Monday, June 30, 2008

Raul Esparza

I miss theater, and I'm likely to go on missing it. Having once lived for a period of years in Chicago, I know what it is to inhabit a great theater town; but I shall never live in a larger city again, and I seem to have developed this disinclination to travel (no doubt partly related to the depression and anxiety I suffer from, but that's a story for another day). Even the theater that is accessible to me here in Wisconsin, either during the summer -- the Peninsula Players and Door Shakespeare in Door County, the American Players Theatre in Spring Green -- or in Milwaukee, requires a little overnighting that is unappealing to me right now. Perhaps that will change, but for the present I will be living without any play-going.

I still enjoy reading about theater, though, and I catch wind of what I'm missing -- which, let's face it, would always be plenty no matter what. Even if you're in Chicago, you're not also in New York and London. A name that has been cropping up for some years now in my reading is Raul Esparza, a New York-based leading man with many musicals under his belt. Thanks to YouTube, I am able to sample his work, and it is impressive. Probably his best-known role to date is as Bobby in Stephen Sondheim's Company, directed by John Doyle in the same singers-doubling-as-instrumentalists style of Doyle's production of Sweeney Todd.

Esparza has said that for a musical theater actor of this era, playing in Sondheim is like playing in Shakespeare; and that would be my comparison too. So, unsurprisingly, he has done other Sondheim parts: George in Sunday in the Park with George and Charlie Kringas in Merrily We Roll Along (a role created by Lonny Price). Despite its troubled stage history, Merrily is hands down my favorite Sondheim score; and this Esparza rendition of the show-stopping "Franklin Shepherd Inc." is a knock-out:

He is also terrific in the "Being Alive" finale of his celebrated Company performance. The entire show was captured for television and released on DVD -- into the Netflix queue!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Music Diary

My entries on music are bound to be sketchier than my entries on novels and films, because I lack the technical vocabulary and expertise to discuss what is "going on" in a piece of music, and without that, there is obviously much less to say. This goes for poetry, painting, architecture as well; I'm at a loss. But that does not mean those areas of endeavor are unimportant to me, just that I relate to them very much as a layman. Writers on fiction and film generally have before them the benefit of surface narrative and characterization, which are relatively easy to write about; the "narrative" of a symphony or a painting is more challenging to discuss because it does inevitably come back to technicalities. Non-technical descriptive language can be attempted, but usually comes across as soft and impressionistic -- not much of a contribution to the discussion.

But if this blog is to be an accurate picture of my interests, I can't leave out whole realms that matter to me. I just want it on the record that I am all too aware of my limitations.

Classical music became important to me around the start of high school. It helped that I had an excellent music appreciation class as a freshman at my small Catholic boys' high school; but simultaneously, I was beginning to explore the wide-ranging classical LP collections at the libraries in my hometown of Passaic, New Jersey, and the neighboring town of Rutherford. I gravitated right away toward music of the 1865-1940 era, including the really challenging composers such as Schoenberg, because no one had told me I shouldn't like them.

The dark heavy music drove my poor mother a little crazy, I recall -- especially those Mahler and Bruckner symphonies which went on and on and on to my complete enthrallment. Later when I was an enthusiastic concert-goer in San Francisco and Chicago, any symphony by either of those composers was enough to ensure my attendance at a program. The opening measures of a Herbert von Karajan performance of Bruckner's 7th wake me up every morning (and seem to be a favorite with my cat Claire, who will sit on the bed and listen to the entire symphony if given the chance).

This past week in the car I've been sampling a Daniel Barenboim box set of the nine standard Bruckner symphonies (leaving out the Symphony No. 0 -- a name I've always loved -- and the Study Symphony). So far I've listened to No.6 and No. 8. With Bruckner, the question of versions and editions is unusually thorny and complicated; for example Barenboim plays the hybrid Haas edition of No. 8, drawing on different versions of the symphony from Bruckner's lifetime -- a decision hard for any purist to defend (play one version or the other!).

Also playing in the car this week, a disk I own of the great Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos's complete solo guitar music, played by Fabio Zanon (who also offers thoughtful liner notes). Villa-Lobos is one of those composers bound to appeal to me on surface grounds: endlessly prolific (2,000 compositions!), the major representative not just of a vast country but of an entire continent to "European" art music, active at the height of the period that most interests me (his dates are 1887-1959). With an output that large, there is going to be variability of quality, compounded by the fact that HVL was careless of his manuscripts (there is a whole symphony, No. 5, still missing). But the guitar music is uniformly excellent, and the set of twelve Etudes in particular is a breathtaking workout (as Etudes ought to be).

Bill Rancic

Speaking of economic confidence, someone who isn't lacking in it, for obvious reasons, is Bill Rancic, the first winner of The Apprentice with Donald Trump. Bill is still out there, giving speeches, preparing a new A&E show for the fall called Mind Your Business, in which he helps rescue failing small businesses (the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy / Supernanny model). I saw Rancic at a business event in Green Bay ten days ago.

He was a surprisingly polished public speaker with some cogent and interesting things to say, about the need for agility in entrepreneurship, for example, and the role of due diligence in vetting business propositions. He was very good with the Q&A, always a test. At a private meet and greet afterward, he was thoroughly charming. If one had been gunning to hate the guy (I wasn't), he didn't give you much reason!

He also had women in the audience swooning, because the camera isn't doing it all for him; he really is that handsome. I heard comments afterward like "I've never seen such beautiful eyes." He was well dressed, too, which interested me; his new wife (a supermodel-beautiful E! reporter, natch) is the daughter of an Italian master tailor, and his bespoke striped gray suit was predictably to die for, and fit like a glove.

But one aspect of Rancic's handsomeness bugged me a bit. I noticed it in the promotional materials, I noticed it in person, and I especially noticed it in a group photo we had taken that was distributed afterward. The man's teeth are, as has become de rigueur in Hollywood, gleamingly, unaturally white. In the group photo they look radioactive; he could audition to play a lighthouse. Now I've had my teeth whitened, I'm not against it, but this is way beyond that. They're not really his teeth, for one thing, because you can't achieve that shade through standard whitening techniques; they have to be veneers or caps. I am struck that we have created a standard for dental display in those who appear before the public that does not even have a point of reference in nature. Weird.

Joshua Persky

There has been a lot of Internet chatter about Joshua Persky, the out-of-work Manhattan-based investment banking consultant who took to the streets with an "Experienced MIT Graduate for Hire" sandwich board this week. I commented at "Life After the Oil Crash Forum":

Even if this is a 100% fake stunt, as opposed to a routine bit of attention-grabbing, I still take it as an emblematic momernt. It could be true, so let's discuss it as if it is true.

