Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Clerk's Tale

When I was a little kid, I idolized the guys who worked at Blockbuster.  In their blue collared shirts, bad haircuts, and cargo pants, they stocked VHS tapes, shuffling dutifully between the shelves as TVs in the corners of the store flashed action scenes with fireball explosions.  The video store guys (and they were all guys) seemed to have sacrificed something important to these glowing boxes, something other people prized: adulthood, maybe?  Happiness?  They joked with each other in movie quotes, drank Jolt, and never seemed to age, caught for all time in a kind of patchy adolescence.  The pictures they preferred were not so much good or bad, but implacably cool, almost sociopathically unsentimental, with unhappy endings and unrated trailers.  They drove to work in dented cars and left with new releases.

These were their patron saints.

The first thing I remember learning about Quentin Tarantino was that he worked in a video store, and this knowledge has informed the way I view his films, especially since Tarantino's aesthetic seems so in line with the aesthetic of the movie guys I grew up admiring.  Tarantino's movies are compulsively meta-cinematic, laden with a dizzying array references to everything from blaxploitation to anime, but first and foremost they're cool: suspenseful and nasty and sarcastic and violent and above all, entertaining.  Emotionally, they're cool to the point of being chilly, and at their worst (like in parts of the second Kill Bill movie), they can come off as empty stylistic exercises, lovingly designed worlds inhabited only by cardboard cut-outs, like the 2D Darth Vader propped up next to the shelves in the sci-fi section.

Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino's latest, is possibly his most interesting film yet, at least for me, simply because rather than fighting this tendency in his work, he embraces and even explores it.  Inglourious Basterds tells the story of a daring military coup: mid-WWII, the head honcho Nazis, including Der Fuhrer himself, pile into a French theater for a screening of Goebbels's latest propaganda effort, a film called "Nation's Pride" about a Nazi sniper who single-handedly killed hundreds of American soldiers in a matter of days.  What the Nazis don't know is that a crack team of American Jews are out to shoot them in the head as many times as possible, and the theater's owner, a disgruntled Jewish Frenchwoman, plans to blow them sky-high by setting her nitrate film reels ablaze.

Here's what I found interesting about Inglourious Basterds.  Like most of Tarantino's films, it takes an older genre as its trope, this time the spaghetti western.  Like Once Upon a Time in the West, this picture starts out with a family killed, heartlessly and unnecessarily, by a straight-up villain, the self-proclaimed "Jew Hunter" Col. Hans Landa.  When we meet Lt. Aldo Raine (with a hick accent from the Smoky Mountains, natch) and his posse, who plan not only to kill but scalp as many Nazis as possible, it seems that Tarantino is laying out a classic story of cowboy justice: good vs. evil, the old American way.  "Nazis ain't got no humanity," Raine declares, and we're inclined to agree. 

But as the movie progresses, Tarantino keeps allowing hints of doubt to creep in.  The Nazis here are not inhuman, at least not all of them.  In one scene, we meet a Nazi soldier whose son Max has just been born; he's beaming with joy over the future of his child, and harmlessly playing bar games with his friends.  In another scene, Shoshanna, the revenge-seeking theater owner, grudgingly admits that her cinema is named for a talented German filmmaker -- an artist is an artist, regardless of nationality.  And even Private Frederick Zoller, the war hero and star of Nation's Pride, is more vulnerable and endearing than is convenient for us to believe: Goebbels calls him a "strangely persuasive monster," and it's true.

At the end of the film, when the Nazis are watching their propaganda movie, crying out with laughter and spontaneous applause as Zoller's character on screen pops American after American with his seemingly unlimited supply of ammunition, Tarantino is certainly poking fun at them.  But he's pointing a finger at us too.  After all, if we're Americans, we've come to the theater for essentially the same reason as these doomed Germans: to watch a triumphant picture in which our enemies are slaughtered en masse, in the most graphic way contemporary filmmaking techniques allow.  Isn't Nation's Pride basically just Inglourious Basterds in fascist drag?  And if so, aren't we a little like Hitler, slapping his thigh and telling Goebbels this is "the best one yet"?  It's an uncomfortable moment of recognition, one that tinges our self-congratulation, our patriotism, with doubt.

