in the freezer, leaving Lester to become infatuated with Jane’s high school companion, Angela (Mena Suvari). Carolyn is an uptight, superficial and materialistic bitch who is not very good at her job in real estate, and who engages in an extra-marital affair to quell her own unhappiness. Her desire to divorce Lester is thwarted by Lester’s threat that if she did so, she would owe him half of what she owns. Her new interest in shooting guns at a firing range, combined with her mounting discontent, suggest that she could be Lester’s eventual murderer. Carolyn is the standard “bourgeois dupe” character, mocked for being oblivious to her own privilege and absurdity. In one scene, when accusing her daughter of being a spoiled brat, Carolyn shouts that she grew up in duplex and that her family didn’t even own their own home! And here you thought growing up in the ghetto was tough.

Daughter Jane is an undistinguished, miserable teenager, and Ricky is the ‘weird kid’ at school and her love interest.  Ricky gets low-paying server jobs as a cover for his real employment as a drug dealer, which is quite lucrative for him. He hides this secret life from his parents, the father being a fanatically strict ex-Marine Colonel, and the mother appearing to be in a permanent state of confusion.  Mena Suvari plays Jane’s friend Angela, a fairly shallow cheerleader and aspiring model, though Mena Suvari’s good looks are more cute-girl-next-door than either model or porn-cheerleader fantasy. This actually adds believability to the character, as it shows that Angela is unremarkable, even as she admits that she thinks nothing is worse than being ordinary. Her girlishness is also a nice contrast to Lester’s fantasies of her as a more womanly sex-goddess; his concept of her is as far from reality as her own.

The younger characters are as superficial, and superficially drawn, as the adult characters. Though Jane and Ricky think of themselves as being ‘different,’ they really aren’t. Ricky is frequently shown filming members of the Burnham family; at one point, he shows Jane ‘the most beautiful thing’ he’s ever filmed, which features nothing beyond a plastic bag blowing in the wind. As is typical with bad artists, Ricky has his own ‘profound’ explanation for the meaning behind the image of the bag, which, like most conceptual art, is inherently meaningless and boring in absence of an outside explanation. After talking about a ‘benevolent force’ who wanted him to know that ‘there was no reason to be afraid, ever,’ he gets weepy as he declares that sometimes there is ‘so much beauty’ in the world, and that it is ‘too much for him.’ Cue the first kiss between the couple. This scene was later mocked, rightly, by Todd Solondz in his superior film on both suburbia and spoiled brats entitled Storytelling (2001). Ricky’s terrible ‘film’ has showed that he has no real ideas, while Jane is just another petulant brat in suburbia who sulks and makes the standard gestures towards being ‘an outsider.’ If Angela knows, on some level, that she is ordinary and fears such ordinariness, she is at least more honest with herself than her poseur friends.

The ‘dancing bag’ is just one example of how the film’s characters are too ridiculous be taken seriously. Though the film might like the audience to root for Lester, following his ‘liberation’ from his supplicant role to his wife, it is hard to do such for a character who is so obviously bitter, and who is as mean and selfish as his wife and daughter. In this, Spacey does a good job of capturing the essence of his character; out of all of the Oscar wins that this film received, Spacey’s, for Best Actor, may be the only one that is deserved. Otherwise, the character is just the stereotypical middle aged man going through a mid-life crisis. After all, he does all the things such a character is supposed to do: buying a ‘younger’ car, quitting his job, chasing teenage pussy, smoking pot, singing along to the rock music of his youth in the car, etc. He even gets a ‘joe job’ at a local fast food joint, which he covets because thinks he will have less responsibility than his office job. This is an out-of-touch fantasy—as if there is no responsibility or real work to be done in food service jobs. A minimum-wage job has appeal to Lester only because he has the luxury of not having to actually manage on such impoverished wages. It is also hard to feel sorry for someone who has a comfortable, if dull, office job that pays for a nice house in a clean suburb where there are quaint gay neighbours who prepare welcome baskets full of flowers. Of course, the film doesn’t bother to explore this, as it is simply appealing to a mythical audience member who will sympathize with Lester because they, too, hate their office job. This approach, appearing in films of various genres, from Office Space (1999) to Wanted (2008), is tired and needs to be taken out into a field and smashed along with the old fax machine.

Beyond characterization that is so thin as to be anorexic, the film is also filled with contrived moments that appear in many American TV shows and films, such as characters singing along to popular songs in their cars in moments of self-empowerment (evoking Tom Cruise belting out Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” in some other Oscar-winning detritus), or Lester reacting to the news of Angela sleeping over at his house by spitting out his beverage.  These examples of stock behaviours, and others, just support my argument that American Beauty is not about how real people think and act, in suburbia or elsewhere. The film simply plays into preconceived ideas about the various character types presented, whether it be the precocious and brooding teenager played by Birch (she did it better in Ghost World), or her frigid bitch mother, or her mid-life crisis dad. Therefore, it is natural to have them go through the artificial motions of sitcom behaviour.

Though the main characters in the Burnham family are all heterosexual, the film is sticky with homoerotic images and a rather Politically Correct gay agenda, to the point where I wondered whether the writer of the film was gay. The screenwriter is Alan Ball, later responsible for writing hit TV shows such as Six Feet Under and True Blood; biographical details provided on the web appear to confirm my hunch.  I mention the sexuality of the screenwriter not because such has any impact on the artistic value of the movie; instead, I bring it up because the thinking behind American Beauty is so predictable that I was quickly able to start forming a picture of what kind of a hack would be responsible for it. It’s sort of like how you can read a novel or a poem and instantly tell that the writer is a graduate of an MFA program, and what stream of Politically Correct thought they crawled out of. And it is really the screenwriting that is responsible for the badness of American Beauty, which is why Ball deserves to be singled out.