Clearly, the notion of a New York-based investment banking consultant falling on hard times generates some predictable Schadenfreude here on the board. But whether or not he "deserves" his fate, it's an interesting fate to ponder. No one has five kids and (presumably) a stay-at-home wife in these times, let alone in New York City of all places, without having a high degree of economic confidence (as well as a total disregard for carbon footprints, but whatever). Anyone exposed to city life knows the type -- a guy (usually it's a guy) who thinks he's got it all figured out, and maybe seems pretty smug as a result. But what happens when that economic confidence gets taken away?

We know that can happen. With the increase in structural rather than performance-based layoffs, at the executive level as elsewhere (CEOs actually have horrible job security), it's been happening for a generation now. But a lot of folks will never internalize that reality until it happens to them.

The next few years could be rough on anyone who has small children, ex-bankers along with everyone else. People living high often have no more of a cushion than you or me -- sometimes less of one. As the slow crash accelerates, I think we're in for a panic across the sociological board.


My fellow blogger Patrick Sullivan (Coiled Pleasures) is having a crisis of faith about the energy he puts into his blog and into message boards. I commented:

Myself, I am liking blogging much more than the message boards (which, as I've written in my blog, never live up to their promise)...blogging is mainly a form of thought capture for my individual pursuits, and the breadth of subject matter is up to me alone, not some external agent, which I very much appreciate. Since I'm not Lewis Lapham, I can't afford to publish magazines entirely tailored to my specific interests, but this is a nifty equivalent. I also like the fact that the posts do not have to be essays or reviews or even miniature versions of such -- as snippets they have their own shape and aesthetic.

I don't mind having some readers, not at all. How hard I would "promote" the blog to have more readers, I'm not sure -- certainly I haven't done so yet. But I am proud of a number of the posts.

Patrick made a comment about his blog posts which interests me (my bolding):

The fishing and movie posts have a few good lines that could be used elsewhere (so goes the current thinking) but the rest is pretty much pure drivel.

I imagine that what Patrick means by "elsewhere" is publication for pay, since he is also a published writer in that sense. But here's what I think: publication for pay is largely going away, thanks to the very instrument of publication that Patrick and I are using.

The Internet has been, for all its flaws, the most miraculous democratizing force in the history of the written word. This is not just a return to the world of the 18th century pamphleteeers, this is better. For essentially no outlay beyond the possession of a computer and an Internet connection I'd have anyway for other reasons, I can self-publish in an attractive format and reach a worldwide audience. With a little properly applied PR skill and virtual schmoozing, I can expand my readership as much as I would like. Beat that!

But the downside is money. Free content appears to be in the Internet's very DNA; users just don't want to pay for what they get here, and why should they? We have learned decisively that human enthusiasm trumps the desire for remuneration. Literally billions of person-hours have been invested in creating free content for this medium; that isn't changing and very few can run successfully counter to it.

I posted last month about how Mike D'Angelo, the Master Snark of Film Criticism, has seen his freelance income dry to almost nothing. He's not the only one, and there has been a lot written about that this year. Now, film criticism is particularly affected by the Internet explosion because there are thousands of would-be critics out there, and many of them are just as good as the competently professional but ill-tempered D'Angelo. How is he supposed to differentiate -- get snarkier? There's no value proposition there. So the existing cadre of "professional" film critics is getting less paid work, and getting paid less for it (D'Angelo's rate at one publication was cut in half).

I'm not sure how writers will make their money in the future; although I am sure they won't stop writing. Oh, you'll still get paid if you get a piece into The New York Times Magazine; but that won't be any easier than it has ever been. There will still be some money in the mountains; almost none in the foothills.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

David Chase

The lengthy interview of Sopranos creator David Chase by Peter Bogdanovich, on the last disc of the first season box set, touches on so many interesting issues that one could easily watch it multiple times -- and take notes. It is especially revealing that, in a discussion of a television series, almost all the points of reference are filmmakers (although Chase does recall watching The Untouchables with pleasure as a youngster!) -- Chase expresses admiration for Scorsese, Bunuel, Renoir, Lynch, and others; and, Bogdanovich being Bogdanovich, you know that John Ford and Orson Welles anecdotes are going to surface (and they do). In light of my praise a couple of posts back for Chase's "beautiful and exact" metaphors and symbols, it is also telling that he avers that he and the other writers generated these on instinct and figured out what they meant later (the ducks in the pilot episode, for example).

I like how Chase pays tribute to the contributions of the the series' great cast -- Drea de Matteo began as a bit player, but she arrested Chase's attention, and her role as Adriana grew to be pivotal in the entire scheme (and won her a deserved Emmy Award).


Anne Applebaum, in a marvelous piece in Slate this week "Nice Guys Finish Last," (subtitled "Why do we expect presidential candidates to be kind?") reminds us at a moment when we need reminding of the bedrock truth of American (not just presidential, if you ask me) politics:

In its wisdom, America has devised a presidential election system that actively selects for egotistical megalomaniacs: You simply cannot enter the White House if you aren't one...Think hard...about what a presidential campaign truly demands of a candidate. To become president, you must love talking about yourself: Talk, talk, brag and talk, every day, every evening, on national television, in the company of newspaper reporters, in every spare moment, and not just for a few days or weeks but for years and years on end. If you don't crave attention; if you don't long for adulation; if you don't, at some level, feel you are God's gift to the American people, then you don't run for president at all...whatever [Obama's and McCain's] many good qualities, both are self-centered, driven, ambitious, calculating, manipulative politicians—because they have to be. That's what it takes to be president of the United States, and we might as well get used to it now.

Even when I "like" a politician, or, crossing my fingers, vote for one, I always try to keep this in mind. When I find myself "disliking" a politician, as I was coming to dislike Hillary Clinton more and more during the latter days of her presidential campaign, I have to remind myself that this is usually because she is nakedly showing her stripes, not because the stripes are new. A gift for nastiness is, as Applebaum points out, a prerequisite for engagement at this political level. A wearied Hillary was just falling below the accepted level of disguising it (and disguising it has frankly never been her strong suit; Bill's much better at that).

Applebaum's essay reminds me of an observation by the dependably brilliant Garry Wills:

Politicians make good company for a while, just as children do -- their self-enjoyment is contagious. But they soon exhaust their favorite subject, themselves...There is a kind of noble discipline in politicians, in persons prepared to devote a lifetime to discourse on a single subject, over and over, with anyone who will listen, anywhere. It inspires a kind of goofy awe, this sight of them ringing a single bell all their lives, hammering at their own heads.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Dr. Dolittle

From The Sopranos to Dr. Dolittle -- I guess my interests are a little broad.

