Monthly Archives: January 2008

There Will Be Bloody Lyndon

Is this post a part of my blog’s mission or not? Is it enough that I just have thoughts that connect movies? You know what, who cares? If you do care, you may want to know that mild spoilers show up later in this post.

Among the first things I said after finally seeing Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood was “It really reminded me of Barry Lyndon.” I was sure the film would draw comparison to the work of Stanley Kubrick–I had doubts, though, about how much Barry Lyndon people would see in it. As much as I did, it now seems. For example:

From the Chicago Reader:

Is it too great a stretch to argue that what’s problematic in both films [There Will Be Blood and Barry Lyndon] comes to almost the same thing? Since both adapt generally forgotten period novels that demand a sympathetic jump: the issues of the characters aren’t exactly ours, and even when they are we talk about them differently, in terms already conditioned by the history of the discourse….It’s ground we’ve all been over a thousand times before. But of course the characters haven’t, and for them the issues have an urgency we can’t begin to match.

Pat Graham refers, in large part, to how hard it is to connect with the human beings in Barry Lyndon and with those in TWBB. With respect to TWBB, when he says “problematic” I think he’s talking about how empty its narrative turns out to be and feel, how devoid of humanity most of its major characters are. And I agree, even after seeing it twice, that this is how the movie makes us feel: empty. But it has to.

Emptying is among its main themes. It’s about emptying Earth’s deep places of lubricating oil. It’s about being empty of discernible identity: H.W. is nobody’s son; Paul and Eli might or might not be two people; Henry isn’t Henry the long-lost brother. There’s even that diary containing pictures of unidentified people in Plainview’s life. Emptiness is what TWBB has to leave you with: the greedily religious (Eli) and the religiously greedy (Daniel) meet, they mutually annihilate, and Daniel then sends his own damaged son off into the annihilation of the Great Depression. And Daniel Plainview’s already iconic catchphrase at the end–“I drink your milkshake!”–is as evocative and off-kilter an image of emptying as Hollywood has ever produced.

The Tulsa World compares the same two films, much less favorably:

But “Barry Lyndon” is a film that 32 years later is little remembered because the picture is so emotionally remote that viewers disconnect from its inert storytelling.

I’m wanting to quibble about how “little remembered” Barry Lyndon really is, but I’ll resist except to say that Time places it among the 100 All-Time Best films. My point here is that these are movies about unlikeable people. Critics use phrases like “sympathetic jump” and “emotionally remote” quite rightly in describing movies that need to leave a yawning chasm between main character and viewer. The emotional “thud” at the end is the sound of every viewer hitting rock bottom, having fallen with Lyndon and Plainview.

Barry Lyndon steals and lies and sleeps his way across Europe, only to die penniless, hobbled, and unloved. Daniel Plainview loves oil above all things, hints at coveting his adopted son’s wife, and destroys a religious charlatan who’s a mirror to Daniel’s own empty greed. He ends up “finished” in the [indoor bowling alley] gutter of his own making. That we stand and leave the theatre struggling to feel anything for these films is the mark of their burning power and chilly confidence. And even though Daniel Plainview “drinks your milkshake” in the end, somehow–thrillingly–we are the ones left cold.

I can’t believe the first real article in this blog has to do with King Diamond.

This is what I get for going to thrift stores.

I bought just one item this time around: Hard ‘n Heavy Volume 5 on VHS tape. Take a look at that cover; cost me 50¢. The back cover, though, is what made me sacrifice the pocket change. On it, I saw a tiny picture of King Diamond and the promise of an interview with he, the Danish Supreme Being of operatic black horror metal, himself an avowed Satanist. I obsessed about him as a teen and to this day I struggle to live with myself through annual bouts of dork-metal nostalgia, during which I cue up lurid cassette tapes that haven’t seen daylight in a dozen moons. Those same dark impulses forced this VHS purchase upon me.