In the end, of course, Tarantino lays these doubts to rest.  One of the most memorable motifs in Inglourious Basterds is Lt. Aldo Raine's habit of asking any Nazi in his charge what he plans to do with his uniform after the war.  When the captive Nazi replies he will burn the uniform, or never wear it again, Raine replaces it with something he won't be able to take off: a swastika, inscribed in the Nazi's forehead with the point of a hunting knife.  To Raine, the uniform is not just a costume, the black hat or white hat of a face-off in the wild west.  By donning it in the first place, the Nazi has permanently mortgaged his individual personhood; regardless of who he might be "inside," he no longer deserves to be seen as a three-dimensional character.  Now he's a target.  Raine's just adding the bull's eye. 

Raine's absolutism is appealing in its simplicity, perhaps necessary in a time of war, and the film ultimately endorses it -- but not unquestioningly.  And it's that questioning that makes Inglourious Basterds more than cool for me; it makes it smart.  The guys at Blockbuster would approve, and this time, they'd be right.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Magic for Intermediates

I read The Magicians by Lev Grossman in less than two days. I could not put it down. I read it on the subway, on the bus, on my lunch break, and until the small hours of the morning; I read it in the line at the DMV and on the elevator. I read it in the obsessive, giddy way I read about Narnia and Middle Earth and Wonderland and William Sleator's multiverses as a child, which is to say I read it just the way I imagine Grossman wanted.

The Magicians is a fantasy novel that’s about fantasy, and about novels. It follows Quentin Coldwater, Brooklyn native, type-A personality, and loner extraordinaire, from the day he’s first summoned to Brakebills college for magicians for an entrance exam in his late teens, to sometime in his mid-twenties. Quentin, who grew up on the Fillory and Further novels (a fictional series, loosely based on, you guessed it, the Narnia books) has dreamed since he can remember of escaping to a magical realm, and in the book we find out what happens when he gets his heart’s desire.

This is not your kid sister's magic academy.

Grossman’s prose has the kind of conversational effortlessness that makes any one element impossible to single out and question, a transparent lucidity that makes the images feel like they came straight out of a half-forgotten recurring dream. But what got me, what really pulled me in, was the magic, which was unlike the magic of any other book I’ve read. In The Magicians, magic is not a deus ex machina, a blessing, a duty, or a curse. No one knows what it’s “for”; it reveals nothing, or at least nothing conclusive, about good or evil, the nature of the universe or God or man. Magic heightens sensations, intensifies experiences, endows the ordinary with meaning, but in a way it's profoundly useless. Upon graduation, most magicians end up doing academic research, or undertake “massive art projects, manipulating the northern lights and things like that, decades-long enchantments that might only ever have an audience of one.” Some work undercover, for the government or other organizations, but in a world with “too many magicians, not enough monsters,” they’re not really necessary.

For these reasons, magic in The Magicians functions, for me at least, as a kind of book-length extended metaphor for literature, and the role that discipline plays in the lives of its oft-dissatisfied acolytes. This begins almost at the start, when the Fillory novels are introduced for the first time: “It was almost like the Fillory books… were about reading itself. When the oldest Chatwin, melancholy Martin, opens the cabinet of the grandfather clock… and slips through into Fillory… it’s like he’s opening the covers of a book, but a book that did what books always promised to do and never actually did: get you out, really out, of where you were and into somewhere better.” In Fillory, even the vistas look like the inside of a book; Grossman describes it as “a landscape as black and white and stark as a printed page.”