The good Doctor was a fond companion of my youth, and some of my feeling for animals must stem from exposure to these books; in fact, I later experimented with having a lot of pets at once in what I call my "Dr. Dolittle phase" (I wouldn't call it successful). There are twelve Dolittle books in all, published between 1920 and 1952, and I have been re-reading the series in a leisurely fashion; I'm on the third volume, Dr. Dolittle's Post Office, which followed the Newbery Medal-winning The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle (but precedes it in time -- the internal chronology of the series is very different than its publication order).

The notion of a man who can talk to animals is such a promising meme that one is surprised that no one fully exploited it before Dolittle author Hugh Lofting (Kipling's Jungle Books are partial predecessors). The books are truly charming and deserve their classic status. They have run into a little trouble over the years because the Doctor frequently travels to Africa and the depiction of blacks is rather unenlightened; Lofting, a very kind man, was susceptible to the received ideas of his period, as critic John Rowe Townsend points out. (He does much better with the dignified portrayal of the native South American Long Arrow Son of Golden Arrow in Voyages.) Because the Dolittle books would be a great loss to children's literature if they evaporated into the swamp of forgotten books, publishers have taken pains to re-issue them with minor emendations, removing the offensive passages and pictures (also by Lofting). As a "historian" I prefer to read the originals, of course, and seek those out.

Lofting, at least in the early volumes, was an extremely episodic writer, constructing the books of brief narrative arcs and inset stories. Like some other good children's authors, he has occasional problems with internal logic. (A classic example is Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows -- what size are Grahame's animals? Toad is alternately toad-sized and human-sized as the needs of the story dictate.)

Much is made in the first several Dolittle books of the animal species all having different languages and the Doctor needing to learn each one (sometimes with considerable trouble, as with his quest to communicate with shellfish in Voyages, which requires the pooled efforts of a number of sea creatures). But as this logic becomes inconvenient, Lofting seems to forget it, so when the Doctor encounters a surviving prehistoric beast in Post Office, he can speak to it immediately. The diverse animals in the Doctor's household all seem to communicate with each other just fine, and it is unclear what the lingua franca is.

But I quibble. These are enjoyable books.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Even if it wasn't as wonderful a series as it is, I could scarcely fail to respond to The Sopranos given that I am a son of Northern New Jersey and that the local aspects of the series are spot on. The locations are used brilliantly, the town and street and business names are real whenever possible, the geography is correct (right distances from here to there, and so on). I could watch just for that stuff and have a blast.

But of course, The Sopranos is also The Great American Novel disguised as a television show (not really too disguised -- everyone catches this). And David Chase has both the architectural skill and the poetic subtlety of a major novelist. Take, as just one example, certain references and echoes in the celebrated final scene of the series. The Soprano family is gathering at a local diner, but each arrives individually. Before A.J. arrives, Tony asks Carmela, "Where's googootz?" -- he mumbles it in such a way that some viewers heard "Where's the ghost?" But "googootz" is a term of endearment (Italian slang for "zucchini") that Tony has used for A.J. before.

Last night I was watching the final episode of the first season, and Tony calls A.J. "googootz" at the dinner table -- without any explanation for the audience, for the vast majority of whom the word would be unidentifiable and would therefore pass unnoticed, or at most briefly noticed ("What did he say?") and then forgotten.

This is not the only tie between this final episode of the first season and the final episode of the last season. In the earlier, the four "nuclear" Sopranos are driving about in a horrible, power-line-downing rainstorm, and seek refuge at Artie Bucco's candlelit restaurant. Over an impromptu dinner, Tony proposes a toast: "If you're lucky, you'll remember the little moments, like this, that were good."

Flash forward five seasons to the diner, and A.J. recalls that moment to his father (who, ironically, doesn't remember his own exhortation to remember): "Isn't that what you said one time? Try to remember the times that were good?" But so much has changed in those years. In the earlier episode, the family is still a unit, finding shelter in a storm together; but in the later episode, atomized, they come to eat in four separate cars. And Meadow, who arrives late because of her difficulty parallel parking, is the most separated of all -- which may be her salvation. She tries to park legally, although she botches her first couple of tries; she has a hard time fitting into the correct spot. That has been her dilemma all along. David Chase's metaphors and symbols are beautiful and exact.

POSTSCRIPT: That first season finale, "I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano," is not actually one of the stronger episodes of the first season, perhaps because Chase had to cover so many plot points. But in this case, what you get from a weaker episode of The Sopranos is about twenty great moments and scenes, and one that is positively Shakespearean -- Tony cursing his mother Livia on a rolling hospital gurney after her stroke, and her smile (or is it?) back at him.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


Leinenkugel beers are fairly ubiquitous in Wisconsin, and I have got to be grateful for that, given that their Red, one of the better mainstream beers out there, is in almost every bar around here and has saved me from having to drink Miller or Bud on many an occasion. (In understocked East Coast bars, Rolling Rock is my fallback.) I just wish that Leinie's did a better job with their other brews. I have heard Dick Leinenkugel, VP of Marketing for the brewer, speak locally on a couple of occasions -- nice enough guy -- and to hear him tell it they have had more commercial hits than misses. Perhaps that is because some of their beers, aimed squarely at the female market, are not all that beerish.

I was at a Green Bay Bullfrogs baseball game this Friday night, a company outing on the Leinies Northwoods Fan Deck. (The Bullfrogs, by the way, are not a Class A team like the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers in Appleton, but are in the Northwoods League, an elite summer league for college players.) The Deck is an all-you-can-eat-and-drink proposition, so I tried all the Leinies they had (not including the Red, grumble, grumble).

The Honey Weiss I've had before, and never detected the honey; too bad, since I like a honey note in beer. This is just very weak beer. (Leinie's Berry Weiss, not on the Deck, tastes like berry soda.) I tried the Summer Shandy and Sunset Wheat for the first time; the former is a lemonade concoction with no beer profile to speak of, the latter a lame watery liquid whose wheatiness I'll have to take on faith. All in all, Leinie's has achieved success with insipid half-beers. Their Big Butt Doppelbock is passable (although there are much better bocks out there); and I've heard tell that their small-batch "Big Eddy" beers, an Imperial IPA and a Russian Imperial Stout, are exceptional (but these had little distribution even in Wisconsin; I never saw them -- the IPA does not appear to have been bottled for stores).

John Osborne, Inadmissible Evidence

Speaking of the male sex drive, meet Bill Maitland, protagonist of John Osborne's massive play Inadmissible Evidence. Bill, a 39-year-old lawyer, is not that likable a guy but seems to have his pick of the ladies. Taylor Worth's temporary pursuit of three women has become a lifestyle for Bill, who has a wife and several mistresses both short and long-term, as well as opportunistic encounters. But unlike Worth Winning, this isn't a comedy. Bill is to be tried and found guilty -- though less for his sexual appetites than for his utter disregard of every single other's personhood.

