Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

Continuing my exploration of the British New Wave / Angry Young Man / Kitchen Sink Realism movement (or parallel linked movements, it might be more fair to say). I tried watching the first five minutes of Tony Richardson's adaptation of Alan Sillitoe's short story first without, and then with, the conveniently supplied English subtitles, and subtitles were clearly the way to go; it was amazing to discover how much of the dialectal, casually enunciated language I missed when I had only my ear to go by.

This is another excellent film of its kind, with superior acting by Tom Courtenay and Michael Redgrave, and fine black and white cinematography by Walter Lassally; but watching it, I could understand why the British New Wave was not a particularly numerous cycle of movies -- there were only about a dozen such films, and a few more outliers up through the Seventies that bear some relation to the cycle. The films really are kind of glum, not least in the way that they (honestly) suggest no way out of their deadening situations.

Courtenay's "long distance runner," a young man sent to reform school for a petty thievery, is actually a sprinter, like most of those reared in his lower class circumstances: despite some intuitions about injustice, he only has a feeling for immediate gratification in the form of impulsive behaviors and momentarily satisfying gestures. The big cynical clincher at the end of the story is consistent with this attitude: the runner gives up his chance at liberation for the sake of poking a stick in someone's eye. Whether the stick is deserved or not is beside the point; the boy has thrown away the long distance race (his life) for the fleeting pleasure of an "up yours." As Danny Peary has astutely pointed out, this is not satisfying or cathartic for the audience, which is apt to be frustrated by the waste of it all. It is a memorable ending, though, well filmed by Richardson -- just not the capper to a fun night out.

POSTSCRIPT: For the record, the total corpus of the British New Wave as best as I can make out comprises these thirteen films: Look Back in Anger and Room at the Top, 1959; The Entertainer and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1960; A Taste of Honey, 1961; The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and A Kind of Loving, 1962; The L-Shaped Room, Billy Liar, and This Sporting Life, 1963; The Pumpkin Eater and The Girl with Green Eyes, 1964; Life at the Top, 1965. Another group of films from 1965 and 1966 -- Darling, Georgy Girl, The Knack, and Morgan -- bears perhaps some fringe relation to the New Wave.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

More on Signaling

Re-reading "The Cost of Living" post, below, I was pleased with it; I feel it conveys my thoughts on "sociological success" very well. One might make a slight distinction as to the weight of the various criteria in overall social stature and "dating desirability"; but all the criteria do figure in both.

I thought of three more criteria, two of which I have used to slight advantage (better than no advantage), and one which disfavors me.

Signal: pedigree. The social class into which one is born, and the money and connections attendant upon that fact, are enormously important, as much as Americans like to pretend otherwise. The depth of an individual's and family's local history can also matter quite a bit, though more in some places (Boston, for example) than others. (My score: I was born into the lower middle class, and there is no money along any branch of the family tree as far as I can tell. I have moved about a fair bit as an adult and have had no local history or rooted friendships to rely upon.)

Signal: charm. Are you intelligent, well-spoken, well-mannered? Like the wardrobe signal, this is one that contemporary American males seem to have largely discarded, which lends an additional advantage to those who don't discard it. Certainly it is an upper middle class standard. (My score: high. I project as well-bred and can hold my own conversationally in the most rarefied social settings. Going to a White House dinner might excite me but wouldn't faze me.)

Signal: presence. Becoming highly involved and visible on the community scene is generally well-received, and combined with a little shrewd public relations work to promote oneself, can have a definite impact on the attractiveness of one's persona. (My score: high, again, but in the small city setting. This is harder to pull off -- although not impossible -- in big cities, unless you already have the money and connections. Here in Wisconsin, it has been relatively easy to become visible, and the efforts I have been involved in genuinely interest me, which of course comes across. Phoniness and over-calculation are never recommended.)

Overall, taking the thirteen criteria I have laid out across two posts, I am a non-entity in a big city setting. In a smaller city, I can and do have a somewhat more successful "air," but it simply wouldn't hold up to close inspection -- a dating partner would see through it in a week.

So I am a flop by sociological standards, but I'll try not to let it depress me, having other fish to fry.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Cost of Living

The cost of living has always struck me as high in ways that have nothing to do with the state of the economy at a given moment. Up till his mid-twenties, perhaps, a man can get by with being kind of poor, living with room-mates, not owning much, and so on; beyond that point in time, one had better be putting out the right signals -- and most of those signals cost significant money. I say "a man" because I just can't speak to the experience of women, and wouldn't try; but I do think my comments are applicable to both straight and gay men who aspire to the upper middle class.

Signal: physical attractiveness. Largely genetically determined, of course, but a guy had better do everything he can to enhance his natural advantages. Short stature and/or a tendency to heaviness are unfortunate, and put a significant burden on a fellow to overcome them as best he can in other ways -- but these disadvantages are never completely overcome. Nowadays, the ante on physical attractiveness has been upped to the point where a considerable investment in gym time, cosmetic dentistry, and so on, is almost a pre-requisite. Athletic ability is also a huge plus for any man. (My score: I'm tall, lean, reasonably handsome, and have expended plenty of effort, successfully, to enhance my physique. My athletic abilities are laughable, so I'll never have the cockiness of the natural athlete.)

Signal: sexual prowess. You have to be able to show your partner a good time. (My score: not a strong point, as I've written about before. Decent endowment, but I've struggled with erectile dysfunction all my life.)

Signal: educational advancement. The perceived quality of the educational institutions you've attended is a mark forever on you. The bigger the city you live in, the more important a factor this is. In certain professions (law, notably) it is positively determinative of the opportunities you'll receive. (My score: high. I have a B.A. from one of the world's finest universities, and I have a master's degree as well. A master's in anything is an advantage.)

Signal: financial stature. A man past 30 must be able to fling dollars around with some abandon in dating and courtship situations, and to do that, he had best have a healthy professional salary. (My score: I've been a below-average earner my entire life, for one reason and another. Next.)

Signal: professional stature. What's your title? (My score: I attained to a vice-presidency in one of my careers -- without hard money attached, unfortunately, since I was on commission, but I won't pretend the title wasn't sweet. Now I'm a lowly manager.)

Signal: wardrobe. Although this point seems somewhat lost on the generation currently in their thirties and forties, it is clearly an advantage to a fellow to be well put-together. (My score: this is the area in which I enthusiastically over-signal -- people surmise based on my dress that my net worth is astronomically higher than it is. I over-commit resources to this hobby, always have, always will, don't care.)

Signal: car. Wheels are a huge signal. I used to think one could get away without having a car in a larger city with good public transportation, but I was wrong -- it is especially important to the city-dweller to have the nice vehicle (despite the hassles) for weekend get-aways, motoring along Lakeshore Drive, etc. The money we spend on cars is largely about their signaling value, since they lose half their economic value the minute we drive them off the lot; and we could always come up with a utilitarian vehicle for a lot less money than a peacocky one. The display value of an SUV has gone down somewhat recently, but a Lexus or BMW is forever. (My score: mediocre. My paid-off silver Mitsubishi Galant is handsome but not spectacular, and has low marquis value. I really would like a Chrysler 300C someday, even if I have to score a used one.)

Signal: digs. Much better to be an owner than a renter, unless it's a quite expensive rental. A well-appointed condo or house in a superior setting is a must for display purposes, whether you are single, coupled, or childed. (My score: pathetic. When I was coupled, we lived in a beautiful although happily inexpensive home, and I still thought it was an enormous expenditure. I have no feel for home improvement and disliked every dollar spent on it. Now that I'm on my own, I live in a pleasant rental that has no display potential because the apartment complex is lower middle class at best, and I can't bring myself to invest in furnishings I don't care about when new suits beckon. The cat doesn't care if there's no sofa, and neither do I.)

