Saturday, April 30, 2005

REFERENCE WORKS

Looking up a movie on imdb.com gets you, along with some cast, crew, year of release and such, a random bit of trivia and user comment. When I looked up the 1976 version of “Carrie,” the user comment was titled “Agenbite of Inwit,” and I read the whole piece just to find out what that meant.

Eighteen agonizing paragraphs later, I still didn’t know, but had been introduced to poet and critic Christopher Mulrooney in much the same way people pitched down a flight of stairs without warning are introduced to new senses of the words “surprised” and “hurt.” I credit Mulrooney with expanding my mind in two ways: a realization that the free nature of the Internet can be abused by the giver as well as the receiver; and a new understanding of what makes criticism good or bad.

I feel a bit foolish on the first. People have been warning for years that there’s a lot of bad information available on the Internet, and I’ve given the same warning to myself and others. But I’d thought of it mostly in terms of flawed spelling and incorrect facts. Mulrooney shows the same concerns can apply to opinion, just by sheer volume.

To give a sense: Mulrooney has 114 pages of movie reviews on imdb.com. That translates to 1,137 reviews for this Web site alone. His writings elsewhere on the Web are even more exhaustive. And exhausting.

On the second mind expansion, the nature of bad criticism, I think it’s time to quote from Mulrooney’s work. Out of his thousands, I will quote from just two.

Here’s the first few sentences from “Agenbite of Inwit”:

Maslin calls it “misogynistic” and misses it by a country mile. There is an ultimate cruelty in this film revealed at the last, and the victim is the horribly defenseless individual you will at last remember from your school days.

Other than this, Carrie either defies criticism plainly or puts it to its mettle with prodigious inventions that require description, one after another.

There is a beautiful setup at the first, a high angle on girls in gym class playing volleyball, which cranes down and in to the inept Carrie being flouted as the other players pass her on their way to the locker room. As the credits play, De Palma simply fabricates one of the greatest shots in cinema. In slow motion, the camera tracks right across the girls before the rows of lockers, finds an aisle leading to the showers and dollies-in to Carrie under the stream, bleeding, with her back to it.

Pino Donaggio’s theme here anticipates the remembrance of Morricone’s in Once Upon A Time In America. De Palma pursues his image in a remarkable scene at the principal’s office, tilting down from a close-up of Carrie’s face to an ashtray with a lit cigarette on the desk before her, which her distress plummets to the floor.

A provisionally-furnished suburban ranch house is seen, visited by Carrie’s mother, proselytizing. Her girlish turn at the door after a last adjuration with lifted right hand is a key element of the performance.

Here’s some from another astounding piece, this time on the 1961 film “Francis of Assisi”:

A prophetic film, in that Dolores Hart in fact became a nun, the church at Assisi fell down, and Michael Curtiz is rather a saint himself tortured on the rack of such criticism as Professor Sarris’s, which holds that among his films “none of the later ones are even worth seeing,” and while such a censure is kinder than Stanley Kauffman’s pronouncement on Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon, “If I were Pope, I would burn it,” and far less harmful than the Vatican’s ban on Godard’s Hail Mary, still it must be allowed that for a saint the flames of an auto da fe might after all amount to no more than a tickle.

Rossellini seems to have been the first to grasp this about Francis Of Assisi, that it is swift, sure and subtle, and the result is Augustine Of Hippo. It was generally Curtiz’s fate to labor in the vineyard unesteemed, like Tennyson at Oxford. “If I were you,” said the dean of dons during the ceremony, “I wouldn't publish that poem,” to which the Poet Laureate replied, “If it comes to that, Master, the port you served at lunch was beastly.”

Now, Curtiz goes to another difficulty even than in the absurdly excellent King Creole by filming on location in color. I may be wrong, but I am under the impression that this was held to be an economy on his part. It’s odd that Professor Sarris denies him credit in an artistic sense for Casablanca, when here too is a monumentally pointed script of which every other line is quotable. It is perfectly suited to the story, matched excellently well by the articulate direction encompassing sets, locations, costumes and settings, a precisely calibrated treatment of the actors within it all, and no nonsense about the subject interfering in the slightest with its presentation on the screen.

