This is the second part of Douglas’s three-part trilogy about his childhood, and generally the best known, though the whole thing has now been released on DVD. It’s black and white, stark, restrained, and depressing. I get the sense that there is a particularly Scottish brand of melancholy that Douglas’s film represents, but since my familiarity with Scotland encompasses Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Postcard Records, and the Dog-Faced Hermans, I find it hard to draw any serious conclusions. But I can’t believe that Lynne Ramsay didn’t have it in mind 25 years later when making her own excursion into dark Scottish childhood, Ratcatcher, a movie so dour I remembered it being in black and white even though it’s not.
But though the experiences chronicled in My Ain Folk are ghastly and grotesque, the style is more remarkable than the content. Though our boy hero is oppressed, abused, and abandoned, there’s not much to distinguish his adventures from those of the young children of Pialat, Bresson, and Truffaut. But I don’t know of any English-language movie of the time with a style like Douglas’s.
My Ain Folk
Though there’s some visual spillover from the Angry Young Men movies of John Schlesinger (Billy Liar and its run-down, dead village especially), Douglas goes for a much chillier and detached continental tone, and he’s remarkably successful. With next to no camera movement, he tends to shoot static tableaux from high and oblique angles. There’s minimal action, quite literally. Even when people are speaking, they do so holding themselves very still. So the movie reminds me of Bresson, of course, but also of Antonioni and Pasolini, even though the base material is drastically different. Bresson never shot such a filthy, working-class film. And Douglas adjusts his style to bring out the most of the cramped quarters he shoots in. The 4:3 ratio really helps this; this film and its visuals would not have worked in 16:9 at all, so I greatly credit Douglas’s eye.
Freeze, Die, Rise Again!
Its closest sibling might be the Vitali Kanevsky’s amazing Freeze, Die, Rise Again, which creates a similar claustrophobia around its wretched Siberian mining town. But Douglas shies away from the direct empathy that Kanevsky provokes, and so removes all catharsis and a great deal of apparent realism. I think this is an achievement, but it makes for a cold movie that resists easy empathy…which I assume was Douglas’s point. It shouldn’t be too easy to identify with or love the unfortunate–or else they wouldn’t be unfortunate. These characters are far harder to love than Mouchette or any of the Dardennes’ protagonists. I’m surprised the “slow film” aficionados haven’t picked up on Douglas yet (hi Lars! hi Steve!), because I think Douglas deserves a place right up there with Tarr (there’s an uncanny similarity, in fact) and the rest.
Piety? God? O beautiful, much misused words. I’m both when I have done my work in such a way that I can finally die. A painted or drawn hand, a grinning or weeping face, that is my confession of faith; if I have felt anything at all about life it can be found there.
The war has now dragged to a miserable end. But it hasn’t changed my ideas about life in the least, it has only confirmed them. We are on our way to very difficult times. But right now, perhaps more than before the war, I need to be with people. In the city. That is just where we belong these days. We must be a part of all the misery that’s coming. We have to surrender our heart and our nerves, we must abandon ourselves to the horrible cries of pain of a deluded people. Right now we have to get as close to the people as possible. It’s the only course of action that might give some purpose to our superfluous and selfish existence–that we give people a picture of their fate. And we can only do that if we love humanity.
Actually it’s stupid to love humanity, nothing but a heap of egoism (and we are a part of it too). But I love it anyway. I love its meanness, its banality, its dullness, its cheap contentment, and its oh-so-very-rare heroism. But spite of this, every single person is a unique event, as if he had just fallen from Orion.
By my lights, then, Brandom’s attitude to metaphysics seems excessively irenic. I want to follow Hume, Ramsey, Ryle, Wittgenstein and Blackburn, in dismissing, or at best deflating, large parts of that discipline. Whereas Brandom — though engaged in fundamentally the same positive enquiry, the same pragmatic explanatory project — seems strangely reluctant to engage with the old enemy.
Nowhere is this difference more striking than in the case of modality. In my view, modality is the soft underbelly of contemporary metaphysics: the belly, because as Brandom himself notes in Lecture 4, so much of what now passes for metaphysics rests on it, or is nourished by it; and soft, because it is vulnerable to attack from precisely the direction to which the subject itself is most keen to be most receptive, that of naturalism. It seems to me that Brandom’s treatment of modality provides precisely the tools required to press this advantage — precisely the sharp implements we need to make mincemeat of modern metaphysics. Hence my puzzlement, at his reluctance to put them to work.