However, when Quentin learns that magic is real, he discovers that, like literature, it does not spring into being fully formed: “The same way a verb has to agree with its subject, it turned out, even the simplest spell had to be modified and tweaked and inflected to agree with the time of day, the phase of the moon, the intention and purpose and precise circumstances of its casting, and a hundred other factors.” Like an MFA student plowing into the revision process for the first time, he finds himself engulfed in minutiae, the stupid repetitive grit of learning. It is not “an orgy of wonderment”; it’s hard and it sucks. But life without it is unendurable. When Quentin arrives in New York City after graduation, he observes, “Nothing was enchanted: everything was what it was and nothing more. Every conceivable surface was plastered with words… but none of it meant anything, not the way a spell did.” Magic, like fiction, like poetry, spans the gap between thought and reality, between subject and object. Once enchanted, a deck of cards or a glass marble become an extension of the magician’s mind, just as a book is the extension of an author’s. As Quentin’s old professor says, “The separation of word and thing is the essential fact on which our adult lives are founded. But somewhere in the heat of magic, that boundary between word and thing ruptures… Language gets tangled up with the world it describes.”

This conceit is heart-poundingly, throat-clenchingly, head-smackingly brilliant (why didn't I think of this shit?), and for a long time, as I ripped through these pages, I thought the novel would turn out to be an utter masterpiece because of it. Yet as I continued reading, I found myself distracted more and more by a nagging concern that quickly developed into a criticism and ultimately, crushingly, into a full-blown disappointment: the character development of Quentin's lover, Alice.

Everywhere in this book, Grossman calls into question our assumptions about the genre, from a scene where a drunk teenager prepares for an intracollegiate game, snarling, “Gotta get my quidditch costume,” to the impotent, helpless ram who is to Fillory what Aslan the lion was to Narnia. Our hero, self-loathing and melancholic, is a tour de force of psychological realism; no one could mistake Quentin for the aspirational champions of the kids’ books this references. But there’s one escapist trope Grossman has forgotten to send up. A girl who's beautiful when she takes off her glasses, plus brilliant and good in bed; a girl who never makes a mistake in the classroom or on the battlefield, but who's so disarmingly shy and self-deprecating you never feel challenged or emasculated.  A girl who waits around patiently for you to make up your mind if you want to date her, and then has no qualms of her own about leaping into the sack and the full-fledged monogamous relationship.  A girl who's never irrationally bitchy, never self-involved, never needy or demanding or shrill or passive-aggressive or petty or arrogant or mean.  A girl who never tries to defend her weirdo parents and shows absolutely no signs of becoming like them.  A girl who has no friends to compete for her time and attention, no bosom buddies whom you suspect might know her even better than you do.  A girl who has no sexual history worth noting, who never flirts, never cheats (unless you cheat first, and even then she doesn't enjoy it); a girl who puts off her own sizable ambitions while you try to find yourself.  A girl who loves you, only you, unconditionally, even to the point of death – and SPOILER ALERT, who in fact dies, tragically young, sacrificing her life to save yours just after you've tenderly reconciled and she's forgiven all your misdeeds... Well, that's a fantasy, too. And it's one this book doesn't question, not even in a metafictional aside, for all of its 400+ pages.

Grossman didn't make this mistake because he's a male writer; to say so would be letting him off the hook way too easy. Male writers have written devastatingly complex and conflicted female characters (think April Wheeler from Yates's Revolutionary Road, or for that matter, Emily Grimes from his Easter Parade: dude writes like a lady), and female writers have dropped the ball with their fictional counterparts big time (see my post on another magician novel, Susanna Clarke's otherwise masterful Jonathan Strange). No, what Grossman's done here is both simpler and less forgivable: he's allowed his imagination to fail. In a novel where he turns college students into geese, opens a portal in a Brooklyn vacant lot, fabricates a whole fictional world's mythology, and reveals a gorgeous parallel between the magic in books and the books that contain it, he fails to do the first, most obvious thing: turn one of his main characters into flesh and blood.

