Friday, July 31, 2009

Infinite Jestation (A Blogthrough): Pages 380-442

What I love most about this section, The Puppetiad, is that DFW crafts micro-fiction in the midst of his exposition, and keeps the entire presentation so comically pointed that we pay this alternative "history of the future" the complete respect and regard it requires.

First, continuing with the idea of map/territory (from Eschaton, p. 321-343), Wallace begins to define his characters by the hats they've worn to this Interdependence Day fete. There's tons to be said there (and to be pulled--i.e., inferred--from this), and it's amusing that while he writes "etc. etc." in the main text, it's only so that he can elaborate in Footnote 148 on "the whole topography of hats." Also of note is the synecdochy of their headgear for their actual hardware, i.e., their brains--Pemulis, defined by his drug-lined yachting cap (which is described here as "complex," giving this breezy, easy character quite another layer); Mary Esther Thode's piece of cardboard that says "hat" (a case for the sign/signifier, if ever); the humor of imagining the conjoined Vaught twins wearing "a freakish bowler with two domes and one brim." I mean, I could quote every single line: they're each that clear, crisp, clever, imaginative, &c.

Now, I know that Wallace has been accused (by James Woods) of hysterical realism (wouldn't "manic realism" be a better descriptor?), that is, that the real character in his novel is Information, and that DFW uses all of this "truth" as a means to hide from actual truth. This is just flat-out wrong, as I detailed in my previous post. Yes, up until this point, President Johnny Gentle, Famous Crooner, is defined--nay, subsumed--by this description:

lounge singer turned teenybopper throb turned B-movie mainstay, for two long-past decades known unkindly as the 'Cleanest Man in Entertainment' (the man's a world-class retentive, the late-Howard-Hughes kind, the really severe kind, the kind with the paralyzing fear of free-floating contamination, the either-wear-a-surgical-microfiltration-mask-or-make-the-people-around-you-wear-surgical-caps-and-masks-and-touch-doorknobs-only-with-a-boiled-hankie-and-take-fourteen-showers-a-day-only-they're-not-exactly-showers-they're-with-this-Dermalatix-brand-shower-sized-Hypospectral-Flash-Booth-that-actually-like-burns-your-outermost-layer-of-skin-off-in-a-dazzling-flash-and-leaves-you-baby's-butt-new-and-sterile-once-you-wipe-off-the-coating-of-fine-epidermal-ash-with-a-boiled-hankie kind) then in later public life a sterile-toupee-wearing promoter and entertainment-union bigwig, Vegas schmaltz-broker and head of the infamous Velvety Vocalists Guild...
But what more do you really need? Has his character really been "reduced" by this maximal run-on? Or has DFW, once again, used grammatical constructions to actually partake in the understanding of this character, the precise and untoward lengths to which he will go in order to remain clean? We'll hear his Elvis-like lingo later on, but to say that this sort of writing somehow hides the character (in plain sight) just isn't true.

Now, back to the idea of cleverly placed exposition via Mario's childish interpretation of his father's ONANtiad, itself an interpretation of the c. 2000 rise of the C.U.S.P. (Clean United States Party) and its eventual choice to experialistically void itself of its radioactive waste by removing states like Maine, New Hampshire, and upstate New York (hence New New York) from its "map." (Incidentally, this may be why Wallace applies the [sic] mark to "CLAIMS FUNDS FOR EPA CLEAN-UP 'ARE NOT WITHIN THE MAP OF WHAT'S POSSIBLE' [SIC]"--i.e., the headline-writer meant "territory," anything, of course, being possible on a map.)

To begin with, Wallace has been teasing us w/r/t the origin of O.N.A.N. and the lunar Subsidized Calendar throughout the entire novel, wrapping this somewhat implausible idea in enough plausibly grounded sections that we must accept it wholesale. Then, when it comes time to actually explain this story, he diffracts it, first through J.O.I.'s lens, then through his son Mario's, and yet this pile of fictions somehow makes it seem more realistic, not less. (Mark Z. Danielewski does something similar with his cross-referenced, indexed, and appendiced horror novel, House of Leaves.) We get newspaper headlines, audio transcripts, and more (and even these sections are filled with in-jokes, such as the one about the "Veteran but Methamphetamine-Dependent Headliner Finally Demoted after Repeated Warnings about Taking up Too Much Space").

In the midst of all this, we get a reminder from resident fitness guru and sweat-licker Lyle: "Do not underestimate objects!" To go a step further, "The world, after all, which is radically old, is made up mostly of objects." Where some people might cry foul on the constant anecdotes, digressions, and footnotes of Wallace's explanation of the world--such as his quick riff of James's films, The Medusa v. The Odalisque and The Joke--the truth is actually that DFW's world only grows richer--older--as it contains more and more objects, especially objects of such a rich and three-dimensionally comic variety. Wallace constantly invents elaborate situations, just so that he can use them to parallel other equally elaborate stories (i.e., the tale of the Clipperton Brigade, for which Mario's "parodic pseudo-ONANtiad scenario is actually a puppet-a-clef-type allusion"). Infinite Jest is like a house of cards, in which each plot point balances out another, allowing another to be built atop it (incidentally, this fits the Sierpinski Gasket pattern shown here), except that you couldn't reduce a single thing in this novel to the sliver-thin map of a mere playing card.

A couple of other things I don't want to reduce in the one digression of this section, a return to Marathe and Steeply (Part IV) (p. 418-430); I know that some have criticized these slower, more philosophical bits as being boring or redundant, but again, it's not quite so easy (or wise) to reduce these comic discussions to playing-card size. Let's look at how these things fit in:
  1. Steeply is frustrated with the AFR's terrorism-by-entertainment because it perverts the accepted boundaries--the U.S.A.'s so-called conventions: "It's like there's a context for the whole game, then, with them [terrorists that can be understood as political bodies]. We know where where we stand differs from where they stand. There's a sort of playing field of context." This right here is downright Eschatonic, or to go further back, like the Schtitt description of tennis (p. 82): "humanly contained, bounded by the talent and imagination of self and opponent." In other words, we need rules, which is to say really that we need Understanding, and attacking us without providing either, that's real fantods-causing terrorism. This also fits with the darkly humorous notion of "war" as "business" (or as a game)--when it gets personal, things fall to pieces.

  2. Continuing their conversation about the American idea of freedom, Steeply blurts out this bit of wisdom, learned "as early as grade school": "The American genius, our good fortune, is that someplace along the line back there in American history them realizing that each American seeking to pursue his maximum good results together in maximizing everyone's good." Like Mario's puppet history, this is a demonstration of Wallace at his deadpan best: the most ridiculous things are always said by the most ridiculously attired characters. Marathe continues to call him out on this USilitarianism.

  3. Finally, references to the Concavity (US) and Convexity (Canada) are a sort of radioactive game of half-full/half-empty world views, or as Steeply puts it, a literal "chasm of different values that separates our people." Wallace is surprisingly open to arguing both sides, as he did before (albeit in a footnote) with Day's anti-AA spiel about Universal Addiction.
The point being, none of these themes are isolated, they each carry their own weight and continue to carry the thrust of the entire novel's discursive plot. Terrifically so, terrifically so.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Los Grumildos

"The narrative is left to the viewers," boasts the beautiful, full-color, chock-full-o'-sordid-puppet-photographs program for Ety Fefer's Los Grumildos. It goes on to disclaim further: this work resists labels like "kinetic theater, art installation, and puppet performance," from which you can assume that it wishes to be all three. And yet, each "performer" is locked behind glass, the cheap mechanical pulley systems puppeting them in perpetua in full view, which leads us not to "fulfill our inner child's unconscious voyeuristic fantasies," but to coldly remark upon animated freak-show corpses. Guillermo del Toro might find a use for these creatures in a film, but on their own, they are neither special nor do they have an effect.

Los Grumildos is a self-guided tour, but then again, so is Ripley's Believe It Or Not, or Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, both of which offer similar "excitements." Are we supposed to be jaw-droppingly impressed simply because there's a high level of detail paid to each character's phallus? Even the laboriously rehearsed world of burlesque offers more immediate thrills than this. Leaving the narrative up to me implies that if I'm not thrilled by the dim lights, smoky air, disco ball, ragged red carpet, and old Hollywood music, it's a failure on my part--that's a cheap dodge on the "playwright's" end.

But let's lean in closer. A naked, pig-eared and nosed fellow stands by an amp, a half-filled bottle of bear beside it. His right hand's fingers are frozen in a plastic sprawl, gnarled thumb and waxy pinky forever pointing in opposite directions. Copperish wires jerk this hand up, another moves the ulna, another handles the head, the joints on the left. In this fashion, he is made to "strum" the guitar and tap one foot, an act that has been performed so often that there is a fine metallic powder beneath that stomping sole. Is it such a wonder that he has hairs threaded into his calves?

Ety Fefer has a vivid imagination, there's no denying that. In another display, a six-breasted cheetah-like (with diseased looking spots) is the lead singer, along side a Kruger-looking mandolinist, an aardvark drummer (whose penis resembles his nose), and a lizard-tailed porcupine-haired keyboardist. Elsewhere, a creature flaps its shriveled onion wings, dancing in its four white-heeled boots and waving its pincers. Hidden in back is the piece de resistance, the perverted dollhouse known as Bar Cairo. There's plenty going on in its five rooms (including a brothel and a bathroom), and at least there's no glass, but is it really voyeurism if the "cast" keeps performing the same actions, intent on you seeing them?