My John Osborne Project is a spin-off of my Angry Young Man / Kitchen Sink Drama / British New Wave Project; I wrote earlier about various versions of Osborne's ground-breaking play Look Back in Anger. (I have since learned that Michael Sheen, whose Tony Blair in The Queen I greatly admired, played Jimmy Porter in a stage revival of this play; I imagine he did very well.)

Osborne early in his career wrote among the most punishingly large male roles in the entire world dramatic literature -- Porter, Archie Rice in The Entertainer, Luther in an eponymous play. With Maitland, Osborne pushes this line of inquiry as far as it will go; Inadmissible Evidence takes three to four hours to perform, the lead actor is onstage continuously, and is given any number of three, four, and five page speeches to execute. On top of all that, the actor is playing a self-justifying creep who has barely a single appealing moment and whose last big monologue is a cruel and incestuously tinged rejection of his teenage daughter. One critic of the play's premiere production in 1964 noted that the play has "no plot, no action, no interesting situations, no climaxes and no comedy...not even a clever set to look at." I know this all sounds horrible, and yet, such is the nature of the challenge Osborne set himself, to write a masterpiece (it has to be a masterpiece or nothing) within those boundaries. He pulls it off.

In reading and viewing Osborne, a book I am finding very helpful is Luc Gilleman's John Osborne -- Vituperative Artist. Gilleman states that "in many ways, Inadmissible Evidence is a bad play," but I would say that if so, it falls into the category of "bad great play" that Kenneth Tynan proposed for Camus's Caligula. (One might say that Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is a bad great film -- you get the idea.) One "badness" of the play is that it probably relies too heavily on a great central performer to really work up there on stage. Osborne was terribly lucky to have the brilliant Nicol Williamson as Maitland in that first production, and many times subsequently; Williamson played Maitland in a total of five separate productions in London and New York, and in a little-seen 1968 film version. This was a signature role for him, and he was by all accounts mesmerizing in it; one gets a little of the flavor in the photographs that accompany the 1965 Grove Press printing of the play. Gilleman writes:

In playing Maitland, Williamson in fact seemed to die on the stage every night and was not adverse to berating the audience when it proved unworthy of such a sacrifice. Once he stopped the performance...starting again only when fidgety spectators had been cowed into silence. In another instance, he staggered off stage with chest pains, and the curtain lowered, until, sixteen minutes later, his understudy took over. After the interval, Williamson returned to complete the play and in a curtain speech offered the audience their money back, explaining the role was "terribly, terribly difficult," and, since he had been suspected of sustaining a heart attack, quite literally "killing."

Of such incidents are theatrical legends made -- and the performing history of Osborne's theatrical oeuvre offers a number of others of like kind. Still, actors love the challenge. As Osborne himself noted (my bolding):

[My work] requires very proficient actors. That is why they are very difficult to cast. They require a great deal of pure acting skill of a very special kind, I think...[The actors] must have an extraordinary technique as far as using the dense text, because it always is very dense. Also, they must have a wide intellectual grasp and tremendous pure verbal facility and a great ear and stamina and a lot of power and feeling.

Nothing much to ask for!

UPDATE (10/30/2009): Michael Sheen will be playing Bill Maitland in a West End revival of Inadmissible Evidence in 2010: Save your pennies and make a special trip. It should be something to see.

Classic Style

I feel sorry for Classic Style magazine, publisher Michael Key's noble effort to put out a menswear magazine with the quality of earlier exemplars in the genre (notably M in the Eighties). The first three issues hit just the right tone, with pleasant articles, ads, and photo-spreads. The fourth issue sounded an ominous note by putting Jon Hamm on the cover in contemporary togs instead of one of his gorgeous Mad Men outfits, but was otherwise consistent. Then there was a long gap between the fourth and fifth issues as Key scrambled for advertiser support and was publicly subjected to subscriber pressure on his message board The Fedora Lounge. Ultimately he put out the fifth issue, which he asserted would be the magazine's best, as a gesture, still operating way in the red. He might have saved himself the trouble, because this issue is sadly the magazine's least as well as its last.

The niche is just too small, both in readers and potential advertisers, to sustain a glossy print publication in these times (although Key points out that even many of the likeliest advertisers did not ante up at his reasonable rates). The lack of advertising is felt keenly in Issue #5, which has shrunk to 66 pages from the earlier issues' 82 pages.The articles are fair, although I could have done without the excursion into Michael-Medved-land, "Hollywood's Cheating Heart" (never presume that traditionalists in dress are conservative in other ways; you'll be surprised).

But the real gap in #5 is that there is just not enough clothing. Each of the earlier issues had one or two photo-spreads; this one has none, presumably because Key couldn't afford the shoots and clothiers did not come forward with their goods. Without the clothing on display, the magazine lacks point. And so it goes down.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Male Sex Drive

Joe Lampton, the protagonist and narrator of John Braine's novels Room at the Top and Life at the Top, is a young man with a robust sex drive -- nothing way out of the ordinary, but striking to me for reasons I'll explain. In the second chapter of Life at the Top, the ten years married Lampton contemplates his wife Susan:

...unlike other men's wives, she desired me physically...That had been one of the great pleasures of married life; to make love at times other than night, at other places than in bed. In the bath, in the car, on country walks, wherever in fact we had as much as a quarter of an hour alone together; we'd pretend that we weren't married, pretend to be star-crossed lovers.

I was reminded, in reading this, of another passage I had noticed recently. At the library, I was looking up the novel Worth Winning, by Dan Lewandowski, the basis of a menswear-heavy Mark Harmon movie I posted about a while back. I don't honestly think I'll read this book; it doesn't look to be worth it. But as a novel about a man pursuing three women simultaneously, it certainly does its share of exploring the theme of male sexual desire. And in flipping through its pages, I was arrested by this observation, which comes during a scene when the randy hero Taylor Worth is experiencing his first bout of impotence (with the demands of three lusty women weighing on him, it's no wonder):

...he waited in vain for the old, familiar neural connections to start firing...Taylor had always marveled at the apparent autonomy of the male member. It seemed to have a mind, if not a life, of its own and as such it was a fun, predictably wild, magnificently reliable partner -- a witty sidekick, a roguish pal without whose waggish instincts and reckless attitude his life would have been incalculably duller -- but now the playful scoundrel, the best rascal buddy a man ever had, had slipped away from the party and gone to sleep.

This caught my attention in part because I couldn't relate to it (and here's where the post starts to get quite personal, but hey, it's a personal blog). Was this, I asked myself, the relationship I was supposed to be having with my own penis all these years? No such luck, I'm afraid. My physiology has never been "magnificently reliable," and my little buddy has never displayed roguish, waggish, reckless, playful, or rascally attributes. This might explain a lot.

