Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Ambition and My Lack Thereof

First: due to my lack of ambition, I am not spell checking this bitch.  And I have other shit to do, so live with it. 
I have always been unambitious.  I do not wish to suggest that I am lazy (though I can be), indifferent (ditto), or even apathetic (um…), but I must admit that I do lack a certain drive that others, I assume, must possess.  How else did they become doctors or lawyers?
Let’s leave the career out of it for the time being.  Instead, let’s talk about (what else?) art.

I applaud ambition in art, even when the results are imperfect.  Regular readers (both of you) may recall that in 2008 I was very obsessed with the novel 2666, an ambitious, bloated, messy book that, at the time, I felt was the book I was born to read.  There are some other sprawling messes/masterpieces that I have since encountered, Vilnius Poker being the one that most excites me at the moment.  These books have that quality that Bolaño wrote of in 2666 in a wonderful monment when a character asks someone about their favorite books and is shocked to hear Bartleby mentioned as opposed to Moby-Dick.  The character laments people’s inability to embrace the bigger, less focused efforts that, though they may falter, strive to achieve something unnamable.  This may have been Bolaño apologizing for his own sprawling novel, but he was also on to something.    

Let’s look at a few films.  In the early 2000s, David Lynch released Mulholland Drive, arguably his best work.  It is, in my mind, an ambitious film.  It asks a lot of the viewer, including repeat viewings.  It’s a movie that seems to combine all of Lynch’s themes and inclinations often veering  into seemingly unrelated territory.  The film manages to deconstruct and reconstruct narrative without losing the viewer, no small feat.  There’s a feeling throughout that at any moment the whole thing might fall apart.  But it doesn’t.  Thus, once the movie is over, the viewer (well, this viewer) is left excited, puzzled, engaged, and elated. 

Around the time I saw Mulholland Drive, I also relented and watched a film that many of my friends told me was “the shit.”  The movie:  Magnolia, a visual representation of ambition if ever there was one.  I was not too pleased with the director’s previous effort (it took me a decade to warm up to Boogie Nights) so I was not in any hurry to check out a three hour film from Mr. Anderson.  But I went in with an open mind.  The beginning of the film, as with the end, is perhaps the most interesting thing Magnolia boasts, a frame for the story that is infinitely better than the contents.  There’s some good performances (and some embarrassing acting by Julianne Moore), and yes, Tom Cruise has never been better, but even his shtick gets tiresome.  If Anderson was emulating Scorsese in Boogie Nights (and he was), here he was channeling Robert Altman, except he, unlike Altman, didn’t know when to pull back.  The raining frogs didn’t really bother me, but right as the cast began to separately lip-synch to Aimee Mann, I realized that indeed, the film had fucked itself.  In fact, if you need an example of pretentious, that scene ought to do you just fine. 

Despite how much I truly hated Magnolia, I also admired it.  It reaches for something.  It just doesn’t grasp it.  But you gotta love a scrapper, and Anderson appeared to be one.  You see, it is possible to admire a piece of art that you do not love.  Hell, musicians ask us to do this all the time.

The Clash gives us both an example of well executed ambition and a case of overkill.  London Calling remains not only their best album, but an important, transformative record for the ages.  What was essentially just a punk band manages to transcend the narrow space of the Sex Pistols and the Ramones and create a fantastic record that suggests that anything is possible.  The double record (pretty amazing that a punk band would release one of those) reaches further than any punk record could, incorporating elements of blues rock, reggae, pop, and even a love song or two.  None of it sounds unnecessary; no filler, only killer.

Sadly, Sandinista!, is a less perfect follow up.  It’s not a terrible record, but at three discs, it took a good thing a bit far.  Not every moment works, evidence that maybe a double record might have been enough.  It is rumored that Joe Strummer wanted to put out a three disc record as a response to Springsteen’s The River, a double album released around the time of London Calling.  (I can picture Strummer saying: oh yeah?  We’ll show you, fucka.)  Whatever the truth may be, Stummer & Co. were never the same after London Calling.  Sandinista! was the first misstep, culminating in their ultimate piece of crap, er, next record, Combat Rock.  It’s almost as if the ambition wore the band out.  They reached for something big.  The got it.  The reached again.  They got less.  Then they were just too tired.

This is along was toward me discussing my own lack of ambition, which I’m getting to, I swear.