Los Grumildos is a cheap show, so if this sounds novel to you, it at least gives you a chance to check out the redesigned HERE Arts Center. Then again, given what this show expects from you, you might just as easily stay home and simply use your imagination.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Infinite Jestation (A Blogthrough): Pages 343-380

We're starting to get to larger, more cohesive chunks, now. This one's about Like Nowhere Else: Boston AA. It's also a sort of hint at the multiple narratives and stretches of Infinite Jest itself. Back in the Year of Glad (p. 17) we were asked, "So yo then man what's your story?" Well, we now find out that AA's the non-judgmental, full of Identification (empathy) place that all these people go and tell their stories. Note that all of the main-text first-person speakers so far, with the exception of Hal (who may in fact be there, toenail clippings and all), are here: Clenette (p. 37), Emil (yrstruly, p. 128), and now some newly rhythmic tales from John L. (p. 345) and an Irish guy named Something E. (p. 351). For all we know, the bricklayer Dwayne Glynn (p. 139) may be here, too. Here's the idea then, that we are being asked to really Listen, just as the characters being asked to really Speak, this being the operative difference between the first-person and "transcribed" third-person stretches.

This is also what offends me so much at Infinite Jest being described as "hysterical realism" by James Woods, who offers the notion that Wallace is protecting himself from reality with a wall of facts from reality. Considering the research that DFW did for this book, not to mention his own first-hand experience with most of these topics (a militant grammarian mother, his junior-tennis circuit experience, his filmographic knowledge of avant-garde people like David Lynch, his ultimately de-mapping depression), I'm startled that anyone would suggest that this book is anything short of heart-rendingly real. When Wallace mentions that "it's funny what they'll find funny," what he's really noting is the old saw that "it's funny because it's true," and indeed, much of the humor here comes from what we can in fact empathize with and understand, exaggerated as much of it may be.

For example, one of my favorite sections so far--as graphic as Poor Tony's stroke--involves the eightball-using speaker (p. 376 - 379), who describes the depths of her addiction ("and but so eventualy the Eightball was consumed and then the screen and steel-wool ball in the pipe itself smoked and the cloth prep-filter smoked to ash and then of course likely-looking pieces of lint had been gleaned off the rug and also smoked") with the additional caveat that, oh, she's delivered a stillborn baby to which she is "still umbilically linked," and then when she wakes up, full of Denial, she walks around with the baby swaddled in a little pink Woolworth's blanket . . . even as she continues to turn tricks, "because single motherhood or not she still needed to get high and still had to do what she had to do to get high."

I laughed with shudders throughout parts of this section, because she was really speaking. The scene preceding it, with the Raquel Welch mask and It being raped, isn't nearly as effective--but INTENTIONALLY so; DFW is pointed out the difference between simply expressing the TRUTH and between trying to causally pin the blame for your actions on something. They're both exquisitely written (and Wallace returns to this place with Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, the powerful, confessional voice), but the point he's making is what it means to actually open up.

This is, according to Gately (p. 365), the difference between listening and hearing. This is, if you want to take it a meta-step further, the reason why some people have trouble reading Infinite Jest: they are so used to listening that they cannot actually hear. If we simply skim, we'll miss out on the empathy the novel is asking of us--not the hasty comparisons that we can laugh at (re: the bricklayer), but the actual sympathy, regardless of circumstance, the "we're all in it together" humanity that AA is all about, the idea that you can't be kicked out. To a degree, this is also about the difference between talking and speaking, and looking and seeing, so is it any surprise that Avril is so obssesed with the precision of language, and that James is so obsessed with the visible world? Both are missing the forest for the tree, and you wonder why Orin and Hal are so lost?

There are echoes here, too, of Marathe's previous section (p. 317 - 321), in which he expressed the question of true freedom. It's AA's motto, here: you have to Give It Up to Get It. If you resign yourself to a distrust in yourself--i.e., you cede your decision making up to the suggestions of the Group--then you lose your freedom, and yet somehow simultaneously get it. Steeply's point is valid, though: if we're just exchanging the unhealthy cage of addiction for the fleshy cage of a support group, to which we are tethered until we die, what sort of life is it? In some regards, this is answered by the idea of Group's "total autonomy," in that you don't actually have to take their suggestions. At the same time, it is reduced to a death's-head Moebus strip: they've all hit Bottom and either they continue on the Group path, or they die--perhaps slowly--Out There.

What it's about, then, is Opening Up. And that's what the book is doing, especially with the way it slowly introduces us to characters and then brings them back into the fray hundreds of pages later. That's what it's doing with it's dribs of character, often through raw information, or strands of dialogue. That's what's with the Big Brother meets at ETA (p. 109 - 121), which are run, for better or worse, a lot like Group. It's not God, it's Trust; it's not Repetition, it's Understanding.

I'm not a religious person, but I can't restrain myself from capitalizing those things, because the truth is that I Identify, I do. This is the point Wallace was making with his commencement address: it's not about pointing out the things that are different; that's easy to do. It's about noticing the things that are the same, it's about understanding why someone does the things they do. (For a modern example, look at the whole Gatesgate affair; had the cop considered why Gates was angry, he'd have just sucked up his pride and walked away, had Gates considered why the cop was there in the first place, he may have been more cooperative. Assuming, of course, that either one of them is telling the truth.)

James O. Incandenza makes a film, called The Joke, in which an audience watches itself being filmed--this, of course, is the joke. Except, just like the title Infinite Jest, it's not really a joke. Not a joke any more than Incandeza's unfilmable Found Dramas, the description of which explains that it's an unwatched slice of life going on somewhere in the world, this very minute. It is funny what we'll find funny, but if it's not first true, it's meaningless.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Undergroundzero Festival: "3!"

Here's the thing about 3!, which thankfully closed last night at the Undergroundzero Festival: it's not a play. Many things happen on stage--often at once--and these scenes are randomly projected onto a screen by men with boom mics and cameras, but Doris Mirescu's work remains trapped as "a multimedia experiment." Jay Scheib has already been here and done that, though someone already intimately familiar with Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Third Generation (on which 3! is based) might be morbidly curious in the results.

This tone of this review, incidentally, comes even after cutting Mirescu some slack for having the balls to experiment this wildly in the first place. The problem is that the uncompromisingly anarchic nonsense, coupled with what Mirescu interprets in Fassbinder's work as chaotic melodrama, makes it impossible to appreciate--let alone notice--some of the finer moments. The girl vomiting in the recessed bathroom catches our eye, but this only draws our attention away from two other characters, lounging on a sofa in various states of dress (and distress), which in turn is pulling our eye away from a girl lying atop a dinner table, listlessly chewing on bread. Someone is talking, but it's hard to make out who. It's a nice effect, in that the actors aren't performing to an audience, so much as being captured in "the wild," but without a frame or a context, it's soon all just noise. It is possible to be both vertiginous and lucid, as with a movie like Irreversible; with 3, however, the constant rapes are just Something That Happens.

This desensitizing makes a certain sort of sense, given the idea of a casual collective turning to terrorism in their free time. Violence means nothing to them, so why should their orgiastic approach make any sense to us? Of course, this sort of Negative Theater, harsh and unconcerned with the audience, tends to make the audience respond in the same way toward it. So far as the audience can tell, Suzanne (Zoe Anastassiou) allows her boss, PJ Lurz (Joel Repman), to molest her. The Inspector (Mark Lechner), pursuing the address of this terrorist cell, winds up driving Bernhard (David White) to stop with the darts long enough to drop trou and demand that he just get on with it and actually fuck him already. At some point, Paul (Anthony LaForgia) is killed; the for-some-reason cross-dressing August (Florin Penisoara) decides that Franz (Zack Helwa) set him up. Hilde, Ilse, and Petra (Jennifer Blair-Bianco, Kate McConaghy, and Zehra Tas) sort of just wander around, blending in with one another.

Ultimately, Mirescu's choice to have an already frenetic show be edited and shot just as crazily is what pushes 3! too far. Imagine using an irritated python to grasp for straws that are blowing in the wind: everything is so aggravated and unwieldy that it becomes impossible to take anything (save for confusion) away from the show--ahem, experiment. In this world where everyone and everything is an object, the show has about as much drama as the cap guns the cast wield: "It's enough," yells one actor, over and over again, for one reason or another. Indeed.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Ice Factory '09: Babes in Toyland

Photo/Yi Zhao

The name of the play may still be Babes in Toyland, but you'd have to be a babe yourself to walk in expecting a straight version. After all, it's being performed by the Little Lord Fauntleroys, a group that's "interested in manipulating public domain texts" and "pillaging faulty nostalgias." The program's also deliberate in its use of strike-through: Victor Herbert's 1903 "Musical Extravangaza" is now a "Recession Spectacular." And just in case there's still confusion, the majority of the cast is in delightfully deadpan drag, from David Greenspan's appearance as the Widow Piper to Rodney Pallanck's caustic cheer as the narrating Mother Goose (and later, Antoinette, a doll). The production hams it up, intentionally bad, but unless you're in the mood for camp, it ends up actually being so.

For those who don't mind mixing their zombies with their toys, or prefer skipping the morals to go straight to the sugar-glazed satire, Babes in Toyland is a satisfyingly gay romp. Michael Levinton's script manages to be poke fun at its own expense: necessity is the mother of invention, but as Mother Goose proves, not necessarily a very good mother. Thankfully, in conjunction with co-director Jose Zayas, he's able to poke hard enough, so fully shameless in his low-budget "errors" (props malfunction or don't move, sock puppets say the "darn"dest things) that the show's red-faced not with embarrassment but with glee.

