19 March 2005


19 March 2005

Recently I had the opportunity to both read the book and watch the movie Popular Music from Vittula

Many of the changes made to transform the book into a screenplay were cosmetic-required by the differing demands of the media, but some were structural giving the film not just a different ending but a different feeling from the book.

As happens very rarely, I liked both portrayals. 

I was extremely happy that the mouse massacre in chapter 12 was omitted from the movie.  That was gruesome enough to read about-seeing it would have been too raw.  As I thought back to that section of the book, and what it might have looked like up on the screen, I wondered what impact such a scene would have had if it had been included in the movie.

In the book, Matti's experience was painful and stomach churning to read about. However, I still was sympathetic to him as a character by the end.  It seemed a very powerful way of showing the struggle that often happens between adults and children and is frequently characterized by the child yelling “You just don't understand!”  In this case the author set up a situation where I was simultaneously repelled and impressed by Matti's actions.  At the same time I never lost sight of how much work he put into the  mouse project so when Heinz refuses to pay, I come solidly down on Matti's side-nearly cheering as he throws Heinz's manuscript into the fire.

If this section had been shown on screen, I think the images would have overwhelmed the character of Matti, and the movie itself.  Some images take on a life of their own in a visual medium.  In addition, this section had very little to do with the relationship between the boys and, in the movie, would not have added much to our understanding of them.

This section of the book did underscore ideas that much of what children do is invisible to adults and much of what adults do is either mysterious or invisible to children.  It also shows Matti moving from what I think of as the world of children-where a certain timelessness and ability to use the imagination to make up for lack of material goods (for example the difference between `making' their own guitar and reaching the point where only a real one would suffice) into the world of adults.

Why is the above my conception of childhood?  Children are certainly represented in fiction as having a different sense of time than adults-an ability to be absorbed in their own play for extended periods of time.  I wonder if that is a particularly middle-class conception of childhood.  What effect does our economic status as children have on our perception of childhood?  

As a child, I never lacked for the basics and only remember one time when I felt like my family was threatened (when one set of Uncle and Aunt were divorcing-something that Just Didn't Happen in our family as far as I was concerned).  What has that done to my ability to accept other people's narration on childhood?

If I compare my reaction to some of the `children' in One Night Stands by Rosa Liksom to Matti and Niila in Popular Music I find that I am much more comfortable in Matti's world than in the worlds presented in One Night Stands.  There was much in Matti's upbringing that I could relate to.  I am also from a small town that is at least a three hour drive to the `big city' of 50,000 and a good seven to nine hour drive from an actual metropolis.   And while we had TV's and two cinemas (one the local drive-in), as teenagers we found that we were about five years behind the rest of the country in fashion, slang, and other things that 'mattered.' 

Matti's experience with the distorted maps in his school resonated with me because, once I left home, I found out how strange it was to be from Wyoming.  One of my friends said, mostly in jest, that he never believed in Wyoming until he met me.  Another friend who grew up on the West Coast always confuses Montana and Wyoming.

In One Night Stands much of the setting is very urban and `modern.' For me, even after living in and around Seattle for a decade plus, the urban environment is alien.  I remember visiting friends in Seattle when I was at school in Olympia.  We went out for a walk and he was telling me where the `bad' part of his neighborhood was.  To my eyes city streets all look the same-but when I think back to my own childhood I can remember learning, without being told in so many words, which parts of town were the `wrong' parts.

Now I find myself focusing on the questions raised when adults write about childhood.  I do wonder how much of that focus stems from the fact that I have a six-year-old who is in the process of establishing an independent identity.  He is constantly in my thoughts and can't help but shape them to some extent.

Reading this book and seeing how Matti's mother and father disappear into the background makes me wonder what my son will remember of his childhood and how his memories and mine will be different.  I look forward to finding out in fifteen to twenty years.

03 March 2005

Welcome Art

3 March 2005 

Last week was a magical-not only because of the magical elements in the novel Prince by Ib Michael but also because it happened that I was able to attend the dress rehearsal of Seattle Opera's production of Florencia en el Amazonas by Daniel Catan and a live performance of  Delaware a collaborative piece by Matt Fontaine, Tim Sanders, and the band Awesome.  

Prince is suffused with both the mundane magic of a childhood vacation by the sea and the supernatural magic of restless spirits coming to grips with death.  

