Matthew Wrather hosts with Peter Fenzel, Mark Lee, and Jordan Stokes to overthink the Artistic Projects of John Hughes, Thomas Pynchon, and Eddie Murphy.
- Coming to America
- Born Standing Up
- Gravity’s Rainbow
- The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension
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Hey, you have my sympathy, Matt.
Just a few comments: the guy who’s so defensive about not reading Pynchon, and who wants books not to screw around with the reader’s head, is correct, essentially, about Buckaroo Banzai: it is somewhat “Pynchonesque” (it even steals the name Yoyodyne, from the company in “Lot 49”). It’s true that that film, like you say about the Jack Black and rocket map film idea, didn’t win big awards. That GR did is perhaps a fluke, but, more to the point, it says something about the possibilities in 1973-74, which don’t exist in the same way today, in part, perhaps, because of the collective lack of imagination in our popular culture.
But the idea that Pynchon is unreadable seems funny when listening to the podcast, which seems to run entirely on the energy of ‘in-the-know’ niches of info about films, TV, probably music, released in the speakers’ lifetimes, with maybe a few asides to things they ‘read for college’ (to make a ‘V.’ reference).
One of the things about TP: he got that down, that way in which auras circulate within subgenres and subcultures, built up out of the various labyrinthine rooms within rooms of pop culture, and he got it down in fiction not wholly devoted to popular culture, but able to pursue other themes as well. If you guys had funnier names, I’d think I was listening to conversations in Pynchon, though his asides would be funnier than Eddie Murphy schtick and Jack Black references.
I did like the line: if you don’t like symbols, pretty much all of Western art goes out the window. And, re: Joyce and The Berenstain Bears: TP is, so to speak, where Joyce and the Berenstain Bears meet. Point me to somewhere else where that happens.
Talking of comparing the plot of Gravity’s Rainbow to anything made me instantly think that it sounded like something from Douglas Adams “Dirk Gently” books. But instead of the setting of WWII it would be set in the present, and the sexual conquests wouldn’t preceed the rocket attacks, instead one of the character’s sexual histories would match up exactly with the attack sites in chronological order. And he’s running out of sites.
I might just have to pick up a copy of that now.
OMG, Fenzel, I had to pause the podcast when you did your little impersonations because they had me laughing so hard.
Hey, Wrather, don’t knock the banjo, it’s more difficult than the guitar. Are you guys ready for Shrek 4 (or Shrek Forever After, as IMDB calls it)?
Re: 80s aesthetic- Don’t we give a lot of emphasis to the “bad” stuff? Eg. Flock of Seagulls gets mentioned in reference to “The Eighties” because it was so ridiculous, not necessarily because it was the norm.
I’d contribute this theory: the guy names for girls parallels the pseudo-hyper-masculine feminism of the eighties, and the easiest manifestation I can think of to provide comparison is the clothes. Women with extra-big shoulder pads, dresses that minimized curves, the over-sized shirts, etc. Maybe I’m being a feminist-alarm-raiser, but the fashion, especially that of women in business, mirrors the struggle between the femininity women value as part of their identity as Woman versus the masculinity society requires them to take on in order to achieve the same results as men. Those huge shoulder pads were accompanied by huge jewelry, gaudy makeup, and painful shoes, for example. Yes, men had shoulder pads, too, but look at, say, “Working Girl” or even “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead” (yes, 1991, but still suffering the same modus operundi) and see how over-exaggerated the women’s are v. the men’s. In order to seem more masculine, women dressed almost as caricatures of men. Sort of like reverse-drag queens*. But at the same time, they contrast it with their frizzy hair and bright lipstick, as if to say, “LOOK! I can be BOTH at the SAME TIME, SEE?!!?” I dunno, I’m just kind of typing as I go, but portraying girls with masculine nicknames in movies could have been a way to try and get them more on-par with the male characters while still keeping them in their “proper” place as love interests (as an example of their “role” in the film).
I haven’t seen “Buckeroo Bonzai,” but I *have* seen “Big Trouble in Little China.” I’ll get on that.
*I’m not trying to bash transgender culture or anything like that, by the way. Drag queens dress and act in hyper-feminine ways, ways that the average woman wouldn’t on a day-to-day basis, so I’m drawing a comparison because my penchant for circumlocution sort of made me lose my own train of thought.
Gab, you should absolutely see Buckaroo Banzai, but be warned that it is much less immediately ingratiating than Big Trouble in Little China.
But even if you get bored, make sure you watch it all the way through. Or rather, make sure to skip to the end and watch the magnificently oblique closing credits sequence, which Wes Anderson borrowed for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
“re: Joyce and The Berenstain Bears: TP is, so to speak, where Joyce and the Berenstain Bears meet. Point me to somewhere else where that happens.”
It was funny listening to this, because I was recently having a very similar discussion, and Joyce came up as one end of the spectrum (completely alienating prose – blatant and direct), with Pynchon in the middle (the other end, in my example, was Rand, who gives her characters 100-page monologues explaining her philosophy in great detail). I do think he’s pretty hard to read if you’re expecting things to be straightforward, but where Joyce is generally just playing with language (most notably in Finnegan’s Wake), Pynchon tends to have something relevant to say about the world we live in (I’ve only read Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow, and while I can’t say I understand the latter, I think there’s a lot there that I missed, and I intend to read it again at least once before dismissing it as nonsense).
An important point about the post-modern aesthetic is that a work is generally not created in service to a story but to an idea (Plot takes a backseat to Theme, if you will). And, once we get past the experimental phase (Joyce, the Surrealists, Burroughs’ cut-up books, etc.), this mode of storytelling is best employed when it’s necessary.
This seems to be the case in Pynchon’s early work. For example, in The Crying of Lot 49, he is exploring uncertainty, noise (as it relates to information theory), and entropy. The structure of the plot, the psychology of the main character, and the level of exaggeration in each particular satirical incident all serve as levels on which to explore these ideas. The characters, for the most part, are jokes – but jokes that work as ciphers to get at philosophical questions that are deadly serious.
Compare such a careful, elegant structure artistic structure to, say, Ian Malcolm’s lecture about chaos theory in Jurassic Park. Both authors have similar goals – they’re exploring areas of modern science that the reader may not be very savvy about – but which one is more elucidating and entertaining?
It should be obvious that I have a hard-on for Pynchon simply because reading him is a lot of work, so I understand he’s not for everyone. But I don’t think it’s fair to condemn Gravity’s Rainbow for intimidating an unprepared reader; the unorthodox structure is pretty clear from the beginning, and if someone picks it up without knowing Pynchon’s reputation, s/he only needs to invest in about the first 50 pages to find out whether or not it’s too quirky.
On Pynchon names:
The thing is? Underachieves H. Khwarizmi is clearly the best one on that list. And Pynchon didn’t come up with it.