The show delivers exactly what it promises: "All your old friends," says Mother Goose, as a Fat Albert-ish Georgie Porgie (Becky Yamamoto), a diapered adult for Wee Willie Winkie (John Kurzynowski), plus Boy Blue, TomTom, Bo Peep, and Miss Muffet (Sadrina Renee, Julia Sirna Frest, Tonya Canada, and Eliza Bent) all stand there, frozen in tableau, their smiles slowly aging away. Barnaby (Michael Levinton) is still out to kill his wards, Alan (Sofia Jean Gomez) and Jane (Megan Hill), so that he may marry Alan's betrothed, Contrary Mary (Laura von Holt), except that now he deflates his villany by constantly humming his own theme song and running around, Snidley Whiplash-like, with his cape whirled up around his face. The very fact that we were ever amused by such antics is what's so amusing to us now, particularly in the way that Alan and Jane fill deliver their one-liner jokes with such effort, complete with broad asides to the audience. ("I can't go any further on this [snap] sprained ankle," says Alan.)

Purposeful embarassment has its charms, and Babes in Toyland is full of awkward humor, particularly in its undramatic pauses. Linda the Fairy Moth Queen (Kurzynowski) offers to fly Alan and Jane to Toyland, but they only freeze center stage, expectant, until Linda at last shooes them off stage left, bracingly smiling. In this new adult context, too, some of the songs start to sound downright creepy, particularly the way that Greenspan, as the Master Toymaker, sibilantly slithers into them. As for the big march of the wooden soldiers, it's as pathetic as you might imagine, more so in that it goes on for almost five minutes.

Because the cast manages to keep their straight faces, we're able to abandon ours, applauding the cheaply strewn fake snow (right out of a plastic bag) or the eleventh-hour resolution Svetlana the Queen of Christmas (Bent) brings. Who cares about all those dead bodies when there are all those babes, the decidedly modern and most certainly immodest variety? Leave your librettos at home: this isn't your childhood Toyland.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

metaDRAMA: To the Indie Theater Community

I know, I know, I may not always have the nicest words for your shows, and I know that I hold you to sometimes almost impossible standards, given the sort of budget and constraints you all work with. However, don't ever think that I don't love, appreciate, and value what you all do. I wouldn't be writing at all if I didn't think you all were worth holding to high standards--because the truth is, when I get blown away at the theater, it is almost always in a small, intimate house, by a bunch of passionate rabble-rousers.

I'm writing this because I had a blast taking part in the New York Innovative Theater Awards, not only as an awards committee member, but in getting to announce some of the nominees--a real pleasure to be on the other side of the footlights, nerves and all. I'm sure you all have the same sense and feeling that I do, standing in a room of your peers (or those you write about): that energy and pride that crackles off a cast of hundreds who are working often enough for literally nothing. To know that everyone's in it out of a largely pure love of theater itself. I said earlier this month that I was done with Broadway--more so now, especially after seeing the way the TONY Awards have still managed to steal some thunder from the IT Awards--but I really do mean that: I'd rather chill at the Ice Factory, rock on at The Brick, or get my feet back on terra nova. The Fringe Festival is coming up, which David Cote has suggested needs a curator: I disagree--I'd rather get lost in the manic excitement of having five minutes to get your set up in the changeover between companies at a sweltering hot venue. There's something real there, and it only makes the actual gems all the more amazing to stumble upon. I may hate your show this year, but damn it all, at least you're walking the walk and not just talking the talk.

If you're one of those people who just can't get enough of the theater--and I know I sound more than a bit sappy here--this letter's to and for you. Your work matters; please keep doing it. Then again, if you're reading this letter, you already know that, and kudos to you for that.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Infinite Jestation (A Blogthrough): Pages 312-342

In which Orin and Hal talk politics, Mario's surprise birth and according defects are described, Marathe and Steeply bicker over the "free" in "freedom," and the ETA students enjoy their Interdependence Day by using their tennis skills to interface with the Eschaton war simulation.

In larger and larger chunks now, Wallace's narrative choices are starting to shine, particularly in his illuminating use of voice. This is an author with an unlimited ability to describe objects, occasionally by refusing to actually describe them ("Pemulis invites Ingersoll to do something anatomically impossible"), and yet for the most part, he does most of his description through the rhythm of their speech--in other words, he allows personality to take center stage--pretty tough, given the epic number of characters.

So let's first look at the Incandenzas: in Footnote 110 (p. 1004-1021), we see "A MOVING EXAMPLE OF THE SORTS OF PHYSICAL-POST MAIL MRS. AVRL INCANDENZA HAS SENT HER ELDEST CHILD ORIN SINCE THE FELO DE SE OF DR. J. O. INCANDENZA, THE SORT OF CHIRPILY QUOTIDIAN MAIL THAT--HERE'S THE MOVING PART--SEEMS TO IMPLY A CONTEXT OF REGULAR INTER-PARTY COMMUNICATION, STILL." It's the stuff of grammatical heartbreak, not just from the unexplained nicknames and references--which, by dint of being private, summon up depths of the personal--but from the way in which Avril crafts such desperate hope into every inch of her letter. The kicker, of course, is that Orin sends back a curt form letter via his football team, one which, to add injury to insult, is filled with errors. As Hal identifies it, "grotesque solecistic pseudo-impersonal replies to her pathetic letters." (Here's a recurring theme: Orin goes through more effort to not respond to the Moms than he would to simply talk to her, just as Struck works harder to plagiarize than to simply write the essay, and as Hal goes out of his way to learn how to say what he believes others want to hear.)

The footnote then continues to literally show this drift and distance , thanks to the enabling and yet somehow disabling power of telecommunication, aka, the present without having presence use of the phone. (And this may perhaps explain Wallace's early digression re: videophony, which nailed the "phony" bit.) The way in which Orin addresses his women as Subjects and the way Hal correctly points out that he actually means the obverse (i.e., Objects). The way in which Orin uses silence, or brute force (i.e., simply ignoring/brushing off what Hal says) to dominate the conversation, a very American tactic, as Marathe will point out a few pages from now. Hal is so irrelevant to Orin, it hardly matters, and the effect of that on both of them is pretty obvious, especially given the fact that Hal doesn't just hang up--in fact, he protects the phone from Pemulis, though casually, as if for any Incandenza to show emotion would be some great loss.

One more thought about this rich, easy-to-read section (despite the faux history about the motives for Separatist Quebec's alliance with Canada versus O.N.A.N.): it doesn't end. In fact, it loops back to Orin's nested series of questions (1a, I believe), re: the use of the word samizdat in connection with J.O.I. Which speaking of, this reaffirms why I love Infinite Jest so much: these logic circles are wide enough that they make us think, but circumscribed enough that our suspicions are usually soon confirmed. In this case, the picture forming is that the F.L.Q. (Nuck terrorists) has obtained the Entertainment (most likely the film Infinite Jest (V?)) and is attempting to us it to make the sort of terrorist act that would annoy O.N.A.N. and put them on the map.

This will be confirmed in a few short pages, but first, a few more questions are raised (and answered) in The Surprise Birth (p. 312-317). Of note:

  • Mario Sr. died in mid-putt, James Sr. died of a brain hemmorage, and James Jr. blew his brains out via microwave oven. There seems to be a progression of death in the family, with each son dying younger, and more immediately, of a brain condition. (Perhaps akin to the gum condition--caries--that runs in the family.)
  • Footnote 114 confirms the calendar on p. 223: Year of Glad is the last Subsidized year. Something big--and probably wicked--this way comes.
Wallace also continues to play with voice in the Mario section, using footnotes (which remember, are labeled Notes and Errata) to this time point out (117 and 119) where the narrator has "...overshot the place" in which he should have mentioned other characteristics and features of note. Obviously Wallace could've edited these things back into the text, since he recognized them enough to footnote 'em. However, by leaving them as footnotes, he adds an immediacy to the main text, lapses, jumps, digressions, repetitions and all, that make it resemble nothing else so much as the oral traditions of epic classical poems, i.e., this is a story being told. (According to one theory, that explains the use of single quotes in a decidedly non-British novel.) It also also allows for multiple streams of consciousness at once, which is a pretty deft trick: everything is Now, everything is Immediate, everything is Always.

And we haven't even gotten to the good stuff yet: Self-Destructive Appetites w/Marathe and Steeply (p. 317-321) puts a finger on the idea, raised earlier by Day, that we all belong in an Anonymous meeting of some sort, because we are all addicted to something. In this case, Marathe posits that, in a childish way, we are addicted to freedom, which seems silly, along the lines of saying that you can't have infinity without limits. Except that both are sort of true. You may not know what those limits are, but without some end in sight, things would be too overwhelming. That's why our senses only show us specific things, why our minds only remember key details, why we operate with filters. Without them, nothing would exist: without locking away some things, nothing would have any value. D.F.W. has the difficult task of contrasting this with the equally nasty concept of Facism, but it's an admirable section. If I may get biblical with it for a moment: the Entertainment is the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge--that is, "God" has given us the choice to to partake of this killer Entertainment, but we'll die (or be cast out) for doing so. It's no coincidence that Marathe implies that religion has been abolished: "Someone taught that temples are for fanatics only and took away the temples and promised there was no need for temples." Small wonder that AA stands--religious, cliched underpinnings and all--as the last sort of sacred place left. But that's making a huge, probably unmerited leap.

