Dvije sulude knjige o filmskim opsesijama. Geoff Dyer u knjizi Zona analizira svaki kadar Tarkovskijeva filma Stalker, a Wayne Koestenbaum u knjizi The Anatomy of Harpo Marx svaki pokret Harpoa Marxa u svim filmovima u kojima se pojavio. Mikroskopski delirij!
"The Anatomy of Harpo Marx is a luxuriant, detailed play-by-play account of Harpo Marx's physical movements as captured on screen. Wayne Koestenbaum guides us through the thirteen Marx Brothers films, from The Cocoanuts in 1929 to Love Happy in 1950, to focus on Harpo's chief and yet heretofore unexplored attribute--his profound and contradictory corporeality. Koestenbaum celebrates the astonishing range of Harpo's body--its kinks, sexual multiplicities, somnolence, Jewishness, "cute" pathos, and more. In a virtuosic performance, Koestenbaum's text moves gracefully from insightful analysis to cultural critique to autobiographical musing, and provides Harpo with a host of odd bedfellows, including Walter Benjamin and Barbra Streisand."
Harpo Never Scolded Me for My Excesses: Berfrois Interviews Wayne Koestenbaum
by Lucas HilderbrandWayne Koestenbaum, author of numerous books, including The Queen’s Throat, Andy Warhol, Humiliation and several volumes of poetry, turns his gaze to the mute Marx brother in his latest book, The Anatomy of Harpo Marx. With his trademark mode of associative analysis and determination to document every moment and every thought, Koestenbaum reflects on the star’s physical comedy and reflects upon the very process of reflection.
Thank you for getting me in touch with Harpo’s perverse imbecility. How did you decide to transition from writing a book about humiliation to one about a star who performs deviance without shame? Or, in the longer view, from opera voices to slapstick silence?
I wrote Humiliation after The Anatomy of Harpo Marx. I started Harpo in 2006, several months after (as I say in my book) my favorite singer, Anna Moffo, died, and I wrote Humiliation after Harpo was finished, in 2010. Anna Moffo was one epicenter of The Queen’s Throat, and of my first book of poems, Ode to Anna Moffo and Other Poems. I say, in Harpo, that she was “famous for having a voice of unusual voluptuousness and lightness, and also famous for having lost that voice prematurely.” The loss of voice—Callas’s lost voice was another central node, as it were, in The Queen’s Throat–suggests the basis for the transition, not abrupt, from operatic vocalism to Harpo’s vaudevillian silence. Another way to put it: opera is always already silent, or carries the germ of silence—the threat of loss—within its vocal folds. As for Humiliation: that book was a mournful, purgative coda to Harpo. I consider the two books to be pendants, linked by their concern with the shamed rear–the shamed rear as synecdoche for all the other shamed zones in consciousness and corporeality. Humiliation opens with a strip search; Harpo’s “fragile” rear (remember, in The Big Store, a sign saying “Fragile” finds itself on his buttocks) may not cause him shame (indeed, he seems humiliation-proof), but he travels within shame’s dirty circuit. He dives without embarrassment into situations and actions that would cause a non-clown to tremble with horror. And yet perhaps Harpo’s shocked demeanor–his stunned silence–implies a prehistory of shame; I suggest as much, in the book, arguing that Harpo’s experiences (in real life) of being ejected from school by bullies, and of being shamed out of speaking by a harsh critic of an early Marx Brothers vaudeville performance, symbolically underwrite his future silence, a silence he may pretend not to mind, and may even wield as a tool of aggression.
Does Harpo’s refusal to speak for himself in his films allow you more play with projection, interpretation, and language?