Signal: location. The bigger the city, the more impressive it is to be able to live in style there. (My score: I've lived in bigger cities, but never "in style." Now, at 50, I live in small city Wisconsin -- enough said.)

Signal: luxuries. A vacation home or getaway cottage is good to have. Some extra vehicles -- a boat, a motorcycle, a convertible, an ATV, a snowmobile. (Wisconsinites love their multiple vehicles.) Frequent restaurant-going (what a budget-buster!) is a must. At least one international vacation or cruise per year. An expensive sport hobby such as golf is a great signal. (My score: no second home, no extra vehicles, no tony sport. I had the frequent restaurant meals when I was partnered, and thought it a waste, even though meal prices here are nothing compared to big cities. We did budget vacations to Mexico and the Caribbean, and I enjoyed them, but also felt set back, and wouldn't think to do such a vacation on my own.)

All these signals must be paid for by the single guy simply in order to be eligible, to have a life fit for sharing. Once his status changes to partnered, then married, then childed, the level of financial obligation rises at every step, and new signals become important although none of the core signals listed above disappears, either.

Maybe I have Thorstein Veblen on my brain too much, but this is a game I have never felt able to play, and won't play now. One result is that I have never approached a potential relationship in a financially equivalent position to the other person; and that has worked out so disastrously for me that I honestly can't recommend it. Playing the signaling game is what it takes to be considered worth others' time in my world; I figure I would have to make at least double, more likely triple, the amount that I have ever made, in order to be able to play the game well (and even then, money doesn't quite compensate for all deficiencies).

Do I regret not being able to get in the game? A little; but the cost feels so enormous to me that I can scarcely contemplate it. For all my study of literature, history, and sociology, I don't understand practically how others are able to play this game -- although I do understand the drive to do so.

Sister Anne

One of my longest-running reading projects is the works of Beatrix Potter. My interest in Potter began with a very good children's biography of her called Nothing Is Impossible, by Dorothy Aldis, which I discovered at the Julius Forstmann Public Library in Passaic where I grew up. The library owned most of Potter's works, too, so I began reading them then and have continued to read and re-read them in spurts over the years. Although several of them were published in larger or fold-out formats originally, the "canonical" series of 23 books (Peter Rabbit to Little Pig Robinson) are mainly familiar in the tiny editions published by Frederick Warne. Over the years four more Potter manuscripts have been published in a similar format: Wag-by-Wall, The Faithful Dove, The Sly Old Cat, and Tuppenny. There are also two longer works that qualify as novels and that were published in a conventionally sized format late in Potter's life, The Fairy Caravan and Sister Anne. I had never gotten around to reading these and recently ordered both through interlibrary loan.

As Potter's eyesight declined the text-to-pictures proportions of her books changed markedly; the later books generally have many more words. So it was natural in a way that Potter should eventually prepare true long fictions. The Fairy Caravan (which I am halfway through) is something of a miscellany of oddments and episodes, held together by the conceptual backbone of a traveling animal circus invisible to human eyes. But Sister Anne, a retelling of the Bluebeard story, has a true sustained narrative line. It is also by far the most adult of Potter's published work; the least-known and the least-read (it had but one edition and was not reprinted after 1932; my loan came from a university library). One might wonder about the suitability for children of a book featuring this cheery verse:

What did he do with her tongue so rough?
Unto the violl it spake enough!
What did he do with her nose ridge?
Unto the violl he made it a bridge.
Down, down, hey down.
What did he do with her fingers small?
He made him pegs to his violl withall.

Sister Anne is a gorgeously strange book, written in tight prose with somewhat unfamiliar but evocative short words of an antique rural flavor ("haugh," "mell," "rabbletail," "shippons," and so on). Ultimately it compares quite favorably with Bela Bartok's wonderful opera Duke Blubeard's Castle as a version of this familiar tale. The first paragraph conveys the writing style and the atmosphere achieved by it:

In days of old a castle stood upon the hill beyond the Sands. East and north beyond the landward slope there was huddled a gray squalid town. Towards the sea and the south the castle rock rose sheer, with wind-blown sand at foot -- sand that edged the coast for leagues in benty hillocks. Salt water lapped against the sand ridges at high tide; but at most hours of the day and night the bay was covered with mud. It stretched for miles and miles, glittering like gold at sunset, shining like silver at moonrise, treacherous with shifting quicksands when the tide came up. Rows of stakes half buried in slime marked fords across fresh-water channels, to guide those venturesome travellers who chose to cross the Sands instead of following the coast road round the bay.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

My Wardrobe: Madras Trousers

I had been hunting for a nice pair of Madras trousers, and hit pay dirt on Ebay:

As with spectator shoes, to wear these in this day and age, you have to be comfortable with attention. It's usually very pleasant attention, but some people are shy even of receiving compliments in public. Not this boy! Yesterday, I wore these trousers with an open-necked blue dress shirt, navy blazer, and black Bally loafers in the lakeside town of Port Washington, Wisconsin, and I was hailed with comments and questions, from passers-by, people on boats, people on bar decks, and so on. The pants were a hit.

Port Washington, you may know, is the home of the Allen Edmonds shoe company, so I stopped at the "Shoe Bank" and did some damage. I think I must have more than a dozen pairs of Allen Edmonds now. (I counted: there are fifteen. I don't think I'll report the overall number of pairs of shoes.)

Miscellaneous Round-Up

Blogging time has been scarce lately what with work pressures, but I have a couple of five-day weekends coming up (including over Labor Day) that should enable me to catch up...Reading over recent entries, I realize I am going to have to stop making digs at Joseph Epstein for being such a curmudgeon; curmudgeon, c'est moi!...I finished reading Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, which is of middling quality as these non-fiction bestsellers go. The subject-matter is compelling, especially for Chicago-philes like myself, and there is some social capital to be had out of reading such books, because others will have read them too (or at least have heard of them)...I also finished Graham Greene's excellent The Heart of the Matter, and started on a book-length interview with Greene, The Other Man. In this latter book, Greene speaks about betrayal in a way quite reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Melville, for whom it was also a key theme:

I've betrayed a great number of things and people in the course of my life, which probably explains this uncomfortable feeling I have about myself, this sense of having been cruel, unjust. It still torments me often enough before I go to sleep.

...I filled in my key Bruckner symphony gaps by purchasing and listening to recordings of the "Symphony No. 0" in D minor (Riccardo Chailly, Decca), and the "Study Symphony" in F minor (Georg Tintner, Naxos) -- both sturdy works with fine thematic material. The Chailly recording also includes Bruckner's Overture in G minor; the Tintner recording includes the later replaced "Volksfest" finale from the 1878 version of Symphony No 4, powerful to hear (but there is as yet no integral recording of the complete 1878 version)...Generally speaking, I find it takes me three hearings to truly start absorbing an unfamiliar classical composition. I have been following that protocol in listening to Paul Lewis's recordings of the Beethoven piano sonatas on Harmonia Mundi, since there are many of the sonatas I don't know that well or haven't heard in years. No. 2 in A major stands out as a piece that, if I was a piano student, I think would be fun to learn to play: it's charming...I haven't made a beer entry in a while, but I should say that New Glarus's new Berliner Weisse is probably the best sour beer I have ever had.

Mad Men

Mad Men offers so many instantly classic scenes, lines, and characters that you can easily forgive it for at times trying just a little too hard to set up those situations. In the first episode, a wonderful launch, it is difficult to believe when you sit back and think about it that a seasoned ad man such as Don Draper (creator Matthew Weiner's offering to Archetype Central) would (a) tell off a new client two minutes into an initial meeting, and (b) go unprepared into a session with a key advertiser. But the moments pass and Weiner rights the ship quickly, as with this key Draperism in the (b) scene:

Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you're doing is OK. You are OK.