The issue, of course, is not the fact that the film deals with homosexuality, but the way it does so, namely that Ball sticks to trite and superficial ideas about homophobia. The uptight, conservative Frank Fitts (played by Chris Cooper), who utters gay slurs and is comforted by his son Ricky’s reiteration of the same, inevitably turns out to be a closet homosexual, conforming to the simplistic view that all heterosexuals who express homophobic sentiments are repressed homosexuals themselves. This is a political fantasy with little insight into what really motivates this type of discrimination.

Then there is the actual revelation of Frank’s sexual orientation towards the end of the film. After mistakenly assuming that Ricky and Lester are sexually involved, when they are merely conducting drug transactions, Frank disowns his son.  (Earlier it almost did seem as if the two would hook up; when Ricky asks Lester if he ‘parties’ when they first meet at an event, it almost seems like he’s suggesting some gay party-and-play, instead of smoking a joint out back, which is actually what happens.) Distressed, Frank wanders over to Lester’s garage in the rain, where after some brief dialogue and an embrace, he kisses Lester, who rejects his advances. While this scene is necessary for the plot (now Frank’s homophobia can reassert itself, leading him to shoot Lester and ‘surprise’ the audience, who suspected Carolyn would do the deed), it is an action that is completely unrealistic for the character. It seems unlikely to me that someone who is supposedly this sexually repressed would risk himself emotionally so quickly by attempting to kiss another man. In reality, the more affectionate and sensual types of contact, as opposed to the more purely sexual ones, tend to be verboten for those who are sexually repressed, as they evoke more complex feelings.

Aside from all of this, a film about a middle-aged man indulging in his fantasies about a teenage girl fails to penetrate the straight male imagination. Lester’s fantasies of Angela are silly and strangely PG-13 given that Lester is clearly in lust, and not love, with Angela. Rose petals always seem to be getting in the way whenever he daydreams about Angela flashing her tits or taking a bath. When female nudity finally does appear, with Thora Birch and Mena Suvari briefly exposing their breasts, it is not particularly erotic. The real preoccupation in this film is with male bodies, whether Kevin Spacey’s, Wes Bentley’s, or the nauseatingly white-bread gay neighbours that Lester jogs with in order to score some work-out tips.

For anyone who ever studied film theory, there’s also a ‘cute’ scene where Jane, who has been the subject of Ricky’s videos, sometimes consenting, sometimes not, takes control of the ‘male gaze’ by taking the camera from him and filming him while he sits nude.  The idea of the ‘male gaze,’ perpetuated by an infamous article in the 1970s by Laura Mulvey called “Visual Pleasure And Narrative Cinema,” is an idea that still persisted when I was a Cinema Studies student three decades later. Convoluted both in its prose and its pseudo-psychoanalytic method, Mulvey’s article ignored the fact that stereotypical depictions of women in Hollywood cinema are the product of bad art, and thus the conventional thinking of the creators, and not merely the inherent sexism of most men or male-dominated filmmaking. The reason Mulvey’s article focused on Hollywood narratives is because patterns could be discerned through studying their formulaic narratives. The writing in most Hollywood films lacks the depth and artistry found in the work of superior screenwriters like Woody Allen or Ingmar Bergman, whose work, and depictions of women in particular, are more singular in comparison. With formulaic writing comes formulaic characters, including female characters who inevitably fall into stereotypical positions.  American Beauty is simply another film based on trite approaches to writing, characterization and cinematography.  While some might argue that this film tried to ‘subvert the male gaze’, such is really irrelevant; it completely fails to subvert the conventions of bad art.

One of the major ways it does this is through veering into melodrama. Carolyn, depicted as a hysterical and shrill individual, often appears in the most melodramatic episodes. In one ridiculous scene where Carolyn expresses her unhappiness with her job, she stands big-coiffed and silhouetted against shut blinds, crying loudly and slapping herself. Her final appearance at the end of the film is particularly bad. Entering her bedroom after Lester’s murder and soaked from the rain, she throws her gun-containing purse in a hamper and then clutches at her dead husband’s wardrobe, wailing. That she would react this way makes no sense given that she spent much of the film barking at her husband and sleeping with another man. The only reason she seemed to stay in the marriage was because of Lester’s threat—so then why the theatrics? She’s now free to bang as many real estate agents as she wants!

When not melodramatic, the film can be outright stupid. At the film’s close, there’s a goofy moment where, upon discovering Lester’s body, Ricky tilts his head and ponders the look on Lester’s face, before smiling. You see, Lester himself has a small smile on his blood streaked face—he finally found peace from his self-created suburban hell! Death is evidently preferable to a bit of middle-class angst. Ricky then recovers from this revelation and becomes serious again, remarking, “Wow.”  With Alan Ball providing such profound character insights, you might as well forget Shakespearean soliloquies!