Harpo’s silence gave me license as large as carnival. Not only his silence: his foolishness–or purported puerility–gave me leave to be foolish, but also to be smart, or “smart,” and to enjoy the pleasure of my “smartness” reverberating ironically as amplified foolishness. In other words: I felt, for the first time in my writing life, a liberty to be serious, because Harpo could never chide me for misinterpreting him (his business is not to chide, but to surrender to inanity), and because the notion of explicating Harpo was itself so foolish, or tautological, that my athletic attempts to turn on him an exegetical flashlight (whose beams always radiated backward on myself) could only come across as antics that derived from the same family schtick-closet as the Marx’s. I always allow my subjects, when I write, to bestow on me on this simple gift: you may speak about your own methods. My methods–my critical and writerly procedures–are the clay and paint in my hands; how could I not mention them, when my fingers are so inky with their residue? I decided, writing about Harpo, writing at length about Harpo, that I would turn him into The Book, my One Book, the only book I would ever again need to write; I tried to put everything into him, into it, into this Book. I got wildly (manically?) over-invested in the notion of Harpo-as-book, as Ark. A foolish idea. But Harpo never scolded me for my excesses.
This reminds me of a number of passages in the book. For instance, “every Harpo gesture is sacred and equal: each bears witness to his actually, even if the actual seems to take a backseat, in this book, to the imagined.” (141) And in the last chapter, you explain Harpo’s “MO: receive a command, misconstrue it, execute the misinterpretation, and then let it mutate into a new ploy.” (287) Is this your process, “misconstruing” scenes and actions to reveal new meanings? To what extent is The Anatomy of Harpo Marx a book of criticism? Fiction? Poetry? Memoir? Self-help? Is genre even a useful framework?
I never intentionally misconstrue. Misinterpretation is a natural byproduct of over-naming, over-interpretation; to that crazy, sacred call, I’m always diligently responding. Also, I try always to say what I am really thinking and feeling and remembering. If an idea or flash of recollection hits me, I feel ethically obligated (this is my lunatic writerly ethic) to put that flash into words, with the trust that to some reader, somewhere, this flash will also then occur, and that I am doing a wild and necessary justice to my subject by intruding and including this seemingly digressive flash, this spasm of misconstruing.
As for genre: the book is prose (is prose a genre?). Its prose, however, is carefully worked, and compacted. You’re welcome to think of each subtitled subsection, in each chapter, as a “prose poem,” though I don’t actually like that designation. I prefer “prose.” When you call a book of criticism “prose” you thereby emphasize that it is secretly poetry. I consider this book to be my most serious work of criticism–serious to the extent that it tries not to skip any detail; serious in the sense that I don’t take short-cuts, I don’t stint. If the book is “self-help,” I don’t know what self it’s helping. Certainly not mine. “Memoir,” maybe, but I don’t like the word “memoir,” either–it seems to imply a too cozy and complacent self-knowledge, as if one could truly remember the things one is pretending to remember, as if one could truly narrate and describe past events, rather than concoct new word-puzzles, word-collages, out of those memories.
In your book, you write, “Praise neurosis, for allowing us to turn our personalities [when I first transcribed this word, I inadvertently typed “perversities”] into cathedrals, uselessly ornate and dank.” (115) You suggest, both in the book and in your comments earlier, that your strategy of rigor in this book meant exploring—and disclosing—everything. Do you find that the most engaging critics are those who fully commit to their own subjective perspective—as opposed to presuming to speak more generically?
In criticism, I like the “subjective perspective.” I like Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet and Susan Howe’s The Birthmark. I like Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born, and her essay on Emily Dickinson. (May I continue with my litany?) I like Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick and the talk-poems of David Antin. I like everything by Roland Barthes. And everything by Joan Didion. I like Avital Ronell’s Fighting Theory. I enjoy when the voice of a writer–the unpleasant or pleasant daily experience–cracks through the veneer of thinking, and shatters complacency. The subjective perspective–as reader and as writer–keeps me awake. Right now I’m reading Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and its best parts are her accounts of life–her own life–in Greenwich Village. Her “lived experience” of street life, its diversity and electricity, allows her argument to sing. I could name another hundred books of criticism that benefit from the adrenaline of the writer’s subjective perspective. That perspective always exists, whether acknowledged or not; I like it when the perspective speaks out loudly and idiosyncratically, even at the risk of embarrassment. Have you read Boyd Mcdonald’s Cruising the Movies? Talk about subjectivity! Intellectual rigor includes being specific about exactly which bodies turn you on, and why.