That is flat-out good writing, and it deserves whatever awards it will garner. (It is beautifully delivered by Jon Hamm, who also deserves his awards and nominations.)

There are other areas in which Mad Men occasionally overdoes it (as Six Feet Under did with its mock advertisements in early episodes, a trope quickly dropped). The cultural superiority you feel when Joan says that the new IBM typewriter was designed so a woman could use it, or when Betty Draper shows no reaction to her daughter playing with a plastic bag over her head -- the nail in those instances is being hammered just a little too gleefully. We get it. Similarly, Bryan Batt seems to have been encouraged to over-telegraph Sal's homosexuality; we get that, too, and in the early going it doesn't shape up as one of the series' more promising storylines (but I'm only a few episodes in).

But the splendid moments far outnumber the missteps. Don rejecting Pete's offered handshake in silhouette -- Harry Crane speculating on Draper --

Draper? Who knows anything about that guy? No one’s ever lifted that rock. He could be Batman for all we know.

-- January Jones's hurting quality as Betty: these are phenomenal. (Jones is like a Tippi Hedren with superior acting skill -- Hitchcock would have been all over her.)

POSTSCRIPT: One aspect of the series that I don't feel is overdone is the smoking and drinking. Just as you know the "Sixties" are coming to up-end the entire Mad Men culture, you also know that the people you watch are driving themselves into an early grave. Don Draper will not live to a ripe old age: you can just tell. Even his moment as alpha stud master of the world is just that, a moment. It will be interesting to see how the series handles this if it gets to a Season Four or Five.

UPDATE (5/11/2009): I finished watching the first season a little while ago. What a phenomenal show. Don Draper's Kodak Carousel pitch in the final episode is one of the great television scenes ever.

Joseph Biden

I've been a Joe Biden fan for 25 years. He is in fact my favorite politician -- intelligent, good-humored, appealing, seasoned. So I greeted the news of Barack Obama picking him as his running mate with a good deal of pleasure. I do think that he "lifts the ticket." He appeals to voter demographics that Obama needs -- for example, as has been widely noted, he appeals to older women voters much more than McCain does, and that's a demographic with a heavy turnout. He should contribute substantially to policy, and I was glad to hear Obama say that he looked forward to Biden challenging him. As little use as I have for Dick Cheney, I much prefer the Cheney/Al Gore model of active Vice President to the Dan Quayle model of the guy in the corner. I believe that the Vice Presidency should be a key substantive office, and the choice of a Vice President is very important to me as a voter.

It was becoming pretty clear that Obama would pick Biden, based on the names being floated. There was no way he was going to pick Evan Bayh and have an Illinois-Indiana ticket; that is too geographically concentrated. An Obama-Tim Kaine ticket would have amounted to two virgins on the national scene, and you can't have that either. Biden is no virgin in national politics; he has been around the block a few times. He is unquestionably presidential in demeanor, and he will be a huge asset. With Hillary receiving the news quite graciously, the Democratic Convention ought to be a jolly gathering and a great launch-pad for the remainder of the campaign.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Daniel Dennett on Religion

Apropos of my recent comments on religion, I came across this striking passage from an interview with noted Darwinian scientist Daniel Dennnett, which puts the matter beautifully (my bolding):

It is seldom remarked (though often observed in private, I daresay) that many, many people who profess belief in God do not really act the way people who believed in God would act; they act the way people would act who believed in believing in God. That is, they manifestly think that believing in God is — would be — a good thing, a state of mind to be encouraged, by example if possible, so they defend belief-in-God with whatever rhetorical and political tools they can muster. They ask for God’s help, but do not risk anything on receiving it, for instance. They thank God for their blessings, but, following the principle that God helps those who help themselves, they proceed with the major decisions of their lives as if they were going it alone.

Those few individuals who clearly do act as if they believed in God, really believed in God, are in striking contrast: the Christian Scientists who opt for divine intervention over medical attention, for instance, or those who give all their goods to one church or another in expectation of the Apocalypse, or those who eagerly seek martyrdom.

Not wanting the contrast to be so stark, the believers in belief-in-God respond with the doctrine that it is a sin (or at least a doctrinal error) to count on God’s existence to have any particular effect. This has the nice effect of making the behavior of a believer in belief-in-God and the behavior of a believer in God so similar [under that doctrine] as to be all but indistinguishable.

Once nothing follows from a belief in God that doesn’t equally follow from the presumably weaker creed that it would be good if I believed in God — a doctrine that is readily available to the atheist, after all — religion has been so laundered of content that it is quite possibly consistent with science. Peter de Vries, a genuine believer in God and probably the funniest writer on religion ever, has his hyper-liberal Reverend Mackerel (in his book The Mackerel Plaza) preach the following line: "It is the final proof of God’s omnipotence that he need not exist in order to save us."

The Reverend Mackerel’s God can co-exist peacefully with science. So can Santa Claus, who need not exist in order to make our Yuletide season more jolly.

Note that Dennett makes the same God=Santa Claus comparison that Jean-Pierre Melville does.

Melville on Melville

Some random harvests from the great Melville on Melville: On his early films, Melville was often short of money and had to halt and resume filming as finances dictated -- reminiscent of David Lynch's filming of Eraserhead, and Ed Wood's of practically everything! (I love the fact that Wood's Night of the Ghouls didn't surface for a quarter-century because Wood couldn't pay the lab bill.)...Melville also shot in semi-documentary style in those early years, employing non-professionals who were often given "no idea what we were up to" -- the same method that Roger Corman employed in shooting The Intruder in small Southern towns...Melville said that "My dream is to make a colour film in black and white, in which there is only one tiny detail to remind us that we really are watching a film in colour." He just about pulled it off in Army of Shadows, which is easy to remember as being in black and white although it actually is in color. Director William Wellman and cinematographer William H. Clothier experimented successfully with the effect Melville describes in Track of the Cat (1954)...Melville's obsession with his hero Herman Melville's most difficult novel, Pierre or The Ambiguities, was taken up by later French director Leos Carax, who adapted the novel (sort of) as the supremely perplexing Pola X (Pola=Pierre ou Les Ambiguities; X=ten drafts of the script)...I like Melville's comment on "the superman side of every star. Top professionals...have a sure, unshakeable instinct for the right gesture. A an ordinary person with something else extra." The other night, I watched the first episode of the 1990-1991 British television series Chancer, starring a young Clive Owen, and it was easy to see exactly what Melville meant: Owen's star quality, that "sure, unshakeable instinct for the right gesture," was utterly palpable. Something extra, indeed.

El Compadre Mendoza (1934)

During the Thirties, the gifted Mexican director Fernando de Fuentes made three films about the Mexican Revolution that are often referred to as a "trilogy," although in fact they don't share characters. All three are now available in a subtitled DVD set, happily. I watched the second of the group, the impressive El Compadre Mendoza, first, and now I'm looking forward to the others -- Prisoner 13 and Let's Go with Pancho Villa (great title!).

Fuentes co-directed El Compadre Mendoza with his co-scenarist Juan Bustillo Oro, who like him had a long career as a writer-director in the Mexican cinema. This film is a subtle statement on divided loyalties. Landowner Rosalio Mendoza cultivates the good graces of both the government forces (first the Huertistas, after President Victoriano Huerta; later the Carrancistas, after President Venustiano Carranza) and the rebels (the Zapatistas, after revolutionary Emiliano Zapata). At first this situation is played for comedy, with Mendoza's assistant putting up and taking down portraits of Huerta, Carranza, and Zapata as different visitors come to the hacienda. But eventually Mendoza's game gets more dangerous; the rebels almost kill him on his own wedding day before Zapatista general Felipe Nieto intervenes -- and even so, they do string up a government official. It may seem unusual for a lynching to occur at one's wedding, but revolution is a serious business no matter how light-heartedly one tries to maneuver through it.

