Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

Jack Holmes and his Alter-Id: a review of Edmund White’s latest novel

at Amazon

Jack Holmes and His Friend, the latest novel from Edmund White, is a novel with two narrators, Jack Holmes, a gay man, and his best friend, Will Wright, a straight man. Together they weave this tale, describing their relationship of mutual support and attraction. Characters in the story are forever tempted to call it a love affair, but the word love is sadly inappropriate when we are talking about two completely self-centered creatures as these. They admire and complement each other but all for their own personal gain. In the terminology of the Freudian psychology that pervades the story, they are not alter-egos, but rather alter-ids, feeding each other’s compulsive hedonism from their own isolation. When they have sex with other partners, they are really consummating the romance between them, but when they come face to face, they are cold fish. This relationship is a collaboration between men in separate cells, every feeling passed from between the bars on the tips of fingers that can barely touch, every thought etched miniscule on a scrap of paper to be rolled up and pushed through a crack in the wall and then masturbated to in silence.

Jack and Will come to New York in the 1960s to make their way, and they work together in the offices of an upscale magazine. Jack narrates the first segment of the story in which he slowly becomes comfortable in the gay lifestyle that he has chosen for himself: that of well endowed and carefree one night stander who often does not bother to remember the names of his tricks. But one name he can never forget is that of Will Wright, the “Mr. Right” that he obsesses about. He knows quite well that Will is straight, that he is the one man in his life who will never succumb to Jack’s good looks and his physical assets, but that knowledge seems to fuel rather than discourage his ardor. In the the second installment, Will Wright takes up the story, bringing the reader into the 1970s and describing his own dissatisfaction with middle-class monogamy. He envies Jack’s libertine ways and becomes fascinated and finally seduced by Jack’s subtle manipulations, thus making unwise choices that nearly destroy his marriage. When Will’s wife creates a scene in Jack’s office, saying “You’ve stolen my husband!” she does not mean that in a sexual way, but in a psychological way, and she is right.

Yet, the seduction is the whole story for Jack and he has no Act Two for that particular tale. Now that he has Will, he doesn’t need him anymore. In the third part of the story, told from a detached narrator’s point of view, the two drift apart, Jack toward a relationship of convenience with an older man, and Will back to his wife. Neither of them ever open up in love to anyone, neither of them seeming to learn anything from their foolish ways.

This novel will not appeal to everyone, as it is a rather sad story full of missed opportunities and deflected pain. Yet, it is moving, cautionary and perversely entertaining. Whereas such a narrative could be leaden and bitter in less able hands, Edmund White brings such artistic talent and such human insight as well as worldly sophistication to the story that even the most unpleasant incidents can delight the reader. We don’t end up loving these characters, but we do wish them well, if only to keep them from hurting anyone else in their travels through life.

For a more personal take on the story, see my post on the Nickel Fare Facebook page. In that article I look at the ways that Jack Holmes’ New York differs from my own, and how Edmund White’s protagonist differs from my own.

September 3, 2012 Posted by | literature | , , | Leave a comment

Looking back at Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar

How odd to discover Gore Vidal for the first time one week after his death. I picked up his 1948 novel, The City and the Pillar at the OutWrite LGBT Book Fair in DC last week and then proceeded to devour it. I was fascinated by this coming of age novel as it was set in such an important historic period, the 1940s, and because it was written with such subtle colorations by the 22 year old writer. Gore Vidal had already achieved fame with his earlier work and was securely set on a trajectory of fame and fortune when he decided to risk it all by pubishing this loud and proud gay novel in that era of virulent homophobia. It must have taken great courage, as well as foresight, and the knowledge that his novel was an achievement that could defy all the doomsayers. In fact, his novels were pretty much blacklisted for the next six years after this publication, but with his persistent genius, he managed to overcome.

The City and the Pillar is the story of Jim Willard, a young man in Virginia who leaves home after high school and drifts to Seattle, Hollywood and Manhattan learning his way in the semi-clandestine society of homosexuals and yearning for his impossible love. The story ends tragically for that love affair, but one has the feeling that Jim, now an experienced gay man, will survive. I loved the way that this character develops during his travels, gaining self-confidence and stature in his dealings with others. Although he is closed up in himself and not entirely sympathetic, the reader can’t help but root for him wholeheartedly as he navigates the hostile waters of post-war society. Even his transgressive and unconscionable acts at the end of the story felt good, though I would have prefered something a bit more amiable and better motivated. Gore Vidal writes in his introduction that he revised the ending for a new edition in 1965, because the original ending, which ended in death, was too melodramatic. Good call, Gore. He also revised the entire text at that time, so if you read an old edition, make sure it includes these 1965 changes. With my own novel, Nickel Fare, so forward in my mind (I was at OutWrite to read from the novel), I greatly appreciated seeing the parallels that I could draw between this young man Jim Willard and my own coming of age character, Nicangelo. They are both loners adrift without family or close friend and they both must control the demons that eventually rise up from their subconsciouses, so tried by the misfortunes they’ve endured. A critic, using the literary landmarks of the day, called Jim Willard “l’ètranger,” that is, an existentialist stranger drifting through an absurd world. That could describe my Nicangelo as well, as he watches all the certainties and truisms of his youth turn to caricatures before his eyes.