Director Sam Mendes does nothing to relieve the viewer from the dull and lightweight script. The only other Mendes feature I have seen is Revolutionary Road (2008), where the Kate Winslet character also comes to a bloody end, though not via gunshot. It was yet another tale of unhappy people in suburbia where Mendes took no risks, cinematically. Like that Richard Yates adaptation, American Beauty looks like a typical television drama; there are not really any virtuoso ‘filmic’ moments that come to mind when recalling the film. This would be acceptable if the film were at least atypical narratively, but with its predictable plotting and shallow characterization, the film is an utterly forgettable product of conventional thinking. It shows how bad most Hollywood cinema was in the late 20th century that this film would be mistaken for a serious adult drama.

For all these films set in suburbia, there is no genuine exploration of what suburbia is, and why it is so alienating—that in its current manifestation, suburbs are not designed with community or the needs of actual people in mind, and that amid the endless maze of house-lined streets, there is nowhere for anybody to go. To escape to either natural expanse or densely populated diversions, one must drive out of the sprawl.  Instead, films like American Beauty provide the usual glibness and condescension towards the characters, as though the inhabitants of suburbia are as ‘artificial’ as the suburban constructs themselves, and as if people who live in rural or urban environments live more ‘authentic’ lives. American Beauty has nothing of value to impart artistically or philosophically, and it ends up being another worthless contribution to the arts from Hollywood cinema—all of which makes American Beauty something quite ugly.

This review previously appeared on Cosmoetica under the pseudonym Anthony Zanetti.

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Book Review: Free Women, Free Men by Camille Paglia

free women free menOver twenty years have passed since Camille Paglia’s last essay collection, Vamps and Tramps; in the interim she published books on film, poetry and the visual arts. In a politically polarized moment that regurgitates the issues of the 80s and 90s “culture wars,” Paglia returns with an essay collection she hopes will speak to our present concerns. The pieces selected for Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism show that Paglia has been consistent in her critiques of feminism throughout her career, including the years after her previous collection in 1994, where feminism receded in prominence from mainstream discourse. The book is not a “greatest hits,” as some reviewers have described it, but is typical of Paglia’s previous two collections, where excellent essays (“Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders,” “No Law In The Arena”) were mixed with shorter articles and reviews as well as outright ephemera (transcripts of documentaries that Paglia appeared in, notes from a course Paglia taught with another professor, etc.). The truth is that the best essays and articles from her three collections could be culled to produce one single volume that would better demonstrate her strengths as a social critic.

The collection starts with excerpts from Paglia’s first book, Sexual Personae, and they remind readers that nature (which includes biological realities) is essential to Paglia’s considerations of sex, gender and feminism. “Sexuality and eroticism are the intricate intersection of nature and culture,” she declares early on, putting her at odds with feminist and transgender activists who favour social constructionist theories. Following the pieces from Sexual Personae are famous articles on Madonna and date rape that continue to be controversial. The current notion of “rape culture” posits that rape is a failure of a patriarchal society that is inherently permissive of barbaric sexual violence; Paglia theorizes the opposite, that “Society is not the enemy, as feminism ignorantly claims. Society is woman’s protection against rape.” Paglia argues that the feminist focus on society as the source of social ills is influenced by Rousseau. Paglia rejects Rousseau throughout her work in favour of thinkers and writers like Freud and Sade, who acknowledge the aggression inherent in humanity and, ultimately, nature.

Paglia’s championing of Madonna in the early 90s continues to generate detractors. Mark Judge, in his review for Liberty Law Site, critiques Paglia’s 1990 article on Madonna, remarking “Madonna’s videos are lazy clichés larded with hilariously bad acting and soft-porn imagery intended to scandalize audiences. For someone who insists on high standards for art, Paglia is willing, in Madonna’s case, to overlook something as fundamental as poor singing.” Judge is partially correct here, in that he identifies Paglia’s weakness as an art critic—someone who is able to identify and discourse on qualitative differences in art. As evidenced by the contemporary selections in her books on poetry and art (Break, Blow, Burn and Glittering Images), Paglia has a vast knowledge of art history but does not have the ability to discern what makes individual works worthy of anthologizing.

As for Madonna, she is not gifted as a singer, but to isolate her vocal is to ignore the fusion of dance, music and visuals that made her a (mostly) effective entertainer, and one whose career was more interesting than conventionally talented pop singers like Celine Dion or Mariah Carey. Outside of art criticism, Paglia’s prophetic 1990 essay declaring Madonna “the future of feminism” was correct, because as a trained dancer, Madonna’s work, in dance music and as the subject in music videos and still photography, was grounded in the body. The carnality in Madonna, popular culture, and pornography represent for Paglia expressions of the pagan elements of Western Culture. Puritan strains of feminism, which Paglia critiques in her essay on Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon (“The Return of Carry Nation”), would suppress these sexually charged cultural manifestations under the pretense that they are harmful to women. While Paglia’s qualitative assessments of Madonna’s art can be questionable, her understanding of Madonna’s social and political importance were prescient.

In his review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Donald E. Simpson argues that the older essays are dated, merely because they discuss figures like Dworkin and MacKinnon, whose war on pornography is now firmly relegated to the pre-internet era. In fact, Free Women, Free Men outlines how there have always been repressive elements in feminism that have lead to activist efforts to control individual behaviour. Paglia explores this starting from first wave feminist involvement in the Prohibition years in the United States, to the anti-porn efforts in the 1980s and 1990s, through to current attempts to regulate sexuality on university campuses following theories of “rape culture.” An article for Time magazine on the age 21 rule for drinking in the US cleverly links this regressive regulation to the rise of binge drinking on campuses, where intoxicated young women are vulnerable to sexual attack. As indicated in the book’s title, there is a constant tension between the pursuit of “social justice” and maintaining individual freedoms.