General Nieto becomes godfather to Mendoza's son, and admirer (reciprocated) to his wife Lolita (though they keep their longing in check; they only commit adultery with their eyes, and the somewhat obtuse Mendoza never seems aware of it). Ultimately, in order to protect his family, Mendoza has to make the hardest of choices -- the only imaginable choice for a devoted husband and father, perhaps, but a horrifying decision nonetheless.

This is an exceptionally well-done movie in every respect. I especially like the refusal of melodrama in the gradual drawing closer of Nieto and Lolita; all they will ever have of each other are a few glances, and that must suffice. Although Lolita is in a forced marriage, she is loyal; and Nieto genuinely looks on Mendoza as the best of friends, as Mendoza looks on him. These are three good people caught in the juggernaut of history, and history is not kind. All three actors, Carmen Guerrero as Lolita, Antonio R. Frausto as Nieto, and Alfredo del Diestro as Mendoza, are very accomplished here; the Chilean Diestro, reminiscent of Edward Arnold in films such as Come and Get It, is especially good in a role that could have been caricatural in effect.

The Fallen Idol (1948)

Here at PMD, I try to stay true to my method of angling in on just one or two aspects of a film or book at a time. I genuinely hated my days as a freelance movie reviewer, when I had to dutifully write about the whole production. (Acting -- check! Screenplay -- check! Cinematography -- check!) Now I disclaim any identity as a reviewer, critic, or essayist; but fortunately, blogging allows for just the type of note-taking that I enjoy.

All of which is by way of preface to my highlighting my favorite aspect of Carol Reed's and Graham Greene's generally excellent The Fallen Idol (which they made just one year before The Third Man). That is the treatment of space, which perhaps owes something to Orson Welles's example in The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles, of course, is often credited with a hand in the direction of The Third Man, which I think is unfair to Reed. Everyone involved acknowledged what Welles did bring to that party -- an aura of legend and some inspired contributions to his own dialogue (the cuckoo clock comment in the Ferris wheel scene, memorably).

Reed was a terrific director in his own right. That he had learned from Welles seems certain -- no director then or now could be exposed to Citizen Kane and Ambersons without learning something. One lesson Reed may have learned in part from Welles is how, through inspired mise-en-scene and editing, to construct a very solid-seeming and memorable building from scraps of film.

Both Fallen Idol and Ambersons center on a house with a monumental staircase. Welles uses the staircase and landings of the Amberson mansion for effects reminiscent of Shakespearean theater:

Welles also has Stanley Cortez's camera "prowl" the mansion, both in crowded (the famous ball) and empty states. (The latter shots were largely excised by the studio during their infamous butchering of the movie, although we have stills to show what Welles and Cortez were getting at.)

Reed's interiors are brightly lit compared to Welles's. Much of the action of The Fallen Idol (including the crucial plot event) takes place around the staircase. We are often put in the position of looking down to the vivid checkerboard floor below:

To an unusual extent, characters in The Fallen Idol are observed from above and from behind, often as they are in movement from one point to another. This has the effect of familiarizing us with the spaces they inhabit, so that we develop an acute sense of where the rooms in the ambassador's home are in relation to one another and how one gets from here to there. As in Ambersons, the interior architecture becomes something of a "character" in its own right; certainly one comes away from both films with more of a precise spatial impression than most other movies provide.

POSTSCRIPT: Among my less favorite elements of The Fallen Idol is, unfortunately, the central performance by child actor Bobby Henrey as the Francophone ambassador's son, who idolizes the butler Baines (Ralph Richardson, quite wonderful). Henrey was well-coached by Reed, and his performance doesn't drive me as crazy as John Adames's little boy in John Cassavetes's Gloria, but I find it grating in a somewhat similar way. Child performances are really hit or miss. Imagine Jack Clayton's The Innocents or Stanley Kubrick's The Shining with poorly cast children; they would be much lesser films. (A moment of intense interrogation of Henrey in The Fallen Idol looks forward to a similar scene with the much better Martin Stephens in The Innocents.)

I do understand that Reed utilizes Henrey's obnoxious quality purposefully -- especially in the final scene, where little Phile, having taken an adult's instruction a little too literally, runs around trying to get everyone's attention after matters are "resolved." I may never be able to get the way he wails "Baines!!" out of my skull.

The Olympics

I have not watched a minute of the 2008 Olympics, nor will I. Of course, this is made easier by my not owning a television set; but even if I had one, I would keep maximum distance from the whole horrible contrived pseudo-event.

Back when he published The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (a very important book!) in 1961, Daniel Boorstin opined that sports provided of our few remaining contacts with uncontrived reality: with people really struggling to win, and not merely to have their victory reported in the papers. The world of ... sports is a last refuge of the authentic, uncorrupted spontaneous event.

But Boorstin was writing before the heyday of televised sports, and the advent of ESPN and 24/7 coverage, and the major intrusion of technology into competition, and before there was even a Super Bowl (which has become one of the Big Daddy Pseudo-Events of them all). Sports nowadays is as scripted and non-spontaneous as any other entertainment form; there are only occasional surprises, wrinkles in the master narrative, because of actual competitive conditions. Lord help Michael Phelps if he (or anyone else involved) had gone "off-script" in his quest for eight gold medals.

Olympic sports as pseudo-events are particularly egregious because two months from now, no one will give a shit. At least with football, and baseball, and golf, fandom is continuous; people follow those sports. The Olympics exist in an extremely limited spatial-temporal bubble, which both athletes and advertisers realize; the endorsement window for Olympic stars is quite brief. The public, satiated, moves swiftly on to the next pseudo-event.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


Of all the abstract qualities and ideas that I've had to modify my notion of as I age, "friendship" is the one whose modification I most regret. Love, sex, marriage, family, children, home, community, work, money, status, religion, politics, country, sport, and so on -- the received common understandings of most of those have been out the window for me for quite some time, and good riddance in many cases. But friendship -- darn. I retain sentiment about a few things -- life just isn't bearable if you don't, although I think a mature mind should try to keep that baggage to a minimum, and to reserve the sentiment for those situations where the distance between fantasy and actuality isn't too great. The natural world really is worthy of reverence; books really are companionable; travel really is stimulating; dogs and cats really are loyal. My feelings in those directions haven't changed much since young adulthood.

I used to argue friendship into that category, but the evidence for that seems to me to steadily diminish as one ages. New friendships are harder to form, old ones are harder to maintain. The intensity of friendship that one feels in youth, really a kind of romance -- that fades. At the bottom of it is the simple, brutal fact that unrelated mature adults just don't have much time for each other outside the workplace, and work "friendships" are, as I've noted earlier, notably situational and tenuous. Without time to blossom and flourish -- the sort of time that is readily available in college, but seldom thereafter -- friendship can't develop to much of a pitch. Most of those we call friends are actually acquaintances. Good to have, but still.

Given all this, as well as ever-increasing experience with people and their behaviors, one's sense of what can realistically be expected from friendship is bound to alter over time, as Jean-Pierre Melville's did:

Commerce with men is a dangerous business. The only way I have found to avoid being betrayed is to live alone. Do you know two men who have lived and worked together as good friends and who are still on amiable speaking terms a few years later? I don't...When you are young, you think that men are interesting animals. I have no illusions any more. What is friendship? It's telephoning a friend at night to say, "Be a pal, get your gun and come on over quickly" -- and hearing the reply, "O.K., be right there." Who does that? For whom?