Instead, let's jump to the menacing-at-first-glance-but-actually-hilarious-and-in-that-way-representative-of-Infinite-Jest-as-a-whole next section, Eschaton (p. 321-342). What begins as sober conversation about the seriousness of war, with precise rules and calculus-derived formulas and statistical analysis, soon distorts--like the best of comedies--into all-out armageddon, which sort of confirms what Marathe said about O.N.A.N. being full of children. There's some nice stuff here, too, about the representation of reality, and the actual reality, and whether or not there's any middle ground between the two.

As a final note, to close on the idea of voice itself, in footnote 123, the text actually reads "Pemulis here, dictating to Inc...." This implies, as other sections have, that Hal (or perhaps a different Incandenza, like the all-seeing, slowly-recording, Hal's-secret-idol, Mario) is the one adding flourishes (as he does to Otis Lord's TRIGSIT in footnote 127), but that each section is in fact being preserved as it was originally spoken. Wallace has labeled previous sections TRANSCRIPTS, and the novel sounds better when read aloud, so what can we make of this? Ah, screw it: Gaudeamus Igitur, Let Us Rejoice.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Classically Skewed

The problem with the word "skewed" is that it doesn't quite mean what people think it does. By nature, when you skew something, you "distort, especially from a true value." And that's the case here with Sweetness & Light's well-meaning and occasionally entertaining trio of one-acts, Classically Skewed. In the name of the "avant bard," Shakespeare is mashed-up courtesy of a sock puppet and manic director into Brett Hursey's "Shakespeare Lives!" and for the sake of daytime talk shows everywhere, Melissa Villain retells classic Greek tragedy as "Mayor Eddie P. Rex." They're distorted alright (or exaggerated, as with their rendition of Chekhov's "The Bear"), the result of which are a series of comic plays that leave truth way behind in the dust.

Comedy for comedy's sake, unfortunately, leads to a lot of amateur stuff. Actors abandon character in favor of laughs, writers--hitting upon something that makes us chuckle--continue to beat a horse to death, and directors refuse to slow down, leaving little room for feel much of anything, good or bad. The goal was to be Classically Skewed, but the result is Modernly Erratic. For instance, Doug Rossi has a booming voice, a wild posture, and a nice range: he should be the model Grigory Stepanovitch Smirnov, aka "The Bear." But he doesn't maintain the specifics of his role, choosing instead to play cheap laughs in a French accent, or to play with Yelena Popov's (Villain's) veil. As a result, his "transformative" moment--when he realizes that he loves his unwilling debtor, Yelena--seems put on. In turn, Villian doesn't have all that much to send back his way, and has to force herself to be angry. Compared to Abe Lebovic's one-dimensional portrayal of the timid old servant, Luka, who has been reduced to a deep whine and knee-bent waddle, they're terrific, but that's not much of a complement.

At least the other two plays are original: there's no expectations for the actors to live up to. That said, one wishes that Thomas Rowen didn't start out as such a crazy Director--it gives "Shakespeare Lives!" nowhere to build to, and makes it seem increasingly odd that Rosalind (Megan Melnyk) would stick around for his absurd auditioning tactics. It doesn't help that Hursey's script repeats itself so often, but at least director Marielle Duke knows a good thing when she sees it: the sock puppet rendition of Romeo and Juliet is flat-out funny. As for "Mayor Eddie P. Rex," it is blessed by Sarah Chemerys's presence as talk-show host Sophie Cleese, Tom Lacey's pitch-perfect white-trash attitude as a guest on the show, and by the genre's broad allowance of mugging for the "camera" (i.e., audience). Villian's adaptation is at least clever on the surface, although without any Oedipal depth it ends up repeating the same old story over and over again. (In terms of camp, it brings The Toxic Avenger to mind.)

The work of Classically Skewed is far from being an instant classic, but every company has to start somewhere. All that's left is to now apply the lessons they've learned from the past.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Infinite Jestation (A Blogthrough): Pages 243-312

In which O. talks to Hal about separatism and suicide (p. 242-258; p. 1007-1021), the ETA boys play at Port Washington (p. 258-270), we meet more of the Ennet House members (like Emil Minty aka yrstruly, p. 270-281), we learn of Orin's career-changing love affair (p. 283-299), catch up with a really poor Poor Tony (p. 299-306), and sit in on the crazy prorector classes (p. 306-312).

Not that I disbelieved, but yes, for whatever slow spots there are, the novel is now in full swing. James O. Incandenza's filmography (Footnote 24) starts to taken on greater significance (have we met Hugh G. Rection yet?), but more importantly, the emotional ramifications of what seemed to be glossed over moments now come into play. Given the context of what we know, some of these sections are arguably exposition, but if so, they're an example of how to use exposition, and playwrights should take note of the conversation between Orin and Hal. (Not just the fact that Orin's being trailed by the Wheelchair Assassins, and being interviewed by--assumedly--Hugh Steeply's female cover, Helen.) For a book that's so dense with language, some of the most telling moments slip in via the "..." silences, and Hal's half-attention is a clear indicator for just how hurt he was by his older brother's choice to more-or-less abandon the family. Of course, it's also an indicator of how heartless Orin's become, so much so that he needs to crib notes on his father's death off of Hal--who we learn discovered his father's literally exploded corpse--and ironically that Hal, in turn, cribbed his own notes, plagiarizing his own grief, albeit in the same way that Struck (footnote 304) winds up doing just as much work if not more, needing to use signposts to avoid feeling as if he's all alone.

The tennis section at Port Washington is full of charm, and there's tenderness behind the tarps--see Pemulis and his partner Schacht and their easy camaraderie--although there's not an inch of yield on the court itself (as exemplified by John Wayne, who is the same on and off).

Meanwhile, in the Ennet House, Geoffrey Day (Footnote 90) raises a rather valid point about the catch-22 of addiction: If you acknowledge that you have a problem, then you belong in AA--but if you don't have a problem, then you're in denial, and then you really need to be in AA. But if Day's right--ignoring that he's clearly trying to find a way to get thrown out of the program so that he can say it wasn't his fault--then what's fascinating is that Wallace is positing that we are all addicted/flawed, that we all suffer this dis-ease . . . but that in fact, from this, we are actually united--united in struggle, just like the Wheelchair Assassins, say, or their younger, train-dodging selves. Call it fraternal, if you like, and make life into a universal hazing, but is there anything that can unite us more, ultimately, than empathy? Given Wallace's commencement speech, I'm inclined to believe that's the direction he's taking here, the fine lining being that you can't be kicked out of Anonymous meetings, and that for all our faults, we're still human, no matter how inhumanly we act.

Again, there's more charming exposition as we see a softer side of Orin, falling for Joelle van Dyne--who we now see really is deformed, by how "grotesquely lovely" she is--or as DFW puts it, the Actaeon Complex she evokes, in which men are repulsed from her perfection. On the sadder side, we see the tiniest glimmer of this relationship's end, especially as Dyne--on Orin's introduction--starts working as a apres-garde filmmaker herself. But of special notice in this section is our first real sense of Charles Tavis, who breaks into this section (p. 286-288). This is the real trick of Wallace's writing, in that he doesn't change from third-person, or even break up the paragraph; instead, he just uses the sort of self-identifying language that you can positively hear on an unctuous guy like Tavis. Notice just how many bases Tavis covers in off-setting any potential wrong-doing on his part, all of which only serves to make him look all the seedier:

Well someone had had to come in and fill the void, and that person was going to have to be someone who could achieve Total Worry without becoming paralyzed by the worry or by the absense of minimal Thank-Yous for inglorious duties discharged in the stead of a person whose replacement was naturally, naturally going to come in for some resentment, Tavis felt, since since you can't get mad at a dying man, much less at a dead man, who better to assume the stress of filling in as anger-object than that dead man's thankless inglorious sedulous untiring 3-D bureaucratic assistant and replacement, whose upstairs room was right next to the HmH's master bedroom and who might, by some grieving parties, be viewed as some kind of interloping usurper.
Another note in this section is the way in which Orin winds up on the football team. DFW writes this bit with bone-crushing glee, and it's worth noting that the underlying philosophy that he approaches so savagely (perhaps because he felt savaged by it) was that "What metro Boston AAs are trite but correct about is that both destiny's kisses and its dope-slaps illustrate an individual person's basic personal powerlessness over the really meaningful events in his life." In other words, cliches get to be cliches because they're true, and the truth here is that the only thing we can really control in our life is how we look at life itself (again, empathy). Now, you could argue that if not for Orin's years training in an obscure tennis style (Eschuteon), he never would have been able to kick the way he did, and yet . . . Orin makes it perfectly clear that he felt he had no control over his childhood, which is part of why he left. (Avril, by this point, is pretty well established as the uber-guilt-tripping mom.)

One final bit here is the importance of context--namely, relativity. As Orin switches careers and explains his stance to those around him, he ends up lying about a lot of it. And yet, as we'll see here, truth, like Orin's talent in tennis, is subjective depending on who hears it. In fact, given that Wallace--in a book of fiction--bothers to point out that his characters are telling further fictions sort of gives further emphasis to what others have pointed out to be a positively Derridan way of thinking--especially with the jumbled narrative, and multiple names for identical characters, all of which cause to make assumptions and then rethink those assumptions when given another glimpse of the same reality down the road. Now, assuming that time is an infinite line, and that as we move further along that line, the things behind us change shape and meaning, is there ever any given moment at which something will be indisputable "truth" for then and forever more?