These are not the worst of his reviews, by the way, merely two chosen more or less at random because, really, how can one choose among such riches? It’s best to look through his works for yourself, although it’s an occupation that can easily blow an afternoon. Or a week.

Comparing these two, though, it’s interesting to see Mulrooney can apply his awfulness in at least two ways. The “Carrie” review goes into deadening specificity on the story of the movie, the action and visual details of each scene and the decisions made by cast and crew in filming them. The “Francis” review skips this completely and still winds up being useless.

This is largely because Mulrooney is almost autistically referential. Never mind that he expects everyone to know who Maslin and Sarris are (film reviewers) and follow his dizzying summoning of other works by the director of the film he’s discussing or the director of any other film ever. He also brings up and discards in a continual burst of Burroughsian semantic pyrotechnicality (see how it’s done?) marginally useful allusions to everyone from Duchamp to — on the phrase “agenbite of inwit” itself, which means something like “the remorse of conscience,” choose whomever you like — James Joyce, Marshall McLuhan or Time magazine film critic Richard Corliss. Finally, he makes thematic connections that can’t possibly exist, and does so with astonishing satisfaction, if not the self-deceiving smugness of a half-bright nerd.

In the space of two sentences in the “Carrie” review, Mulrooney says her destruction of a high school gym with mysterious mental powers has “an incidental echo of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ to say nothing of ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’” and insists a girl who visits Carrie’s wrecked home at the end of movie “is seized by ‘the agenbite of inwit’ in a shot echoing ‘Deliverance.’” His “Francis” review says a scene in the movie in which guards let their cheetahs attack Francis of Assisi was copied 17 years later in the television movie “Columbo: How to Dial a Murder” when guards let doberman pinschers attack ... well, some guy. Certainly not Francis of Assisi.

Mulrooney delights in knowing things, and it’s difficult not to appreciate the breadth of his knowledge even while despairing that he’s so busy showing off he can’t actually connect meaningfully with whomever he’s trying to reach. For a reader, connection requires not just catching all Mulrooney’s references, but following his tortured sentence structure well enough to link references to meanings and meanings to relevance.

Many critics compare too much, because all are obliged to debate the worth of what’s being reviewed against its place in history and debt to its predecessors — then gauge that against how much the lay reader has to know to appreciate what they’re about to see. Mulrooney, though, embraces rather than debates, and there’s no precedent, similarity or coincidence he will not joyfully smother against his chest.

Reading his work — if not his unabridged work — is enjoyable in a jaw-dropping, forehead-rubbing kind of a way. In addition to the perverse pleasure of witnessing the innocently awful, such as badly dubbed flicks with kung fu or rubber-suit monsters, or celebrating the best in bad taste, such as babes-behind-bars flicks in which every inmate is hot and they shower together, there is always awe of the immense.

Mulrooney has accomplished a lot, even if the meaning of that is limited to the strictest definition of those words: He’s prolific. He’s got quantity going for him.

And, on the Internet, you’ve a better chance of stumbling across his writing than that of any number of brilliant writers, poets and critics who let standards get in the way of production.

Insert Ed Wood reference here.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

OK...you're Ed Wood for writing that much about this.

Indri said...

You did it! You did it! Hooray!

Having not made it through the Collected Works yet (too afraid I would stop eating and sleeping), I'm glad that you haven't put down the banner on this one.

3Jake said...

"Oh God. It burns It burns!"

Heather Eng said...

If Mulrooney actually knew what he was writing about, he would have
seen a more obvious connection between "agenbite of inwit" and
"Carrie." In "Ulysses," "agenbite of inwit" refers to Stephen's guilt
from not kneeling at his mother's bedside, repenting and accepting the
Catholic faith. It's not "used it at least eight times in Ulysses to
portray Leopold Bloom's character as being afflicted by the repeated
bite or wound of introspection, self-analysis, and self-awareness," as
defined on "The Maven's Word of the Day" link. If Mulrooney knew what
he was referencing, he would have seen a connection between Carrie and
her religious fanatic mother and Stephen and his mother. His posting
"Agenbite of Inwit" might actually have been an insightful look at
"Carrie," rather than a load of pseudo-intellectual plot summary.