Florencia en el Amazonas is a modern opera set on the Amazon River during the same period as “Prince,” in the decade before World War I.  As the cast board a steamship to travel the River to see the great Florencia's first concert in her homeland since she left to make their fortune,  they are immersed (in once case quite literally) in the mystery of the river.  They all experience the transformation of their hopes, loves, lives, or illusions as the river carries them on.

Delaware is a performance piece that exists more in the land of dream and desire than on any earthly plain.  Musical numbers are interspersed with short dialogues, each building on the other in with a fugue-like effect.  Decisions are postponed, made, experienced.  Bliss is sought, denied, lost, found.  Waffles are made to the music of kitchen implements, shared, and eaten.  There is much talk of the ocean-- fish guts and all--  eventually leading the audience, laughing, home to the end of the performance.

That was last week.

This week was extremely mundane, beginning as it did, an insomnia attack that made a mess of my Monday.  I was looking forward to spending time reading and usually devour fiction books.  101 Reykjavik defeated me.  It was so deeply disaffected that I had a difficult time reading-it was more of a struggle to read than some of the more technical journal articles I have read this quarter.   Even though the writing and word choice was clever, there was no center to hold, no place in the novel for me as the reader to make a place for myself. 

I was unable to force myself to finish this book.  There are some images that I do not want burned on the inside of my eyeballs for all time.  

These starkly different experiences with works of art encouraged me to think about how I engage with art-especially literature and why I might not be the right audience for this book (and other works like it).
When I read a work of fiction, it is to immerse myself in a different world.  I have known for years that I am an escapist reader and as such I am not much of a fan of most of the post-modern work I have read-given its heavy emphasis on gritty modern life.  If I want that level of angst I can gossip with friends, read the newspaper, or read my yellowing teen-angst poetry collection.

I have never been a fan of dark humor-it too easily slips into either horror or is too firmly dependant on people making stupid decision after stupid decision.  

I empathize too strongly with the characters to be able to enjoy such bleak humor.  I want to help them, to get them into AA, encourage them to get a job or go to school, send them to a local therapist, or at least have the option of cutting off all contact if their self-destructive behavior continues.  None of which are an option when reading a book.  The closest I could come was in closing the book and deciding to read no further.

The book may be meant as a black comedy or a commentary on the dreadful ennui of modern life in a welfare state but I do not have the right sense of humor, attraction to watching train wrecks, or strength of stomach to stick it out.

By one definition, my strong reaction to this book proves that it is Art, as it engaged me at a visceral level.   However, it is not art I would recommend.  Even though I have friends with a more cynical take on the human comedy, what kind of back handed compliment would it be to say: “This book really nauseated me, but I think you might like it.”  

I come at art with a very specific idea-does it make the world a better place?  I believe in prescriptive art-art that shows us how we could be better people.  This doesn't mean that everything must have a happy ending or be seen through rose-tinted glasses, but it mustn't create more darkness than it dispels.

Humans make dark places for each other everyday though their actions.  Genocide, war, starvation, disease, corporate malfeasance, and personal corruption twist the lives of millions of people every day.  Creating art that sows seeds of depression and revulsion does not lift those burdens.   

Such dark art does, however, speak to the diversity of human thought and experience.  Other readers found this book sharp, witty, and laugh-out-loud funny.  I would not deny them that pleasure.  I just cannot comprehend it.

Art whispers to us though our life experiences and either hits a nerve, strikes a chord, or bounces up and down on the funny bone until we give in laughing at the absurdities of the universe.  

101 Reykjavik struck a nerve and hit it so hard and often that I was soon numb with the pain.  Prince and Florencia struck a chord as I emphasized with the characters and was swept in to their magical landscapes.  Delaware made me laugh out loud while at the same engaging me in the search for beauty and purpose in this life.
Art that I welcome into my life must contain seeds of redemption or beauty within its structure.   Art is my antidote to the vicissitudes of life.
101 Reykjavik is unwelcome art.   It stormed around the house leaving beer cans and other refuse, refused to share the bathroom, and expected me to clean up after it.  I have enough entropy in my life without its help.  So I kicked it out, changed the locks, and, quite literally, went on a cleaning spree.

Art impacts life.

Not always in the way its creator intends.