The next section gives a clear example of this. When we first hear of Poor Tony--not by name--he's described as a purse-snatcher who has accidentally swiped not a purse, but a container for the world's first exterior heart. (Coincidence that he's an inadvertant murderer, like Don Gately?) Our reaction is pure disgust, though Tony--we learn--is wracked with guilt over it. When we meet Tony proper, we think he's a spineless wimp, especially as yrstruly describes him--the sort of guy willing to let his friends shoot tainted heroin, just so he can see if it is, in fact, tainted. Again, we feel disgust for him. And yet, when the camera shifts to focus on him, so to speak, at his absolute lowest (and then lower, and lower, and lower--infinitely so, eh?), Wallace leaves us with no choice but to feel empathy for Poor Tony's absolute squalor. Sure, he's made choices that brought him to this point, but he's still a thinking human being--again, you can't be kicked out of humanity. All the people on the train look away from him, and I myself would do the same--and yet, reading about it, having context and words, these things provoke that raw emotion, that empathy, that we must train ourselves not to shut out. What would the world be like if we could all put ourselves into a man's shit- and piss-covered shoes?

One final, sad observation--and again, a matter of perspective. A woman commits suicide, and it just so happens that her act of desperation reveals and thwarts the dastardly actions of the Quebocois terrorism-by-mirrors. It's described here as an act that "SMASHED THE ILLUSION." Is her suicide now more acceptable? I shudder to think.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


One can only extend the benefit of the doubt so far. We start out hoping for the best of Pre-Disposal, that there's a reason why two small-time dealers, the energetic Rob X (Paul Pryce) and his gruff associate George (DK Bowser), are shooting the breeze on a ripped-out car seat in the middle of Bed-Stuy if they really owe $15,000 on a lost shipment. And we assume that Rob D (Joe Mullen) can't possibly be the naive Williamsburg hipster he appears to be, that he must in fact have some reason for getting sucked into X's aimless spiel, what turns out be a convenient pitch for a TV miniseries about life on the "streets." Something Must Be Up, given all the ominous phone calls D keeps ignoring, and the whispers George keeps passing X's way.

Not so. John Prescod isn't a playwright so much as he is a filibusterer; he's bluffing his way through the first act, hoping that the slinging of enough street-slang will somehow take on Substance and Significance. Director Joshua Luria covers this up for as long as he can, but when they're forced to show their hand in the second act--X is not only a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, but he was involved in the attack! Elyse (Deborah Green), a very obvious plant (naive, clumsy white girl with a baby carriage in Tompkins Park after dark) is actually some sort of agent sent to watch X! D isn't actually a film student at all, but a con artist looking for a way out!--suffice to say the whole house of cards collapses so completely that there aren't even any cards left.

It's not just the script that falls apart, either. Eric Alba and Joshua Luria establish a nice set for the first act, with very up-to-date graffiti (RIP MJ) on the burnt out wood walls of a squat house, and there's trash everywhere but the garbage can. However, in the second act, a park bench is joined by a table that's actually a bureau, as well as two ornate wooden chairs (hell, I'd have stolen those). More incongruous are the shifts in lighting, which occur mid-sentence, not to mention the flat-out awful fight choreography from Montgomery Sutton--it's bad enough they're using a rubber plank, but to see the otherwise menacing Bowser having to swing it "like a girl" is just flat-out embarrassing. The only thing that acts the way it should is Amanda Jenks's basic costuming: it's the only thing you might actually see in the real world.

As for the acting, the problem is that you can tell it's acting. Bowser and Pryce posture far more than their real-world counterparts would need to, and though Pryce is rather good storyteller--charismatic and engaging--he's no Rumpelstiltskin: the straw lines he's given remain just that. D constantly presses X to find a hook to his narrative, to find something new, as the sad truth is that seeing a man's head blown off by a point-blank sawed-off shotgun is old school. When X provides him with that original twist (the 9/11 crap), D realizes that he's being fucked with, and gouges X's eye out. Good thing the audience isn't as violent as D, considering that X's story is Prescod's story; Pre-Disposal is the sort of awful play you wish you could punish.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Haunted House

There are no multimedia screens, no experimental dance breaks, no tricky narrative surprises; compared to most new American plays, Daniel Roberts's Haunted House is positively "analog." Or at least, that's the word that Lucy (Diana Cherkas), a tech reporter, uses to describe the Dunn family--Cy (Jordan Charney), Peter (Jason Altman), and Wendy (Meghan Miller)--though in her distinctive lingo, she means this in a quaint, charming, and yes--"beautiful"--way. Her arrogant boyfriend, Moses (Jason Blaine), puts it more directly: "You guys are so fucking real; it's sort of disconcerting." All of these descriptions apply not only to the Dunns and their haunted house, which represents a fast-fading and more innocent past--but to Roberts's script, which outs him as one of the most talented traditional dramatists working today.

If you were to relive the seminal moments of your childhood, your cynical modern self might easily dismiss them for their cheesiness. But Haunted House treats the past with respect, respectfully preserving the familiar odors and the time-honored dust, taking pride in what others dismiss as pedestrian and ordinary. Roberts understands that what we assume to be irrelevant is far from meaningless, and so he evokes a genuine sorrow, the sort comes from losing hold of what we don't even realize is precious. He also finds the most elegant ways of putting it, as when Lucy compares loneliness to "a single gig of RAM," or when Wendy describes magic as the way "the molecules that separate everything from everything" just disappear when she touches her lover.

A good haunted house is only as good as its ability to secret away its gears, and this is where Brian Ziv's direction plays such a vital role. He embeds every object on stage--from the plastic scythe to the static columns of Dominos--with real life. He finds nice parallels too, from the way he uses Julia Noulin-Merat's set to look in through the windows of both the actual Dunn house, and their haunted one, showing the time-worn hauntings of each. Above all, he heightens the terrific dialogue by ensuring that the actors each bring quirks to their role, from the way Charney's Cy sweeps up his ghoul's cowl with generations of grand English tradition behind him, to the way that Blaine's Moses never wastes a movement, bearing full-on scorn with the ease of his trademarked pencil-snap.

The cast is the other thing Haunted House has going for it--no mere mechanical creepy-crawlies, these. Not for a minute could we see Cherkas's nerd-chic Lucy as anything less than fully fleshed, from the way she melts into the giddy joy of feeling thirteen again, to the way she battles her impulses to try and find what she really wants. These internal struggles are even visible in someone like Peter: while he may be the obedient, simple son, Altman keeps him from being a sheep, and his sudden movements are all the more surprising--and understanding--for that. All the characters, especially the way Miller shows Wendy's hidden romance, have such strong feelings that when they clash, it's hard to know who to root for.

There are tons of hidden rooms in Roberts's writing: you can read it as a deep-down allegory for the "corruptive forces of modernity"--that is, apathy, which is full blown in Moses, a "faith-eist" who actively believes in nothing. But you can also just experience it for the terrific ride that it is: those goosebumps won't be from horror, but from hearing and seeing such sad, beautiful truth.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Ice Factory '09: Lavaman

Photo/Kalli Newman

For years, Arnie Muspell (Michael Mason) has lived in the twin shadows of his brother, Archie, and his dead mother, who was immolated in a freak flood of lava. Under no circumstances should such psychically repressed energy be brought anywhere near people like Archie's former Man Whore bandmates, Gill Gatlin (Cole Wimpee), who is a walking pharmaceutical, and Dino Riot (Adam Belvo), an all-business, flesh-eating hedonist. Unless, of course, you're trying to punk your audience into being entertained, in which case Casey Wimpee's Lavaman is a twisted success.

Under Matthew Hancock's fine direction, Aztec Economy displays the sort of raw intensity that is too often absent from theaters, and while they don't push the audience nearly as far as they threaten to, Lavaman is far more than mere rebellion. First off, there's a catchy narrative, skipping between the present--in which a mohawked, violent Arnie is whaling on a stabbed Dino in an abandoned grocery--and the night before, in which a far more reserved Arnie is trying to explain his cartoon--ahem, graphic novel--to his skeptical, slovenly roommate, Gill. The play builds slowly from there, but with intent, using the quiet, dead evening scenes to illustrate the necessity of doing something, anything, to remain alive. The same goes for the animated scenes from Arnie's undrawn "Lavaman," with the art slowly shifting from violent abstractions--"he particularly targets married women left alone in cottages and mothers of twins"--to a detailed depression: "He just sits on his lazyboy and watches infomercials all day long."

Enter Dino, on the cusp of his birthday, looking to get back to basics. This requires getting Gill drunk on the highly alcoholic Loverman and getting back Gill's now-pregnant girlfriend, even if that means going through the lesbian biker chicks she's hooked up with. It also requires getting the taciturn Arnie to step into his brother's shoes, something which Dino plans to do via the contents of his ominous, body-sized black bag. Actions speak louder than words, especially given Dino's hypothesis, that English is only used to allow "one thing to pretend to be another." To that end, the second half of the play--raincoat on, pelican drinking on the table, a hacksaw waved around--far more gripping. It's the dirtying of an, until then, pretty tame commode (to use another of Dino's apt metaphors). Lavaman posits that we revere suffering: to that end, Casey loads up on vivid descriptions, while Hancock controls every scene so rigidly that as the drugs start to take effect and Dino starts to snap, there's enough of a shift for us sympathize with and fear.