Paglia often directs criticism at the feminism that is embedded within academia in North America, via Women’s Studies and Gender Studies departments. Her contribution to a debate titled “Are Men Obsolete?” rightly identifies the lingering classism in feminism, which persists in spite of the recent attempts at “intersectionality.” Feminists who argue that men are no longer necessary are ignoring the labour of working class men who maintain “the infrastructure that makes [feminists’] own work lives possible.” In her lecture “Southern Women: Old Myths and New Frontiers,” Paglia boldly argues that women should reconsider female archetypes from the American South that have been dismissed as stereotypes, including the mammy figure. Her analysis of Aunt Jemima indentifies the limitations in conventional, politicized readings of culture:

“It is dismaying to find African-American women academics assailing Aunt Jemima with elite theoretical jargon explicitly borrowed from Michel Foucault while neglecting to do wider anthropological investigations into the African diaspora.”

This type of comment encapsulates what one can expect when reading Camille Paglia—comedy mixed with interpretations of culture that veer away from typical politically correct academic analysis. The issues in scholarship that Paglia discusses here reiterate what Paglia spoke of in the book’s excerpt from her 1991 MIT lecture, where Paglia attacked the philistinism of academic Diana Fuss’s approach to fashion photography. In the review of three books on BDSM, “Scholars In Bondage,” Paglia again confronts the issue of academics self-limiting their work by latching onto politicized poststructuralist theory; the consequence for the three female authors that Paglia reviews is that “their natural voices have been squelched by the dreary protocols of gender studies.”

Free Women, Free Men encapsulates both the strengths and weaknesses in Paglia’s own writing. One reviewer is correct in noting that Paglia will use clichés in her work, which weakens what can otherwise be solid points and observations. Her use of cliché, such as in “The Dionysian is no picnic,” or “nature is always pulling the rug out from under our pompous ideals,” appears to be done to inject a sense of common, everyday speech into academic work or heady subject matter. It is unfortunate that she doesn’t always creatively manipulate the language to avoid such trite phrasing, as she otherwise has a gift for pithy and memorable sentences that are perfect for the Twitter age.

Reviews of the book have not always been successful at identifying the merits and flaws of the book. Mark Dunbar’s review for TheHumanist.com portrays Paglia as a conservative, even though her own writings in this book and others exhaustively document that she is not, with her pro-porn, pro-prostitution, pro-abortion and pro-sex arguments. Writer Kathy Shaidle remarks in her review that “Free Women is made up of speeches and other occasional writings, and some critics are complaining that its contents are repetitive. A peevish objection: Professional speakers rarely deliver a completely original address on every occasion. Duh.” While it may be true that a thinker will repeat their key ideas across spoken lectures, a collection of printed material must take into account how redundancies and repetitions can weaken the power of the overall book.

The restatement of certain themes and ideas, as well as the reprints from her first three tomes, takes space away from what might have been more compelling and less repetitious material. In her introduction to Free Women, Free Men, Paglia notes that an essay commissioned for a 2013 museum exhibit on David Bowie could not be included due to space considerations; it is exactly this type of piece that could have made the book more varied and interesting. Additionally, Paglia’s remarks on transgenderism for assorted interviews and lectures are some of the most popular videos of her work that circulate on social media platforms like Twitter; the issue is touched upon in her introductory essay and some later pieces in the collection, but a new essay expanding her thoughts on the matter could have been a timely addition to the book, as well as to public discourse. In short, themes used by Paglia and her publisher to assemble this collection were intended to present a book relevant to the current moment, but this results in limiting a thinker like Paglia, who can discourse on a wide range of topics. A collection of the author’s best writings since her last collection, regardless of subject, would have made for a stronger book.

Review: James Emanuel’s Whole Grain

In 2007, I had the opportunity to review the collected poetry of James Emanuel. It was my first serious poetry review, and while I was cautious, my assessment is something I can stand behind to this day. I still enjoy Emanuel’s poetry for its range, deceptive simplicity and technical skill. Emanuel passed away in 2013.

Review: James Emanuel’s Whole Grain

The poetry of James Emanuel first presented itself to me on the website Cosmoetica, which featured his poems on its Neglected Poets page and discussed his work in several essays. Lines from poems like “For a Farmer” or “Sonnet for a Writer” slowly worked their way into my mind, lingering in my thoughts as a result of their images, word choice, or insight. Having been provided with a copy of his Whole Grain: Collected Poems 1958-1989, courtesy of Lotus Press, I have had the opportunity to study his work beyond just the few poems that can be found online. Reading through the span of his work, I have admired Emanuel’s technical mastery, as well as the depth and variety in his work. Whole Grain is something rare in contemporary poetry: a volume where individual poems don’t just serve to fill a book, but assert themselves as distinctive artworks.

Emanuel’s poetry is subtle when compared to some of his famous 20th century peers. Readers are not hit over the head with T.S. Eliot’s literary references, Sylvia Plath’s harsh sounds, or Hart Crane’s thick diction. Compared to Eliot in particular, Emanuel’s poetry offers a different vision of what greatness is, for a poem doesn’t require footnotes, obscure allusions, or an ostentatious display of vocabulary in order to make it great. Emanuel’s poetry is largely self-contained, and his use of simple language could make one think his poetry was effortless. Throughout his Collected, Emanuel displays versatility in terms of subject matter and form, and strong images and phrasing work in the service of the overall ideas contained in his poetry. The skilful combination of these elements is what makes a quality poem so impressive. Even those poems that Emanuel classifies as ‘doggerel’ at the end of the volume are better than the actual doggerel of most bad poets, not just technically but because Emanuel displays a sense of humour that most deadly verse doesn’t have.