For Joe Lampton and Taylor Worth, sex is pretty easy. They arouse readily and perform well. As a result, they are each darned confident in the sexual arena. (Of course, both are also tall, handsome, reasonably suave with the ladies.) Very many of my fellow gay men have a similarly strong and hard-charging sex drive.

I, on the other hand, arouse very slowly and only on considerable provocation; since the physiology is far from automatic, the mind-set is everything -- and is easily disturbed. This makes encounters somewhat fretful. In my young manhood, that didn't stop me from the pursuit, especially since sex is so readily obtainable in the gay world.

But in order to maintain a good level of interest in sex, I needed variety of person and situation (again, easily available in the gay context). I am struck by Joe Lampton's sexual pleasure with his wife after ten years, because I have a hard time imagining the maintenance of sexual interest in a single partner for ten months, let alone ten years. It's just not in me. The continuance of affection for ten months or ten years, that I can definitely imagine -- but as I have discovered from experience, that's scarcely enough to sustain a relationship. I wouldn't cheat because of my need for new stimulus, I would just go dormant -- which isn't a solution. Most marriages start hot and gradually go more cuddly and domestic, but I can complete that transition in record time.

Since sex for me is not "predictably" physical as it for Taylor Worth and Joe Lampton (those "familar neural connections...firing"), and since I really don't get a connection between sex and affectionate emotion at all, what I'm left with is sex as charged mental state -- one I approach much less in my late forties than I did earlier in my life. I am considerably fascinated by what sex is for other men because it seems to be so different than what it is for me. These fictional examples, I find truly interesting. And when I look for them , I notice them everywhere -- the characters Woody Allen portrays in his own movies are obviously very driven sexually, for example, and as time goes on Woody lets them be more honest about how that plays out -- Harry in Deconstructing Harry readily admits to a continuing appetite for prostitutes.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Zest for Living

There are many reasons for the extra intensity of attention paid to Tim Russert's death (none of which I feel is excessive, by the way). He is a beloved member of the very corps covering his demise; he has earned the broad affection of the public; he was cut down in his prime, at the top of his game; it is an election year, and he is Mr. Election; it was a couple days shy of Father's Day, and he is Mr. Celebrating Fatherhood; and so on. But one of the less acknowledged reasons is that TR is one of those individuals (like another famous man who shares those initials!) who clearly possesses an unusual zest for living -- who always seems to be enjoying himself. That is a very special quality, that people respond to strongly.

Book critic Michael Dirda published an essay a few days ago about why, if he could be a fictional character, he would be James Bond. For men, that would be a popular answer; but it isn't my answer. I would be Archie Goodwin, the operative and narrator in Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novels, superbly incarnated by Timothy Hutton in the Nero Wolfe television series. Archie's being a real snappy dresser certainly has something to do with my admiration -- but of course, James Bond is no slouch in that department either.

No, what really gets me about Archie is that Russert-like zest. Archie Goodwin operates with pleasure and confidence in his world, and he projects a real charm because of that. Watch how Timothy Hutton plays him -- that jaunty walk and swing of the arms! The spiffed-out wardobe is simply an extension and expression of Archie's good humor. He enjoys being at the exact point where he has situated himself.

And isn't that Tim Russert all over? He loved politics, the media, the world of Washington, getting to communicate with the public, hobnobbing with the real players and being one of them; and it showed. He situated himself just right -- and that cannot be too common; I've never managed it. William Kristol wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times (my bolding):

Tim was now a big shot, and he rather enjoyed being a big shot. But he was just about the nicest big shot in Washington — decent and unpretentious, remarkably kind and genuinely thoughtful.

In my book there is nothing whatsoever wrong with being a big shot or liking being one, if you can do it in that way.

I can only aspire to projecting Archie Goodwin-like qualities, and to some extent I believe that I do, based on feedback that I get. My inner melancholy is too strong for me to think that I am actually truly zestful -- but that must also be true of some of the apparent Tim Russerts and Archie Goodwins out there; it is not always possible to know this. Managing to be zestful in the world counts for a lot in itself; public selves are as real as private selves.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

My Wardrobe: White Bucks

I had been without a pair of white bucks for a while (although I do have a pair of white nubuck wingtips, which I'll feature another time). These are shoes that for obvious reasons don't last forever! So the time had come for a purchase, and I found these neat J. Crews:

I love how these look with a seersucker suit and other summer classics. I even have a little "bunny bag" of chalk to touch them up with. It all makes me feel very F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Reading Diary

I completed the Willem Elsschot Three Novels volume. The Leg, Elsschot's short sequel to Soft Soap (published 14 years later, in 1938), is an interesting riff on the expiation of guilt, in which the slick entrepreneur Boorman undergoes a crisis of conscience over an outcome that actually has little if any connection to anything he may have done -- not that what he did do wasn't lousy, it was, plenty of room for guilt there, but he creates an idee fixe out of a specious cause-and-effect. Laarmans, his protege, gets the worst of it...Laarmans reappears in the last of Elsschot's 11 short novels, Will-o'-the-Wisp, a mysterious and affecting tale of three foreign sailors looking for a woman who has given them a false address; Laarmans becomes their guide. Martin Seymour-Smith has well said that in this short novel "Elsschot...achieves a tenuous, sad sense of human brotherhood, of broken dreams, of sweetness"; it strikes me as a small classic of European literature...I re-read the Malcolm Gladwell essay on The Man in The Grey Flannel Suit that I link to in the post below. Gladwell's key point is that Sloan Wilson's Everyman protagonist Tom Rath, with typical human resilience, does a good job of overcoming his World War II trauma, as reflected in this introspective passage:

...all these facts were simply incomprehensible and had to be forgotten. That, [Tom] had decided, was the final truth of the war, and he had greeted it with relief, greeted it eagerly, the simple fact that it was incomprehensible and had to be forgotten. Things just happen, he had decided; they happen and they happen again, and anybody who tries to make sense out of it goes out of his mind.

But Gladwell perhaps undercuts his conclusion by reasonably pointing out that "by our standards [Tom] and almost everyone else in the novel look like alcoholics." Perhaps that is evidence that Tom is not coping so well? -- or perhaps it is just a reflection of the social norms of the time, but in that case, maybe the society as a whole was not coping very well. Sloan Wilson seems very un-self-conscious about all the drinking he describes, and that falls in line with much other work of the time. John Cheever's characters drink like fish, too. And remember, in the television series Bewitched, Darrin Stephens's usual nightly request to his witch wife after arriving home from another hard day in the advertising trenches -- "Sam, pour me a double"? The new advertising series Mad Men re-creates this drinking culture, but of course it cannot help doing so with calculation; the documents of the era are most revealing about the drinking because they're not trying to make a point about it...Speaking of re-creations of eras, Nancy Franklin in the June 9/16 New Yorker reviews the new Seventies-based series Swingtown, and does not find it very laudable compared to Mad Men:

Franklin, always a droll and readable critic, puts her finger on one bit of laziness that frequently drives me crazy in movies and television: a serious fault, [Swingtown] makes use of the most overplayed music of the period. “Dream Weaver,” “Dancing in the Moonlight,” “Come and Get Your Love,” and other such beige tunes are thrown one after another onto the soundtrack, until your ears are crying. With few exceptions, the songs are not integrated into the show—the characters don’t hear them. They’re there just to pander to viewers of a certain age.

