Friday, November 25, 2011

The Ballad of Reading Milton

I read this story at the bar of old college haunt, drinking my coffee black and making brilliant and acerbic notes on the side of the page. If you squinted hard enough, ignoring the bright glare of the sun on the window outside and the packed cafe inside, you would have sworn I was living inside that Edward Hopper painting. At least that's how I choose to write - I mean, remember - it.

For those not up-to-date on the Indie Elite crowd - last year, someone from University of Texas at Austin, where the now famous writer/director (and bff of the Wilson twins) Wes Anderson once studied (see: Bottle Rocket, Rushmore,  The Darjeeling Limited and this Amex Commercial), found a short story he wrote in undergrad that was published in the school's literary magazine in 1989.  The Ballad of Reading Milton.

There has been a lot of flack surrounding the ethics of (re)publishing his early work without permission, even comparing it to the practice of leaking the previously buried nude pics of a respected model or esteemed actress. Worth pondering, but for now I'll leave that to the peanut gallery, I'm just here for the review.

Even early on, the signature Wes Anderson style was clearly very present: quirky characters in a constant state of self-actualization who will never quite fit into their surroundings. Struggling Against Greatness, these characters see themselves in a certain, incomparable light, while as outsiders, we readers bear witness to the dichotomy of perception versus reality. As in The Royal Tenenbaums, The Ballad includes some slapstick physical comedy that is present, ironic, and simultaneously ignored by its characters. In some sense, its as heartbreaking here as it was in Rushmore.

The genius of hipster-god Anderson is undisputed, but it is a little comforting to know that in one small way, we were once the same - trying desperately, humorously to convey our intelligence and the knowledge we were soaking up in college.  Consider the title, The Ballad of Reading Milton. Pretentious yes, but also kind of cute when you consider the period of life he was in. I think that at the tender age of 20, Wes Anderson saw his work as poetry, or at least informed by the poetry he was reading; in this case: John Milton's Paradise Lost. In his famous epic Milton wrote in order to justify the ways of God to men.  In Ballad, who's ways are justified? The character Max? The writer Anderson? Maybe we'll never know. But I'll bet Wes' English professor was impressed.

The comparison to Salinger is obvious - some might even call it a rip off - but young writers are always inspired by their heroes, aren't they? Fine artists begin by painting the masters - that's how they learn - so why should writing be any different? And of course, teenage rebellion is a theme that will always be pertinent.

The one thread that I've yet to fully develop a theory on, are the three instances of spilled soda. Is the fact that they are all Dr. Pepper significant? Doubtful, although clearly culturally relevant - developed in Texas where the author wrote, "The world's oldest soda pop" is a point of pride for residents and found everywhere in the Lone Star State. I'm not sure the same could be said about New York - but it's a nice nod to Anderson's southern roots. The drinks spill three times within the story, once on purpose, once by pure accident, and once as an accident that could have been easily prevented. Why? A cheap catalyst to jump start some sort of action? Signs that identify the beginning, middle and end of the story?

There is lots of great stuff here to discuss, consider and write about. Feel free to jump in. And check out these thoughts from Anthony, a fan from Canada.

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