Unsurprisingly, much of the dialogue is also off the wall, but often so excitedly so that you get swept up in the all-too-believable atmosphere. As Dino, Belvo finds a perfect expression of the "not-to-be-denied" attitude by acting as a deprived businessman, the sort you'd expect to find in a Brett Easton Ellis novel. A similar juxtaposition occurs for Mason's portrayal of Arnie, who goes--literally--from a buttoned-up fly-on-the-wall, to a half-naked, sweat-drenched maniac, lashing out in a way that is almost certainly not healthy for his voice. As Gill, Wimpee gets a little shortchanged, in that he doesn't change so much, but he makes up for it with a healthy dose of consistency.

For a show that's so overt--"I like to rape women and burn babies," says Lavaman--there's a lot of subtlety behind the words (which at times operate with the depth of lyrics). More importantly, Lavaman knows exactly what it is--a live-action punk graphic novel--and plays it so seriously that it's impossible to take it with anything less than with the utmost of mortified enjoyment.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Joys of Fantasy

"For those of you that can't remember," says Claire (Claire Kavanah), the narrator of The Joys of Fantasy, "that's Teri, and she's at the bottom of a well." True enough, at least symbolically: a nightgowned Teri (Teri Incampo) is sitting in a ring of blue beads. "She's really, really thirsty," continues this narrator, determined to make a point: "The thirst is a metaphor for her loss of Scott." For emphasis, the stage manager, Susannah (Susannah Berard), adds some details, so laboriously, so seriously, that it removes the idea of "fantasy" and then sucks away what little "joy" is left. At least Caroline (Caroline Gart) has a cute sense of humor about things, though the only thing the cast seems sincere about is that their show used to be called "Our Town Revisited" until they were almost sued.

It's assumed that Mitchell Polin, who wrote and directed this, went into this with good intentions: the show quickly paves its way to theater hell. All the disclaimers in the world couldn't save this inexcusable mess--in fact, the first thirty minutes of "setting the stage" are what kill the show, as Claire conceited explains the conceits of the experiment: "Take art. Smash it up. And try to figure something out." Personally, I don't attend theater looking to make up my own story, and in any case, when Kim announces that we should do exactly that, Caroline points out that they're really trying to abuse the audience's imagination.

It hardly matters: Our Town this ain't. The cerebral hums of a live band--Tungsten74--continue through the show, and the long, philosophical discourses are, for some reason, projected up onto a notably non-minimal scrim. Throw in literal props--phones, chairs, even a tumbleweed--and there's even less room for imagination. Again, it hardly matters: if the audience is still paying attention by this point, their imaginations are hard at work trying to imagine that there's any sort of chemistry between Teri and her kidnapped husband, Scott (Scott Troost), and trying to pretend that the preening Michael (Michael Cross Burke) has an ounce of bad-assery in him.

The cast of The Joys of Fantasy knows it has these problems; that's why it spends so much time attempting to dismiss them. The problem is that saying "Why do you always have to understand what is happening" only calls more attention to the fact that nobody does. Referring to Turner's Falls only reminds us that this is not Grover's Corner. Magic cannot exist without reality, and there is little joy in pure madness.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Infinite Jestation: A Blogthrough (Pages 211-242)

In which Michael Pemulis introduces us to the vaunted, elusive, incredibly potent DMZ (p. 211-218) and Joelle van Dyne (p. 219-240) fills in the blanks w/r/t to Madame Psychosis and the Incandenza clan (i.e., she was most likely Orin's first, given that she was more than the simple early-morning Subjects from p. 42-49, before becoming James's fatal Medusa, a scopophilia-enabling PGOAT--"prettiest girl of all time"--who led to Infinite Jest(V?) being completed). Fellow Jester "E. Hunter Spreen" posts about the Internet-like cross-referencing of the novel, and if you look at just this one stretch, it certainly seems that this may be the first post-modem novel (not just a post-modern one). Wallace inserts material as if his search-engine were a pop-up ad, and so we get the official standardized time-line (p. 223, which Infinite Summer has also translated into normal calendar years), not to mention Helen P. Steeply's as-of-yet irrelevant curriculum vitae (p. 227), which in of itself represents a sort of stumble-through life. Even the dialogue in this section--from p. 231 to p.234--is like dropping feelers into an unfiltered stream of collective consciousness.

Don't believe that Wallace is doing this intentionally yet (re: my thesis)? Note that, as per usual, D.F.W. drops a nugget of rationale into this section, as Joelle, overdosing on what she sardonically calls Too Much Fun, wonders what in fact all of these collective facts in the novel really mean:

This room in this apartment is the sum of very many specific facts and ideas. There is nothing more to it than that. Deliberately setting about to make her heart explode has assumed the status of just one of these facts. It was an idea but now is about to become a fact. The closer it comes to becoming concrete the more abstract it seems. Things get very abstract. The concrete room was the sum of abstract facts. Are facts abstract, or are they just abstract representations of concrete things?
Even as he has his narrator posit this, at the same time he shows us just how much more there is to a simple fact, especially since what we assume to be "facts" are so often unreliable (see Faulkner's Sound and the Fury), to the point at which the limit of logic is such that as fact approaches concrete, it cannot help but abstract itself. This is the danger of a "straight" novel, one that preaches a direct message with linear characters and no surprises: fact alone is rarely interesting.

No, I can't enjoy anything that comes without being earned, which is what makes the small moments in Infinite Jest such an absolute blast. For instance, I decided to read Footnote 304 (which is referenced by Footnote 45, which is referenced by page 108: hyperlinking). This is Matryoshka writing, for we're interrupting a moment in the present to skip to a moment in the future's digression, a digression which focuses on how Struck, in an attempt to write a paper, is plagiarizing from another paper, which in turn is written about the Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollent (AFR, or wheelchair assassins, re: Marathe), which in turn speaks about a variation of chicken called Le Jeu du Prochain Train (The Cult of the Next Train), and which in turn leads to a brilliantly nested footnote in which the paper being plagiarized cites a different paper on
The Cults of the Unwavering I: A Field Guide to Cults of Currency Speculation, Melanin, Fitness, Bioflavinoids, Spectation, Assassination, Stasis, Property, Agoraphobia, Repute, Celebrity, Acraphobia, Performance, Amway, Fame, Infamy, Deformity, Scopophobia, Syntax, Consumer Technology, Scopophilia, Presleyism, Hunterism, Inner Children, Eros, Xenophobia, Surgical Enhancement, Motivational Rhetoric, Chronic Pain, Solipsism, Survivalism, Preterition, Anti-Abortionism, Kevorkianism, Allergy, Albinism, Sport, Chiliasm, and Telentertainment in pre-O.N.A.N. North America, (C) Y.P.W.
Now, you could say that all of this is just abstraction, much like a casual dismissing-at-first-glance of Madame Psychosis's reading of the U.H.I.D. pamphlet (pre-membership). Except that aren't these all actually facts, of a sort, which lead us, kaliedoscopically, into a real meaning? In this case, for those who are willing to consider--that is, to read actively--you'll find that this is a pretty clever put down of American obsessions: look, it says--we can be just as fetishistic in our rabid support of anti-abortionism as we can of its polar opposite, Kevorkianism. Aren't we all just wholly, totally, irrevocably crazy to invest so deeply in anything that would have us think so monomanically about the world? And, pulling back further, isn't it silly to obsess, then, over facts, the act of which is sort of like appreciating a tree in the middle of an infinitely dense forest? Isn't feeling--our impression from facts--a potentially more honest, more important, thing to stay in touch with?

Poor Joelle, poor Wallace, poor Gompert, then, who felt they felt too much.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bird House

Bird House is as absolutely adorable as it is completely confusing. Kate Marks has written a dream of a world so consistent in tone that even though axes fly through the wind and cuckoo birds burst out of people's mouths, she sustains our interest. Likewise, Heidi Handelsman has conjured this fantasy so fully that even though we see the puppeteers through the life-size windows of this hand-crafted bird house (Sara C. Walsh's set), we remain raptly dreaming. It's impossible to dismiss Bird House, and yet equally hard to accept it for what it is (Alex Koch's pastel backdrops drop a few impressionistic, though hard to make out, clues).

Syl (Christina Shipp), a confident sure-shot, and Louisy (the bubbly Cotton Wright), an immature adult, live a happy, simple life of escapism atop a tree house on the Bright Side of their world. At night, they sleep head to toe in their casual comfort, and by day, they speak carefreelessly, defining words like "parasite" with a wordsmith's charm: "Someone who comes to a potluck without a pot." However, troubles eventually find them: giant ants march militarily across the floor, and blue birds slam against glass windows like it's the end of days--even the cuckoo-clock birds, Kook and Ooo (puppeteers Anthony Wills Jr. and Ora Fruchter), are said to get into domestic violence behind their quaint little doors.

Syl can't explain why she needs to abandon this life (or won't, on Marks's end), so one day she just digs through to the Lop Side, where she encounters Louisy's opposite, Myra (Kylie Liya Goldstein). Make no mistake, Myra's just as endearing, but she's a mature child, and she slyly uses Syl's unfamiliarity with this world of War-Wolves to cling to her side. Meanwhile, Syl's opposite--Rita (Wendy Scharfman), an easy-going prophet--shows up on the Bright Side, looking for Myra, but settling for Louisy. The problem is that everything's as earnest as it is eager, and though the Lop Side is full of dirt and vicious wind, it comes across (because of the characters) as being just the same.