The title puzzled me, as it is not referenced anywhere in the story. In his introduction Gore Vidal seems to indicate that it connotes the idea of an impossible idyll but a google search yielded no results. And then I noticed the epigraph at the beginning of the book, refering to Lot’s wife, who looked back and became a pillar of salt. Jim’s fatal flaw was his retrospection which paralyzed him and made him incapable of finding love, in effect, turning him to stone. There are some blatant stereotypes and some heavy handed Freudian psychology in this story, which I think reflect the primitive level of openly gay literary tradition of that time, more than anything else.

The City and the Pillar clearly deserves a high profile in the library of gay literature, and it did come in at number 9 on the Lambda Book Report’s January, 2000 list of the 100 most influential LGBT books. But I suppose that in a society like ours where the latest trends and newest innovations are always preferable to the old and tried (and often tired), I guess it is no wonder that there is so little mention of the book. Now, with the death of Gore Vidal on July 31, 2012, a look back at this classic and highly entertaining novel is in order – don’t worry, you won’t turn to stone, but you will be fascinated.

Check out The Gore Vidal Pages

August 14, 2012 Posted by | literature | , , , | 2 Comments

Ibrahim Maalouf: Writing the Lebanese Rhapsody in Blue

Cover design from website Press Kit. Click for ibrahimmaalouf.com

Everything depends on the transformational artist. The one who can not only dig deeply into his medium and his traditional style to find the beauty and truth, but can also pull all kinds of other media and styles into that profundity with him. I think of George Gershwin, who took his love of popular music and his passion for classical traditions and brought them forward in ways that dragged all of American music with them. Ibrahim Maalouf is just such a transformative musician in a different time and place, but with a similar energy and a similar opportunity to effect a great leap forward for his chosen genres.

His latest album, entitled Diagnostic, is the work of an accomplished, mature musician who is at home with a variety of instruments and idioms. There are Arabic melodies played on unusual instruments, notably piano and trumpet, harmonic progressions where these would be unfamiliar in Middle Eastern music, there is Janissary drumming and the trumpeting of Turkish sünnet street bands. And just as prominently, there is a large amount of Western melody as well, and Western styles. The sounds are interwoven with the complexity of the East but the elements of the West, just as George Gershwin was able to do in his Broadway music and especially in a piece like Rhapsody in Blue, mixing the jazz of his age with the structures of classical music in an energized celebration of both. That same kind of energy is apparent here, with the result something totally new and innovative. Ultimately, the style that comes to mind throughout is neither Arabic nor European, but a fusion of the two. This is beautifully realized in “Maeva in Wonderland,” a piece dedicated to his sister. Here, riffs on Arabic themes mingle with Salsa, Spanish flamenco and heavy metal rock in the most natural way, stirring each other up into a frenzy.

Ibrahim’s father, Nassim Maalouf, was a classically trained trumpet player who felt frustrated by the traditional three valve instrument, which could only play notes in half steps. He invented a four valve trumpet in order to produce the quarter tone notes needed to play Arabic music properly. Nassim Maalouf is well known for his years as a trumpet soloist in Paris, and during that time, he made sure his son learned the four valve trumpet and got solid classical training in the Western tradition. Curiously, he did not encourage his son to study Arabic styles, either classical or popular, and it was without his father’s approval that Ibrahim moved in this direction. In a February, 2012 interview on BBC World Service, Ibrahim Maalouf explains this with a certain sadness. In any case, traditions and family are important to the younger Maalouf, it seems, as the whole album is dedicated to various members of his family. The tracks dedicated to his father are “Your soul” and “Everything or nothing.”