I had planned to end there, but the story is a little more complicated. Modern metaphysics turns out to have two underbellies, both of them soft —a fact which underlines what a strange and vulnerable beast it is, in my view. The second belly is”representationalism” — the fact that much of the subject is built on appeals to reference, and other robust semantic notions. Here, too, as I’ve said, I read Brandom as a somewhat ambiguous ally of the traditional pragmatist attack. On the one hand, he offers us profound new insights into how to do philosophy in another key; on the other hand, as the remark I quoted from Lecture 6 indicates, he sometimes seems to want to get out of it some pragmatic substitute for platonic representation — some surgery which would reconstruct the referential belly of the beast, as it were, in a new and healthy form. Once again, I think that that’s the wrong move. The twobellied beast should simply be put out of its misery, and no one is better placed than Brandom to administer the coup de grâce.
I have to say, those are pretty much the two things that got me out of analytic philosophy: modal metaphysics and the sort of reference it requires not to be specious. What’s strange is that there seemed to be so much progress was being made against them in the middle of last-century, before a growing backslide starting around 40 years ago. Or to put it analogically, if Wittgenstein was FDR, then Brandom is Bill Clinton.
In dealing with Disch’s work, there was so much I had to leave out. I finished the article with an even greater respect for Disch’s achievement as well as a sadness that the rawness and brutality of his work perhaps confined him more to the generic ghetto than some of his peers. Certainly the quality and erudition of his writing matched any of his contemporaries. So here is an appendix of miscellaneous points that I didn’t have space for, in the hopes of pointing people to assorted other spots in his oeuvre.
The short fairy-tale “Dangerous Flags,” published in 1964 and seemingly anticipating a lot of the work of Donald Barthelme, though Disch’s tale is far less goofy and more sinister. The tale of a bunch of small-town dopes manipulated in turn by the elite English teacher and the populist Green Magician. You can guess who won. But the general schematic for his view of middle America (the town is called Mean) is already quite formed here.
“Displaying the Flag”: Nothing more and nothing less of the story of the sort of religious-right ideologues who amass power only to be found soliciting gay sex in bathrooms years later. Dead-on.
“Feathers from the Wings of an Angel”: One of his nastiest stories, intentionally written in inept purple prose. A heartfelt story from the heartland that tells the chronicle of an ingenuous young writer winning a prize…with this very story! Arrogant, narcissistic, myopic. Has there been a metafiction so resolutely focused around crap writers writing about crap writing? (Mulligan Stew does not count.) Disch in a nutshell.
The eccentric and hopeful story “Everyday Life in the Later Roman Empire,” part of 334, where historians specialize in a period in the past by inhabiting surrogate counterparts after great study. (Finally, Disch says, providing a use for PhDs.) The idea comes from Philip K. Dick, but Disch’s take is that by living out the misery of our predecessors virtually, we can gain a bit more insight and compassion with regard to our misery and that of those around us. He’s probably right.
Terrorism forms a backdrop to several of Disch’s future versions of America. It’s there both in 334 and On Wings of Song, and in both cases it’s nebulous, seemingly coming from domestic elements but never conclusively explained. (The ACLU is blamed, but everything suggests they are just a scapegoat.) The responses are much more important: police control and xenophobic fear in the populace. I compliment Disch on not making too big a deal out of a specific counterculture (as many new wave authors did in the 60s). As you realize if you read novels from back then, the counterculture itself is not very politically interesting. It’s the establishment’s reaction and exploitation of it that is relevant.
An allegory of power given by Disch, by way of analogy with Philip K. Dick, though really with any act of writing:
There is a form of Monopoly called Rat in which the Banker, instead of just sitting there and watching, gets to be the Rat. The Rat can alter all the rules of the game at his discretion, like Idi Amin. The players elect the person they consider the slyest and nastiest among them to be the Rat. The trick in being a good Rat is in graduating the torment of the players, in moving away from the usual experience of Monopoly, by the minutest calibrations, into, finally, an utter delirium of lawlessness.
I think Disch felt that if he did not subject his characters to such rules, he would be creating an improper fantasyland from which no one could learn anything.