I still urge you to buy The Magicians, and to read it in the binging, breakneck, flashlight-under-the-blankets way it requires, and to allow it to gobsmack you with the resplendent unfurling of its many mysteries. Most books have flaws, and this one's strengths are as dazzling as a pyrotechnic display made by Illusionist magicians. But if the book's ultimate lesson is that magic is wherever you look hard enough, I wish Grossman had taken more than a passing glance at Alice. Right now, we only see her as Quentin does when they're on their separate treks in the Antarctic: at a great distance, and in a rosy light.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Burn Baby Burn

In the 2002 film Decasia, director Bill Morrison assembles a vast collage of decaying film stock and, with nothing more than a soundtrack, pieces it together into a film-length visual poem.  Vortices of blackness sweep through sunlit scenes. Poxes of dots and splotches swarm over happy dancers; bodies appear lit from within, aura-like outlines of white tracing their bodies, or darkness masks faces unnaturally, as in a photo negative.  Inky waves lap the screen.  The film is a testament both to film's artificiality, its impermanence, its gaps and stutters and lacks, and a celebration of the way those lacks can reveal something – sometimes nightmarish, sometimes beautiful – about the human condition.

Like Decasia, Blake Butler's Scorch Atlas presents itself as damaged goods.  The book, published by Featherproof in 2009, is designed to look like a moldering library volume; on the jacket and on the pages within, we find stains and wrinkles, amorphous dapplings of water and fungus.  The edges of the pages are darkened to look singed.  And the text inside is also splintered: first into 13 sections (stories? prose poems? chapters?) that don't quite hang together as a cohesive narrative, and then at the level of the sentence.  Characters speak in "rhyme and benediction"; the prose cracks into lists, line breaks, call and response. Things "smear," "squirt," "ooze," "froth"; they're "runny," "endless," and everything is damp.

Ostensibly, the book is about a world going through an onslaught of Biblical plagues, or perhaps an apocalypse in stages.  But Butler's not much interested in the breakdown of society; what fascinates him are the imploding families, crushed under disaster's weight.  Rowdy children tie their mother down to suck her breasts, their necks "fat with mold"; a nameless dead baby swells to fill an attic; a mother dies birthing a strange gown for her daughter to wear. 

I'm not going to lie: Butler's language is oppressive.  His sentences are forever turning in on themselves, hiding otherwise straightforward images in twisted syntax ("In the light slurring behind him he watched the streets eject a thing that moved").  This linguistic static muffles even the characters' innermost thoughts ("My brain wormed in want of recognition, turned over and over in cold sputter") or dresses them up in preciously unusual language even when the meaning's clear ("Here's a picture of my first girlfriend, whom I never got a chance to nuzzle").  This is a book where words like "shriek" or "murmuration" can slip by without making a ripple.  It's obvious Butler's not trying to create differentiated narrators, or even characters.  These folks all talk the same, and they're mostly passive victims of the same bizarre calamities.  The main distinction is the extent to which they're bloated with pus and spores. 

Yet, while I usually consider such verbal overkill annoyingly sloppy, in this novel even the messiness contributes to the overall effect.  It's as if the language itself has decomposed, and, like the figures in Decasia, the folks of Scorch Atlas have melded together unnaturally in the resulting corrosion.  I'll be interested to see what this writer does in the future... that is, if there is one.  After reading his book, I'm not so sure.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Find the Fish

I first saw Monty Python's The Meaning of Life when I was a freshman in college.  At that point of my life, I saw profundities everywhere: in pretentious conversations over late-night nachos, in the garish merchandise of the local Wal-Mart, in endless, debauched theme parties, in the Saturday morning cartoons of my childhood, viewed through the nostalgic haze of grainy VHS.  I roamed the campus in a bowling shirt with the word "COCKTAILS" emblazoned on the back in neon letters, waving one finger in the air, spouting revelations.  I wore sunglasses always, even at night, as though the brilliance of the world was too much for me.  I was insufferable.  I was studying philosophy for the first time, and its lunatic sheen was all over everything; the big questions were not only apparent but urgent, and I looked for answers wherever I could.  It comes as no surprise, then, that I found some of them in a musical sketch comedy from the 1980's featuring, among other things, a singing man in a pink tuxedo who lives in a refrigerator.

What did come as a surprise was that, when I watched this movie the other night for the first time in several years, it still resonated.  The Meaning of Life may be a comedy, but its title is no lie.  It really is about the meaning of life.

