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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Sunday (4/10/16) 7:38pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  The Creative Thinker's Toolkit, The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers, Understanding Japan: A Cultural History
Movies:  True Grit (2010)
TV:  <none>

The Creative Thinker's Toolkit, by Gerard Puccio [audiocourse]
This is the Teaching Company course about techniques to facilitate creative thinking.

If I had known this was a business course, I surely would have avoided it.  Okay, strictly speaking, it's not *purely* a business course -- it's full of techniques that one could, theoretically, use elsewhere -- but really, you can tell it's pitched at managers.  And this means I have two problems.  First, the sitautions presented are mostly business situations: we need to brainstorm new types of bathtubs; I need to come up with a way to make this grumbling janitor happy; let's find a new way to market this cleaning product.  Frankly, most of this is outside my experience -- even my managerial duties directing Fiasco tend not to include much in the way of this brand of idea facilitation.

But the second, more insidious problem is that the course is pitched towards MBA types.  So that means short words, simple concepts, dull and on-the-nose anecdotes, and clichés, clichés, clichés.  Hell, the course concluded by exhorting us, unironically, with this novel concept from India of "be the change you want to see in the world."

The tools it provided felt mostly like a mishmash of stuff I knew before ("yes and" makes an appearance about three lectures in), common-sense ideas (come up with ideas first, then winnow them down), and stuff that really only works in the business-sphere (know exactly who in the organization needs to buy into an innovative idea).  Simply put, none of this helps me write jack, or do any of the creative work I do in my non-paying life.

For the most part it cringed.  Listening to the lectures, you just imagine working in some stultifying office and hearing that your blinkered, well-meaning boss has brought in a 'creativity consultant' to help with synergy, vision, and other agonizing buzzwords.  And you love creativity, but you cringe.  It's sort of like how you love your cat, but if your cat were killed and clumsily puppeteered with strings, you'd be horrified -- because first off, it's horrible, and secondly, it's something horrible taking the form of something you love makes.  So it is with creativity in service of awful, soul-draining business meetings.

I may still have some issues with office work.

In any case, not a great course, and I'll steer away from the "business self-help" end of their catalog in future.

The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers, edited by Mark T. Conard
This is a book of philosophical essays about the films of the Coen Brothers, part of my continuing research for Fiasco.

My god, was this book a slog.

This might be the worst book I've read all the way through since Devil on the Moon.  I could have quite sensibly given up on it early on, but I held out hope -- stupid, irrational hope.  The book is a series of essays by a variety of different authors, so there was always the chance -- though a diminishing one as the book droned on -- that one of them would be good: informative, well-written, engaging, eye-opening.  People who study art deeply often offer helpful insights[1], and to be fair, there were a few stray points that did strike me as interesting -- someone compared the two coin-flip scenes in No Country for Old Men, pointing out that Chirugh has his desires thwarted by thre coin toss in each; and someone else compared how Marge Gunderson and Ed Tom Bell have different responses to absolute evil in their respective films.  Marge says something edifying and carries on; Bell is unsettled to the point that he retires from the force.

But those are two interesting points in a sea of irrelevant dreck.

By and large, these were not essays about Coen films.  Instead, these were philosophers writing brief, hard-to-read summaries of their favorite corners of philosophy.  And in doing so they used, in passing, a few illustrative examples from one film or another that served as tenuously-relevant examples of the philosophical point they were talking about.  Each essay was like the world's wordiest and most erudite PowerPoint presentation with really questionable choices of slides.

After about the third essay, you start to understand why the Coens so passionately hate analyses of their work.  Each writer imputes just bizarre motives to the filmmakers.  "Obviously this prop choice here," they'd say airily, "is a nod to this book by Heidigger."[2]  It feels like the philosophers haven't done any reading about the improvisatory way the Coens write their screenplays, or the heavily collaborative way their films come together.  Frankly, I wish every exigesis on fiction would just give up on knowing (or pretending to know) what the creators were thinking, and just describe their own perspective.  "When I see that prop, I can't help thinking about this book by Heidigger."  See?  How hard is that?  Every reader knows you're speaking about your own experience, and your *own* relationship to the work of art -- what's the harm in owning up to that?

And the essays themselves, while they show commanding knowledge of philosophy, are poorly written.[3]  I usually had the skill, as a reader, to sort out what the philosophers were talking about -- enough to realize that they didn't have enough skill as writers to express their ideas clearly (or at least as simply as possible).  Philosophy is a hard topic, but it's not nearly as hard as unconscionably awful academic writing makes it seem.  And on top of that, there was rarely any skill to constructing the essays -- half the time, you could see all the seams, with an awkward, expository introduction, a careful series of sections, and a perfunctory conclusion -- high-school-style.  There was no sense of life or flow to the prose, and rarely any sense that these writers actually enjoyed putting words together.

And somehow, I read this damn book through to the end.  I'm getting better about this sort of thing: I know that a book that's bad for its first ten pages rarely improves in the remainder, and I understand that there are too many good books, and too few years on earth, to waste time with the bad ones.  But I slogged all the way through The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers, like a goddamn idiot.

Understanding Japan: A Cultural History by Mark J. Ravina
This is the Teaching Company course about the history of Japan, with an emphasis on the relationship between its history and its culture.

First off, everyone, click this link.  It is an astoundingly good nine-minute history of Japan from pre-history to today.  So if seeing that title made you think, "Huh, I'm mildly curious about Japanese history," then watch that right now.  It was actually a good preparation for this audiocourse, as it gave me a quick overview that I could keep in mind, putting all the more detailed information into context.