Despite being a storybook play, one whose odd comedy swiftly grows static, Bird House doesn't have a storybook ending (as the faint, ominous projections imply). Surprise, surprise: the good intentions we bring to war "over there" are not always as heroic or noble as we desire. But this conclusion is never justified, and even in its darkest, oddest moments, the play never manages to grow up, or change. Louisy, having killed an ant, tearfully realizes that "war is not a story," but Bird House all too clearly is.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Infinite Jestation: A Blogthrough (Pages 193-211)

The Architecture of Enfield Marine Public Health Hospital (p. 193-198) is thankfully far less complex than that of M.I.T. No, this layout is basically a series of numbered units (which D.F.W. notes is also Boston slang for the phallus) that start out nearest the old hospital itself and end closest to a deep ravine (and of course, Enfield Tennis Academy). The use of a familiar character--Don Gately--adds to this section, as does the weird observation that as the numbers increase, the characters seem to get further from life--from stress relief, to methadone clinics, to senility, to catatonics, before eventually ending with death, that is, the remains of #7, buried in rubble from E.T.A.'s expanding courts. What does that say about Gately's residence in the Halfway House (which is actually #6)?

We go Back to the Weight Room (p. 198-200), and this is really just a deft execution of the different sort of training methods available to tennis players.

Let's focus on the Many Exotic New Facts About Addiction (p. 200-211), in which Wallace basically spits out a lot of undigested anecdotes about how phobias can become self-fulfilling (ala that earlier story Orin watched on CBC, "Schizophrenia: Mind Or Body?," on p. 47-48, but also now re: the woman who fights her fear of blindness and paralysis by never opening her eyes or moving) and how, in fact, everything can really be seen as an escape,

ad darn near infinitum, including 12-Step fellowships themselves, such that quiet tales sometimes go around the Boston AA community of certain incredibly advanced and hard-line recovering persons who have pared away potential escape after potential escape until finally, as the stories go, they end up sitting in a bare chair, nude, in an unfinished room, not moving but also not sleeping or meditating or abstracting, too advanced to stomach the thought of the potential emotional escape of doing anything whatsoever... (Footnote #70).
Wallace abstracted about this, to some degree, in his commencement speech, saying that for all they'd learned, students would inevitably lose touch with the world unless they maintained their apathy, so yes--I think it's true that crossword puzzles and reading, and pretty much anything done in ISOLATION can lead to an escape--including Anonymous groups, if turned to that purpose--that even learning itself is just an escape, unless we find a way to be satisfied, at last, with our choices, hobbies, and fears.

But if this is escapism, sign me up, because I'm totally swept up in the way Don Gately is revealed to be (now) an employee of the Ennet House, and that good old Tiny Ewell (from p. 85-87) is back again (he was that unidentified lawyerly voice from earlier, too). Everything revolves around, comes back into more focus, then recedes again. Hm. Isn't this exactly how James O. Incandenza's wobbly, self-invented filmographic technique works?

I said at the outset of this readthrough that I'd give Wallace the benefit of the doubt about all the content (excluding typos), and here's another reason to trust him: prison tatts. By which I mean, this is a novel that took tons of time to write, an infinite number of ink-stained punctures on the page, each contributing as much to building the cage as it does to making the bars themselves visible. If the book mirrors life--although doesn't necessarily reflect it as much as it distorts it, at times--then what you have is a novel that treats the consequences of addiction with the same "profound irrevocability" that plagues Gately.

Other thoughts:
  • Did David Foster Wallace also predict an inflation in our near-future? I refer, of course, to the mention of the Mass. Gigabucks lottery on p. 206.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Infinite Jestation: A Blogthrough (Pages 172-193)

You may note that it's been five months since I last posted. Thankfully, Infinite Summer, another blog-through, is forcing me to return to and revisit these themes. As means of a segue, I'll give one more giant digestive chunk before I switch to a more manageable means of posting. Ironically enough, I start with a meditation on time, for the title that describes the 11.5-minute digital recording of Hal's, Tennis and the Feral Prodigy (p. 172-176) fills in more of the blanks:

(B.S. -3) - E.T.A. is founded, Hal is 6/7
Year of the Whopper - Hal is 9/10
Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad - Hal is 10/11
Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar - Hal is 11/12; J.O.I. commits suicide
Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken - Hal is 12/13
Year of ? - Hal is 13/14
Year of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge... - Hal is 14/15
Year of Dairy Products From the American Heartland - Gately kills DuPleiss, Hal is 15/16
Year of the Adult Depend Undergarment - Hal is 16/17
Year of Glad - Hal is 17/18

And but so what? Time is artificial, and jumping back into the book five months later hasn't changed the words, just as reading sections out of order (or in order, as Wallace has already disorganized them) hasn't changed the actual events. Reality, in other words, survives.

So now Hal describes (in a narrative that is questionably attributed to his older brother Mario) many of the E.T.A. techniques (like Lemon Pledging) that were touched on in earlier segments, all the while allowing memories of his dead father to seep in: "Have a father who lived up to his own promise and then found thing after thing to meet and surpass the expectations of his promise in, and didn't seem just a whole hell of a lot happier or tighter wrapped than his own failed father." Hal's nightmares are touched on ("Keep a flashlight by your bed. It helps with the dreams."), as is the idea of talent (from the previous James Sr. flashback). And, as always, there's one hell of a kicker at the end: make sure your parents have lives so that when they "make sure you didn't miss anything they got" you don't end up drilling all day and learning prescriptive grammar all night.

We next jump to some Selected Transcripts from Ennet House (p. 176-181), which are--as Wallace will show in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men--great examples of just how deft this author is w/r/t defining character through action. Nell is manic and desperate: just read how she insists that Patricia Montesian understand what she's saying (and not punish her for stabbing her co-resident with a fork). The unnamed lawyer might as well be Bill Clinton, for all his equivocating: "I'm not denying anything. I'm simply asking you to define 'alcoholic.'" Alfonso's broken Cuban-English is endearing. We remeet Bruce Green (from p. 38-39), for whom life is no longer "one great big party," and also probably Reginald (from p. 37-38), or someone else who knew Clenette. And there's a turd joke: "All I can say is if it was produced by anything human then I have to say I'm really worried." Above all, this is some choice material about addiction, though given what I've learned about the Bricklayer story (p. 138-140), I wonder how much of this seems so real because it actually is, from the time Wallace spent researching this (Pahlaniuk is still in the kiddie pool).

There's something larger, too, in the lawyer's words: "You're reluctant to proceed without clarification," he argues, for we "cannot deny what [we] don't understand." I wonder if part of what Wallace is after--considering his sometimes prescriptive use of vocabulary--is to make it impossible for us to deny Infinite Jest, simply by overpowering us. (I wonder, too, what this means for religion: in philosophy class, I once argued that God could not exist, because by definition, God is unlimited, and the attribution of things to God is a limiting act, one that's meant to understand. Unless they've already denied their faith, then, it makes little sense for certain ideagogues to claim to understand God. But I digress, rather weakly.)

And speaking of overpowering us--I know I said to trust David Foster Wallace, implicitly, but Madame Psychosis's Midnight Show (p. 181-193) is the first section I've wanted to skip. Aside from the reminder that what she's doing (by reading random things aloud) is sort of like what James O. Incandenza was doing in his anti-confluential films, and likewise, what Wallace is doing in his unresolving narrative, it's a difficult section. I think I remember, from The Broom of a System, another situation in which Wallace described the layout of a town via the metaphor of a human body, but here--turning MIT's union into a giant brain, and using medical vocabulary to do so . . . it seems unnecessarily dramatic.

"...though the vitreally inflated balloon-eyes, deorbited and hung by twined blue cords from the second floor's optic chiasmae to flank the wheelchair-accessible front ramp, take a bit of getting used to, and some like the engineer never do get comfortable with them and use the less garish auditory side-doors; and the abundant sulcus-fissures and gyrus-bulges of the slick latex roof...which curves around the midbrain from the inferior frontal sulcus to the parietooccipital sulcus...from which a venous-blue emergency ladder can be detached and lowered to extend down past the superior temporal gyrus and Pons and abducent to hook up with the polyurethane basilar-stem artery and allow a safe shimmy down to the good old oblongata just outside the rubberized meatus at ground zero."
Yes, that's also all one considerably longer sentence. If you were trying to convince someone NOT to read this book, you'd want to show them this section. Then again, if we trust Wallace, I call attention to Footnote 63, the metafictional disclaimer that a certain line is "the student engineer's analogy." In truth, it's really David Foster Wallace's . . . but he goes out of his way to distance himself from the character, and perhaps, by using vocabulary that the kids at MIT might use (architectural slang, computer lingo, and the ten-dollar medical words), he is stressing that he's just a man assembling the detritus of what actually exists. Considering how much of the novel seems oddly prescient (the videophone controversy from p. 144-151 has already started, thanks to Skype), is he just acting as a Historian of the Future ala Ben Marcus et. al. in the recent Harper's issue of June 2009?

Finally, for all my complaining, the actual language Wallace uses for M.P.'s list of horrible disfigurements is very rhythmic, relaxing, and occasionally, deeply, darkly, horribly funny. Which is sort of the whole point. Also, with a list that long and comprehensive, haven't we all found ourselves onto that list? Aren't we all ugly, all beautiful?