In his 1983 New York Times review of the film, Vincent Canby writes, "The Meaning of Life is a monumental revue, the 'Ben Hur' of sketch films, which is to say that it's a tiny bit out of proportion, something like a Brooklyn Bridge constructed to span a bathtub."  The New York Times is usually wrong, but this is worse than usual, and I don't care if I am a lifetime too late in saying so.  The Meaning of Life is a comedy, true, but its scope is exactly equal to its ambition, which is as vast and monumental as the stone tablet upon which its title initially appears.  The silliness of The Meaning of Life does not undercut the points it makes; the silliness is the point.  The film's view of human existence is that it is inherently, unrelentingly absurd.  The only meaning to be found is subjective, and pitiably small when seen in any larger context.

The film centers on one of life's central contradictions: the schism between our desire for abstract, timeless wisdom and truth, and the nasty reality of our physical bodies – the things that are, after all, actually alive.  The film is a virtual catalogue of bodily absurdity: messy afterbirth, sperm, vaginal fluids, dismemberment, slippery organs, menses, and vomit, lots and lots of vomit.  Fortunately for us in the audience, the scatological is only hinted at (by a phalanx of men in lavatories during the musical number "Every Sperm is Sacred"), but the point is clear: the meaning of life is inseparable from the stuff of it, the embarrassing "lowbrow" details that are, in fact, the essential facts of every living thing.  When Eric Idle sings, "Isn't It Awfully Nice to Have a Penis?" or a horde of topless women chase Graham Chapman off a cliff, their breasts swinging in slo-mo, it seems incongruous with the film's ostensible subject, but it isn't at all.  Sex, actual, sleazy, real sex, with all its awkward physicality, neurosis, and fantasy, is the source of everything here; during the galaxy song, even the universe forms the shape of a naked pregnant woman and spreads her legs.  Much more incongruous with the "meaning of life" in the film is in fact religion, whose empty platitudes at their best bear not at all on reality ("Oh Lord, you are so big, so absolutely huge...") and at their worst deny it (as with the Roman Catholics' teachings on contraception).  Patriotism and the military don't fare much better here – everyone has something better to do than "marching up and down the square" – nor do any dogmas that allow us to avert our gaze from life in the flesh, and all its grotesque complications.

I also take exception to Canby's claim that this is a "loose collection of sketches."  Although this certainly isn't a narrative in any traditional sense, it's connected by much more than a "theme of sorts."  Images recur, develop, and, at times, take on an almost nightmarish significance, as in the films of auteurs like Bunuel and David Lynch.  On this viewing, I was struck in particular by the fish and the way their story is woven throughout.  In the beginning, we witness the death of one fish (who's served up for dinner in a restaurant), and the philosophical musing that this incites in his mourning companions.  In the end, we meet Mr. Death himself when a dinner party is poisoned by salmon mousse.  The connection isn't linear, but it's also not accidental.  And perhaps the weirdest moment in this movie – the "Middle of the Film," when a man with Dr. Seuss arms and his tranvestite companion taunt us with riddles – seems to be understood by these fish viewers, though certainly not by us.

If one's ideas are funny, are they somehow less true or important?  I don't think so.  Serious thought and humor are far from opposites; in fact, sometimes the latter is the only way to express the former in a work of art.  It's too bad that laughs are so often an excuse for not paying attention to what's really happening onscreen.  At this rate, we'll never find the fish.