You hear this sort of aural shorthand in movies set in the Forties, with Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" or the Andrews Sisters's "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" standing for the entire decade despite the fact that they were only two popular tunes among many.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Business Fiction Project

I haven't read all that much fiction that is mainly about the business world, although of course much fiction touches on that world. Business fiction can be situated in the world of workers, the world of managers and capitalists, the world of entrepreneurs; there are plenty of possibilities. And although these subjects are not exactly neglected as material -- there is a large academic literature on business themes in fiction -- it is easier to think quickly of novels on many other subjects than it is to think of great business novels.

I looked back over my life-list to see what I had read that might qualify for this project, and there were only nine novels.

William Dean Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham
William Dean Howells, A Hazard of New Fortunes
Christopher Knowlton, The Real World
Louis Auchincloss, Diary of a Yuppie
Walter Kirn, Up in the Air
Sloan Wilson, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit
Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End
Willem Elsschot, Soft Soap
Willem Elsschot, The Leg

The Howells novels I read many years ago, and need to re-read; both are great. (A reinvigorated Howells project is inevitable; he's the American Trollope, my kind of novelist.) The Knowlton (by an author who has not published at book length again) and the Auchincloss (by a celebrated author who is very prolific) are artefacts of the Eighties; my memories of them are a little imprecise. Kirn's Up in the Air is an unusual novel about a "road warrior" consultant obsessed with his frequent flyer miles; I liked it very much. Then We Came to the End, as I've mentioned earlier in the blog, underwhelmed me for such an acclaimed novel. Soft Soap is very impressive, and I'll write more about its interesting short sequel The Leg in an upcoming "Reading Diary."

The real surprise among this group is Sloan Wilson's titularly famous The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, to which my attention was directed by a terrific Malcolm Gladwell essay in The New Yorker a few years back:

Wilson reveals himself in this novel as a writer of stature: the prose, characterization, and complex contrapuntal plotting are all excellent. If this is a representative sample of "popular fiction" of that time, I need to read more of it. (The film version with Gregory Peck is less good.)

The business world has generated plenty of interesting work in film and television lately: Mike Judge's wonderfully funny film Office Space; the British and American versions of The Office (neither of which I've watched yet); the closely related, and underrated, Fred Savage sit-com Working; Laurent Cantet's marvelous films Human Resources and Time Out (the latter one of the very best movies of the past decade); the new AMC series Mad Men (happily renewed for a second season).

More about all this moving forward; just laying out the "parameters" of the project here (to use biz-speak).

Friday, June 13, 2008

Proper Appreciations

Like everyone else, I am terribly saddened today by the death of Tim Russert. He was a fine journalist and by all accounts a lovable guy, and his genuineness was unmistakable (like that of Charles Kuralt before him, another self-created television news persona not spit out by some focus group). As William Kristol has noted at The Weekly Standard website, the tributes that are pouring in -- from his colleagues, from politicians, from the public -- seem completely real and heartfelt. I just spent an hour at the MSNBC website watching some of the interviews an obviously stricken Keith Olbermann conducted today -- with Barbara Walters, Bob Schieffer, Tom Brokaw, Bob Costas, and others -- and they are very moving.

I have been struck in recent years by the oft-maligned (and oft fairly maligned) media giving the newly deceased their due. Oh, sometimes coverage can spill over into a kind of hagiography, as when Reagan died (RR wasn't that universally beloved; the Reagan years were extremely divisive, and the press glossed over that at his passing). But more often, the obituary responses have been balanced and perceptive. I wouldn't have anticipated either Gerald Ford or George Harrison (to take two wildly disparate examples) getting a proper appreciation -- a joked-about accidental President and the least celebrated Beatle -- but they actually did get that, and more (which pleased me since I like them both). It has been kind of heartening when this happens.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

"Dude, you look like a bond trader!"

So said one of my fellow brokers when I was in commercial real estate sales -- and it's my favorite sartorial compliment ever. Although I can deploy my business wardrobe to look tweedy, trad, Euro-capitalist, banker, preppie, attorney, corporate raider, and so on, one of my preferred looks is definitely "slick salesguy" -- positively Gordon Gekko-ish with the contrasting white French cuffs and spread collars, the ventless double-breasted suits, the braces, the brash links, the tassel loafers. Why this style should particularly appeal to me, I'm not sure; but I have a lot of fun with it.

I used this photo, pilfered from somewhere on the Internet, as my avatar in several menswear forums, before I switched to the Eliot Ness photograph I posted here last month. All the key elements are present, and I like the jauntiness.


If my nearly 50 years have taught me one lesson above all, it is this: at the first sign of trouble, bail!

Web Forums

Web forums are, for me, what looks like a good idea, hiding a very bad idea. The impulse to reach out to others who share your interests is, naturally, strong for many of us. And the Internet appears to provide a miraculous way of doing that across all boundaries of geography and other limitations. So far, so great.

But there are catches. Forums are for the expression of opinions, of course, but those who share interests are hardly likely to share the same opinions. So there will be disputes. Email is famously lacking in the cues that sustain us through conversations-over-a-beer with friends whose opinions differ from our own; email often brings out the worst in people. When you add to that the anonymity of hiding behind handles and often-to-some-extent-created personas, the risks grow greater.

Certainly I am susceptible to those difficulties, and forums do not always bring out my best. I'd say that many men, in particular, fare poorly in that regard, because of a competitive and combative streak (which I share); and of their nature many forums that interest me will be male-dominated (do men like this format better than women?). They will also frequently descend to pissing contests.

So almost always at some point in time, a given forum stops being fun for me. A spirited debate, sometimes one I've started, can get nastier and nastier, until I wonder, how did we get here? (knowing full well that I own my part of the mess).

Then it's time to get out.

I hope blogging will not be like that -- although I know that bloggers burn out, too. But mine is a modest blog with a small readership, unlikely to generate any demands I can't handle (indeed, unlikely to generate any demands at all, except for self-imposed ones).

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Flip-Flop Nation

On my Sunday morning rounds today, which took in Atlantic Bread Company, Qdoba, the Fox River Mall including Jos. A. Bank, and Barnes & Noble, I noticed (and counted) that despite dismally wet and initially cool weather, flip-flops outnumbered other male footwear (including other styles of sandal) by about three to one on guys of all ages. Time for a Memo to the Male American Nation: Fellas, this has gotten completely out of hand. Your toes just aren't that appealing. And for those of you over 40, this is outright undignified; save it for the beach (and then avoid the beach: very few males over 40 look good there).

