LET US BLESS THE FREAKS: A Study of Vladimir Nabokov & Gregg Turkington
Strange Bedfellows Offer a Glimpse of the Divine
A synesthete, a polyglot, a self-taught lepidopterist, a poet/critic/novelist with a fancy prose style that his most famous protagonist might have said befit a murderer, Vladimir Nabokov reveled in his singularity. “Derivative writers seem versatile because they imitate many others,” he declared. “Artistic originality has only its own self to copy.”
At the same time, Nabokov was obsessed with doubles, peppering his novels with mirrors and anagrams and even twins. What, then, would he make of Gregg Turkington, the highly original film critic who appears at first glance to share nothing with Nabokov, and at closer glance to share everything?
Along with Tim Heidecker, Turkington is one half of the long-running film criticism podcast and web video show, On Cinema (at the Cinema). He is also the curator of the Victorville Film Archives, which was North America’s largest collection of VHS movies until much of it perished in a recent warehouse fire. (Turkington is a fervent VHS revivalist.)
Turkington devotes himself to the sorts of popular movies that might pass unnoticed beneath Nabokov’s lofty brow. A self-proclaimed “Bond Freak” and “Hobbit Head,” he lovingly studies some of cinema’s most famous franchises, from their initial blockbusters to their more obscure progeny. For example, when the 35th anniversary of The Blues Brothers provided opportunity to revisit the hit movie in his “Popcorn Classics” segment (in which he highlights VHS movies from his collection), Turkington donned the eponymous characters’ trademark hat and glasses…and recommended Blues Brothers 2000, a little watched sequel.
So how does this apostle of the people’s art resemble the aristocratic Nabokov? Let’s have a closer look.
Location, Location, Location
Nabokov taught his students to focus on the details in a piece of writing; in Nabokov’s estimation, it is a critical sin to rush ahead to ideas or themes when one hasn’t fully immersed oneself in the particulars of a book’s world. “If one begins with a ready-made generalization, one begins at the wrong end and travels away from the book before one has started to understand it,” he told his students. Perhaps most notably, Nabokov drew and made his students study a map of Dublin as depicted in James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Turkington takes things a step further. He has created the popular “On Cinema, On Location” segment, in which he visits the locations of scenes from famous movies and reports back to his viewers. For example, in his inaugural segment, he takes viewers to Cemetery Lake, an iconic setting from the 1991 classic Hot Shots.
A Friend, A Foil
Nabokov’s rise to literary prominence in the United States was aided by his good friend Edmund Wilson, who recommended Nabokov for book reviews and introduced him to editors at prominent publications. Nevertheless, Nabokov and Wilson clashed often, arguing over matters as trivial as the stresses in the word “automobile”. Ultimately, their critiques of one another’s translation skills proved too much, and their friendship ended in an ugly and public dispute in the pages of the New York Review of Books and Encounter.
Similarly, Heidecker has provided Turkington a platform by featuring him as a regular guest on Heidecker’s On Cinema and by writing him the role of CIA code breaker Jonathan Kington in Heidecker’s spy thriller franchise, Decker. Without Heidecker’s patronage, we might never been privy to Turkington’s unique genius.
Yet the two friends often butt heads. The subjects of their disagreements usually seem trivial. For example, they once fought over whether Gheorge Muresan’s height in the movie My Giant is the product of CGI, and they continue to clash over which Star Trek movie — II or IV — takes place in San Francisco. Lately, their relationship has been particularly tense, as Heidecker — high on the “nutritional vape” prescribed by alternative medicine guru Dr. San — negligently started the fire that burned down Turkington’s archives. We can only hope that things turn out better for Turkington and Heidecker than they did for Nabokov and Wilson.
On the Importance of Repetition
Neither Nabokov nor Turkington achieved greatness by accident. While Nabokov would prefer to highlight his genius, and Turkington his unbridled love of the movies, both men put in the work to master their craft.
“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book; one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.”
— Nabokov, “Good Readers and Good Writers” (appearing in Lectures on Literature)
“I recommend you get the movie…It’s not on VHS, I had to actually tape this…I don’t know why they don’t make these anymore. Get the movie, tape it off of HBO or borrow it from a friend or something — you can’t borrow mine because I’m going to be watching it a lot. And then get the popcorn and really go to town. It’s a fun night. It’s something I recommend to do every night if you can.”
— Turkington on The Hobbit (On Cinema, Season 4, Episode 7)
On Belief in a God
Here is where we find our subjects at their most subtle. We begin with Nabokov, who opens the first chapter of his autobiography, Speak, Memory, thusly:
“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”
At first glance, it appears Nabokov is endorsing a purely materialist worldview. But “Nabokov Heads,” as Turkington might call them, know that Vladimir reviled the concept of “common sense.” He thought it dumb and oppressive, the driving force behind the mob that would vilify artistry, eccentricity, and new forms of beauty. “Common sense has trampled down many a gentle genius whose eyes had delighted in too early a moonbeam of some too early truth,” he laments in “The Art of Literature and Commonsense” (from his Lectures on Literature). Instead, he says, “Let us bless the freak.” Nabokov is not endorsing the materialist worldview, but rather winkingly mocking it.