Friday, March 12, 2010


Since the moment I left the theater on Saturday afternoon, dazed and blinking and sugar-shaky from the Mountain Dew I'd just consumed, I have dreaded writing this post.  Of all the writers, filmmakers, and graphic artists I adored in childhood – Jim Henson, William Sleator, Gary Larson – Tim Burton is the one I still love the most, the one whose work has continued to reward repeat viewings and surprise me even long after the initial whizz-bang factor has worn off.  Movies like Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Pee-wee's Big Adventure have grown up along with me, revealing themselves to be darker, funnier, and more grown-up than their man-child heroes and toylike props would suggest.  Even while reveling in the gorgeous impossibilities of the imagination (silver screen monsters, tall-tale Americana), Ed Wood and Big Fish, Burton's two true masterpieces, present complicated, emotionally ambivalent views of what it means to be – or to love – an artist.  And recent films like Sweeney Todd and the underrated Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have constructed entire landscapes governed by obsession.  Like Steven Millhauser's hotels or Poe's "Haunted Palace," the settings of these pictures form large-scale models of a disordered human mind.  Tim Burton constantly employs references to film history, folk and fairy tales, television, and pop culture, but the meaning of these references is intensely personal and sincere (a perfect example of what I described in the last post).

Not so with his latest.  If Alice in Wonderland had been made by a lesser filmmaker (and it easily could have been), I no doubt would have succumbed more willingly to its charms.  The computer-animated creatures are, refreshingly, more hallucinatory than adorable, incarnate scratches of a lunatic pen, and the costumes, particularly an array of hats made by a rapidly unravelling Johnny Depp (who lists their names – "porkpie... fez... bowler..." – in a disconcerting whisper) would alone be reason enough to rent this on BluRay.  Some shots, particularly when Alice first arrives in the garden, could be cribbed from a Mark Ryden painting.  But, as one reviewer snarkily put it, this film seemed more like a Burton imitation than the real deal: it lacked the identification, the investment, in its material that characterizes his best work.

I certainly admit that the costumes could have been worse.

Most of the problems came from the screenplay.  I admired their choice to write this as a kind of sequel to the familiar Alice story.  Making her a young adult, rather than a child, could potentially shape her into a far stranger character.  In the first few scenes, I thought she would be.  Alice doesn't wear a corset to a formal soirée – the Victorian-era equivalent of showing up to a catered dinner bra-less in a wifebeater – and she hallucinates during a heart-to-heart with her potential mother-in-law.  The movie seemed to be setting her up as an 1860's hysteric, a stone's throw from batshit Freud patients, Mary Todd Lincoln, and that chick from "The Yellow Wallpaper."  There's even a delusional spinster aunt who seems to represent one of her two possible futures in this world; the alternative, of course, is marriage to an unbearable prig.  I'd go crazy too.

For all intents and purposes, Alice is trapped, and though her situation in this film is new, the nightmarish frustration she feels is familar.  After all, the original Alice books commented on a deeply illogical society that hid itself – just barely – behind a highly structured class system and the rote proprieties immortalized in children's etiquette texts.  In the books, when Alice succeeds, it's not because she's changed the system; she's simply learned to manuver within it, flattering the powerful, playing croquet by the rules, and munching on the large and small mushrooms at just the right time.  The only real escape from the madness is to wake up.  Showing Alice as a powerless grown woman, though, raises the stakes by suggesting a new question: What if the reality outside of Wonderland was just as oppressively nuts as the reality within it?

The filmmakers choose to avoid this question by yanking any potentially troubling elements out of the story.  First, they remove the insanity from Wonderland.  It becomes a simplistic video-gamescape where good battles evil and wins.  Then they remove the insanity from the real world frame.  In the Victorian era of this film, all a woman has to do to become an entrepreneur is point at China on a map.  When movie-Alice returns from her trip down the rabbit hole, looking like a ravished victim of Del Toro's Wolfman, her would-be father-in-law offers her a job and the last we see of her, she's set off on a business venture around the world.  Just in case we didn't catch it, Wonderland's caterpillar (now a butterfly, natch) flutters across the screen to herald her transformation.

This is nonsense, but it's not the interesting kind.  Watching the film, I found myself wondering why they chose to make Alice in Wonderland when the result was something a lot more similar to a half-assed version of the Wizard of Oz.  Like Dorothy, Alice here travels to a magic world where, along with a quickly assembled team of friends, she picks sides in a battle between a good witch and a bad witch; like Dorothy, after kicking ass, she chooses to return home to confront her problems.  There's even a "Scarecrow-I'll-miss-you-most-of-all" moment with the Mad Hatter, of all people.  Yet unlike Dorothy, the Alice of this film doesn't have a clear goal, a clear point of view; there's nothing like Toto she's trying to protect, and her psychology isn't reflected revealingly in the fantasyland her mind creates.  In fact, the Wonderland of this movie isn't a fantasyland at all: it's supposed to be a real place that Alice first visited as a child.  Her subsequent dreams of it are a form of PTSD, I guess, though how and why she went there in the first place is never explained.