The album concludes with a piece entitled “Beirut.” In the jacket notes, he explains that he composed the melody on his first trip to Beirut in 1993, when he walked through the streets of the wartorn, broken city with Led Zepplin playing in his earphones. It is a strictly focused piece, with Ibrahim’s trumpet always at the fore, playing an emotional monologue that seems to express his reactions to the experience. In his BBC interview, he says that the trumpet is the instrument closest to the human voice, and you can hear that in this piece. It begins with a plaintive opening sequence, that sounds like a meditation on the city’s name. “Beirut…..” eventually, this melancholy section gives way to a melodious middle section that somehow perceives the beauty rising up from the ruins. Then in Maalouf’s style, the piece builds to a great climax, a tortured primal shout of protest expressed in wailing electric guitar. It is a dramatic and fitting way to finish the album.

But it is not the end of Ibrahim Maalouf. Is he writing the Lebanese Rhapsody in Blue? Only time will tell. But undoubtedly, he has opened up a vast new genre to explore for a long time to come. Go to amazon.fr or fnac.fr to see other discs which are available in France and check out some tunes to found on itunes and youtube.

On Monday, March 19, 2012 BBC World Service will dedicate a part of Harriet Gilbert’s daily feature to Ibrahim Maalouf. It airs at 04:05 GMT.

March 17, 2012 Posted by | music | , , , , | 1 Comment

The Tagline – It intrigues them! It hooks them! It draws them in!

Marketing of a film is an important aspect of the film industry. One foolish mistake in the pitch to the public can mean millions of dollars in lost revenue. For this reason, certain marketing strategies which were once casually thrown together are now executed with military precision. Such is the case of the creation of a film’s taglines or catchphrases. These are sentences which are used in publicity to entice the passerby to come into the theater. Traditionally they were seen on diagonal bands pasted across a film’s poster, in plastic letters on the theater’s marquee or spoken (always by a male voice) in voiceover during a theater preview or trailer. They are snappy one liners that tease the public rather than inform. Perhaps the most famous one is “Be afraid. Be very afraid,” from the 1986 film, The Fly . They are not loglines – those are one or two sentence descriptions of the story that succinctly give the essence of the plot, setting or conflict. Loglines are important during the pitch of a script or during the sale of a film to distributors, whereas the tagline comes to the fore during the actual theater run.

Writers and producers fret over loglines because they are so important in getting the support they need to make their films successful. Taglines, on the other hand, are the concern of the advertising and marketing staff. But both loglines and taglines have gone through a gradual transformation during the history of cinema, as writers have become more adept at finding the formulas that work. The New York Public Library currently has an exhibit at the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center called the Birth of Promotion, Inventing Film Publicity in the Silent Film Era. There are displays of movie posters, newspaper articles, lobby cards and publicity tie-ins of various types, with taglines in prominent display. In a handout made to look like an industry broadsheet there are some examples of taglines from the days of the silents. Looking at them you can get an idea of how much the craft has changed since those hit-or-miss early days of publicity. Some examples:

He suffered the tortures of love, and in his anguish he tortured love itself.

Rioting Color, Fiery Romance, Swift-moving Plot of Primitive Love and Hate.

A love tornado with a flaming sweep to thrill the most blasé.

Spicy and speedy comedy, with a dash of paprika.

Fire in his heart, Love in his eyes, Magnetism on his lips.

Entertainment as refreshing as an oasis in the Sahara.

Why is he loved? THE GIRLS KNOW. THE MEN KNOW.

What struck me about these taglines is how unfocused and overwrought many of them are. Speaking of love and hate, or entertainment and the Sahara in the same sentences, describing magnetism on a man’s lips or his anguished torturing of love seem designed to confuse the public more than anything else. In their zealous attempt to encompass the whole film, these catchphrases end up being a jumble of adjectives and images at cross-purposes. Compare these with some taglines from more recent films:

“Every journey begins with a single move.” Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)

“Lie. Cheat. Steal. All In A Day’s Work.” Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

“More sex! More screams! Less taste!” Scary Movie 2 (2001)

“Good cops. Bad hair.” Starsky & Hutch (2004) 

“On this highway, the roadkill is human.” Monster Man (2003

“The longer you wait, the harder it gets.” The 40 Year-Old Virgin (2005)  
The modern taglines are terse, usually focusing on one precise image. They often use puns and juxtaposed two images to get an effect, rather the hodgepodges of the twenties. I found these modern catchphrases (taglines) on filmsite.org, go there to find listings of taglines from each decade of film production. Loglines, on the other hand, can be found on the imdb site, on the webpage for each individual film, just under the title of the film and before the name of the director, writers and stars.

March 16, 2012 Posted by | cinema | , | Leave a comment

The Last Jew from Drohobytsch, a film by Paul Rosdy, opens in Vienna

Click on the image for the website link.

