“Blur” by David Shields
Like a number of playwrights from Luigi Pirandello to Jack Gelber, he is attempting to bring the audience completely into the action, to make them forget what is real and what is not.
Mr. Winterbottom’s recent films have trampled the boundary between artifice and documentary.
How much is true and how much is acting in this extremely intimate, fake-but-real documentary about the Wagners, a voluble, often abrasive New York couple in late middle age who drive across the country with their adult daughters to visit their son, a Los Angeles filmmaker? That filmmaker, Andrew Wagner, who accompanied them on the trip, is actually the producer, director, and cinematographer of The Talent Given Us. Whatever the truth, this fascinating, lively film adds a new twist to the documentary form.
It’s always been tough getting my life and art aligned, and I firmly believe that to be a truly good artist your art needs to be directly linked to your life.
Try to make it real--compared to what?
My real life has fallen into the cracks between myself and my film.
Richard Stern is, as one critic has said, “almost famous for being not famous”--friend of Pound, Beckett, Bellow, Mailer, Roth. Stern says,
My whole life I’ve pursued these people: great inventors. What is the best, the most interesting thing going? Since I was a little tyke, I’ve wanted to find out what makes the great tick. Growing up in New York, I trailed Sinclair Lewis up to what didn’t succeed in being an escape route, I met Artur Schnabel on a bus and asked him if he’d like to use our piano, Einstein in Central Park. In England--Cambridge--the physicist Paul Dirac came over with a misdelivered letter, so I used to cross the street and ask dumbie questions about the Big Bang. He was supposed to be laconic, Delphic, but I found him open and fluent. Being at the University of Chicago has led to friendships with all sorts of remarkable people. Writers are usually the best to know. Their business is openness and fluency. People frequently ask, “Isn’t it bad to be in Roth’s and Bellow’s shadow?” I don’t feel that.
He doesn’t feel that, because his deepest subject has always been the way in which actuality gets made and remade. By standing next to monuments and measuring them, he has produced meditations on the relation between imagination and reality that are as meaningful, powerful, profound, beautiful, and funny as any of the monuments he was measuring. A book he has cited as one of his strongest influences is Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier: the putatively pathetic Dowell contemplating the putatively heroic Ashburnham. “You make something of your limits,” Stern says. “Maybe that’s your signature.” It’s shtick: R. Stern, pro schlemiel; friend of the great, the near-great, the ingrate.
An interviewer asks him, “How did this brainy, intellectual, deliberately obsolete persona of yours evolve?” Stern’’s reply: “Boy, I’m devastated.” Asked why his work isn’t more popular, he says, “There’s an absence of something--an energy, a breadth. A severity, a sourness. Some recusant quality which repels? A low quotient of magic? Who knows?”
He quotes John Barth saying to him, “Oh, you know a lot, and you’re productive, but where’s the virtuosity, where’s the art?” The art consists of feigning that there’s mainly miscellany and little order to Stern’s “orderly miscellanies,” which Hugh Kenner has called “almost the invention of a new genre.” In their hybrid messiness, straddling fiction and non-, life and art, Stern’s “orderly miscellanies” perfectly embody and dramatize Stern’s perpetual agon. The miscellanies’ titles invariably define, with precision and subtlety, the thematic investigations the books undertake: One Person and Another is about idolatry; What Is What Was is about memory; The Position of the Body is about mortality. Asked who have been the biggest influences on him, he says,
Stendahl. Proust means so much. James. Dante. Bellow: he’s someone who kept going, who was disciplined. I admire that. I can already feel . . . I’ve had a flirtation or two with extinction. Life readies you for not living.
Asked what current work he admires, Stern says,
The real stuff going on today is women’s poetry--Sharon Olds writing about sex, or her feelings for her father, or her daughter, having a baby, and all that. That’s big stuff.
Whenever Stern starts talking about literature, he inevitably winds up talking about life; the anxious relation between life and literature is what his work always worries. A few years ago, Stern was going to visit my class, but due to a medical emergency in his family, he had to cancel and reschedule for the following year. First, though, he had suggested,
I could call you or you could call me, put me on the speaker phone, perhaps with microphone amplifier, I would apologize to the audience, speaking about the way life erupts and dealing with it is one thing literature does, and then I would like--if possible--to read my story “Wissler Remembers” over the phone and . . .
On and on his e-mail went, deliriously trapped in the interstices between life and art.
It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.
The life we all live is not enough of a subject for the serious artist; it must be a life with a leaning, a life with a tendency to shape itself only in certain forms.
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