Nabokov addressed the question of the divine only slightly less obliquely in a 1964 interview with Alvin Toffler, appearing in the pages of Playboy:
Toffler: Man’s understanding of these mysteries is embodied in his concept of a Divine Being. As a final question, do you believe in God?
Nabokov: To be quite candid — and what I am going to say now is something I never said before, and I hope it provokes a salutary little chill — I know more than I can express in words, and the little I can express I would not have been expressed, had I not known more.
Turkington is, if anything, more playful and elliptical on the subject. He begins with his Season 5, Episode 3 “On Location” segment, when he takes us to a “very special location: It’s Jerry’s house from the movie Oh, God! (1977). Jerry of course was played by the late great John Denver. If you’ve seen the, movie, you’ll recognize the house. In the movie it wasn’t being fumigated…”
It seems a standard “On Location” segment — enriching, as usual, but firmly grounded in the details of the movie, not a vehicle for evangelism or some personal agenda.
Turkington’s next “On Location” segment appears in Season 5, Episode 5. Gregg takes us to:
“…the spot where John Denver’s car fills with rain — it’s literally raining inside the car. Very cool scene in Oh, God! from 1977. And because it’s raining inside the car, he has no choice but to pull over and of course have another encounter with God, played by George Burns, one of my favorites. Takes place right here.”
Should we take Gregg to mean that George Burns is one of his favorites, or could he mean God?
Turkington continues in Season 5, Episode 7, taking us to the supermarket Jerry (played by John Denver) managed in Oh, God!
“It was a Food World and now it’s a Fresh and Easy,” he tells us.
Tim is displeased. “Is this a practical joke?” he asks. “Every ‘On Location’ thing you do has got to be about Oh, God!?”
We finish in Episode 8, where Gregg introduces his “On Location” segment by telling the audience, “this is a very special one — I think you’ll like it.”
Wouldn’t you know, it’s the schoolhouse from Oh, God!
Tim ends the segment immediately, telling Gregg, “You screwed up, Gregg. I told you there’d be hell to pay if you did this to me again…enough with the On God! [sic] segments — nobody wants to hear it!”
An argument ensues, and at one point, Gregg says “and I’ll tell you this,” followed by a quick editing cut, depriving us of whatever insight was to follow. One is reminded of Nabokov, picking an unlikely forum and hinting at divine knowledge, but ultimately refusing to share.
On H.G. Wells, Time Travel, and More
Both Nabokov and Turkington offer insight on the texture of time, and the methods and consequences of manipulating it. But when we put them in dialogue on the subject, we find hints of something at least as fantastic as time travel:
“H.G. Wells, a great writer, was my favorite artist when I was a boy.”
—Nabokov, 1967 interview with Herbert Gold in The Paris Review
“H.G. Wells, The Time Machine.”
— Turkington, On Cinema, Season 4, Episode 8
“I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness―in a landscape selected at random―is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern―to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.”
— Nabokov, Speak Memory
“It’s a little scary, too. The whole concept of traveling in time can be scary. If you’ve ever seen Back to the Future 2 or 3, where things actually go wrong for Marty McFly… kind of interesting.”
— Turkington, On Cinema, Season 4, Episode 8
Is Turkington the lucky mortal chosen for humoring by Nabokov’s tender ghost? Are we to ignore Turkington’s trepidation at the subject? To ignore the possibility that it may constitute the last flutterings of resistance as his person is invaded by the spirit of this great literary genius?
Similarly, are we to ignore that the maiden initials of Nabokov’s great love Vera were VES (Vera Evseveena Slonim)?
Nabokov, as we know, loved his wife deeply, and loved anagrams almost as much. Imagine we unite his two great loves, pushing anagram practice a step further by re-arranging not the letters within words, but the components of the letters themselves. Specifically, we take the letter E from VES, pull its top and bottom bars, and fuse them vertically along the right side to mirror the left bar. What do we have?
The great love of Vladimir’s life has become the great love of Gregg’s.
Is every “Popcorn Classics” segment a love letter in the afterlife from a late novelist to his late wife? It certainly is a romantic notion, and would make a great romantic comedy. One can hear Turkington: “If you enjoyed Ghost or Roxanne…” A Popcorn Classic, for sure.
Consider these moonbeams, Dear Reader. Let us bless these beautiful freaks. Have two brilliant thinkers merged into one? Are they teasing us with brief glimpses of a divine truth? Is every “Popcorn Classics” segment a love letter in the afterlife from a late novelist to his late wife? Only common sense tells us it isn’t so.