Emanuel’s versatility with form is relevant at a time when there are still arguments over ‘formalism’ vs. ‘free verse.’ It is the lack of quality poetry being published today that perpetuates this argument, for great poems share certain basic things in common regardless of how they are categorized in terms of form. A poem’s existence is not justified merely by being written in a traditional form, and ‘free verse’ does not imply prose broken into lines. Mediocrity, regardless of form, provides the ammunition for detractors on either side, and thus keeps the argument going. James Emanuel is an excellent example of a poet who can smash down this false argument, as he has written quality poems in traditional forms, like the English sonnet, as well as free verse poems. Have a look at this Emanuel sonnet, which already feels like a ‘classic’ to readers of Cosmoetica:

For a Farmer

Something slow moves through him, watched by hills.
Something low within each rock receives
His noonday wish, then crumbles rich; so fills
Each furrow that the prairie year upheaves.
His arm has lain with boulders. His copper hand
Has mused on roots, uncaring of barbed wire.
His fist has closed on thistle, and dug the land
For corn October snows have whelmed entire.
Something flows with him in stubborn streams,
And in the parted foliage something lives
In upright green, stirred by the rhythmic gleams
Of his hoe and spade. From worn-out arms he gives;
The earth receives, turns all his pain to soil,
Where he believes, and testifies through toil.

This excellent poem uses a classical form without sounding archaic. Emanuel satisfies the rhyme scheme requirements without sounding forced; the poem does not rely solely on its end-rhymes for its musical effect, but is musical throughout, which allow the poem to flow naturally and not feel as though it is constrained by its form. Emanuel imbues the poem with fresh images and unexpected word juxtapositions, going beyond simply meeting formal requirements.

Let’s look at how Emanuel fares when he ventures out of predetermined forms:

The Broken Bowl

When she felt it slipping,
its green-gold splendor soapy in her hands,
the rainbow bubble
swelling from the faucet mouth
burst, spilled a loudness in her pulse
that blacked a space
where eighty years zigzagged far back, returned
in time to give her gasp a suddenness.

“Don’t cry”—her mother saying it so long ago,
the broken forehead of the creamy doll
not even caressable.
“Don’t cry”—her father pushing her away,
her mother helping, and then the shot,
the barnyard fence poles not even hiding his collapse,
fragments fitting in her ears about the gopher hole
they said he’d stumbled in before they killed him,
before she found it, filled it with the earth.

She had cried, and years had watched her:
breakage many-voiced as premonitions,
second chances, sharp reminders—
all ceremonious, collectors of payments due…

Like now: her gasp half bringing back
“Grandma, let me do the dishes”—
the smallest one, who could barely hold this bowl,
who must have heard but couldn’t know
its past, its green-gold splendor.
History and bowls, she thought,
perhaps go hand in hand,
and felt the parts give way,
start a ritual in the sink,
their settling proud.

“Grandma, you finished already?”
was just a way of passing through, to play,
the thought diminishing, continuing
that breakage and pride grow old together,
mislay their strength companionably.
Her fingers, drying, wet themselves again:
a hesitation seeming,
a portion of her blinking, turning,
the reach for her glasses.

A towel slowly wiped them all:
fingers, spectacles, and the thought
of some old splendid thing,
now finished,
unbroken
in its time.

“The Broken Bowl” does not appear to be in a traditional form; there is no discernable rhyme scheme or syllabic structure, and stanza breaks are made at appropriate points in the poem’s narrative. The importance of music is apparent when considering what keeps this poem together. Aside from the pleasurable effects that music provides, it also contributes to the structure of a poem, linking disparate images and ideas at the level of sound. As with “For A Farmer,” the musical effects in “The Broken Bowl” pull the words together with Emanuel’s subtle use of alliteration and assonance. In terms of the actual content, Emanuel’s narrative draws in the various impressions, memories, and images so that they are not random ideas thrown at the reader. Combined, the narrative and the music make this poem cohere.

To focus too heavily on differences in form is to miss the similarities between the poems; for what is happening in “For A Farmer” is also happening in “The Broken Bowl.” The quality of poetic diction is sustained throughout both, since the poetry is musical, avoids or reworks clichés, utilizes unique phrasing and images, and possesses intellectual depth. By avoiding trite and hackneyed expressions, Emanuel keeps his writing fresh; perhaps the only familiar line in “The Broken Bowl” would be the expression “go hand in hand,” and even then, history and bowls are not an expected juxtaposition. Emanuel shows that with an understanding of how to exploit the relationship between words and preserve quality throughout, a poet can utilize any traditional form, and can venture outside of them with confidence.

