Writing about Slate writing about the Times writing about recent fiction

The New York Times conducted a survey to determine the best American fiction of the last 25 years (register irony). Beloved was the top selection, Roth had six books make the short list, and what would have been my pick had I been given a vote (Blood Meridian) scored an Honorable Mention. I miss Mason & Dixon. For a more extensive discussion of the list, see Jim's blog.

Slate critic Meghan O'Rourke argues against a perceived big-book bias; when she finally offers some short works worthy of consideration, however, she does something odd:

"Among the ones I'd begin by nominating for our parallel tradition are, in addition to Housekeeping, Denis Johnson's Angels (Philip Roth called it "a small masterpiece"), James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime, Elizabeth Hardwick's Sleepless Nights, Edmund White's Forgetting Elena, Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, and (going further back), Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. When it comes to celebrating the American novel, thinking big is only a form of being small-minded."

Only one of these works is from the last 25 years (Johnson's Angels); the rest (not just Winesburg, Ohio) are out of the scope of the Times' list. I understand she's setting up an alternate tradition, but if the point of the piece is a critique of the Times' survey, then shouldn't she have offered a list of books that were eligible but not included? As it is, she seems to prove the validity of the list's bias.


vs. Things really not happening on film

In keeping with my habitual belatedness, I've stumbled across something truly bizarre only to realize that it had been noticed and dismissed by several of my friends ages ago.

But: Second Life, a "metaverse" (in choosing the term over "massively multiplayer online game" (MMOG), I side with The Economist, among others) in which virtual versions of the participants, called avatars, explore, interact, make "objects," and run businesses, has garnered some mainstream media attention recently (in addition to The Economist, a cover story in Business Week, a piece on governance in Discover, less surprisingly a story in Wired, etc.).

Second Life differs from most MMOGs, as far as I can gather, in a few major ways: 1) its lack of any predetermined goals; 2) its focus on participant-guided creation and development; and 3) its connection to the real-world economy (the participants retain proprietary rights over whatever they create within the game, and in-world money can be exchanged for dollars at one of several currency exchanges). Without the standard confines of gaming, goals and activities become similar to those in the real world: making money, making friends, making art.

The rub: some avatars have taken to making movies in Second Life. They've imported camera functions, enlisted actors, built sets. All the shorts I've seen have been pretty dismal, but the idea of machinima, or the making of movies in virtual worlds, is compelling. "Shot on location in Second Life." The world is already a metaverse, already at one level of remove, flat on a screen; there is no extra level of reproduction involved in making a movie; you are given the thing itself. The most successful machinima I've seen (all shot in games other than Second Life) have embraced the unreality (see the humorous Red vs. Blue, set in Halo) and made themselves movies of virtual worlds, not representations of the real world set in a virtual one. Attempts at the latter inevitably take a plunge into the "uncanny valley."

I already spend enough of my time in front of a computer screen in a basement, so, no, I haven't joined Second Life. The most basic level of membership is free, by the way, although you have to pay to own land.


Things really happening on film

After three sittings over the space of a month, Clay and I finished watching Andrei Rublev (1966), which, over three and a half hours, traces a few decades in the life of a 15th-century icon-painter. Despite our sacrilegious viewing habits (turning the film into a serial drama, watching it on a 12-inch laptop, etc.), I came out believing the film is undoubtedly a masterpiece. If only for the bell-making sequence at the end, in which an adolescent orphaned by the plague rises to command, manically and confidently, a huge crew of workers tasked with casting a bell for a cruel prince (the threat of decapitation hanging over the boy should the bell fail to sound)--if only for that sequence, I would rank Andrei Rublev among my favorite films.

But, rather than dwell on its greatness, I'm going to write about something more objective, something that I noticed and could not shake while watching the movie. It first came to me during a battle scene. The Tatars were sacking the city where Andrei was painting (or, rather, not-painting) a church; they shot the men with arrows, dragged a woman by the hair, destroyed buildings and livestock, even set fire to a cow. The cow was trapped in a small courtyard, kicking and thrashing about, its back covered in flames. The camera lingered on its agony; this cow was really on fire, not in the world of the Tatars, not in the early 15th century, but in the world of Tarkovsky, in the mid-20th. Maybe the crew had poured some material on the cow that would burn away without hurting the animal, I thought. But the frantic jerking of the cow suggested it was in pain, not acting, and I doubt the USSR in the mid-60's had anything approximating animal cruelty laws. Even if the flaming cow can be explained away, the same cannot be done for the horse crashing down several flights of stairs and struggling (with broken legs, no doubt) to stand up again, or the dogs fighting and tearing at each other's throats.

In the era before CGI effects, verisimilitude in film had an entirely different meaning. (Nothing, for example, in Night Watch, a recent Russian film with plenty of realistic computer graphics, might be mistaken for real.) The actions of the characters in Andrei Rublev seem more real, seem documented in black-and-white; the Tatars really are encouraging the dogs to fight over scraps of meat; there are hundreds of horsemen galloping across the plain; this hole has been dug from the earth. Each action has weight.

Some contemporary filmmakers realize this heft of action in their works. Werner Herzog, in Fitzcarraldo, tells the story of a man so blindly ambitious that he decides to hoist a river boat over a mountain in the Amazon. Herzog refuses to use any special effects, instead insisting that a river boat actually be moved, with ropes and pulleys, over a mountain in the Amazon. As a recent New Yorker profile reports, this was not an isolated excercise, but instead his method of filmmaking.

Around 3 hours and 20 minutes into Andrei Rublev, the film switches from black-and-white to color. We see, for the first time, the icons Rublev painted; up until now, we have not seen him lift a brush. What better way to show the act of painting than with this documentary footage of absolute stasis? Anything else would be a disappointment.