Foreword | December 10, 2012
“I didn’t know it was impossible, that’s why I did it.”
Recently I visited the Stanley Kubrick exhibit at the Eye Museum in Amsterdam, after having reread Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce. Together the exhibit and the Joyce bio reminded me of the risks of an artist’s life. In themes, subject matter and aesthetics both the filmmaker and the writer were courageous almost to the point of foolishness. The risks they took were not for the faint-hearted. Yet overcoming obstacles was hard-wired into their personalities, and much of what may have seemed like failure early on became part of their great accomplishment.
It took Joyce nine years to find a publisher for Dubliners, and when he finally did, the going couldn’t have been rougher. Publisher Grant Richards was initially affable, but as he came closer to printing the manuscript he began giving the author grief about most of the stories. He asked him to make an increasing number of excisions and even to remove some stories. Joyce yielded on a few points, but the more changes he allowed Richards to make, the more liberties the publisher took with the collection. Enough was enough. Joyce said that he would not sacrifice whatever talent he might have to serve the false propriety of the time. He wrote to Richards, “I have written my book with considerable care, in spite of a hundred difficulties and in accordance with what I understand to be the classical tradition of my art.” He feared that Richards’s meddling would leave his collection like “an egg without salt.”
Dubliners shows, in a style that is cold and precise, realities of ordinary Irish life that many didn’t want to confront, including poverty, classism and sexism. Joyce wrote to Richards, who complained of the bleak portrayals of urban Irish life, “It is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories.”
Dubliners was of course only the beginning of Joyce’s literary risk-taking. A dozen printers refused to print his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. His second novel, Ulysses, took at least eight years to write and was banned in the United States for twelve years and in England for fourteen. His final novel, Finnegans Wake, fell prey to chronic censorship, even though most critics claimed it was unreadable due to its invented language and syntax. Yet Joyce persevered, and for his dogged courage we can be grateful.
Stanley Kubrick’s subversive tendencies were evident even when he went to work as a staff photographer for Look magazine at age seventeen. It was the late ’40s, and the young Kubrick moved among the bohemians of Greenwich Village. Officially he was asked to take photos of New York’s glamorous high society and the occasional celebrity. Instead his work became studies of postwar America and a harbinger of the growing conservatism of the 1950s McCarthy era. Inspired by Diane Arbus, the photographs of his five years at Look dared to explore what editor Rainier Crone called the “drama and shadows” of life in New York.
By 1950 his interest in photography started to wane, and he borrowed $3,900 from family and friends and with a hand-held camera made the sixteen-minute black and white documentary Day of the Fight, depicting the hours before prizefighter Walter Cartier stepped into the ring with Bobby James. It was fitting that Kubrick began his cinematic career with a piece about boxing, since for him the essential condition of modern life was one of embattlement.
As with photography, his filmmaking was self-taught. He was also completely hooked. Except for chess and jazz, he gave up interests that were not in service of making movies. After three more short documentaries, he made his first feature film, Fear and Desire. Again he borrowed money from personal contacts to subsidize the project. His first war film depicts a world in which order turns to chaos and the borders between good and evil and beauty and horror are hard to locate. These themes prefaced his more famous 1957 war film, Paths of Glory, which lays bare the story of the French military commanders in World War I who sacrificed their troops to satisfy personal ambitions. Soldiers were selected, court marshaled and executed without consideration for basic legal rights. The executions were meant to serve as warnings against desertion and defiance. When the film was released, the censorship campaign against it was fierce and long-lasting. The film was not shown in Switzerland until 1970 or in France until 1975.
After making the Hollywood blockbuster Spartacus and feeling hemmed in by the demands and limitations of mainstream filmmaking, Kubrick turned his back on the Hollywood film factory and its commitment to convention and formulas. He made the chancy decision in 1963 to move to England and develop a one-man studio. There he had complete freedom to nurse his projects, some for as long as twenty years. He ruled with an iron hand over every aspect of his work, which allowed him to make such seemingly improbable and controversial films as Lolita, 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange. Like Joyce, his professional output was not vast because of the painstaking craftsmanship he put into his art.
In their lives Joyce and Kubrick were consummate risk takers, while the subjects in their art were an entirely different matter. Joyce’s characters, most notably Leopold Bloom, the homo prudens protagonist of Ulysses, often squelch their desire to act, while in Kubrick’s world a person who rises must take a heady tumble. A similar wisdom plays out in the stories, essays and poems in this issue of TMR.