The M.D. is probably the most substantial work of Disch’s later career, and I wish I’d had space to treat it at length. It’s a perverse take on the Faust myth in which a young boy receives a caduceus from Hermes that has wonderful healing powers, but only to the extent that it has already done equal or greater harm. (Disch never explicitly states it, but the mistake of thinking of the caduceus as a healing object–i.e., as the staff of Asclepius–weighs in as a heavy irony throughout.) Naturally, apocalypse ensues. Disch’s only engagement with AIDS, as far as I know. It also features another instance of the dead-certain Christian believer, similar to Gus in The Genocides, perhaps Disch’s most frightening archetype, beyond reason and compromise.
I rate Disch above the suburban disenchantments of Yates, Cheever, and Updike because their work was so ineffective as cultural commmentary. It showed no engagement with the greater meaning of these enclaves in the American political environment of the Cold War. Likewise, the capitalist critiques of Gaddis seem way off the mark because they assume a certain amount of rational action on the part of the characters. Who is closer to Ken Lay, J.R. or Grandison Whiting? The best American authors have, I think, understood that America does not lend itself to highbrow cultural theorizing in the way that Germany does, and so inhabit the more gothic and grotesque modes. (Notable exception: Ralph Ellison.) I won’t attempt to justify this here….
I cannot say enough about how Disch’s work anticipates the delusions of the Bush administration flacks who attacked the “reality-based” community. A greater vindication for Disch I can’t imagine. We have been ruled by the ruralities of the Bush administration and the urbanities of Kennedy’s “best and the brightest,” and have seen the flaws of both.
Disch authored a text adventure in 1986, Amnesia. It doesn’t rank with the Infocom games of the time, but it has several very Dischian touches. First, it includes a detailed layout of Manhattan, including the entire subway system, but because of disc space limitations, there is very little descriptive text, making the city anonymous and unwelcome and, well, off-limits. Which leads to the second touch, which is that you spend much of the game as a homeless man trying to raise 25 bucks to progress to the next stage, and your options involve little beyond begging and washing car windows. Disch wants to make you know what suffering is.
Toward the end of his life, Disch himself embraced many of the xenophobic and hateful tendencies he’d so acutely condemned. This is a common danger of those who get so close to such motivations and grow to hate them. The line is easily dissolved, as it was for Poe and Lovecraft as well.
Butcher’s Crossing is the most flawed, the most peculiar, and the most exuberant of Williams’ three mature novels (he disowned a first novel, which I have not read). Unlike the near-perfect tenors of the academic novel Stoner and Augustus, Butcher’s Crossing sees some significant shifts in tone over the course of the book. All three novels are Bildungsromans, but here Williams also attempts to tell the story of the decline of the American West as well. That is why, unlike the other two novels, it is not titled after the main character but the frontier town which provides the settings for the bookends of the novel.
Will Andrews is a Harvard student who, inspired by Emerson, drops out to find himself in the great West. After arriving in Butcher’s Crossing, he funds a hunting expedition to a distant valley in Colorado where a great herd of buffalo still remain, most of the other herds having already been hunted down and killed for hides. He is naive and for a time it seems he could be easily scammed, but the leader of the expedition, Miller, is serious, and after Andrews has a slight dalliance with a whore-with-a-heart-of-gold, they set out with two other grizzled men.
So the ground for an archetypal post-western has been laid, and the themes follow those that would be used (and overused) by Cormac McCarthy, Once Upon a Time in the West, and, of course, Stan Ridgway and Wall of Voodoo:
harshly awakened by the sound of six rounds of light caliber rifle fire followed minutes later by the booming of nine rounds from a heavier rifle, but you can’t close off the wilderness. he heard the snick of a rifle bolt and found himself staring down the muzzle of a weapon held by a drunken liquor store owner. “there’s a conflict,” he said. “there’s a conflict between land and people…the people have to go. they’ve come all the way out here to make mining claims, to do automobile body work, to gamble, to take pictures, to not have to do laundry, to own a mini-bike, to have their own cb radios and air conditioning, good plumbing for sure, and to sell time/life books and to work in a deli, to have some chili every morning and maybe…maybe to own their own gas stations again and to take drugs and have some crazy sex, but above all, above all to have a fair shake, to get a piece of the rock and a slice of the pie and to spit out the window of your car and not have the wind blow it back in your face.”
“Call of the West”
And that does somewhat mimic the arc in the book. Things get immediately dire as they have trouble finding water, and less than a third of the way into the book, things do seem to be shaping up for a sheer hellishness. But they find the water and the valley, and soon enough they are hunting (i.e., massacring in large numbers) buffalo. There is a sustained, 40-page description of the early days of the hunt that may be the most focused setpiece Williams ever wrote, and the turning point in Andrews’ character.
