Competence porn


Cosmo Bjorkenheim: Under the Hays Code, methods of crime were not to be explicitly presented in the movies, but ever since at least Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties there’s been a sort of sub-genre of crime/heist movie (that I’ve heard called “competence porn”) that lays out criminal techniques in forensic detail like a how-to guide (Rififi probably being the classic example). In his recent book on Bresson, Brian Price even praised Pickpocket for teaching the audience “how to live outside of the system of capital.” Can you think of other examples of this sub-genre and what its political/practical value might be, beyond merely fetishizing technique?

Luc Sante: Jacques Becker’s Le trou, which makes you think that you, too, could escape from prison, and many of Jean-Pierre Melville’s movies have this quality, too—Bob le Flambeur, Le cercle rouge, Un flic… It’s a quality I associate more with French movies than American ones, maybe because of the Hays Code, maybe because of the Cartesian method every French person receives intravenously in school. On the other hand, there’s Ulu Grosbard’s tremendous Straight Time and even David O. Russell’s flawed but interesting American Hustle, so I could just be misremembering. In any event, the great advantage to this sort of approach is that it turns the picture into a narrative machine. It invites suspense—waiting for something to go wrong—but also its inverse, the satisfaction of watching gears mesh and billiard balls fall into their pockets. This putative subgenre treats crime as work and the accomplished criminal as an artisan, and watching difficult work done well and smoothly is a great pleasure that has otherwise been insufficiently exploited by cinema. I should also say that Kurosawa’s crime pictures have this quality in spades. I sense that Johnnie To would also be adept at depicting work, but he kills his characters before you get a chance to find out.

CB: A lot of classic crime fiction is being reevaluated as “literature” tout court (Richard Stark’s Parker novels being republished by University of Chicago Press, Highsmith by Norton, Simenon and Manchette by NYRB). Does this simply reflect haphazard market forces, or is the canon expanding for some other reason?

LS: I think we’ve come to realize in the past twenty or thirty years that the very notion of genre is a myth, a holdover of nineteenth-century bourgeois prejudices. There are great crime fictions and great science fictions—and there are lousy coming-of-age and breakup-of-marriage and identity-crisis stories. Because of the economics involved, there is of course an enormous amount of subpar crime and sci-fi (and Western and aviation and so on). Writers were paid small amounts and enjoyed little prestige, and often had to pump out a novel every month to pay the rent. The ones who managed to transcend those limitations in their work were relatively rare. Those who succeeded more often than not—Westlake/Stark, Highsmith, Manchette, Simenon, Chester Himes—were simply phenomenal. And even those whose generally huge output was generally spotty but who now and then wrote a great book—e.g., Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Frederic Brown, Charles Willeford—seem slightly miraculous.

CB: Jim Thompson is one of my favorite hardboiled writers, because apart from probing the minds of psychotic law-enforcers, he teaches us a lot about working life in America, having experienced it first-hand. Who do you find to be the most honest crime writers in this regard?

LS: Here it’s time to mention Elmore Leonard, who wrote wonderfully crafted books, with expert pacing, perfect dialogue, and ingenious plots, that nevertheless evaporate so quickly in my mind that I’ve been able to reread them as avidly as if I were an amnesiac. He’s very good on the subject of work, as is Willeford. What they have in common with Thompson is that they all held all kinds of jobs, whereas most of the others named above were always writers. Simenon could research the hell out of most areas of life, but for all that his psychological acuity was second to none, you don’t actually feel the sweat and sinew of manual labor in his prose. 

De Quincey between stone and flowers

The prevailing tenor of De Quincey’s writing is upwards: a spirit of lightness pervades it. He was famously fussy and fastidious (Coleridge spoke of his being ‘even to something of old bachelor preciseness accurate … in all he does’). He was also incurably facetious and apt to flippancy. Children adored him, not excepting his own. In his writing persona, he turned all this to advantage. The material conditions under which he wrote may have caused him excruciating stress, but the writing itself came naturally to him. His command of the symbolic order of grammar was his answer to the disorder of his life. On the page, he could shape himself as he wanted to be known and believed himself to be, turning the traits which brought him censure and reproof into a source of entertainment and the occasion for applause. Both parts of the Confessions [of An English Opium-Eater] celebrate a life of truancy and delinquency: the first part, in telling the story of how he ran away from school and went wandering about Wales, and of his time as a young down and out in London; the second, in its picturesque account of his opium experiences, topped off by the rehearsal of his artfully scary dreams. Through writing about himself, De Quincey salvaged the wreck of his existence and fashioned unusual and amusing artworks from it. But whatever his subject, he performed himself in every sentence he wrote.