It is possible perhaps that friendships between women are different in this respect than male or cross-gender friendships -- I obviously can't speak to that. But in general I think Melville is quite correct.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Politicians and Their Libidos

Enough is probably being written about John Edwards right now, but I did enjoy one woman's meltdown in response to an Ellis Henican Newsday column with the resonant line "we must stand in fear and awe at the power of the human libido":

I'm sitting here asking myself one basic question: "Why bother getting married?" Now I'm questioning the institution of marriage. What is the point? If a man cannot control his libido, why does he get married? Stay single and screw around with whomever you want. If you can't keep your zipper up, why do you marry? You know yourself better than any potential spouse does. If your libido is THAT strong, what is the point of getting married? Are women THAT delusional and desperate? Do we believe marriage automatically means that a man will be faithful, and if he is not faithful, it is somehow "our" fault, because we did not "keep him from straying"? These are the kinds of questions I'm asking myself after reading this article. It also makes me sure I never want to marry anybody. After reading this article, I wouldn't trust a man enough to marry him.

You're quite right not to, sister! Anyone who has read a popular evolutionary biology book such as Helen Fisher's Anatomy of Love and compared its observations to their own experience of life would sensibly reach the conclusion that marriage isn't a workable model for many men. For those men, it's not the conceptual incoherence of the institution that's at issue (see discussion a few posts back); it's the inadequacy to their masculine nature.

My own father was very much a case in point. He got married and had children because that was what society expected of him as a young man coming of age in the Fifties; not because it answered any dictates of his nature. The result was that my mother suffered, we kids suffered, and I'm sure that in his way he suffered too -- although he did make his escape and led the high life thereafter. (My mother and his chief girlfriend -- on whom he of course cheated in turn -- became friends and allies in a way that begs to be a movie script someday. The story has a juicy racial angle too, because my parents were white but all my dad's girlfriends were black. He was the self-appointed White Stud of Newark, New Jersey, which led to all kinds of complications.)

We want our politicians and business executives and other male leaders -- the alpha males with the strongest libidos -- to be good husbands and family men, but by and large it's just not in them. Either we change the model or we keep going through this. That said, I do not in the least excuse John Edwards or Bill Clinton or Eliot Spitzer or Mark Foley, etc., etc., for their idiocy and arrogance. You cannot get away with this stuff anymore, guys: that should be patently clear by now. You cannot exist in the public eye and expect to pursue any "private pleasures" at all. The surveillance society exists for you, too; especially for you. Still want to enter national politics? (Why would anyone?)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Railroaded (1947) (including Menswear Moments)

Director Anthony Mann was something of a B-movie noir specialist in the Forties -- although no one knew these films were "noir" yet. (In the Fifties, he was definitely a Westerns specialist.) Railroaded was directed by Mann on a miniscule budget for the Poverty Row studio Producers Releasing Corporation, or PRC (which Hollywood wags said actually stood for "Pretty Rotten Crap"!). As on his other low-budget efforts, Mann, stuck with the scripts, sets, and actors that were typical of the lowliest studios, went all-out on photographic style. Cinematographer John Alton was Mann's most famous collaborator (on six films altogether, including He Walked By Night), but Guy Roe, who shot Railroaded, does a comparably fine job. This is an often beautiful-looking film, and very dark indeed.

The script is only marginally noir because the characters in the most nightmarish situations -- the "railroaded" innocent of the title, a threatened female witness -- are not the focus of the storytelling. But the villain, top-billed John Ireland, ranks as one of the nastier specimens of the no-good handsome guy in noir. He is impeccably dressed -- stylish double-breasted suits, rakish fedoras, gleaming shoes, patterned pocket squares -- and he even perfumes his bullets (nice fetishistic touch!), but he is so rotten-hearted and vicious that one wonders why the women fall for him (good lay, one theorizes, and in fact Ireland apparently had quite the reputation as a stud in real life). As contrast to Ireland, the movie supplies Hugh "Ward Cleaver" Beaumont as a decent, sensible, and really really boring cop. (However, Beaumont does get to wear some nice ties.)

Apart from the woodcut-like compositions, the highlight of the film for me was a full-scale catfight between Jane Randolph as Ireland's moll and Sheila Ryan as the innocent's crusading sister. They really go at it, unusually for two women in noir, but the best part is that Ireland is hiding watching it all, gun in hand, transfixed -- clearly getting off on the female-on-female action. It's a distinctive scene, the wildest and best in the movie.

Miscellaneous Round-Up

A revival of David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow opening on Broadway this October will star Raul Esparza, Jeremy Piven of Entourage, and Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men. All right, I think I could sit through that...Despite my recent praise of big cities for their throbbing sexuality (ahem), I haven't actually been to a city bigger than Milwaukee in quite a while. My depression makes travel difficult for me emotionally, but I am also extremely allergic to the cost of cities, which is worsening all the time. Internet-based cost-of-living comparison tools suggest that in order to maintain my standard of living in Chicago, I would need to make at least twice my current Wisconsin salary; and there is no way that I would be offered that much. The spacious two-bedroom apartment that, with a recent increase, I pay $545.00/month for (including garage and pet fee) would probably run upward of $1,500.00 or $2,000.00 in Chicago, depending on the neighborhood. In New York or San Francisco, it might go for $3,000.00 or $4,000.00...For the past couple of summers, I have been charmed by the ice-cream truck that makes an afternoon run through my neighborhood, tinkling Scott Joplin tunes. It reminds me of Passaic Park, in a good way! It doesn't quite make up for Appleton not being Chicago, but it is pleasant...I was amused to read this in one of the Wall Street Journal's blogs: its competitors, JetBlue has resorted to scouring the couch cushions for change. It now is charging customers $7 for a pillow and a blanket. Meantime, US Airways has slapped a price tag on a cup of water; Delta charges $100 for a second bag on round-trip domestic flights. Not since the days of Woolworths has anyone tried to build a business on nickels and dimes.

I remember hearing the JetBlue announcement and thinking, "Wow! Business suicide!" But we live in strange times...The "Commendatori" episode of the second season of The Sopranos, in which Tony, Christopher, and Paulie visit Naples to do business, renders exquisitely the feeling of visiting a lushly different culture for the first time. Only Tony finds it as magical as, say, I found Mexico on my first trip there; Paulie is let down and is relieved to return to New Jersey, while Christopher doesn't experience Italy at all, spending his entire time there in a heroin haze. It is in this episode that an astute first-time viewer of the series would rightly feel: Christopher is doomed -- not perhaps by the drug abuse per se, but by his inadequacy to occasion.

Sitting, Watching Others Move

My recent comment on my finding sitting in a row of seats at the ballpark or theater or concert-hall to be highly confining reminded me of a comment I posted in a grumpy mood to one of my web-groups back in 2001, under the title "Sitting, Watching Others Move" (perhaps we can call this the SWOM Factor, for short):

Several of us...went to see David Mamet's American Buffalo at the American Theater Company last night. The play and the performance were fine, although the un-air-conditioned theater was uncomfortably hot (we're experiencing a heat/humidity wave here in Chicago).

But I was reminded once again of an incapacity I have been developing. I simply do not any longer enjoy sitting, watching others move. And the more and the longer my movement is constricted, the less I like it. This affects attendance at movies, plays, concerts, dance, and sporting events. It even affects watching television and videos on the couch at home. This is coming to be a philosophical position with me: why should I spend my precious God-given time sitting, watching others move? I should be the one who's moving. I'm the one who's alive in my life. Those movers I watch, whether they are projections on a screen or live bodies, are just shadows on the wall of my cave (as Plato put it in his famous parable). The whole point is getting out of the cave into the sunshine. Or, to put it in cruder terms, the passive American "entertain me" culture sucks. Entertain yourself, damn it!