In the interest of rigor, I must self-position by stating that I find Chico’s hands sexy when he plays piano. Your own book does seem to reflect different strains of Barthes, or, at least, he’s the critic who most immediate comes to mind. Your writing performs a kind of flowing associative analysis, but as you remark, it was subject to multiple drafts. How do you preserve the impulsivity of thought through revision? How do you maintain the writing’s “kinetic” (p 11) quality?
Chico’s hands: yes, sexy, perhaps (in my opinion) because of their large knuckles and joints, their self-confidence, their metaphoric connection to sleight-of-hand, card tricks, shuffling, deception. To say, as you did, “I find Chico’s hands sexy when he plays piano,” you’re indirectly arguing that sexiness resides most powerfully where it doesn’t belong and where culture usually won’t place it: in, for example, a clown’s hands. When we find ourselves noticing Chico’s knuckles, and when we allow ourselves, for a moment, to step back and conceptualize “Chico’s knuckles,” and then when we dare to make a personal claim for the effect of Chico’s knuckles on our erotic consciousness, we are traveling into deep, necessary waters.
Impulsivity of thought, kinesis: in writing, there are two kinds of kinesis. One is propulsive–the forward-moving thrust, the projectile, the vector, the onward-racing. The other is the retained, the held-back, the highlighted: like Chico’s knuckles. The knuckle doesn’t move forward; the knuckle doesn’t perform a futurism-worthy vector. But we see it, and we name it, and the very word, “knuckle,” its monosyllabic compactness (the word is nearly onomatopoeic, or at least mimetic), contains a latent kinesis, a volcano’s kinesis, a held-back fire, more fiery because held back. By revising my sentences to make them more compact, knuckle-like, thorny, hedged, comma-laden, I may seem to be slowing down my prose, but I’m also creating (I hope) sparks, electricity, clash. I suppose I’m describing, now, the kinesis obtained by juxtaposition, demarcation. The leap. Associative leaps become wilder and quicker when the intervening transitions are cut; but scissoring my prose so severely, at least in the Harpo book, the associations tumble more quickly and impulsively.
My favorite description of Harpo in your book might be “this extreme responsiveness and attunement, carried almost to the point of promiscuity (I’ll touch anyone, in skirts or pants), has a valor and tenderness halfway between a whore’s and a teddy bear’s.” (73) There seems to be a sweetness–or at least generosity–at the heart of the dialectic of schtick/sexuality in Harpo’s characters. Does Harpo have a politics?
Yes, Harpo has a politics: the politics of the wanderer, the occupier, the anarchist, the destroyer, the player. That’s an easy answer: critics and fans have understood the anarchy of Marxian antics, ever since Duck Soup. Harpo’s politics, however, wander away even from Duck Soup’s clear embrace of anarchy: Harpo’s politics involve a happy, close inhabitation of a peculiar, particular body. Harpo’s politics include sleep–its valor, its necessity, its seductiveness. Always wanting to fall asleep: he’s no slacker, but he is a steady, slow occupier, like Gertrude Stein at her best (she was the master of steady sitting), and like any squatter or Situationist. I’d call Harpo a sex worker, but there’s little sex, and little work: “whore” fits him better, as name-tag, as vocation. Whore, he happily crosses any bar of prohibition, with a delusional, magical sense of permanent immunity from law, toxicity, and death.
In the documentary Public Speaking, Fran Liebowitz says that one of the major losses of the AIDS epidemic was the death of an erudite queer audience. I would consider your work a latter-day exemplar of such an audience, but your prose-criticism also seems so remarkably singular now. Have we lost a larger audience of rigorous queens?
