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Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Mitchell’

Factotum

June 26, 2015 | by

Illustration: Graziano Origa

I hate the term “writer’s block.” First cited in the OED in 1950—plain old block was in use as early as ‘31—it feels like a dismissive term for a whole host of terrifying phenomena. Besides, if you write, the concept is scary: to acknowledge its existence is to acknowledge that it could happen to you.

Nineteen fifty may seem recent, but it’s not as if creative people didn’t find themselves in dry spells before that. Perhaps they just knew it as an inextricable part of the process—the brain lying fallow—not a lack so much as another component. Read More »

Big, Bent Ears, Part 6: Treatise on the Veil

June 25, 2015 | by

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Cy Twombly Sr., back row, far left, with the swim team he coached at Washington & Lee University. From the 1950 W&L yearbook, Calyx. Photograph courtesy of the Special Collections & University Archives, Washington and Lee University

In the sixth chapter of “Big, Bent Ears,” Sam Stephenson and Ivan Weiss’s “Serial in Documentary Uncertainty,” the pair turn their gaze to Lexington, Virginia, where Cy Twombly was born in 1928; he grew up four blocks from Stonewall Jackson’s grave, though you wouldn’t know it to roam the town today. “A primary problem in biography,” they write, ‘is that a subject’s formative years are the least documented and the least available. Twombly is no different; the boy and young man are difficult to find, difficult to feel.” As they get a sense of the town and Twombly’s history there, their research leads them to a meditation on his famous painting, Treatise on the Veil (Second Version), and the connection between its sense of tragedy and Twombly’s roots in Virginia. First, though, they find a note on his high-school yearbook photo:

Tall, dark, and very outstanding—Cy is really one of the boys. He’s the only one of our class to have gained state-wide recognition (with his educated brush). Unlike many of us, he’s often seen with some weighty volume on a deep subject, and is well acquainted with the best in music—long-hair stuff, see? We know we’ll have even more reason to be proud of you, Cy.

Read the latest chapter here, and catch up on the rest of the series:

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.

Big, Bent Ears, Part 5: Alien Observers

June 4, 2015 | by

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Liz Harris of Grouper. Photo: Richard Rothman

The fifth chapter of “Big, Bent Ears,” Sam Stephenson and Ivan Weiss’s “Serial in Documentary Uncertainty,” features the work of Richard Rothman, a photographer whose work demonstrates “depth, dedication, and skill in evoking the enigmatic relationship between natural and built environments.” Around the time of the Big Ears Festival, Rothman spent weeks exploring Knoxville and the surrounding Smoky Mountains for twelve to fifteen hours a day; the results are astonishing. He also went to the festival itself, where he photographed Liz Harris, who performs as Grouper. He says of her performance:

It was as though she had placed a veil between herself and the audience, but one that only served to draw them in and give her a heightened level of attention. The lyrics she offered up were as illegible as tombstones polished by time and the elements. The words, or what could be made of them, seemed to be shrouded in shadows—just as she was—while filmy guitar loops decayed into richly modulated, shifting patterns that oscillated between the technological and the human.

Read the latest chapter here, and catch up on the rest of the series:

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.

Big, Bent Ears, Part 4: In Search of Lost Time in Knoxville

May 13, 2015 | by

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Michael Gira and his band, Swans, sound check before their Big Ears set. From a video by Mika Chance

The fourth chapter of Big, Bent Ears, Sam Stephenson and Ivan Weiss’s “Serial in Documentary Uncertainty,” pulls back the curtain on the art of documentary, and on one facet of that art in particular: chaos. As Weiss tells it, their attempts to capture Knoxville’s Big Ears festival were impeded at nearly every turn: interview subjects went AWOL, keys failed to open doors, and a search for an errant projector cord culminated in a late blitz to Walmart. Fortunately, at the end of the week the Rock Fish Stew team had documented a lot of great musicians; that’s here, too, including footage of Swans, the Kronos Quartet, and Holly Herndon, among others.