He took pains over the task of capturing his voice on the page, writing slowly and calculating his effects with a meticulous eye. He’d been thinking about the technical aspects of writing since he was a child. Born in 1785, he learned to write in schools where study of the classics dominated a curriculum that hadn’t changed in essence for centuries and wasn’t to change for a while yet. Clever and competitive, he excelled in the construing and pastiche of Greek and Latin texts and in the rhetorical techniques required to write model essays on set themes. By the time he was in his mid-teens, he could run effortlessly up and down the scales of late 18th-century idiom.

Prose style arises out of an accommodation between the competing claims of brevity and ornament. Everything we write tends either to the epigrammatic or to the periphrastic, the terse or the expansive, the lapidary or florid, stone or flowers. De Quincey was on the side of the flowers. Stone had reached its consummation in Johnsonian apophthegm. Amplified and projected onto the world by Boswell, it would exert its influence for decades after Johnson’s death. De Quincey grew up in the Johnsonian force field, but resisted it, developing a style that took its sustenance from pre-Augustan writers such as Jeremy Taylor and Thomas Browne. It was as if he had struck water from the Johnsonian rock, liberating the spirit of loquacity from the inert and massy block in which it had been imprisoned. Humour is integral to this radical and insurgent turn and, if we want to place De Quincey in a tradition, he flows with the current that streamed from Sterne to Dickens and onward to Joyce.

For De Quincey, writing, like conversation, was a social stage. ‘De Quincey talks to us,’ Wilson writes, ‘in the way people talk after dinner, several bottles down, when the table is cleared and the night is young.’ He thought that good prose should consist of a ‘graceful succession of sentences, long intermingled with short, each modifying the other, and arising musically by links of spontaneous connexion’. But writing also has to perform the act of thinking. Tucked away in a footnote to his essay on rhetoric, published in Blackwood’s in 1828, we find this: ‘Every truth, be it what it may, every thesis of a sentence, grows in the very fact of unfolding it … Hence, while a writer of Dr Johnson’s class seems only to look back upon his thoughts, Burke looks forward, and does in fact advance and change his own station concurrently with the advance of the sentences.’ For De Quincey, Wilson writes, ‘to see a thing grow was to catch it in a state of grace.’

De Quincey returned to the idea of writing as an organic process in an exuberant excursus on the nature of his own writing practice, at the beginning of his Suspiria de Profundis, an autobiographical essay published in 1845 as a sequel to the Confessions. Responding to ‘cynical’ and ‘surly’ readers who objected to the narrative arrangement of the earlier work, he launched into a thousand-word digression on the virtues of a digressive style. Kind readers, he said, would understand that the childhood narrative in the Confessions was included not for the ‘mere facts’ of the case ‘but because these facts move through a wilderness of natural thoughts or feelings; some in the child who suffers; some in the man who reports; but all so far interesting as they relate to solemn objects’.

The Taste Makers (2009)

At the end of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” Wonka tells Charlie Bucket that an adult could never run his factory. “Mind you, there are thousands of clever men who would give anything for the chance to come in and take over from me, but I don’t want that sort of person,” he says. “I don’t want a grown-up person at all.” But Wonka surely would have hired Hagen. Her office resembles a walk-in high-school locker, if such a thing existed. The walls are covered with magazine clippings, photographs, and Post-its; a clock-size Swatch with a blue kangaroo painted on it; and a dry-erase board with lists of words meant to inspire flavor creation (“baobab,” “jujube,” “mamoncillo”). Tacked here and there are paint chips from Benjamin Moore, which she once used as aides to memorize the aromas of approximately a thousand chemicals. California Lilac was ethyl isovalerate; Mellow Yellow was gamma octalactone.

Stole "Moab" Stojmenov for Migos


James Wright: 'A Poem Recreates Itself'

John Berryman was a very great poet and I think his work is going to endure. And not just because he was a good craftsman, but because he was demonstrating in his poetry, I think without realizing it completely, the fact that a poem is not only a single thing that can be made and very beautifully constructed, but that poetry is also something that can go on being made and it can almost reach a point where it recreates itself. By the growth of his work, and he never stopped growing, he was showing that there is something about poetry in the human imagination which is like the spring.

Tolstoy worried about this question. He was asked in a letter by a pacifist group if he could give them a definition of religion and, if he could do that, to explain to them the relation between religion, that is, what a person believes, and morality, that is, the way he acts in accord with some notion of how he ought to act. Tolstoy worried about this letter, and then as I recall it, he said: “I can only go back to myself. I look around myself and I see every year that, no matter what people do to themselves and to one another, the spring constantly renews itself. This is a physical fact, not a metaphysical theory. I look at every spring and I respond to it very strongly. But I also notice that every year the spring is the same new spring and every year I am one year older. I have to ask the question: what is the relation between my brief and tragic life and this force in the universe that perpetually renews itself? I further believe that every human being asks this question. He cannot avoid asking it—it is forced upon him. And his answer to that question is his religion. If he says the relation between me and this thing is nothing, then his religion is nihilism. As for morality, what ought I to do? I wish I knew.”