A morning or two later, I watched the interview portion of the tape with a sickening fascination; it reminded me of how badly I had longed long ago to see video of King Diamond, concert footage, anything; I listened, later, to Abigail, his masterpiece 2nd album; on YouTube I watched subtitled Danish TV clips of King Diamond being interviewed while my frozen pizza dinner baked in the oven. And that was when King Diamond, sans ghoulish face-paint and being grilled by the host for his unseemly religious preference, informed me and a million Denmark TV viewers of the late 80s that “Satan” means “opposite.”


He’s right, you know. “Satan” does come from a Hebrew word that means “to oppose.” Fair enough. Satan does oppose a lot of stuff in general.

Now ever since I first ate it, I thought that seitan,–that suspicious, not bad-tasting, opposite-of-meat stuff you get at vegetarian places–was hilariously named. I mean it is pronounced “SAY-tan.” C’mon now: the irony! We eat SAY-tan so we can all feel nicer and kinder and gentler to cows and stuff. And I’ve always wondered where that unfortunate food name came from. Well, it turns out that the word “seitan” is a Japanese neologism meaning, loosely, “is protein.” What would you have done next? Me, I needed intensely to know the origin of the word “protein.”

The word “protein,” it seems, is from a Greek word meaning “of first importance.” But of course! Who would want to live a day without it? Not me. But I would like to add those two word origins together…add ’em up and find out that “seitan”–or “is protein”–really means “is of first importance.” And there you have the reason I wrote this entry.

Say it with me now, preferably with a sing-song, kindergarten lilt: “SAY-tan is of first importance.”

I bet King Diamond would be so proud.

“Why Pancake Dominion?” I guess you’re probably wondering.

Well, it’s because of one of fiction’s great paragraphs, one that appears in Donald Antrim’s The Verificationist—no, it doesn’t just “appear” there, Donald Antrim wrote it, that’s why it appears there. It appears below because it makes me laugh. The dust jacket on the left side of the image, by the way, is the superior cover for this book (though I do like the “head floating away” one), and if you read the book, as you should, you should read a copy that has the dust jacket with the Brueghel painting.

But back to the paragraph: It’s not just because he wrote it or because that paragraph makes me laugh. It’s because that paragraph does something like what I want to do here, at this blog, named after the dominion pancakes enjoy over us. It (the paragraph) alerts the reader to an absurd and compelling truth: the inescapeable human need for pancakes and how pancakes turn on us upon their arrival and become something else, something much, much less. That even so we cling to them, the pancakes; we build them back up while we’re away from them, imaging them perfect and far more satisfying. We learn that they disappoint, but we never really learn.

Now, fascinating things occur to me sometimes, media connections that fleetingly become my world. I hope to put them here, then walk away from them, and see what they become, whether much more or much less than what they momentarily were for me. You’ll see.

Maybe I’ll come up with a more concise and catchy name for all of this at some point. For now, let’s you and I replace this whole confused concept in our minds with a picture of what Pancake Dominion looks like to us. There, I have it—an image is locked in. Syrup drips to the plate from the top disc of the breakfasty metaphor in my head. Syruping, though, the inner reaches of the pancake stack is what I want, now and then on this blog, to do.

I also want it to contain that very silly, very important paragraph:

I was not, at this point, making a very good showing as a flying man. I might have done better if I had not eaten the pancakes. We eat pancakes to escape loneliness, yet within moments we want nothing more than our freedom from ever having so much as thought about pancakes. Nothing can prevent us, after eating pancakes, from feeling the most awful regret. After eating pancakes, our great mission in life becomes the repudiation of the pancakes and everything served along with them, the bacon and the syrup and the sausage and the coffee and jellies and jams. But these things are beneath mention, compared with the pancakes themselves. It is the pancake—Pancakes! Pancakes!—that we never learn to respect. We promise ourselves that we will know better, next time, than to order pancakes in any size or in any amount. Never again will we be tempted by buckwheat or buttermilk or blueberry flapjacks. However, we fail to learn; and the days go by, two or three weeks pass, then a month, and we forget about pancakes and their dominion over us. Eventually, we need them. We crawl back to pancakes again and again.

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