Context is always the problem for me with history courses.  I just don't have a lot of historical data in my brain, so when someone tells me that something happened in (say) Germany in 1550, that's just a name and a number to me.  It's not, "oh, that's about a generation after the Protestant Reformation, and Henry VIII had just died in England".  So, without anything to latch onto, the new datum drifts around aimlessly in my brain for a few days, and then vanishes.  So in this case, having even a vague idea that "oh, right, there was a warring-states period" was a godsend.

Generally, this meant that the 'cultural' part of the 'cultural history' worked better for me than the 'history' part.  When I was told dates and names and battlefields, I tried my best to piece it together with the wisps of knowledge I already had, but it was a losing battle.  When instead the lecturer devoted time to, say, Japanese poetry or film, I had more of a chance.

This is no discredit to the lecturer himself, who was a cogent, engaging speaker.  He had a great overarching concept for the course, describing Japanese history as a series of alternating phases of isolation and global engagement.  The net effect of this is that it solidified that 9-minute rapid-fire course with some more depth and cultural detail.

True Grit (2010)
This is the Coen Brothers' 2010 western about a young girl who employs a U. S. Marshall to track down her father's murderer.

How great to finish up on this one.  Prior to True Grit, as research for Fiasco, I had watched every other movie in the Coen Brothers catalog[4], from the stark, confused double-crosses of Blood Simple to the grinning cinematic in-jokes of Hail, Caesar!.  It feels right, somehow, to end on True Grit, which has the Coens pulling back on all of their quirks and making perhaps the most traditional, straight-ahead, three-acts-and-we're-out film in their catalog.

After seeing all the rest, watching True Grit becomes almost a game: once you strip away everything that is obviously "Coen-y", what's left?  What's still quintessentially *them*?

Well, for one thing, their prodigious skill is left.  They are still astoundingly good at characterization, where even a single shot can tell you everything you need to know about a character.  The actors turn in amazing work, but it's wonderful to see how effortlessly the Coens set them up for success -- quietly emphasizing LaBoeuf's ridiculous frilled leather, say, or introducing Rooster with that long court inquiry that tells us perhaps everything we need to know about his character.  And yet nobody's archly over-the-top here -- it's all in service of a standard, mainstream western.

Possibly the biggest eye-opener for me on the journey through the Coen catalog was just how good the Coens are at action.  Nobody thinks of the Coens as good action directors, and that's just wrong.  Sure, often the actions they depict are whimsical, arch sequences like the bravura convenience-store chase in Raising Arizona or any of the dizzying mailroom action in The Hudsucker Proxy, but it's still solid work.  And knowing how well they could do sequences like that, I shouldn't have been surprised with, say, Moss escaping the dog in No Country for Old Men, as terrifying a nail-biter of a chase scene as I've seen in recent years.  And True Grit hammers it home: these guys know how to shoot a fistfight, or a gunfight, or any other type of fight, no matter how complicated the setup or the geography.  They shoot scenes that are clear, and tense, and exciting and (in this case) divested of any showy, "I'm a director trying to look cool" affectations getting in the way of the storytelling.

And of course there's the language.  I don't know if I've seen any western where the screenplay so clearly wanted to sound like a nineteenth-century novel.[5]  You could make a case for Deadwood, but I'd argue that no, that's a mishmash of Shakespeare, the Bible, and acrobatic profanity that is all David Milch's own creation.  Now, you could plausibly argue that nobody in the nineteenth century actually talked like characters from nineteenth-century novels -- that it's an artifact of having no real 'informal written register' in English at the time -- so the dialog style is hardly an effort towards realism.  Instead, it seems more in line with how the Coens treat historical pieces -- how often they seize on what seems unique about the period to build a sharp, distinct world.  Think of the dream-like deep south of O Brother Where Art Thou?, or even the burned-out, earth-toned 1992 L.A. of The Big Lebowski.  You hear the dialog and you get this feeling of "HELL YEAH WE ARE GOING TO 1857 THE CRAP OUT OF THIS."  And the results are delightfully specific.

But again, they're using the skills they've honed over the decades to do something simple, streamlined, and in keeping with popular film.  It's a simple story -- bury a man, track down his killer, return home -- delivered with a minimum of sprawl.  There are no B-stories here.  There is no deep bench of characters.  There are no real surprise twists here -- one could argue, no twists of any sort.  The plot goes where you expect it to, serving as a clothesline for the scenery, the characters, and all of their painful choices.

Again, it just feels like a glorious punch-line for this marathon of film-watching -- like the last line of the speech is, "And yeah, we can do a 'normal' movie as well as anyone else in the business, too."[6]

For next week: I'm watching season 6 of Good Eats and season 2 of Last Week Tonight while exercising.  I've started reading Dave Barry Does Japan -- a gentle, dated, perhaps-somewhat-racist travelog of the humorist's visit to that country -- and Gone Girl, which so far feels like the mystery/thriller adaptation of The Last Five Years that nobody ever thought to ask for.

[1] I can still recall the essay I read years ago about how both Starbuck and Apollo in BSG have the gender of 'pilot'.
[2] "Breaking news!  Professional philosophers don't know how filmmaking works!  Story at eleven!"
[3] As I understand it, the appropriate analogy goes something like "philosophers:writing::doctors:handwriting".
[4] ... which is to say, all the films they wrote and directed.  I still haven't gotten around to, say, Crimewave or Bridge of Sighs, which they wrote for other directors.
[5] ... which is odd, given that the original Charles Portis novel is from 1968.
[6] Though one could argue that I'm overlooking Intolerable Cruelty, which (one could further argue) is their take on a traditional romcom.  But I'd say that one was a deliberate subversion of that form, and didn't have much in common with some run-of-the-mill "pretty people being affable with misunderstandings" bit of wish-fulfillment.[6b]
[6b] It was still bad.  But it was ambitiously bad.

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