I own a couple of pairs of sandals myself, although I don't get much use out of them unless I'm in Mexico: a pair of black leather slides from Lord & Taylor, and a pair of brown closed toe "dress" sandals from Kenneth Cole. I hold onto these in case of a need arising; they both look fairly decent for footwear of this kind.

But the sudden ubiquity of cheap flip-flops in every possible situation -- spare me.

UPDATE (5/7/2009): As noted in a later post, I eventually relented and bought a nice pair of Clarks flip-flops, for the sake of Walt Whitman-ian contradiction and as an "if you can't beat 'em join 'em" gesture. I don't wear them much, but occasionally the mood takes me. I still think flip-flops are too ubiquitous, as complained of in the original post, but every now and then I see a guy pull the look off. I always make a mental tip-o'-the-hat when I see men get away with clothing choices that shouldn't work or that don't generally appeal to me.)

Willem Elsschot

As part of my Dutch Literature Project, I borrowed a volume by the Flemish writer Willem Elsschot (1882-1960) from the Cofrin Library at University of Wisconsin Green Bay. (All the public universities in Northeast Wisconsin joined to offer a shared library card for community users; it's great having that access.) The volume, published in the Biblioteca Neerlandica series in 1965, is blandly titled Three Novels. The translations are by A. Brotherton.

"Three Novels" might be stretching it a bit; that sounds like a lot of material. The first, Soft Soap, which I just finished, is 139 pages, which certainly qualifies as a compact novel; the second, The Leg, is 57 pages, and the third, Will-o'-the-Wisp, is 40 pages, so those are at most novellas or long short stories. As I have noted in my prior excursions into Dutch literature, Soft Soap doesn't read in the least like a conventional novel. Oh, it has characters, and a theme, but no real plotting or suspense or the other common characteristics of a "novel." It reads more like a fictional demonstration of a truth -- and a brilliant demonstration at that.

Soft Soap, which shares characters with other productions in the Elsschot fictional universe, is set in the Antwerp business world of the 1920s. It is one of the best fictions about business I've ever read -- I'll pick that subject up in a later post. Elsschot's two "perpetrators," Boorman and Laarmans, "soft soap" (and sometimes near-blackmail) businesses into ordering stacks of what looks like an independent publication but is in fact fully paid for marketing literature. This is not an uncommon practice even today; the book has a decidedly timeless feel in a business sense. Boorman, and Laarmans as his protege, are shrewd operators as salesmen, and as a marketer Boorman is in fact a puffer of genius; he can extemporize copy that sounds great (pure b.s., of course, but that's marketing for you). It is the borderline legitimacy and near humanity of these skunks that makes Soft Soap more complex than an Onion-type satire.

Martin Seymour-Smith in his Guide to Modern World Literature says of Elsschot, "He is an unsensational, sophisticated, parodic, tender realist of genius: a delightful writer, and a major one. Elsschot is full of subtle feeling..." Now that is a lot of adjectives, but it also seems like a completely accurate description after reading Soft Soap. I'll be reading all of Elsschot that exists in English translation.

So the Dutch Literature Project has spawned a sub-project on Willem Elsschot; and Soft Soap also falls squarely in my Business Fiction Project. This is an entirely characteristic progression for me. As Yogi Berra said, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it!" I interpret that to mean, take all of them.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Reading Diary

Reading time suffered this week because of a heavy load at work, so it was a joy to get back to Trollope this morning. Last weekend while reading Can You Forgive Her? I was very moved by the reconciliation scene between Plantagenet and Glencora Palliser; in recent weeks Trollope has brought chills to my spine, laughter to my lips, and tears to my eyes. This week I was reminded anew how good he is observationally, as in this comment of Glencora's about her infatuation with Burgo Fitzgerald:

When I saw him the other night he was just as handsome as ever — the same look, half wild and half tame, like an animal you cannot catch, but which you think would love you so if you could catch him.

I have never read a better expression of why women go for the "wrong" men.

My Wardrobe: Black Split-Toe Lace-Ups

On the theory that a guy simply can't have enough black shoes, I have been adding to my collection. These Hugo Boss black split-toe lace-ups arrived this week. Studly-looking shoes!

They are a replacement for a pair of Cole-Haans that are of lesser quality (although perfectly acceptable for weekend wear until the soles go). The Cole-Haans are "corrected grain leather," the kind that looks bright and sort of pre-polished. I'm wearing the Cole-Haans with jeans today and they actually look pretty sharp, but the Bosses are way finer shoes, and I like the elongated styling. On the Cole-Haans, the split line is shorter; the longer split line on the Bosses is more elegant to my eyes.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Television Series: Getting Hooked

The first few episodes of any television series that is truly serial in nature form the crucial stretch during which a viewer is hooked. I noted in my post about Hill Street Blues just how good its pilot episode is -- and all the early episodes follow suit, there's scarcely a weak minute. This week, I have been re-watching the early first season episodes of Northern Exposure, and they both set the tone of that series beautifully (verging toward the precious without quite landing there) and slip in casual references that will play out hugely later on (Maggie's boyfriends and their fates, the founding of the town by Cicely and Roslyn).

Let me assess some other first episodes I've watched recently, what with all the complete season DVD box sets being issued lately.

Epitafios -- From my notes: "I can vacillate on whether I'm going to commit to a series. I watched the first episode of HBO's Spanish language serial killer series Epitafios the other night, for example, and I'm not sure I'm going to go the distance. Plus: the Buenos Aires setting (there's a city that fascinates me!). Minus: it seemed sort of sub-David Fincher. So I don't know. It was a library borrow so I have no sunk investment." (I haven't watched another episode yet.)

Big Love -- From the same notes: "I'm also not sure whether I'm going to continue with Big Love (after viewing the first two episodes). It's well acted to be sure, but my problem is I just don't get it. My thinking was well captured by a poster at the Internet Movie Database:

One thing I don't get and I don't think is adequately explained is why would someone want more than one wife. The financial and other burdens are enormous, as the show illustrates. There are allusions to religious reasons, but that's about as far as it goes.What is the upside? What would compel someone to do this? What is the motivation? What is the motivation for these women to enter into such an arrangement? These things go largely unexplored. What sane person would say I would like to buy three houses all in a row, make them a compound, have three wives (and then find three women willing to do this), have a bus load of children, and then spend most of my life trying to cover this up??"

(I haven't continued with this yet either.)