A fascinating new film by director Paul Rosdy opened Friday, March 9 in Vienna. Der Letzte Jude von Drohobytsch (The Last Jew from Drohobytsch) is the true story of  Alfred Schreyer, a man who has lived through an entire century of often cataclysmic changes in this small Ukrainian city. Before the arrival of the Nazi troops he had been the student of the Polish painter and writer Bruno Schulz, but then when war and occupation came to this land he was sent to a concentration camp. After the war he returned to his hometown and for sixteen years he was a singer and violinist in an orchestra that played in a cinema lobby.  Alfred Schreyer still lives in Drohobytsch and in this film he leads the filmmaker on a tour of his city and his life.

click here for the film’s photo gallery on flickr.

Paul Rosdy is an Austrian documentary filmmaker who is interested in the little known stories of MittelEuropean culture. In the cauldron of political turmoil that has characterized Central European societies during the past century, there are many stories which sometimes seem on the verge of disappearing into oblivion either through callous ignorance or willful malice. In Central Europe, whoever controls memory controls history; Paul Rosdy would like to be one of the filmmakers who can keep the memory alive for the most vulnerable, and bring their stories to life.  His first success was with the 1998 documentary, The Port of Last Resort, which he co-authored. It presents the story of 20,000 European Jews who fled to Shanghai during World War II.  Then in 2005 he wrote and directed New World, which is a journey through the old Austro-Hungarian lands of Serbia, Romania and Hungary. That film used a collage format that weaved century old photography and footage with present day scenes of these traditional lands and people.

The film Der Letzte Jude von Drohobytsch was part of the Viennale, 2011. It now begins its theater run in Austria. Hopefully it will also be seen in New York soon, too.

Click for Rosdy Film website. 

March 11, 2012 Posted by | cinema | , , , , | Leave a comment

NY Giants in the Canyon of Heroes: You call that a ticker tape parade???

Football is not exactly my thing, whether it’s soccer or American style, but like any New Yorker, I was glad that the local team won the Super Bowl. When I heard that the mayor was giving the team a ticker tape parade up Broadway on Tuesday morning I decided to go and check it out. I had only been to one for the Mets in the 1980s, and it was a big thrill. I had always loved the photos of the old ticker tape parades of the past, when the ticker tape flowed down from the 1920s skyscrapers in blizzards of joy. This one I attended was a good simulacrum as workers, in that less security conscious age, dumped the contents of the office paper shredders out the windows. It turned out to be a dying art form, though. In recent years, the city has imbedded metal strips into the sidewalk of lower Broadway, “The Canyon of Heroes” commemorating each of those historic parades, and the list is truly impressive, from Brazilian presidents, to French and British war heroes to aviators, including Wrong Way Corrigan. Would Mayor Bloomberg really be adding to that venerable list of honorees with a ticker tape parade in this age when ticker tape itself is only a distant memory? I had to see what would happen.

Well, unfortunately, not very much. I couldn’t get onto Broadway in the crush of people so I had to content myself with a vantage point on the curb at Battery Park. But it didn’t seem to make any difference. Of the several sponsored floats that passed by carrying corporate suits on cell phones and anonymous family members in various stage of desultory interest, a few team members were recognizable to the crowd (if not to me). Some enthusiastic fans threw whole toilet paper rolls at them, letting the TP unfurl in the air in a lurid imitation of ticker tape. It was faintly amusing when one of the suits would cringe instinctively as a fat roll of white toilet paper came crashing

The evidence. Pathetic.

through the air at him, and his attempts to throw it back into the crowd could be interpreted in several ways. Then when the floats turned the corner at the edge of the park and rolled slowly up Broadway for the real parade, they did so under an intermittent shower of … letter sized copy paper. Copy paper being a bit more expensive than old dustbin destined ticker tape, there was not very much of it, and it floated aimlessly around in the air.

So this is what a ticker tape parade is reduced to in 2012. It doesn’t seem worth the effort and definitely does not seem worthy of the name, much less of an added strip to memorialize it in the sidewalk.

There is talk of a ticker tape parade to honor the military men and women who have served in Iraq. This is a wonderful idea, as yet to be approved by the mayor (who is resisting). If this does come to pass, it HAS GOT TO BE done better than this. It would be an insult to “honor” these Iraqi War Veterans, who have risked life and limb for us, by subjecting them to a shower of toilet paper and the contents of the office paper jam. Let’s have that parade, but let’s do it right!

February 8, 2012 Posted by | daily life | , , , , , | Leave a comment

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