…There is another tradition I’d like to mention. It is based on sheer arrogance, the determination to live. Poetry can keep life itself alive.

Benjamin's "Arcades" at The Jewish Museum

Mary Reid Kelley, Charles Baudelaire, 2013, ink-jet print, 22 × 16”.

For Walter Benjamin, Paris was the capital of the nineteenth century, not only a center of cultural production but a capital as metaphor—a metonymy for modernity more generally. The contrast between its chaotic street life and the orderly arcade passages that framed its shop windows became the structural concept for his last work, the unfinished Arcades Project, written between 1927 and 1940. This compilation of quotes and original writings is, in turn, the organizing principle for this show combining wall texts by Kenneth Goldsmith and works by Walead Beshty, Andrea Bowers, Nicholas Buffon, Cindy Sherman, Mungo Thomson, and others.

Benjamin’s book is organized into chapters he calls “convolutes,” with headings ranging from “The Theory of Knowledge” to “Idleness.” Curator Jens Hoffmann has matched each of these with an artist. Thus, four photographs from 2009 to 2011 titled New York City by Lee Friedlander are grouped under “Convolute M: The Flâneur.” Friedlander’s camera captures mannequins glimpsed through shop windows. The interior layering with the cityscape is captured in reflection—an equivalent to how Benjamin’s flâneur might have seen the arcades of Paris. “Convolute J: Charles Baudelaire” is represented by a Mary Reid Kelley ink-jet print portrait of the poet (Charles Baudelaire, 2013). If Arcades had a hero, it was the ragpicker, a person who Baudelaire championed as the custodian, and curator, of Paris: “All that the city has rejected, all that it has lost, shunned, disdained, broken, this man catalogues and stores. He creates order, makes an intelligent choice . . . he gathers the refuse that has been spit out by the god of Industry.” The conversation, literal and ironic, between these widely varied works and Benjamin’s text is an argument for W. B. Yeats’s claim that “the living can assist in the imagination of the dead.”

The myth of Kramer-Grotesk

That two though

From James Schuyler’s “Unlike Joubert,” c. 1970 (?):

…All that is
clear on this shadowless day under
a sky like a shadow is that the first
thought was gray, a harshly bright
blue-gray, a piece of too highly colored
slate, while the second was gray
as some roses are, or hair you see
was once red, a gray with the charm
and warmth to it of an intimate and
not overly cozy room, one with woodwork
by Pajou, or like worn upholstery, or
your first biplane. As different as
day from night, and as alike,
just as their connective—the nothing which
may not have been—was also a gray,
creamier, lighter, and shifty-eyed
as the sky or a big flat button
cut out of a seashell, the polished
off husk of oyster, perhaps:
subtle days in winter when thought
sinks down in the presence of an absence.

In Search of Lost Time: Alvin Lustig's Los Angeles

Umberto Eco on 'Krazy Kat' and 'Peanuts' (1985)

The Krazy Kat bit is over the fold

Charlie Brown has been called the most sensitive child ever to appear in a comic strip, a figure capable of Shakespearean shifts of mood; and Schulz’s pencil succeeds in rendering these variations with an economy of means that has something miraculous about it. The text, always almost courtly (these children rarely lapse into slang or commit anacoluthon), is enhanced by drawings able to portray, in each character, the subtlest psychological nuance. Thus the daily tragedy of Charlie Brown is drawn, in our eyes, with exemplary incisiveness.

To elude this tragedy of nonintegration, each psychological type has its strategies. The girls escape it thanks to an obstinate self-sufficiency and haughtiness: Lucy (a giantess to be admired with awe), Patty, and Violet are all of a piece; perfectly integrated (or should we say “alienated”), they move from hypnotic sessions at the TV to rope-skipping and to everyday talk interwoven with sarcasm, achieving peace through insensitivity.

Linus, the smallest, on the other hand, is already burdened with every neurosis; emotional instability would be his perpetual condition if the society in which he lives had not already offered him the remedies. Linus already has behind him Freud, Adler, and perhaps also Binswanger (via Rollo May); he has identified his baby-blanket as the symbol of a uterine peace or a purely oral happiness—sucking his finger, blanket against his cheek (if possible, with TV turned on, in front of which he can huddle like an Indian; but he can also be without anything, in an oriental sort of isolation, attached to his symbols of protection).

Take away his blanket and he will be plunged once more into all the emotional troubles lying in wait for him day and night. Because, we must add, along with the instability of a neurotic society he has absorbed all its wisdom. Linus represents its most technologically up-to-date product. While Charlie Brown is unable to make a kite that will not get caught in the branches of a tree, Linus reveals suddenly, in bursts, dazzling skills: he performs feats of amazing equilibrium, he can strike a quarter flung in the air with the edge of his blanket, snapping it like a whip (“the fastest blanket in the West!”).