All Creatures Great and Small -- A great first episode, introducing young vet James Herriot to the Yorkshire town that will become his home. Plenty of warmth, especially when James is offered the job he seeks. Unlike Dr. Fleischman in Northern Exposure, who resists Alaska to the end, James will flourish in his new surroundings. (I'm nearing the end of my viewing of the first season.)

Monarch of the Glen -- "I've launched another series with the first two episodes of Monarch of the Glen on DVD. So far it strikes me as very much Northern Exposure in the highlands, which is not at all bad; another obvious antecedent is All Creatures Great and Small, another show with wacky locals to spare. It remains to be seen if Monarch of the Glen, which seems determinedly light in tone, can ever pull off the trick of being actually moving, as those two series do. One less than hopeful sign is that Richard Briers's Hector, the family patriarch who occupies a roughly equivalent position in the show's scheme to Barry Corbin's Maurice in Northern Exposure and Robert Hardy's Siegfried Farnon in All Creatures, is far more purely cartoonish (and less engaging) than those two complex and oddly endearing gentlemen.

Still, only two episodes into a seven season series; plenty of time." (Unresumed as yet.)

The Sopranos -- I'll write about this separately later. Phenomenal first episode. (I'm also nearing the end of my viewing of the first season.)

It's easy to see that the shows whose early episodes don't "grab" me languish and fall behind in my viewing queue.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

This 1975 spy thriller directed by Sydney Pollack was already at the top of my Netflix queue when word came of Pollack's death. He was a very respectable presence in Hollywood, as director, producer, and actor; I especially liked him as an actor. (Indeed, I thought I had a nifty trivia question to which Pollack was the only answer -- "Name an actor who has worked with Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, and Woody Allen" -- until I realized that Shelley Duvall also qualified.)

I had long wanted to see Three Days of the Condor because it is described as one of the "paranoid thrillers" of the early Seventies, but I can't honestly say that it matches up to the definitive examples directed by Alan J. Pakula (Klute, The Parallax View, All the President's Men). Pollack was always a craftsmanlike director, but I haven't yet seen a film of his that got my juices flowing.

It's the little things that make the difference. Owen Roizman's cinematography in Condor is effective, but scarcely at the brilliant level of Gordon Willis's work in the three Pakula films. Dave Grusin's music does nothing for Condor atmospherically -- it's just throwaway pop jazz -- while Michael Small's music in the first two Pakulas and David Shire's in the third contribute hugely to the ominous atmosphere of those movies.

Three Days of the Condor is based on a well-regarded novel by James Grady which I haven't looked at, but the plotting seems a little weak. Robert Redford's spy-on-the-run "reads" one situation involving a mail delivery really stupidly, so that key scene seems forced. The whole business about his roping in "innocent bystander" Faye Dunaway seemed to me a dramatic cul-de-sac, although it occupies a huge portion of the running time.

Where Condor pays off is in some of the dialogue exchanges. Redford has two great scenes late in the film, one with Max von Sydow as a civilized Belgian hit-man, the other with Cliff Robertson as a CIA executive; the latter scene is prescient in the way that Robertson lays it on the line about Peak Oil and resource depletion -- looking forward to roughly where we are now.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Spiral Staircase (1946)

For Gothic atmosphere on film, Robert Siodmak's The Spiral Staircase can scarcely be bettered. I remember very well the first time I saw this film. One summer during the early Seventies, ABC ran a series of black and white classics from the Forties era in prime time, between four and six in all (my memory's a little hazy). One was Portrait of Jennie, another was The Spiral Staircase; right now I forget the rest (and I haven't had much luck finding details about this venture). The series was my real introduction to classic American cinema, film noir, and the possibilities of black and white cinematography, so I will be forever grateful to whoever it was at ABC that came up with the idea.

The Spiral Staircase is based on a mystery novel by Ethel Lina White (who also wrote the novel on which Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes is based). Frankly, the mystery angle doesn't amount to much, at least in the movie; an astute viewer should be able to figure out the identity of the killer by process of elimination fairly early on. A serial killer is picking off all the physically and mentally challenged young ladies in a wholesome American town in 1916; the obvious next target is a mute girl who works as a companion to a dowager who lives in a magnificent old house with several other family members and servants on premise. There are only so many people the killer could be; once you get it down to two and eliminate the one the folks in the movie are suspicious of, you're done!

But the real joy of the movie is in the sheer skillful spookiness of the direction. The widow's house on the "dark and stormy night" of the action provides Siodmak with wonderful opportunities for shadowy and threatening mise-en-scene, not one of which he wastes. The look of the house perhaps bears a slight indebtedness to the Amberson mansion in Orson Welles's The Magnificent Amberson, which had appeared a few years before and which no gifted film-maker like Siodmak could fail to profit from. But the mature mastery of technique here is quite unmistakable.

Siodmak had an odd directorial trajectory -- he "careered from career to career," to borrow a phrase from Stephen Sondheim. He began making films in his native Germany and later in France in the Thirties; spent 12 years (1941-1952) cranking them out in Hollywood (including such noir classics as The Killers, Criss Cross, and The Dark Mirror); them moved back to Europe and closed out his career with twenty more years of film-making in Germany, France, and England (with only a couple of U.S.-financed projects). About half his Hollywood films, mostly very good indeed, are the visible portion of this output; the rest are currently almost impossible to see, so it is very hard to assess Siodmak overall.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Offbeat Travel Books

I finished these two excellent books, both with "Lost" in the title, a while back, but at least wanted to acknowledge their distinction with a quick note. The ideas for both books are marvelous and original -- not an easy accomplishment in an age of exponentially proliferating travel books!

Daniel Kalder's brashly funny Lost Cosmonaut explores some (there are lots) of the obscure republics of Soviet Europe: Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El, and Udmurtia. The surface of Kalder's narrative is "disrespectful" and politically incorrect, which some readers dislike, but I felt that one level deeper he actually conveys an existential empathy with his destinations that is, as he aptly puts it, "anti-touristic":

The anti-tourist does not visit places that are in any way desirable...The anti-tourist seeks locked doors and demolished buildings...The anti-tourist travels at the wrong time of year...The anti-tourist is interested only in hidden histories, in delightful obscurities, in bad art...The anti-tourist values disorientation over enlightenment.

And of disorientation, Kalder provides a-plenty.

Riccardo Orizio's Lost White Tribes is also thoroughly disorienting, taking on as it does the rich subject of colonial "left behinds," stragglers of history who never returned to their homelands. We get pockets of Dutch in Sri Lanka and Namibia, ex-Southern Confederates in Brazil (where slavery was legal until 1888, 23 years after the War between the States ended), French in Guadeloupe, Germans in Jamaica, and Poles in Haiti. These remnants are themselves disoriented, probably permanently. Some have become inbred; they are largely poor; most pine for a "golden" past they can never know; their relations with both their countries of residence and of origin are tenuous at best.