Read the latest chapter here, and catch up on the rest of the series:

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review

“The Inventiveness of the Writer,” and Other News

April 13, 2015 | by

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Günter Grass in 2010.

  • Günter Grass, best known for his novel The Tin Drum, has died at eighty-seven. “Grass learned a lot from Rabelais and Celine and was influential in development of ‘magic realism’ and Marquez,” Orhan Pamuk said about him. “He taught us to base the story on the inventiveness of the writer no matter how cruel, harsh, and political the story is.”
  • Joseph Mitchell was on staff at The New Yorker for decades—and yet the magazine has suspiciously few of his bylines. What was he doing all that time? “Mitchell had no idea he was embarking on one of the most celebrated writer’s blocks in American letters. In fact, at the time he was juggling a variety of ideas, hoping—assuming—that in his reporting one of them would logically emerge as his next New Yorker piece.”
  • Distracted? Of course you are—this is 2015. It’s in the nature of contemporary society “to manipulate our attention and to profit others … repetitive pseudo-actions create patterns of satisfaction that progressively disconnect us from the world.” And for this preponderance of pseudo-actions we can blame one Immanuel Kant, whose “insistence on autonomy … reads as a denial of mutual entanglement.”
  • Toby Barlow on Derek Walcott and Star Trek: “If any other show had as many scenes in an elevator as Star Trek did, we would have talked about it, complained about it.”
  • On the Anderson Valley Advertiser, which dubs itself “America’s last newspaper” and reads like “Our Town on bad Mendo meth, a Norman Rockwell scene painted in the midst of a weed-wine binge and given a makeover by Hunter S. Thompson.”

Staff Picks: H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, Apocalyptic Dry-humping

April 3, 2015 | by

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A still from Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y.

The hysteria and mystery surrounding the Germanwings crash have led me back to Johan Grimonprez’s Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, a 1997 film collage that traces the history of plane hijackings—and, just as important, the media fixation on those hijackings. When Tom McCarthy presented Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y at Film Society of Lincoln Center last month, he praised its presentation of “media as a crypt from which history is leaking out” and “terrorism as a theological condition.” The film’s macabre footage captivates, in no small part because of Grimonprez’s shrewd, ironical editing. In one sequence, a grinning boy just rescued from a hijacked plane tells reporters, “I had a good time, I guess”; in another, a girl, still violently crying, is hustled off a recuperated aircraft only to be led into the klieg lights of a press junket. As McCarthy pointed out, the project hasn’t aged well—it came before 9/11, after all, and its focus on television can feel quaint in the age of the smartphone—but as a meditation on the codependency of media and terrorism, it remains invaluable. Sprinkled throughout the film are spoken excerpts from DeLillo’s Mao II, which feel, whenever they’re incanted, truer than ever: “In societies reduced to blur and glut, terror is the only meaningful act.” —Dan Piepenbring

Someone who has “a lasting liking for the cryptic and the ambiguous and the incantatory and the disconnected and the extravagant and the oracular and the apocalyptic” might turn out to be pedantic and self-absorbed, but chances are, they’re the sort of person you want to know deeply but are never able to. The person in question here is Joseph Mitchell, the rather enigmatic subject of a new biography that is itself the subject of a review by Janet Malcolm in the latest New York Review of Books. (See also our series “Big, Bent Ears,” which takes Mitchell as a subject.) Malcolm is an obvious choice for the assignment, but that doesn’t detract from how fun it is to read her on Mitchell. “Where the hell is this going?” she asks about a rambling conversation between Mitchell and one of his subjects. “As in all of Mitchell’s pieces everything is always going somewhere, though not necessarily so you’d notice.” Malcolm is admiring of Mitchell’s work, reverential even, but astute. When Thomas Kunkel, Mitchell’s biographer, discovers that his subject invented portions of his nonfiction stories and makes excuses for these fabrications, Malcolm puts him in his place: “Few of us have gone as far as Mitchell in bending actuality to our artistic will. This is not because we are more virtuous than Mitchell. It is because we are less gifted than Mitchell.” —Nicole Rudick
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