Beyond sustaining high artifice, Emanuel demonstrates that he knows how to shape his poems on the page so that they can have maximum impact. Reading through Whole Grain, one notices that Emanuel generally has good line breaks, something that is rare in much contemporary published poetry. Even excellent poets such as Robert Hayden or Sylvia Plath will have a bad line break in an otherwise strong poem (“The Diver,” “Thalidomide”). Emanuel’s consistently good enjambments don’t mean that all of his poems are equal in quality, but they do show that he understands the full implication of the term ‘form,’ and that his poems are not arbitrary in their composition. Since the poems in Whole Grain are accompanied by dates, it is clear that Emanuel achieved technical control early on in his career, and had the shaping tools necessary for his later explorations of different subjects & forms. Here is one example of Emanuel’s skill with enjambment, from “Ski Boots in Storage”:

One boot just right, a bit behind the other,
waiting for the muscled push,
the take-off bite into the mountain snow,
the downward slope leaping up,
loosing its white strands of passage
faster, faster, slicing the sunshine,
turning the air to its highest key,
till suddenly people, buildings,
swing quickly once, then STOP,
their shapes a vapor
standing still.

In addition to some nice images & a musical momentum to match the action, the reader can observe that Emanuel has broken the lines in a way that allows each line to have a certain amount of independence, in context. To break inappropriately after an ‘a’ or a ‘the’ castrates the impact of the individual line, and gives the poem a bad overall architectural design. Dan & Jessica Schneider are the only contemporary poets I have observed who not only match but exceed Emanuel’s consistent skill with enjambments, for their poetry regularly uses the line break to bring out multiple ideas in a single strand of thought, pushing beyond structural soundness.

Elsewhere, Dan Schneider has included Emanuel in an essay on Masculine poetry, with the poem “For the 4th Grade, Prospect School: How I Became a Poet.” Even when not writing about subject matter that is specifically concerned with masculinity, as in that poem, Emanuel can have a masculine approach, such as in another poem about washing dishes, “Sarah at the Sink”:

Elbow-pistons smartly pound,
But all is quiet; just the sound
Of acrobatic bubbles swirled
Around a briefly shining world.

His “elbow-pistons smartly pound” is an unusual and memorable line in the context of the poem, where such aggressive phrasing is not expected. Of course, distinctive images & lines that lodge themselves in one’s memory are typical of great poets. Reading through Emanuel’s poems, certain lines draw the reader back, such as “water undulates like vertigo upon the stairs,” and “A man, hanging stiffly from the roadside tree,/smeared my eyes awake with sunlight dyes.”

Emanuel’s unconventional approach with his subject matter goes beyond his phrasings; race is a topic that Emanuel explores in his poetry, yet he does not assume that being concerned over social injustices equals good writing, as so many others do. Here is a poem where he directly addresses the issue of race & being an artist:

A Negro Author

I wrote something black today.
I wonder what Negroes will say
about it.
Tomorrow I’ll do something white
If I can hold my pen just right
throughout it.

I’d rather be devoutly me,
Do my writing in a tree,
Watch it seep up into leaves—
Whose beauty no one misconceives.

Yet, what will Negroes say (and whites)
About a man who only writes
Leaves—of a color hard to name?
I’m treed, in this peculiar game.

Race, gender, sexuality and the rest are all topics that a poet can grapple with poetically, if they choose. But the ability to shape one’s writing into a “beauty no one misconceives,” ie. unassailably great art, is the real test of a poet’s ability. This is what separates real artists from those who merely have good intentions. Emanuel’s poem gives art priority over politics both in its message and how it conveys that message.

A recent interview with Emanuel indicates that he may be better known in Europe than in his native USA. It is odd to consider that Emanuel would not be known in a country so full of academic institutions where writing programs proliferate. A student of poetry could benefit from studying Emanuel’s poetic accomplishments; currently, many Creative Writing graduates cannot manage a good line break or musical phrase, for all the stress on ‘craft.’ Through neglecting quality poets like Emanuel, as well as through encouraging mediocre and bad writers with creative writing programs, academia has directly participated in poetry’s decline. To step into the world of contemporary published poetry is to find oneself stuck in a swirl of pulp, trapped in a vat of indistinct scraps.

The notion of excellent writing being overlooked is not a new one, yet lessons from the past (Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins) have evidently not been learned. The legitimate recovery of neglected artistic excellence has given way to academic careerism, where political agendas retrieve mediocre writers and thinkers. So it is almost necessary, then, that my introduction to the poetry of James Emanuel happened independent of academe & the myopic world of contemporary poetry. It was not a political agenda that brought James Emanuel to my attention; it was good criticism. This, combined with the reach of the internet, is what will ultimately allow the best poems in Whole Grain to bolt from the page and reach readers worldwide, “against all logic, all despair.”

This essay previously appeared on Monsters and Critics and Cosmoetica under the pseudonym Anthony Zanetti.

Song Analysis – “London” by Alanis Morissette

In 2011, I considered writing a short e-book analyzing selected Alanis Morissette lyrics as a “fun” project and also as a way to examine the work of an artist who had experienced much commercial success but little critical appreciation. At the time, I prepared a couple of in-depth analyses of Morissette compositions, one of which was for a little-known song titled “London.” While the idea for an Alanis monograph languished (though I may complete it in the future), the 2015 release of the Jagged Little Pill – Deluxe Edition reminded me of the notes I’d made, as the Jagged re-release included the previously unreleased studio recording of “London.” After some revisions, I’ve opted to publish the analysis for “London” as a single blog post, as it seems to be an appropriate time to reconsider this once obscure composition in Morissette’s catalogue.

