Yesterday I spent with the baby, who is still below that blessed age when she can process what’s on the television, so I can watch whatever I want. What I seemed to want was documentaries. To wit:
1. Absinthe, a film that labored like a stevedore to take away everything bohemian or dangerous about the namesake liquor. Apparently, the stuff was a purely regional drink in the French-speaking part of Switzerland and Franche-Comte, until Belle-Epoque Paris got hold of it. Due to a blight on French grapevines, absinthe was actually cheaper than wine, and far stronger. Unfortunately a great many bootleg distillers, lacking the patience to make real absinthe, made various ersatz toxic versions and sold them dirt-cheap to the proles. Hysteria ensues.
The debunking of which is well and good, if only for the thought of sad hipsters coming to terms with the fact that no, they won’t be dancing with any green fairies. But there was a particular interview subject who seemed determined to fit the classic French stereotype: unable to discuss absinthe for more than three sentences without whining about McDonald’s and Coca-Cola and their sinister plan for world blanding. He even worked it into the discussion of legalizing absinthe: why if the liquor were legal, there would be one major approved producer, maybe two, three at most, and all the variety would vanish. Flavors, he said, would be lost, just like with Coca-Cola and McDonald’s.
To which one can only reply: What. Utter. Horse. Dumplings.
First of all, we don’t only have McDonald’s in America. We don’t even only have McDonald’s and Burger King. We have McD’s, BK, Checkers, Chik-Fil-A, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Sonic, Five Guys, In-n-Out Burger, and that’s just off the top of my head. It may look like all we have is McDonald’s, by market share, but that’s just a damn statistic. Every other fast-food joint is running a profit, and if you can’t taste the difference between their various fried sandwiches, then I have no faith in your taste buds.
The same is true of liquor. Again, if you when by market numbers alone, it would seem like Americans drink nothing but Budweiser. But all you need to do to dispel this fallacy is step into any liquor store anywhere from sea to shining sea. The beer coolers explode with variety, color, and flavor. How many microbreweries are there? How many micro-distilleries, each working to craft a unique whiskey, rum, or vodka? There are two distinct American absinthe manufacturers mentioned in the film alone, and absinthe just became legal again here.
That is what a free market does. The scouring of the market to two or three producers would only happen in France, where the government has its fingers into every industry, and world-weary graduates of L’Ecole Polytechnique decide the national carriers. Because despite all of our efforts in WW2, it seems the fascists won anyhow. Somewhere Mussolini is laughing his ample ass off.
2. Burroughs, a Man Within. I have a peculiar curiosity, not to say fascination, with William Seward Burroughs. Being an afficionado of vintage punk rock must explain some of it — God knows I’ve read enough Lester Bangs to feel like I’ve absorbed something of Burroughs by sheer ripoff osmosis. But I still can’t make it more than ten pages into Nova Express without wanting to throw the book across the room after lighting it on fire. Everything about it reads like a deliberate insult to the reader. You don’t know who is doing or saying what or why. I thought I hated Tropic of Cancer, for its lame content-less rambling, but at least Miller gave me a scene.
I have this problem with a lot of the Beats. Howl not aged well. The original scroll of On the Road remains deliberately unfinished, about 5-8 pages from the end, because I do not want to read the weezy petering out that I know awaits me. Beyond the shock, which is not shocking anymore, what else is there?
So I went into this film with the faint hope that someone would explain to me why the “cut-up method” is a better way to tell a story than, I dunno, any other way. I get the mechanics of it, and can conceive of how it would help you throw ideas together in a free-writing kind of way. I’d even concede that you could right some decent poetry with such. But to write an entire Trilogy of novels that way? I’m sorry, you need to sell me on this idea.
Instead, I got the usual documentary circle-jerk, endless spasms of just how important and genius and rebellious he was, liberally sprinkled with audio and video of a boring old man saying boring old man things (“How do you know you’re not dead already?”) with other boring old men (Allen Ginsberg, looking like he just missed appearing on To Catch a Predator, Iggy Pop reminding us that he used to be in the Stooges before he let Bowie pimp him out, the worn-out shell of Andy Warhol,etc.). I couldn’t make it past the obligatory oh-those-horrible-oppressive-1950’s without uttering the Willow Cry.
Can we lay the Leave-It-To-Beaver myth to rest already? The 1950’s were not the Inquisition shoved into a suburban rec-room. Howl came out in 1956, On the Road in ’57, Naked Lunch in ’59. Their authors were not tarred, feathered, and sent to Moscow on a rail. They became famous and celebrated, if not rich. The stultifying middlebrow bourgeois bought this crap up by the truckload, because the middlebrow wanted nothing more after 20 years of depression and war than to recover the pleasures of buying a bunch of new crap, and the more outrageously outrageous the new crap was, well, the more pleasure you got from buying it. I first flipped through Naked Lunch in a goddamn public high school library. Get over yourselves, posers.