Paul Green's Reviews > Outlaw Academic: Selected Non-Fiction

Outlaw Academic by Lawrence Russell
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Jul 24, 2016

it was amazing

This is a terrific book - exhilarating, provocative, often wildly funny. But underneath the laconic asides and rapid-fire aphorisms, there's a wealth of cultural knowledge and lived experience, even a certain gravitas as Russell considers the follies, absurdities and moral chaos of a post-modern world.

Russell has been an academic, teaching writing and film at the University of Victoria for many years. But he's on the street, stalking past the dusty corral of Critical Theory and he's quick on the draw to shoot down pretension or evasion in cultural debate. This collection of essays on film, literature and music is framed by autobiography, almost a montage technique. His inter-cut recollections and reflections recreate the context in which he first encountered the works as well as giving us flashbacks to formative experiences - growing up on a pig farm in stern Protestant Northern Ireland to the throb of the Lambeg drum and the flutes of Orange parades, playing guitar in early skiffle and rock bands under the influence of Bill Haley's Comets, adventures and misadventures in 1960s Californian counter culture or expat Tangier, to pick out just a few strands in a complex matrix of memory.

LR's film coverage includes Hollywood and European masters like Antonioni and Fellini as well as key noir movies. He slices into Tarantino's 'Pulp Fiction' - 'Nostalgia - the need to find comfort in the past when you have no future. This pretty well sums up the retro complexion of this film and the characters who inhabit it' - while admiring the panache of Michael Mann's 'Heat' even as he ponders 'the systemic lie that allows the culture of violence to increase its free market potential'. He praises Fellini's flair for symbolism in 'La Dolce Vita', notably in the ending where gossip columnist/failed writer Marcello and his friends emerge at dawn from a chaotic orgy to find a 'sea monster' on the beach, 'a membraneous blob with a single eye that seems to be alive, maybe scrutinising them. Are they looking at themselves in the prehistoric past? The image is Darwinian, secular, a dramatic denial of the false miracle of the Madonna...'.

He also discovers neglected masterpieces like Albert Lewin's 'Pandora and the Flying Dutchman' (1951), an extraordinary mix of film noir and romantic myth in which an alcoholic poet and a racing driver compete for ' a modernist siren who responds to her lovers' sacrifices with the diffidence of a gentle sociopath' against the backdrop of a Mediterranean fishing village. Their competing courtships are disrupted by the appearance of an artist - the Dutchman - whose dream-like paintings in the mode of de Chirico reflect the surreal mise-en-scene and atmosphere of the whole film. Russell's keen eye is also at work in his piece on Gerard Mordillat's 'My Life and Times with Antonin Artaud' (1993), a fabulation about a minor poet's obsession with the proto-surrealist playwright, 'who looks like a fresh cadaver in a stale bistro...Cafes, streets, buildings, even nature are drained of colour, as if filtered by the smoke from the endless cigarettes ...' .

Another Russell favourite is Edmund Goulding's 'Nightmare Alley' (1947), featuring Tyrone Power as a carnival worker hustling in the geek-shows. With the help of the mysterious Zena and her code he becomes a successful nightclub act, cold-reading high society matrons - and a female psychiatrist who becomes his new accomplice, with dire consequences. 'We see the psychology of inner space, occult mysticism and Freudian hucksterism beautifully revealed within the atmospheric poetry of the semi-tone photography'.

TV drama also figures in his view-finder. He gives us fresh insights into forensic psychiatrist Fitz of the 'Cracker' series, tortured by Catholic guilt, and explores a range of genres from the historical epic ('Rome'), police procedural ('Detective Di Luca), and thriller ('Danger Man') among others. Of Keifer Sutherland in '24' he says: 'Not only is his visual presence superb but also his voice, cadenced and measured ...pure radio in the night...like Richard Burton with a hangover. A great deal of this character's power is in the articulation, the rasp and the roar..' The comment reminds us of Russell's fascination with radio, oral story and audio theatre, a medium he has explored since the 1960s in installations, audio tape mags like DNA and digital productions on his website www.culturecourt.com - all of which are discussed in a section on music and media.

As for writing, he often reassesses authors neglected by academic literary criticism and media fashion. He has particular praise for Georges Simenon, admiring his stylistic economy , and the ingenuity of his plotting, as well as his ambiguity,'that romantic sadism that separates his work from the sentimentalist and liars... Although famous for his plain language, Simenon has moments of poetic beauty, the sort of sensitive inscaping that gets to the emotional reality of the situation.' In a piece about adapting two of J.G Ballard's short stories for CBC radio drama in the 1980s he identifies the unique qualities of the Prophet of Shepperton . 'Conceptually brilliant which is his greatest chop other than his descriptive metaphors. Dialogue - forget it. Narrative- excellent, a true painter of the mind. The axiomatic symbolisms he dreams up for his best stories are text-book lessons in how to ratchet down a narrative to its essentials.' LR favours concision and focus as the foreground to deeper mysticisms and mysteries, which is why he finds re-visiting Jack Kerouac's 'Tristessa' tiring in places. 'Yet there's something horribly magnetic about 'Tristessa' despite the chaos of the delivery and its squalid interior documentary of the madonna-whore morphine junkie Kerouac chooses as his Muse.'