London

Bougainvilleas fall into the pool
The hard shell’d bugs bite my forearm
My right index fingernail chewed to the quick
My cervix is alarmed, scared even

My sprinklers go off at 6 PM each day
And sometimes they spray unsuspecting visitors
My pimples are gooses all over my legs
My brow is furrowed and my vision is blurred

And how I do love London
And how I do love London

The birds make guttural sounds and protect me
My friends come to visit and love me a lot
I don’t have the energy to fill them in
I am lagged by the jet and the 12-hour flight

And how I do love London
And how I do love London

I am intrigued by the boy with the androgynous songs
Sometimes they rhyme sometimes they rhyme not
The steam will smell of eucalyptus in the shower
The hug will feel forced upon you, you inconsolable thing

And how I do love London
And how I do love London

Deep breaths will not make my brain stand still
To be loved and swallowed or single and depraved
I love speaking French to the taxi drivers
We slept and were cold on the train out of France

And how I do love London
And how I do love London

Note: Official lyrics state “A hard shell’d bugs” instead of “The hard shell’d bugs” in error; this has been corrected.  The officially published lyrics also put the first two verses into one 8 line stanza; I have separated them into two separate 4 line stanzas for the purposes of this analysis.

London  – analysis

Until a demo recording of the song was released on the 2015 Deluxe Edition of Jagged Little Pill, “London” was one of Morissette’s relative rarities. The song was first performed live in concert in 1997, and doesn’t appear to have been played since. Morissette included the composition in her acoustic sets at the Tibetan Freedom Concert as well as the Bridge School Benefit from that year.

Prior to the release of the studio version, a live recording from the Bridge School Benefit was released in the spring of 1999. The singles “Unsent,” “Joining You,” and “So Pure” were commercially released in North America, Europe and Japan, respectively; the live version of “London” appeared as a b-side on each of these releases.

I’ve selected this song for analysis because, despite its relative obscurity in Morissette’s catalogue of songs, I argue that it remains one of her more complex narratives in a song, and is under-appreciated for its uniqueness and skill in how it conveys its storyline. The lyrics work against any expectations set by the title, for despite being called “London,” with a refrain that repeats “how I do love London,” the song never actually makes any specific references to London in the verses.  “London,” in this case, not only refers to the place, but something that happened in that place which the speaker never fully reveals, but hints at throughout the lyrics.

The beginning of the song describes the sight of flowers, specifically bougainvilleas, falling into a pool. Bougainvilleas are native to areas of the world warmer than London, such as Brazil or the American Southwest; this detail is the first hint that in spite of the song’s title and the speaker’s descriptions of her environment, she is not necessarily located in London itself. The next two verses refer to lawn sprinklers and friends coming to visit the speaker, who says she is jet lagged. In this context, it would appear that the speaker of the song is referring to flowers falling into her swimming pool, and that she is at home after travelling.

Aside from these lines that suggest that the speaker is not actually in London as she ruminates and observes, she also begins to offer descriptions of her physicality that suggest anxiousness and discomfort. She has been biting her fingernails, and she is being bitten by insects; she has goose bumps on her legs, either from a chill in the air or from strong emotions she is experiencing, and relates that her cervix is “alarmed.”  Her furrowed brow and blurred vision suggest that she is pensive and perhaps weeping; her perception of her present state and surroundings are compromised by her vision, which as we learn in subsequent verses, is fixed on another moment in time.

Inanimate objects and elements, insects and animals, and even isolated parts of the body are used as vehicles through which she can express her own emotions and state of being. In the first two verses, water appears via the pool, sprinkler, and possible tears. The pool, coupled with the flower that falls into it, could be said to be typical “feminine” symbols; in contrast, the sprinklers that line her property and spring to attack “unsuspecting visitors” would seem almost masculine. Unlike the armoured insects that attack her, the speaker appears to be physically and emotionally exposed. Birds nearby appear to be more sympathetic than the insects, “protecting” her and perhaps warding off unwanted visitors with their gutturals. Although it is not immediately clear why the speaker is experiencing genital anxiety, the mention of female genitalia in this manner, along with the image of the drowning flower, suggest a vulnerability which is reinforced by the later mentioning of fatigue and protective friends and animals. At the mention of her friends, the speaker relates that she is too tired to “fill them in,” indicating that she possesses some information related to her travels that could explain her current mental state.

After three verses of the speaker detailing her present circumstance, she shifts to a verse where there is some uncertainty about the timeline. Who is the boy with the “androgynous” songs? Is he the romantic partner she is thinking about as she recalls travelling in Europe? Is he merely a street performer she encountered on her journey? Or is he someone she experiences in her “present” while at home, either in person or from a recording? This is left as ambiguous as the craft of the mysterious male performer. Her mention of this male musician is immediately followed by more sensory information; the smell of steam in the shower could potentially evoke memories tied to the speaker’s excursions to London and France, or to the lost love that the song implicitly refers to. Whether the male singer appears to her as a recollection or is among the friends who visit and support her, his performance continues to spur associations and thoughts that prevent her from stilling her emotions, as she indicates in the final verse when describing the futility of deep breath (and possibly meditation).

The fourth verse shifts into the future tense as the speaker contemplates what she thinks she will sense and feel; it would seem that the speaker anticipates that the vulnerability she has been describing will persist. This verse also features a switch to the pronoun “you,” the only instance of such in the song. This could be interpreted as the speaker directly addressing the lost love object, but the “inconsolable thing,” too delicate to accept even an embrace from another, seems consistent with the vulnerability ascribed to the speaker thus far in the song. Therefore, it is likely that the speaker is suddenly addressing herself, either gently mocking her own acute sensitivity, or empathizing with it—or both.