A couple of stray observations:
- "the Kemp and Limbaugh administrations" (p. 177) place this in a Republican future, no?
- Who is Dr. A. M. Incandenza? (Footnote 64) Is this Mario?
- the term "two bagger," as in a person so ugly that you need "one bag for your head, one bag for the observer's head in case your bag falls off"

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Ice Factory '09: A Wonderland

Photo/Eamonn Farrell

A Wonderland
is a great entry point for those who have never seen Anonymous Ensemble's high energy, technological savvy, all-around bad-ass approach (which is normally to Greek mythology). There's room for all of their tropes here: the Mad Hatter (Josh Hoglund) replaces the crazy computer, Oedi; Jessica Weinstein is still on stilts, except that now she's the Queen of Hearts; rope aerialism becomes the Cheshire Cat (Kiebpoli M. Calnek); wild Southern drag--new in form, but similar in attitude--sets up the white rabbit as Blanche duBunny (Matt Mager); and of course, there's a live rock band and a chorus of modern dancers. However, because it's still Alice in Wonderland at heart, it's a lot harder for writer/director Eamonn Farrell to pull off the "shock" that's necessary to really "awe" the audience.

It's hard to be crazier or smarter than Lewis Carroll, so some of the requisite scenes--like the tea party--can't help feeling forced. The same goes for the characters--especially the less quoted ones, like the Countess: they end up with interesting songs (composed by William Antoniou) but are themselves uninteresting. Farrell's solution is to rely on his eclectic videography--a lot of digital effects and live editing--and crack aesthetic team (David Scotchford's highly suggestive choreography, paired with shiny glam-rock costuming). Still, except for some overlong bits toward the end, it works (as the eye-catchingly inventive often does).

At heart, A Wonderland is Zen: is Alice (Janelle Lannan), a 34-year-old administrative assistant who feeds her dreams by singing cabaret once a week, dreaming of an audience (and of her twisted popularity in Wonderland), or are we--the audience--dreaming of her? In this regard, the early half of the show far exceeds the latter half, for it maintains an air of mystery from the first moment a hand appears atop a ten-foot red curtain, slowly scissoring down the veil between one world and the next. It's also full of fresh ideas: in order to conjure up the transformatively freeing "Drink Me" scene, Farrell sprinkles water on a many-doored diorama, transposing video of Alice atop it. Later, the Caterpillar is brought to life by five individually puppeted glow-in-the-dark Hoberman spheres, and four dancers bend themselves into the shape of an oven, just in time for the Dutchess to start cooking her puppet baby.

It's when the delusions start to repeat themselves, grow too mundane, or too closely mirror Carroll's work that the show suffers. Farrell's safe in the musical portions, especially given Lannan's throbbing voice, but not so with his use of the Dormouse (Liz Davito) as an interviewer, nor with the sluggish pace of a celebrity poker match and subsequent trial in the Queen's Casino, in which the prosecution's March Hare (Cory Antiel)--among others--is forced to make random, characterless quips. Thankfully, A Wonderland spends far more time in wild wonder than it does on dry land. It's at the least bemusing, if not wholly bewitching.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Therese Raquin

Photo/Stan Barouh

Not to take anything away from Émile Zola's novel Thérèse Raquin . . . no, wait, let's: even for 1867, Zola's novel is torpid; Neal Bell's terrific dramatization, however, is a torrid smash. Assisted by Jim Petosa's wonderfully poetic stagecraft, Bell has put a stake through the heart of dry naturalism. His version, currently running in repertoire at the reliable PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project), puts the focus back on the immediate needs of the characters, glossing over the book's detailed, yet all too distanced, notes on "temperament."

Instead, he brings a bit of Ibsen's modernism to the work, showing Raquin's blossoming from stark apathy ("I can't be frightened to death; I'm already dead and this is hell") to ravenous passion, and then her murderous fall ("I wanted to hammer his sleeping face in"). Petosa adds a fair share of romanticism to the slow, sensual movements--from the yawning distances that open the play to the tight, circular clasps of its middle and the eventual locked-in doom of the ending. And for good measure, both put more weight on the circumstances of the play, so that what was shocking 150 years ago (the adultering Laurent hides under his lover's discarded clothes) is still shocking today (Laurent's now hiding under his lover's dress, pleasuring her as she attempts to casually sip a cup of tea in front of her aunt; in the next scene, Laurent will be kissing that aunt with that mouth of his).

Once, it was enough simply to follow in the footsteps of Edgar Allen Poe; today, we care more for the agonizing humanism of the characters than the spectral visitations of their temperament. And this is where Bell and Petosa excel: we first meet Thérèse (Lily Balsen) as she sits in the foreground, looking out into the audience, doing her best to ignore her aunt (Helen-Jean Arthur), who chatters as idly as she embroiders, and the consumptive coughing of her cousin, Camille (Willie Orbison), shown here as a faint shadow behind a scrim. The scene is simple enough: if she's doomed to marry this man, she might as well act as dead as she feels--she certainly has no desire to while away her time at dominoes with Camille's social circle (Peter B. Schmitz, Michael Kessler, Stephanie Spencer, and Jordan Tirrell-Wysocki). But when she meets Laurent (Scott Janes), a roguish painter and old friend of Camille's, she can't help but come alive in his arms.

These are clever themes to mix: a sense of morbidity with a dash of sweetness. Balsen, who carries herself like a younger, more innocent Helena Bonham Carter, nails the role by sweeping her evils under the rug of childishness. Her sexual awakening--accompanied by immediate, all-consuming lust--believably drowns out any morals she might have . . . which makes it all the more plausible that later, in the wake of such wrongdoing, she might have genuine regret. She is haunted by a ghost, yes (and here, Orbison finds the morbidity for his actual sweetness), but what really gets to us is how she haunts herself. Janes comes across more as a rugged foil for Balsen--his needs are, you might say, as masculine as his character--but even still, it's a crisp performance. Even Ms. Arthur, who spends most of the play in doddering territory, turns in an exceptionally refined performance: her character learns of her children's betrayal, but only after she's had a paralyzing stroke that makes it impossible to do anything but seethe (and, thanks to stage magic, orate).

It is very easy to be poetic--to say that one's expression is as empty as an air shaft. It's harder to justify the reasons behind that expression (as Bell and Petosa have done), and harder still to actually paint that expression on the stage (as Balsen has done). Thérèse Raquin is filled with such excellent translations and interpretations, and while that's easy to say, it won't at all be hard to believe for those who have seen it.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Europeans

Photo/Stan Barouh

If you've seen the Potomac Theater Company before, chances are you've caught them producing Howard Barker, a notoriously--and intentionally--difficult playwright, one who chooses to use catastrophe (rape, siege, war) to explore the logical limits of morality. If you're looking for savage intellectualism this summer, The Europeans is a lot cheaper than vacationing in a war zone. Unfortunately, it's not nearly as vivid; the play is so restrained, both in performance and staging, that we're not really given a chance to wrestle with Barker's text.

It's really just a matter of the stakes not being raised high enough. The play opens at the end of the Battle of Vienna (1683), with Leopold, the Emperor of Austria (Brent Langdon), returning victoriously (despite having fled the siege). He's a self-depricating and deeply regretful ruler, which Langdon adroitly demonstrates, but it's hard to understand the depths of shame behind his stock phrase ("I laugh") without actually seeing the consequences of war. It's certainly no help that the heroic general, Starhemberg (Robert Emmet Lunney) looks at the blood on his hands with such inhuman stoicism, nor that Lunney's acting is only slightly more expressive than that of David Hasslehoff.

Barker finds a more immediate martyr for his cause in Katrin (Aidan Sullivan), who struggles to recenter her world in light of the brutal rape committed against her. Her motives are clear, and when The Europeans speaks of turning the People's Art into one of shame, it takes on a powerful force. Romagnoli finds a wonderful martyr as well, for Sullivan is a ferocious performer. When she hurls her broken body and her recriminating words at Orphuls (Robert Zukerman), an ambitious priest, she makes the world around her larger than life. That's the point--she stresses--for it is all too easy for us to seek to compromise the sorrow of the past by painting a happy face on it, and Katrin refuses to do so, choosing the nunnery instead of her home, and planning a very public pregnancy--in which she hopes to die. This is the sort of clarity the rest of the play lacks:
Home is the instrument of reconciliation, the means through which all crime is rinsed in streams of sympathy and outraged doused, and blame is swallowed in upholstery, home is the suffocator of all temper, the place where the preposterous becomes the tolerable and hell itself is stacked on shelves. I wish to hold on to my agony, it is all I have.
Understandably, the other citizens seek different measures of restitution from the past, most notably Susannah (Megan Byrne), who starts out fucking priests for loaves of bread, only to actually fall for Orphuls, who offers something other than darkness. Unfortunately, what Zukerman brings to this role is an ill-fitting humor that makes it hard to take him seriously, especially when we learn that he has self-righteously killed his mother in an attempt to show the value of life--his own. Starhemburg's motives are also incredibly fuzzy: Romagnoli understands that Barker means for there to be juxtaposition in the image of the noble general swimming amongst the denizens of the sewers, but he can't capture it. Likewise, it's unclear what the choice to use anachronistic jazz music adds. (It underscores a line from the Empress, but so what.) And what of an almost laughably decapitated head? True, comedy is one way to change our view of the past, but that's hardly the point.

No, with the exception of Sullivan and Langdon, we're not given enough to buy into The Europeans. It's far too clean, too processed a production. If "anger makes hell tolerable," as Susannah avers, then Romagnoli needs to go much, much further to make hell intolerable. Where is the blood?