Watching Wonderland just seemed to me like touring a theme park of missed opportunities.  As a misunderstood dreamer in a world of Victorian summer whites, Alice could have been a tragic Burtonian figure – à la Edward Scissorhands – whose happiness is not quite possible in the world she inhabits, but whose imagination is hauntingly beautiful just the same.  Instead, she's become a pawn, both in the hands of the White Queen and in the hands of the filmmakers.  Her actions are meaningless, hollow gestures, motivated by nothing internal.  I never mind it when a Burton character is dead, like Beetlejuice or Large Marge; I only hate it when they're dead inside.

Monday, March 8, 2010

We Don't Need No Education

I first fell in love with Henry Darger when I saw the 2004 documentary about his life, In the Realms of the Unreal.  A janitor by trade, he gained fame posthumously for his writings and especially paintings, which depict the epic struggle of the innocent, pint-sized Vivian sisters against the forces of evil, represented by the Glandelinians, an army of rifle-bearing men wearing "college professor hats" (mortarboards).  I've since seen his work at MoMA and the American Folk Art Museum on several occasions, and each time I love it more and more.  The other night, flipping through a catalogue of his prints, I was thinking about why.

As readers of this blog have no doubt gathered, I am a sucker for many things, but my first love is probably postmodernism.  By that, I'm referring especially to artists and writers who appropriate images from history and pop culture, transforming them into raw material for something new.  Whether it's a Patton Oswalt stand-up routine (wherein he declares that during the apocalypse, Avril Lavigne will appear in the sky to recite the Good Will Hunting screenplay while sentient razors slice at our flesh) or a Thomas Pynchon novel (where Malcolm X and Mickey Rooney make cameo appearances), there's something about this technique that, in the right hands, works like catnip on me. 

And yet, paradoxically enough, a lot of art I've hated employs these same techniques.  Watching the second Shrek movie was akin to having a strand of piano wire threaded in one of my ears and out the other, and Moulin Rouge gave me the queasy feeling associated with eating a meal entirely made from refined sugar.  Cultural icons -- Porky Pig, Elvis, the Disney castle -- can come trailing associations and emotions: nostalgia, comfort, desire.  But they can also carry with them an aura of corporate impersonality and cynicism, functioning as placeholders for content the work's creator was too lazy or unimaginative to provide.  Characters are not beautiful, but "beautiful," not evil, but "evil," and we know at once what response they're meant to elicit, despite the fact we feel little to nothing at all.  Far from sending up consumer culture, postmodern works of this kind can seem like just another product of it, manufactured on a storyteller's assembly line, where interchangable parts are twisted together efficently, each functioning the same way in a different machine. 

Here's where Henry Darger comes back in.  Entirely on his own, with no formal artistic training or in fact, much education of any kind, Henry Darger invented postmodern techniques.  He traced, copied, and photographically enlarged images from magazines and coloring books; he pasted in images snipped from illustrations.  Yet, unlike the makers of, say, The Family Guy, he did this entirely without irony; his paintings neither wink nor nudge.  His desire was completely sincere: to create in reality the world in his head.  His postmodernism, like a modern cave painting, employs any and every available tool, without disdain for any of them, and without a concern for genre or "school."

In fact, I think it's fair to say he didn't like school.  (See college professor hat, bottom left.)

In a way, Darger's naivete legitimizes postmodernism for me, because it reveals that the logic of appropriation isn't merely something learned -- an artistic shorthand, a trick.  Rather, in the context of our modern society, it's something primal, even primitive: a dialect we grow up speaking, almost despite ourselves.