In Michael Byers’s short story “The Numbers Man,” Paul is fifteen, full of hormones and unsure of what his aunt (who is twenty-five) is up to when she asks him to go on an early-morning fishing trip. The story evokes an intelligent, sensitive teenaged boy’s awareness of sex and the ways in which his life is controlled by the adults around him. The risk here in large part resides with the aunt, who for reasons that Paul finds inexplicable, impulsively seeks out his company. The narrator in John J. Clayton’s “Jennifer, Naked” is an elderly retired academic who remembers a day when he, his athletic and beautiful younger wife, Jennifer, and another academic couple went to a beach together and ended up in an awkward sort of contest. Partly because she felt inferior to the others, who were all older and more educated, Jennifer stripped naked as a kind of challenge. Not to be outdone, the other wife also stripped and nursed her young child. The narrator remembers how he was struck by the powerful image and implications of her nakedness and maternity and competitiveness.
“Swarm,” a delicately surreal story by Lauren Acampora, depicts an artist who has put aside his dream of an enormous installation (covering a house with a swarm of rubber insects) but revives it when an affluent neighbor becomes interested in supporting it. His obsession has a tragic outcome, yet in the end paradoxically affirms his art. The teenager in “Trickster” by Kate Rutledge Jaffe is fed-up and irritated with her possibly autistic brother and her glib mother. She wants to break out of the narrow confines of her life and hopes that she’s is doing so when she meets another high school student in an Internet chat room. But the boy she interacts with, the “trickster,” is over the line. He has performed in a pornographic video and claims to manufacture and sell drugs, and she’s drawn to the danger of being involved with him.
Rather than risks people might choose, it is risks that people may be forced to take when they find themselves living in the proximity of wartime that Ewa Hrniewyzc-Yarbrough writes about in her essay “My War Zone.” While she was growing up in Poland in the years following World War II, the adults in her life told stories of narrow escapes during the war. Later, after immigrating to the United States, she learned from her husband what it was like to be a child during the height of the Cold War. The essay is an intriguing look at the impact of living with the contingency of war always in mind. On the surface Carolyn Miller’s “Arts and Science” is a leisurely memoir about college in the 1950s. Miller was a naïve small-town girl who quickly discovered an affinity for things literary and bohemian. The essay captures the immature attitudes and often impulsively risky behavior (drinking, partying, breaking campus rules) of youth, as well as some powerful recognitions of their costs.
Tryfon Tolides’ pastoral poems seek out what lies beyond our senses as he meditates upon the luminous detail of a Greek island landscape and culture. He traces the contours of land, color and village lives, “going slowly, in time, in step with the land.” The risk here is of long lines, long breaths and vistas, long stretches of looking. It’s a risk-taking vision that makes the ordinary strange and the strange ordinary. In Margaree Little’s poems, the speaker tells of helping people who risk their lives in no-man’s-land between Arizona and Mexico. The discovery of a decaying corpse haunts the poet, so that the poems themselves come to resemble de-compositions as she blurs the line between fact and narrative, signifier and signified, desire and duty. Ultimately even memory, like the speaker’s best intentions, is not to be completely trusted.
Christopher Robinson’s poems are written in the voices of world-famous risk-takers—Borges, Shackleton and others—whose discoveries have revised Western knowledge. These men were cartographers of both inner and outer worlds, real and fictional. Robinson takes the plunge into the terrain of their inner lives. He reimagines their thoughts and emotions while showing a map of interconnections between them.
Finally, the life and career of dancer and silent screen star Louise Brooks is a paradigm of risk, especially in art. As a young girl in Kansas, Brooks fearlessly pursued modern dance. When she was barely out her teens, her obvious talent and unique good looks caught the attention of Hollywood. Paramount put her under contract before the other studios could get their hands on her and cast her as the prototypical flapper. The risk she’s most remembered for and that ultimately made her career is her flight to Weimar Germany to work with G.W. Pabst in silent films—most notably his adaptation of Pandora’s Box—while Hollywood studios were racing to make talkies. Later in life, forgotten or ignored by the film industry, Brooks bravely made a second successful career as a film historian.
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SEE THE ISSUE
35.3 (Fall 2012): "Risk"
Featuring work by Lauren Acampora, Michale Byers, John J. Clayton, Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough, Kate Rutledge Jaffe, Margaree Little, Carolyn Miller, Christopher Robinson, Tryfon Tolides… as well as a look at the life of Louise Brooks and an interview with T.R. Hummer.
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