Yes, the audience of rigorous queens! Was such an audience ever large? Without the petri dish of rigorous queens, there would have been no Andy Warhol: he arose from that scene of spontaneous generation. James McCourt’s Queer Street epitomizes (and memorializes) the demimonde of rigorous queens from which culture came, and came, and came, in multiple jets. New rigorous queens are being born, or made, every minute; among the young, I’m always pleased to discover that molten, new, bright epiphemonenon, the rigorous queen, a 21-year-old who, born in a small town in Texas, discovers the prose of Parker Tyler and the musical poems of Alexander Scriabin, and anoints himself an aesthete. Yes, the rigorous queen still exists; I meet him everywhere, in new guises, in surprising places. At poetry readings. In bookstores. In the subway. And, yes, at the opera.
"The jacket of Geoff Dyer’s “Zona” describes it as “A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room.” It is also a hall of mirrors in which the author watches himself watching (and remembers himself remembering) a movie that, according to his impressively detailed description, ends with a character looking at us, looking at her.
At once audacious post-postmodernist memoir and après-DVD monograph, “Zona” considers Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” (1979), the last movie the great Russian director would make in his native land. Dyer, a novelist, critical polymath and regular contributor to the Book Review whose oeuvre includes book-length essays on jazz, photography and D. H. Lawrence, isn’t the first literary author to write a book about a single movie. Some years ago, Salman Rushdie initiated the British Film Institute’s Film Classics series with a slim volume on “The Wizard of Oz”; more recently, Jonathan Lethem wrote a book-length essay on John Carpenter’s sci-fi thriller “They Live.” But “The Wizard of Oz” is more culture myth than movie, and “They Live” is a disreputable genre flick that pokes fun at the Reagan era. “Stalker,” by contrast, is a doggedly ambitious masterpiece by a major filmmaker.
It also presents something of a challenge to describe. “Stalker” is over two and a half hours long; its pace is deliberate and its payoffs, by movie-movie standards, amazingly paltry. Most of the action takes place amid voluptuously overgrown industrial ruins. Tarkovsky characterized cinema as “sculpting in time,” and the characteristic camera movement in “Stalker” is a high-angle tortoise crawl over some waterlogged stretch of detritus. His hyper-real images seem etched into the screen; his drip-drip sound design is even sharper. With its emphasis on landscape, texture and atmosphere, this brooding, dystopian science fiction — freely adapted from the novel “Roadside Picnic,” by the Strugatsky brothers, Arkady and Boris — is as much environment as movie.
To the degree that “Stalker” has a plot, it’s the mock-epic odyssey of two less-than-attractive Russian intellectuals, a writer and a scientist, guided by the title character, a tormented fool with the shaven head and dirty rags of a gulag inmate, to the heart of a polluted, post-apocalyptic government-restricted area called the Zone. There’s no human presence, and the laws of nature have been altered, perhaps by the aftereffects of an extraterrestrial visitation. (In the novel, it’s a Soviet Roswell.) Within the Zone is the so-called Room, a space wherein one’s secret hopes are revealed and even realized. Maybe. The Zone and the Room are distinguished by the near-complete absence of anything anyone would consider special effects.
Dyer casts himself as “Stalker’s” stalker; getting there, as cruise lines used to advertise, is half the fun. “We are in another world that is no more than this world perceived with unprecedented attentiveness,” he writes, and his own close attention is admirable. Taking pains to nail the feel of Tarkovsky’s locations (“the echoey, intestinal, glass-strewn, stalactite-adorned tunnel”), Dyer recounts the film’s story from first shot to last, while supplying his own chatty annotations. In addition to waxing confessional, he conjures the filmmaker’s formidable personality. Tarkovsky was a perfectionist. The script for “Stalker” went through countless rewrites and, according to Dyer’s account, was largely reshot after faulty film processing ruined half the footage. Tarkovsky suffered a heart attack while “Stalker” was in postproduction, and he had courted catastrophe from the get-go. Originally, the film was to be shot in the wilds of Tajikistan; an earthquake mooted that plan, and the production moved far away to Estonia. The new location was downriver from a chemical plant — exposure to the toxic runoff may have contributed to the cancer that killed Tarkovsky a decade later.