Now, this doesn't mean I don't still love and respect movies, baseball, etcetera. It does mean my knowledge of them may not grow, because I can't imagine giving them the time I once did; I can't imagine agreeing to sitting, watching others move that much. What isn't covered by my strictures? Reading, radio, listening to CDs, going to art museums and galleries. With all those activities I can move around at will, interrupt at will, take the activities out into the throbbing world with me. They are portable, interactive, and stimulating. They don't rob me of my life. Hence, from now on, I will certainly favor them. This is where I find myself, and I kind of like it here!

OK, so I was a little worked up; and I'm not feeling so extreme about it now. But I still do feel that I was raising an important point, at least for my life. And I did back off attendance at any activities that would require me to sit still for very long. I made my peace with my love of movies by essentially stopping going to the multiplex (my last visits were in early 2007, twice for Zodiac, and once for 300 -- that one was someone else's suggestion for an outing, I assure you!). I receive all my cinematic entertainment by way of DVDs now, and not even on one of today's mammoth home screens, but on a widescreen laptop. I'm aware that there's a trade-off involved here, and I cherish many memories of movies seen on the "big screen" -- but the ritual just stopped working for me; I need to be able to pause and move about.

I stopped watching television on television, too; if a series is good enough to watch, I'll wait for full season DVD sets. Not having any television at home has been tremendously liberating (and economizing), my only regret being not having access to Turner Classic Movies. I did enjoy that station and many of its unique offerings, especially since DVR (Digital Video Recorder) technology made it possible for me to pause films, or save them for later viewing. I keep debating whether to break down and get a television set and cable again for this one channel; if TCM could just be delivered to my laptop I might get over that thought, although a larger screen for my DVD viewing is probably in the cards at some point.

Still -- with any of these variations of home viewing, I get to move around. I have to be able to do that. The SWOM Factor was ultimately very impactful for me.


Here is a nice bit from the English-language Estonian blog Itching for Eestimaa (really, living in the Internet era is kind of amazing, access-to-materials-wise):

In case you haven't heard, the American economy is a bit jittery at the moment. The real estate market is not well, the large investment companies are trying to stay afloat during the national credit crisis, and gas costs a lot more than it used to cost.

And yet, the SUV drivers soldier on, filling up on oversized foodstuffs at gigantic supermarket chains, making pitstops at the local Starbucks to buy a coffee that costs about as much as a whole bag of coffee elsewhere, and generally spending themselves silly on consumer items they do not need, nor can afford.

But there is trouble in the air. People are beginning to realize that they have been living way above their means for quite some time. When I was in high school, it was the high school students who had the shittiest vehicles. Several years afterwards though, one would not be shocked to see a caravan of teenage girls all go driving past in a BMW on the way to the beach, expensive cellphone in manicured hand.

The reality is that people couldn't afford those goods back then, and they are starting to understand that they cannot actually afford them now. When I was younger and trying to figure out the principle of credit, I understood it as borrowing money from my future self to pay for things I need today. What I think is occuring in 2008, is that we have now become our future selves, and we are angry with our past selves for incurring all this debt.

The assumption in the process of taking on debt is that one's future self will be more affluent than one's present self -- considerably more affluent. But except for a statistically very tiny minority of high wage earners, incomes in the United States (and maybe the rest of the "First World" as well?) have not been going up for some time. The idiocy of the assumption (which I readily admit I have been prone to in my own life) is nothing new, as can be seen in this passage I just read today in Middlemarch:

...Fred had felt confident that he should meet the bill himself, having ample funds at disposal in his own hopefulness. You will hardly demand that his confidence should have a basis in external facts; such confidence, we know, is something less coarse and materialistic: it is a comfortable disposition leading us to expect that the wisdom of providence or the folly of our friends, the mysteries of luck or the still greater mystery of our high individual value in the universe, will bring about agreeable issues, such as are consistent with our good taste in costume, and our general preference for the best style of thing.

...would not the deficiencies of one year be made up for by the surplus of another?

Human hopefulness invariably seizes on the "logic" of that last question. Unfortunately, the answer is often "No," and that has never been more true than it is today. At a time when the health of our entire economy is premised upon borrowing, borrowing makes no bloody sense.

Bermuda Shorts

My fellow blogger Patrick Sullivan (Coiled Pleasures) recently obtained a delightfully garish vintage boating blazer and was struck by the feedback he got when he wore it:

I wore it to work with a baggy pair of "stone" (i.e. off-white) poplins from Bill's Khakis and very dirty bucks. I got nothing but positive reactions, to my surprise. The words "snazzy" and "dapper" were employed.

The lesson? Never mind subtle understatement; Go Garish, Get Girls!

Or something like that.

As much as I like subtle understatement, I think Patrick is right: it's overstatement that gets the kudos. This week, I've been having fun with full-blown Bermuda shorts business outfits, the type shown in this actual Bermudan photograph:

To my company picnic, I wore tan Bermuda shorts, an Aquascutum navy blazer, blue shirt with white collar, vintage yellow tie, yellow pocket square, yellow over-the-calf socks, and two-tone Bass black/brown penny loafers. Today, I did a variation on this outfit with a different navy blazer, blue button-down, red patterned tie, red patterned pocket square, and tan over-the-calf socks. I got nothing but delighted comments on both occasions.

UPDATE (5/2/2009): I'm rocking close to the same outfit as first described today, except the blazer is Brooks Brothers, the shirt is a white button-down, and the loafers are black Ballys.


My local public library was kind enough to get me a copy of the 1971 book-length interview with Jean-Pierre Melville, Melville on Melville, which is quite rare and fetching a pretty penny these days. Melville died just two years after the book was published in French and in English, and had only one film left left to make, so we are very lucky to have this text. It is full of wise observations, but I was especially struck by this comment in the chapter on Leon Morin, Pretre:

Faith is something that eludes me because I can't conceive of believing in something that doesn't exist. I don't understand how people can believe in God any more than in Father Christmas. Why do people tell children that Father Christmas doesn't exist, and never tell adults that God doesn't exist? They seem to let this other legendary character go on for ever. To me they are two brothers, God and Father Christmas. They exist only in the minds of children and child-adults. Nevertheless, I do know some very intelligent men who believe in God, so I really can't go so far as to say that people who believe in God are fools. All the same it's amazing. It's quite beyond me.

That sums up my position exactly. I don't get it (as, apparently, I don't get many things). When people talk to me about their "personal relationship with Jesus," it's as if a child was talking to me about their imaginary friend. I understand Melville's willed politeness about believers, because one doesn't wish to be a jerk, but still...

In my failed relationship, my partner was very enthusiastic about his church because of its "open and affirming" attitude toward gays. It is indeed a nice liberal congregation, and I became a member despite personal misgivings about the intellectual hypocrisy involved (in relationships, one does the darndest things!). The church was good for me socially, and gave me access to some lovely people I might otherwise never have known (although I steered around issues of faith, believe me); but when the relationship ended, so did my participation in the church. It would have felt unforgivably hypocritical to sustain a pretence of belief without even the huge fact of a "life partnership" to excuse the imposture.