It came to him that he had turned away from the buffalo not because of a womanish nausea at blood and stench and spilling gut; it came to him that he had sickened and turned away because of his shock at seeing the buffalo, a few moments before proud and noble and full of the dignity of life, now stark and helpless, a length of inert meat, divested of itself, or his notion of its self, swinging grotesquely, mockingly, before him. It was not itself; or it was not that self that he had imagined it to be. That self was murdered; and in that murder he had felt the destruction of something within him, and he had not been able to face it. So he had turned away.
Such introspection is comparatively rare in the novel. Extensive and careful description is more common, but when it comes like it does here, it is strikingly abstract and visceral simultaneously. I don’t know if the effect is quite successful (thought it beats Cormac any day), but it’s certainly unusual. Williams resists any broad judgments of character. If Andrews is losing his humanity, then “humanity” is not an absolute value. He is freed from this sort of condescension towards the whore that he felt earlier in Butcher’s Crossing:
He saw her as a poor, ignorant victim of her time and place, betrayed by certain artificialities of conduct, thrust from a great mechanical world upon this bare plateau of existence that fronted the wilderness. He thought of Schneider, who had caught her arm and spoken coarsely to her; and he imagined vaguely the humiliations she had schooled herself to endure. A revulsion against the world rose up within him, and he could taste it in his throat.
Much, much later, after returning to Butcher’s Crossing, Andrews thinks back to this very moment and excoriates his younger self for his callow snobbery.
But returning to the plot: after the first day, things become blurry. They continue killing and skinning thousands of buffalo, and Miller, the expert guide and hunter, really wants to kill them all, even if it means leaving hundreds of skins to bring back to following spring. Unfortunately, it starts to snow, and they are stranded in the valley between the mountains all winter long.
As with the scenes where they nearly die of thirst, this would seem to be another potential hell, an existential misery. But Williams pulls back from this desolate Bresson scenario to aim more at The Wages of Fear, and six months of surely excruciating boredom pass fairly quickly without any Shining-like incidents. (In terms of page count, they pass more quickly than that first day of hunting.) I do think that this points to a fundamental stoicism in Williams’ work: for Augustus, Stoner, and Andrews, the hell comes from without, not from within. Events, not ennui, shape character.
Spring comes and they head back, and the book shifts again. Butcher’s Crossing has been transformed and ravaged by the end of the buffalo hide market, and Andrews’ growth is overshadowed by Miller’s desperate attempts to cope with the extinction of his chosen life from which he draws his pride. But the threads unravel; Williams can’t quite make Miller’s collapse mesh with Andrews’ development because Andrews does not learn anything new from it. Rather, Andrews finally does sleep with Francine, the whore from earlier, in a scene where Williams’ writing falls into the floridness described by Pynchon in critiquing his own first published story:
You’ll notice that toward the end of the story, some kind of sexual encounter appears to take place, though you’d never know it from the text. The language suddenly gets too fancy to read. Maybe this wasn’t only my own adolescent nervousness about sex…Even the American soft-core pornography available in those days went to absurdly symbolic lengths to avoid describing sex.
Thomas Pynchon, Introduction to Slow Learner
And in general, Williams’ writing is a little too lush and artful in Butcher’s Crossing, lacking the architectural precision of the later two novels. He is still a wonderful writer, but one is more conscious of him making an effort.
Butcher’s Crossing is a novel of discrete sections, and the ways they do and don’t fit together outline the refinements that Williams would make to his fictive approach. (Reading early work after later work, as I did with Thomas Bernhard’s “Walking”, sometimes helps to illuminate the best parts of the early work more vividly.) Williams abandoned the larger societal picture after this novel to focus on a single character and his milieu, and I suspect he found fault with the dual-pronged nature of Butcher’s Crossing as well. But he also abandoned the idea of the setpiece. It’s understandable, but based on that hunting section, he could have been a master at it. (He also learned how to write female characters; the women of Stoner are far more convincing than the one-dimensional Francine.)
But what of the greater themes of the book? I still think that Williams is pretty cagey about making statements and that the book requires that the author and the reader do not judge Miller and his kind too harshly. The West drives him and others to nihilism (explicitly voiced by a hide trader late in the book), but is this a fundamental truth, a consequence of their ravaging of the land, or just the aftermath of the extinction of their way of life? I do not see a definite answer. We do know that Andrews is changed, even if we don’t know quite what he becomes, and that is the heart of the book.