After reiterating her love of London, the speaker remarks that she is unable to quell her thoughts, despite her attempts to relax. She then poses the question: “to be loved and swallowed, or single and depraved?” This is the most obvious indication that the source of associational leaps from place to place, and from present to past and future, is related to the issue of interpersonal relationships. The construction of this line suggests a dilemma: the security of being loved in a relationship comes with the consequence of losing one’s individuality, whereas preserving one’s independence from romantic liaisons allows for the implied “wickedness and perversion” of more casual sexual relations—but at the cost of a sustained personal connection. The speaker’s contemplation of being “loved and swallowed or single and depraved” perhaps relates to the speaker’s genital anxiety from the first verse, and the suggestion of being “swallowed” by romantic love evokes the earlier image of the flower being subsumed.

The final verse ends with the singer remarking that she enjoys “speaking French to the taxi drivers,” and relates an episode of leaving France via train with a companion or companions. The final line of the last verse is the only use of the pronoun “we” in the song. Her use of “we” is also accompanied by the sensation of being cold, a link to her earlier experience of goose bumps as she recalls her travels while alone at home. In context of the overall song, it appears that the speaker is travelling from France to London. While the speaker is charmed by speaking in another language while taking quick jaunts by taxi, her reference to extended travel via train is associated with coldness and sleep, much like her experience of travel by plane is associated with feelings of fatigue and displacement. The sole use of the inclusive “we” in the lyric, which possibly includes a romantic partner, is within a context that lacks warmth and active engagement with other individuals. The final line also shifts into the past tense for the first time, definitively placing an event in the past at the same time she uses the pronoun “we,” which is never included in the speaker’s present tense contemplation.

What actually happened once the speaker arrived in London is never described, but it can be inferred that the song is essentially about lost love. The lyric communicates this in a relatively subtle manner, compared to most popular songs concerned with the same subject. The descriptions of the speaker’s bodily experience, in relation to her loss, communicate her distress and unhappiness to the audience in ways that don’t resort to melodrama. The narrative is also non-linear; the song does not begin with travel in London, proceed with details of a romantic break-up, and conclude with an aftermath once the protagonist arrives home; instead, Morissette reverses the “beginning” and “end” of the events she describes in her narrative, so that the character is first presented at home and alone, but finishes recalling herself and her lover on the train just before they arrive in London, and presumably end their relationship. Specific reference to a romantic breakup are left out, requiring the listener/reader to examine the lyrics more closely in order to truly understand what the narrator is relating and why. As a song named after a cosmopolitan city that reiterates the speaker’s love for it, the refrain would seem to assert the speaker’s love of the physical place in spite of the complex emotions and upsetting experiences she associates with it.

The language used in “London” is fairly straightforward and prosaic when analyzed on the page. That said, it is largely free of clichés, with the exception of expressions like “chewed to the quick” or the references to a “furrowed brow” and “blurred vision.” There is some language play with familiar phrasing, such as “my pimples are gooses all over my legs” to describe goose bumps, as well as saying “I am lagged by the jet and the 12 hour flight” instead of simply evoking the usual phrase “I’m jet lagged.” With the former, the reversal of the words “goose” and “pimples” in the line changes the perception of what is being described; the immediate stress on “pimples” creates a somewhat revolting image when the audience imagines the speaker’s legs with pimples “all over,” subtly creating a sense of discomfort in the listener that mirrors that of the speaker in the song. With the latter example, the speaker’s phrasing prioritizes the word “lagged” so that she can state that she is not only experiencing fatigue from the shift of time zones, but from the duration of her travel time. Her stress on the word “lagged” also relates directly to the very nature of the narrative she is structuring, for her descriptions of her present state are a result of emotions that have lingered from her recent travel.

The complexity of ”London” is not so much in the language, which is simple and to the point at the level of the individual line, but in its narrative structure. Despite shifts in chronology as well as the mixture of the speaker’s contemplative thought, physical descriptions and recollections, the song still coheres as an overall lyric, making it unusual among popular songs. “London” prefigures Morissette’s strategy in later compositions “The Couch” and “Hands Clean,” where shifts in narrative voice occur in addition to shifts in time and place. While a song like “The Couch” seemed experimental at the time of its release on 1998’s Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, “Hands Clean” became a mainstream hit for Morissette upon its release in 2002, despite its unconventional structural and narrative approach, not to mention subject matter.

In both the studio and live recordings of “London,” the arrangement is a simple acoustic affair with guitar, bass and percussion. The standout instrument in the performances is Morissette’s vocal; while the vocals in each official recording can at times have a harsh or raw quality, Morissette’s singing nonetheless elaborates on the sense of melancholy communicated by the lyrics. Morissette’s singing on Jagged Little Pill (her only worldwide album release at the time “London” was composed and performed) was somewhat affected relative to her subsequent releases, where she settled more comfortably into her own unique style and identity as a singer. As such, “London” was a precursor to Morissette’s more mature interpretive abilities that would appear on her Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie release in 1998. The song is also an example of the shift in approach between the two records, as most of Jagged Little Pill avoided more overtly melancholic expression in both songwriting and singing, whereas the 1998 album explored a greater range of moods. From the more aggressive persona on Jagged Little Pill songs about love and relationships such as “You Oughta Know” or “Not The Doctor,” Morissette segued into a style of writing and singing on “London” that is less guarded around feelings of vulnerability and sadness with respect to romantic love.