My several years of active membership in this church and exposure to varying intensities of belief gave me not a shred of insight into how intelligent people could seriously entertain the notions that Christianity embodies -- at least none beyond whatever I had already learned from reading William James, and my long-held intuition that people are awfully attached to the circumstances of their childhoods, religion included.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Abercrombie & Fitch

A while back I posted in one of the menswear forums:

I find everything about A&F creepy, even by the standards of the genre. I mean, I don't go into Pac Sun or American Eagle or Buckle when I pass by them in the mall, but they don't actively weird me out. A&F does (as well as the commonly owned Hollister). It's dark in there, and there are these slatted fronts that don't let in much light, and there are these gigantic photographs of shirtless beach trash that I find distinctly unappealing even though I'm gay, for goodness sake, and there's always some pouty on-staff guy hanging out in the doorway in flip-flops and jeans strategically ripped in forty places, and...

Oh, I can't go on. The horror. The horror.

Of course, I know full well where the Abercrombie & Fitch photographic style comes from: the (in)famous fashion photographer Bruce Weber, who commenced his notoriety with the unforgettable Calvin Klein underwear billboard ads of the Eighties. I feel conflicted about Weber: he is unquestionably a successful iconographer, even if I sometimes can't abide what he is elevating for worship. And, fueled by his taste for beautiful boys, he has been a sometimes inspired film-maker: his documentary portrait of the Fifties jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, Let's Get Lost, is rightly celebrated as one of the most gorgeous and compelling films of the last quarter-century. (It is currently available on a Region 2 DVD, for those of you with multi-region players. I cannot fathom why it hasn't been released on DVD in the U.S.)

Speaking of Abercrombie & Fitch, it is striking when one walks around a mall nowadays just how many of the stores are targeted at the tween / teen / extended adolescence demographic. Since all those stores depend on the "premature affluence" in those age groups, one can't imagine them lasting as a force into an economically depleted era. I won't miss them, but the malls will.


I depend on the great web aggregator Arts and Letters Daily to bring me a stream of interesting articles I might not otherwise find on my own. Since I have been thinking about love and marriage lately, I found reading Carlin Romano's review in The Chronicle of Higher Education of Frances E. Dolan's book Marriage and Violence to be exceptionally stimulating.

Dolan's thesis is that the concept of "marriage" as we have inherited it is a conceptual muddle, and that each of the competing models of marriage -- companionate, hierarachical, fusionary -- is not only incompatible with the others but rife with internal contradictions of its own. I clearly need to read this book, because it will help validate my lifelong inability to make any sense of this institution that is held to be central to our culture. I haven't been able to decipher it intellectually, and I haven't been able to successfully embody the concept in my own life -- not that I'm alone in that.

Scepticism about marriage is hardly new; readers of literature from any era or region are well familiar with it. Literature is full of successful courtships but boasts very few described successful marriages. Most fully described marriages in literature are quite troubled. This could be because there is no real story in happiness, but I don't really think that's it.

Women novelists are, not surprisingly, often quite perspicacious on this subject. There is a wonderful analysis in Valerie Boyd's magnificent Zora Neale Hurston biography Wrapped in Rainbows of Hurston's attitudes toward couplehood in Their Eyes Were Watching God :

Marriage, Hurston seems to say, is a deadly proposition: someone has to give up his or her life.

(Note Romano's comment that "In Dolan's view, marriage rests on an 'economy of scarcity' in regard to rights and privileges 'in which there is only room for one full person. ' ")

Hurston's own marriages were odd and unsuccessful; her non-marital relationships perhaps more rewarding, but still "irregular." That describes George Eliot's life to a tee, as well (and Eliot was pulling it off under even less favorable circumstances, in the midst of Victorian England). Eliot in her work is scarcely an enthusiastic proponent of any conventionally fulfilling view of marriage; she would shock James Dobson (if he was capable of reading her) as much as she shocked her contemporaries. Take this famous passage from Middlemarch, as Dorothea Brooke is discovering that she may have badly mis-judged her marriage to Mr. Casaubon: courtship everything is regarded as provisional and preliminary, and the smallest sample of virtue or accomplishment is taken to guarantee delightful stores which the broad leisure of marriage will reveal. But the door-sill of marriage once crossed, expectation is concentrated on the present. Having once embarked on your marital voyage, it is impossible not to be aware that you make no way and that the sea is not within sight--that, in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin.

Note that in three sentences, the fastidious writer Eliot passes through three metaphors ("delightful stores," "door-sill," "marital voyage"). I take this as a tiny but telling indication of the extent to which this subject elevates Eliot's usually checked emotions.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Passaic Park

I spent my childhood in the Third Ward of Passaic, New Jersey, popularly although not officially known as "Passaic Park" (and Third Ward Park was indeed, and I hope still is, lovely). An interesting demographic of Passaic Park at that time, in the 1960-1980 era, is that it appeared to be about half Catholic and half Jewish. That might be a tad overstated, but Protestants were certainly not thick on the ground. Growing up in that environment benefited me in a way that I see all too clearly now that I live in white-bread Wisconsin. It is this: despite my Catholic rearing, I would never, ever on my own generate the thought that "The United States is a Christian nation." How could I? My home town was half-Jewish, and all the better for it. We Passaic kids grew up comfortable with religious difference.

But here in Wisconsin, where many people have until recently perhaps never knowingly encountered a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Buddhist, the default assumption at public gatherings is: There are no non-Christians in the room. I was initially startled to encounter un-self-conscious references at public, ostensibly secular gatherings to "Our Lord Jesus Christ." This disturbs me, in part because no one at a Passaic public gathering in 1970 would have spoken that way (and this has been and is generally true throughout the New York-centered "tri-state" area). It's just not an assumption I was raised with, and although I well understand the reasons why things developed differently here, my private tolerance for the Myopia of the Midwest is rather limited.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Intruder (1962)

Compulsory segregation, like states' rights and like 'The Southern Way of Life,' is an abstraction and, to a good many people, a neutral or sympathetic one. These riots, which [through television] were brought instantly, dramatically and literally home to the American people, showed what it means concretely. Here were grown men and women furiously confronting their enemy: two, three, a half dozen scrubbed, starched, scared and incredibly brave colored children. The moral bankruptcy, the shame of the thing, was evident.

Alexander Bickel, writing in 1962

Roger Corman's rather amazing low-budget drama The Intruder, shot on location and under rather dangerous conditions in the Deep South, captures exactly the ugly moment in history that Bickel writes about. Corman, a genre film-maker, never made more of a monster movie than this, and the monster is virtually the entire population of a a small Southern town, rising against the court-ordered integration of their high school. The rabble-rousing "intruder," played suavely by white-suited William Shatner (his best performance? certainly a great one) and based on the real-life racist activist John Kasper, only brings into action the nastiness that is already right on the surface.

The Intruder benefits enormously from its location shooting, even if it did put Corman's cast and crew in harm's way once the locals in the towns he used realized that this was a pro-integration movie. The filmmakers made off like bandits in the middle of the night once the shoot was done; Shatner describes the whole experience as "harrowing" (but also notes that he would have paid Corman to play this part). The faces, the attitudes, the language of the many locals that Corman used as extras and in bit parts come across as extraordinarily genuine, un-self-conscious. The hair-raising references to "niggers," "coons," and "commie Jews" that come out of even sweet old landladies' mouths disturb us but were ordinary speech for them. Which is the issue, of course.

I found it interesting that my cat Claire, who usually "watches" movies with me, retired to another room in the apartment for the duration of The Intruder. I think what she meant to convey was, "I can't watch a movie about a nasty racist even if he is wearing a spiffy white suit!" In fact, the movie, although very impressive, is quite hard to take.