“Zona” comes armed with source notes and a bibliography, but as if seeking respite from Tarkovskian heaviness, the writer skews light. However droll, his self-regarding asides can be wearisome: “Every time I see people drinking in films I am immediately seized with a desire to have a drink myself.” And?
Most enthusiastic about his enthusiasm for Tarkovsky, Dyer is highly protective of his “Stalker” experience, provocatively hyperbolic (playing with the notion that “cinema was invented so that Tarkovsky could make ‘Stalker’ ”) and overly eager to clear the field of potential rivals. Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’Avventura,” a movie Tarkovsky admired as a useful precursor, is, per Dyer, “the nearest I have ever come to pure cinematic agony.” Other European masters are lightweights (“Belle de Jour” and “Breathless” are “unwatchable” or worse), while Dyer found another Tarkovsky favorite, Robert Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest,” to be “a bit of a struggle.” The cult of “Stalker” is not limited to Dyer alone; while exacting in his judgment of Tarkovsky’s epigones, he is pleased to mention the film’s celebrated fans, including Bjork and Cate Blanchett.
Still, Dyer’s evocation of “Stalker” is vivid; his reading is acute and sometimes brilliant. Robert Bird, the Tarkovsky exegete he most often cites, has elsewhere characterized the Zone as the filmmaker’s quintessential space: “The Zone is where one goes to see one’s innermost desires. It is, in short, the cinema.” Dyer agrees and notes that the stalker who guides us there, “a persecuted martyr” transporting the viewer to the place “where ultimate truths are revealed,” is the artist himself. Tarkovsky strenuously resisted any allegorical interpretation of his work, but the movie is in some sense autobiography. (He wanted his wife, Larisa, to play the stalker’s much put-upon spouse.)
Just as Tarkovsky is the real protagonist of “Stalker,” Dyer is the true subject of “Zona.” As the stalker’s party approaches the Room, the footnotes, some running to six pages, proliferate. The author waxes increasingly personal in contemplating the nature of his own deepest desires, describing old girlfriends and LSD trips, elaborating on his missed sexual opportunities and his affection for dogs, at one point wondering, “What kind of writer am I, reduced to writing a summary of a film?” Film critics are sometimes paid a left-handed compliment that their review was more enjoyable than the actual movie. That won’t necessarily be the case here — not because Dyer isn’t a stylish wordsmith, but because it’s likely that many of his readers have never seen “Stalker.” Does one need to know the film to fully appreciate Dyer’s riff? Or, would “Zona” be best read in complete innocence, as a novel in the form of a free-associative, wildly digressive audio commentary on the DVD of a movie too crazy to possibly exist? (In either case, Dyer is giving a performance, and it’s another Russian genius who presides over his book, namely Vladimir Nabokov, who contrived with “Pale Fire” a novel composed of a poem and its unhinged commentary.)Joking that the Zone “is one of the few territories left — possibly the only one — where the rights to ‘Top Gear’ have not been sold,” Dyer is fully attuned to the absurdity of Tarkovsky’s movie as well as to the chutzpah of his own highfalutin novelization: “If someone will deign to publish this summary of a film that relatively few people have seen, then that will constitute a success far greater than anything John Grisham could ever have dreamed of.” Dyer is too modest; with a first printing of 30,000 copies, he has already, by his own standard, bested one of the best-selling novelists of our time. “Zona” is extremely clever — and that’s one thing Tarkovsky never was." - J. Hoberman