The Clash are not alone.  Many bands and artists have let ambition bite them in the ass.  The good ones recover, or at least move on.  Some find ways of scrapping or rebooting an idea.  Pete Townshend had an idea once called Lifehouse.  Space does not permit me to go into all the details, but let’s say it was quite an ambitious rock opera that one needs to just Google and read about rather than have me fuck it all up with a half-assed interpretation.  For whatever reason, the project was abandoned and its smaller pieces became the fan favorite Who’s Next and, later, Who Are You.  I can only assume Tonwshend was smart enough to see that this mammoth project would work better in a leaner form.  Orit was just too impossible to execute.

Perhaps it is these examples that contribute to my lack of ambition.  Or maybe I am just too exhausted by ideas themselves to make them into anything.  I do have ideas, and I explore them, even make notes and outlines and often make some half start attempts.  I had an idea for a book length poem about lines.  After a year of working on it, I decided that the sum was far less fucking interesting than the parts, so I cannibalized it, using some good bits as smaller poems and letting the rest rot on my hard drive.   Hell, maybe the reason I was so attracted to poetry in the first place was that its brevity seemed easier to pull off than, say, a novel.  How wrong I was!

There is something within me that craves release.  I like the arts and have always been a fan, a reader, a listener, a consumer of culture, and even, yes, an aspiring creator.  In high school I wanted very much to play the guitar.  My mother and stepdad bought me one for Christmas and signed me up for lessons.  I went through a few Mel Bay books and learned some scales and chords and soon was faking my way through Cream and Led Zeppelin songs.  I even joined a band, Feedback (reunion, bitches!) and played a few times in a friend’s garage and once, though horribly unprepared, in front of my brother’s many friends.  It was fun to be in a band, even if we couldn’t get through a whole song, and even more fun when I switched to bass and joined a slightly more serious band (we never had a name… Frigid, Plankton, Thin Green were a few contenders).  Still, we never took it too far, despite coming up with some damn fine songs, if you ask me.  The musician thing simply stopped being interesting.

This is not to say I gave up.  Rather, I realized that my goal in playing the guitar was to learn some songs, shred some solos once in a while at Guitar Center, and maybe play in a band or two.  Once I did that, and once I was as good as I figured I’d get, I stopped.  Oh, I still have a guitar at home, a nylon stringed acoustic bought for me by my niña, and I do break it out every once in a while to see if I can still fret a chord.  But I never thought of myself as a musician, hence I never became one.  To be one required a level of dedication and artistic ambition that I did not have, at least not in that capacity. 

I have lately operated under the laughable idea that I might someday be a writer.  I have made some strides in that direction.  I published a few poems, a short story, a small amount of not terribly professional book reviews, a few interviews.  I won a state-wide award once, first fucking place, actually.  It’s all nice, but in the end, no one knows me.  That’s fine.  My literary (ha!) ambition is not to be famous, just published.  I don’t know that I even care to be read, just published, as that would validate my writer identity, one that I take far less seriously than almost anyone I know.  (Example: I know many people who identify as poets.  I absolutely reject that term.  Using it requires embracing a certain idea, attitude, and, all too often, a serious set of parameters that I just can’t embrace.  And it just sounds stuffy and overbearing.  I prefer the term writer anyway.  Why limit yourself?) 

I suppose if I wanted to get my shit published I would network, go to readings, attend the many literary events around town, and, as my college professors advised me, join the community of writers in the city.  But I hate networking and I don’t have a whole lot of free time.  When I have it, I’d sooner spend it with my wife and my dog.  Or, you know, writing.  Still, a more ambitious individual would find the time. 

My lack of ambition seems to infect me in many ways, though some are not so bad.  Due to this malady of sorts, I do not drink as much as I used to.  When I was ambitious and younger and full of energy, I found ways to take in a lot of booze and tobacco and heady conversation.  Now I’m satisfied with a cup of tea and a Bill Maher rerun.  I spend less money because my ambition to build a library has waned.  Oh, I still buy books on a regular basis, but I used to buy them weekly.  And I would buy almost anything.  Having accumulated a fairly large collection, I lay off and only venture to the stores for a sale or a quick pop in.  I might have once wanted to start my own business (actually, I still might), but my lack of ambition has kept me from doing so (and, I imagine, kept my credit rating from being completely fucked).  So perhaps this lack of ambition is not such a bad thing? 

Fuck it; let’s give praise to the idle, ludic lifestyle.  Let the dupes stay duped, to quote Jeffers, while we sit on our lazy asses laughing as the empire burns.