The longest pieces in the collection are the in-depth essays in the concluding 'Art of the Hipster' section. Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Keith Richards, Orson Welles and Helmut Newton are obvious subjects , and Russell writes about them with wit and insight, alternating between very detailed and informed analysis of specific works and sudden flashes of simile. 'Baker's vocal has the chanson quality, like a low-lying aircraft skimming between poetry and conversation'. 'You don't dance to Miles Davis. You leave your body at the door and hope it's there when you return.' Helmut Newton's death and life are depicted as a fiction, as a film treatment expanded with imagined dialogue: 'Margaret Thatcher hated the photo he took of her. He did Margaret Thatcher? This I got to see. Relax...It's a portrait.'.He also investigates the quasi-documentary 'It's All True' (1993) which uses footage from Orson Welles' unfinished Brazilian film of the same name. As for Keef: 'He's a boogie man, a chemosynthetic man, a loyal man, but is he a gold coffin man?'

More unexpected and all the more fascinating for it are pieces on classical pianist and sound auteur Glenn Gould, the Futurist novelist Curzio Malaparte and the painter of Austrian cityscapes A. Hitler. Russell captures in vivid detail and anecdote Gould's obsessive drive for perfection that propelled him from the concert hall into the sanctuary of the recording studio, his descent into hypochondria and paranoia. 'His loathing of the audience is the confused self-loathing of desire and expression, of being mad in public and being celebrated for it.'

The Malaparte piece is especially intriguing. It opens with a review of Jean Luc Godard's 1963 film 'Contempt' (aka 'Le Mepris') which was shot in the Casa Malaparte, the inverted pyramid cliffside villa that the novelist built near Capri overlooking the Mediterranean . The story is a sex triangle between a French script writer, his lovely wife ( Brigitte Bardot) and a brash Hollywood producer ( Jack Palance). They scheme and bicker, Bardot sunbathes and swims, but the real star of the film is the location. 'This temple minimalism with its straight-line modernism and and curved-line paganism exists in contradiction,' -like the paradoxes in Malaparte's own career. He became a Futurist who morphed into a Fascist and invented an Italianate name , he visited Russia and admired Lenin, he subsequently insulted Mussolini's government and was forced into temporary exile. Malaparte's writing swings between reportage and fabulation, even in the same book. 'Written as journalism, it reads as fiction. Written as fiction, it reads as poetry'. In 'The Volga Rises in Europe' (1943) based on his assignment to cover the Nazi invasion of Russia, 'his impressions are heretical as they show sympathy for adversary and seem to reconcile the social models of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia as similar mechanised versions of the New Man.... he describes it with the lyricism of an action painter. A burnt female corpse fused into the cockpit of Russian tank, the prairie panorama of German tanks advancing beneath "a screaming arch of Stukas", the faces of the dead beneath the ice fresco of Lake Lagoda.' Malaparte died as a member of both the Chinese Communist Party and the Roman Catholic church.

Treating Hitler as a 'hipster' might seem perverse, yet the aesthetics of Nazism, its iconography and its media mythology still exercise a a sinister fascination, even an obsession for those who like to act out their sociopathic fantasies. Russell reminds us that not only was AH a frustrated architect but a skilled draughtsman who made a precarious career in pre-WW1 Vienna as a painter for the tourist post card trade. 'For someone who later developed a dangerous psychopathology you would expect those landscapes and cityscapes to have a Van Gogh look, an electrified spatial muddling that betrays not only the amateur but the madman. Not so. The perspectives are machine-like, free of ego, devoid of poetry.'

Hitler's penchant was for 'volkisch' paintings and grandiose neo-classical architecture, tastes that he enforced both within his inner circle and on the German public at large. Sheer size as an expression of power was his artistic benchmark, as exemplified in the Nuremberg stadium which provided the stage for his arias of fury. The Fuehrer's passion for Wagner is well documented but Russell makes some interesting connections between the design of the Nuremburg arena and the layout of Wagner's Bayreuth opera house. His comments on Hitler's oratorical style are also revealing. It is 'the rhythm of the Wagnerian suspended chord, a modulated sequence of suspension upon suspension, where he avoids setting on any clear key except into madness.' Russell concludes the piece by considering Hitler as a precursor of conceptual art. 'He was perhaps one of the first media artists, anticipating the production-line methods of Picasso, Dali and , more obviously, Andy Warhol. He started with postcards, did postage stamps, official photographs , marketed his own image and attitude. He did radio, he did theatre. he was a personality cult, the basis of any successful artist...'

There's much, much more. A fine bedside book for cineastes, writers, or rockers young and old...




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Reading Progress

July 24, 2016 – Started Reading
July 24, 2016 – Shelved
July 24, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
August 11, 2016 – Finished Reading

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