Some miscellaneous notes on this unusual film: It stars three science fiction writers in smaller roles -- Charles Beaumont, whose novel it is based on; George Clayton Johnson, like Beaumont (and Shatner) a repeat Twilight Zone contributor; and William F. Nolan, who co-wrote Logan's Run with Johnson...
John Kasper, the actual provocateur, was, like CIA legend James Jesus Angleton mentioned in an earlier post, a disciple and correspondent of poet and anti-semite Ezra Pound...Corman regular Leo Gordon, excellent as a traveling salesman, gets off a great line to his wife (whom Shatner seduces, and who is later revealed as a nymphomaniac): "Didn't make too many demands on you last night, did I?" The movie is racy as well as as politically controversial; Corman has more than a little of the provocateur in him, too.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Paris Hilton Takes the Stage

Regarding Paris Hilton's response to John McCain, a well-deserved instant media sensation:

1. Sensationally funny piece. Pretty accurate too -- Paris will be getting kudos for her "energy policy," since it actually seems to make sense.
2. Paris just redeemed herself permanently in the eyes of the cognoscenti.
3. She always has had a sense of humor, as anyone who has seen The Simple Life can attest. Never put it to such good use, though.
4. By noon tomorrow billions of people will have seen this video. More Americans will have seen it than voted in all the primaries combined.
5. Paris just brought the issue of McCain's age front and center in a way that Obama wouldn't have dared. "Thanks for the endorsement, white-haired dude!"
6. McCain's people may now have learned that you don't play the pop culture card unless you know what you're doing. Too late for them, unfortunately.
7. "I'll see you at the debates, bitches!" -- the classic line of the 2008 campaign to date.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Sunday at the Ballpark

After expressing warmth towards baseball in this blog on May 12, and disaffectedness on July 6 -- not an unusual cycle for me, by the way -- I ventured to a Wisconsin Timber Rattlers game this afternoon and had a very nice time. Today was Team Owner Day at the field, with a photo of the players and shareholders taken before the game, and a picnic for everyone afterward. I didn't make it all the way through the game to stay for the picnic, but I did show up for the photograph. The game itself was reasonably involving, although I probably spent more time people-watching -- not a bad pastime on a sunny summer Sunday. Two burgers and three Scottish ales later (the Rattlers do nicely with the microbrew offerings!), I was ready to head home, but didn't regret going. Given my recent grumpiness about sports (which I don't rescind), I was glad to have had a diverting afternoon. For those of us who suffer acutely from depression, a few hours without negative thoughts are always in the nature of a bonus. The actual sporting content of sports, as I've written, no longer provides that refuge for me; the "third place" angle can, occasionally -- it can be good to get out and about.

I realized anew, though, that I can no longer stand sitting in the middle of a row of seats. An end seat is marginally more tolerable; better still a remote row with no one in it (such as I found on the first base side of the stadium today). It's not that I feel the call of nature so often; in fact, I have a very sturdy bladder. But I do have long legs, and I simply can't bear feeling cooped up. That sense of confinement almost ruined the Michael Buble concert I went to this spring, and has grated on me at the few symphony concerts I've been to in Green Bay and Appleton lately. I imagine that my growing distaste for that aspect of the (concert, play, sports)-going experience will impact me in perpetuity. I just don't want to sit still for long.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Jean-Pierre Melville

As one of his films after another is rediscovered, [Jean-Pierre] Melville is moving into the ranks of the greatest directors. He was not much honored in his lifetime...His films, with their precision of image and movement, are startlingly beautiful. -- Roger Ebert

I like the uselessness of effort: the uphill road to failure is a very human thing. -- Jean-Pierre Melville

Jean-Pierre Melville was mad about America, doting on American films, American music, American fashion (he was known for wearing Ray-Bans). Born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, an Alsatian Jew, he took "Melville" as a pseudonym because he adored the very American works of Herman Melville. He was a thrillingly intelligent man who was perhaps the first cineaste to become a major director in his own right, pre-dating Godard, Truffaut, and the rest of the French New Wave. He told an interviewer, "Don't forget that I am still -- above all! -- a spectator, and being a spectator is the greatest profession in the world."

Ebert is right -- it took the world a long time to catch up with Melville, and by the time it did he was long dead. When his persistently unavailable 1969 masterpiece Army of Shadows, about the French Resistance during World War II, was finally restored and released to American theaters and on DVD in 2006-2007, it rightly drew as much unanimous critical praise across the spectrum as I have ever witnessed, garnering citations from the New York, Los Angeles, and National Societies of Film Critics. It was by far the best film I saw in 2007, and one of the best I have seen in my life. I have a hard time imagining a film buff who wouldn't be knocked out by it.

A good portion of Melville's oeuvre is made up of "gangster" films, of which the first was the now legendary 1955 Bob le Flambeur ("Bob the Gambler," or, better, "Bob the High Roller"). It is a terrific film but calling it a "gangster" film or even a "heist" film may mislead potential viewers as to the experience they will have. Melville himself was closer when it called it a "comedy of manners." He indicated that he altered his original conception somewhat so as not to compete with John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle, which he greatly admired. (I wonder what he thought of Huston's Moby Dick? -- to my mind a highly underrated Herman Melville adaptation.)

The "uselessness of effort" is very much to the point in Bob le Flambeur. Bob is a courtly hood of the old school, who, 50-ish, is trying to lead a pre-war life in a post-war world -- hence the comic aspect. Melville recapitulated the theme in his casting by digging up the pre-war star Roger Duchesne, who had not made a film since 1943 and had "drifted into a life of crime" (Melville's words). He had also been arrested for working with the German Gestapo (interesting in light of Army of Shadows).

Duchesne is perfectly iconic as Bob: he looks just right, which matters. He has a bit of the Archie Goodwin quality I have discussed before, of enjoying exactly where he has situated himself; except that here it is more of a remembered quality. He goes through the motions of what once brought him pleasure in that way -- staying up till dawn every night in Montmartre, which is a wee bit ridiculous for a man his age; he's not the same guy, and it's not the same Montmartre. Perhaps aging doesn't sit well on Archie Goodwins; history seems to leave them behind, too -- they are era-specific. Bob is a deflated Archie.

Melville and his crew, working on a sputtering micro-budget, got out into the streets of Paris and created a visual look for the film that is simultaneously semi-documentary and mythic. Melville has said that the Paris of his boyhood still had a kinship to the Paris of Eugene Sue's mid-19th century novel The Mysteries of Paris, and here he captures the last vestiges of that feeling as it disappears. I'd also swear that an early shot in Bob le Flambeur is an intentional hommage to Gustave Caillebotte's great 1877 painting Paris Street, Rainy Day, one of the most arresting images of Paris ever captured.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Sex and the City

In my work with local young professional organizations, part of the organizational mandate that is followed is trying to keep recent college graduates in the region. But sometimes I have my doubts about whether this is such a good strategy for the young graduates themselves. There is no question that small-city America is more affordable than big city America, offers considerable scope for proactivity and professional advancement, and so on. But much is missed by those who don't migrate to bigger cities: greater exposure to diversity and cosmopolitanism, to top-notch cultural offerings, to milieux where events can have national and global impact. I also think, heretically or not, that the sexual charge of the big city is something that smart young people ought to experience.

People have been going to the big city for sex, and finding it, forever. The atmosphere of most large cities is latent with sexual possibility; the street life carries a sexual current. It is no exaggeration to say that I see a greater number of impressively handsome people in Chicago during a one-day visit than I do in my area in an entire year. I am firmly convinced that a Darwinian imperative drives the beautiful to big cities in order to maximize their sexual and romantic possibilities. A sexually commanding type in my town is an actor without an audience.

Small city America is sexually pretty blah. Oh, I know that there is sinning among the middle class, and swingers, and the rest of it. But at the public level there is not much more sexual current than the teens at the local mall can muster, and that's mainly of interest to them. An atmosphere of adult sexual possibility is simply absent. I'm not talking about sleaze; there is the occasional adult bookstore off the highway. I am talking swankiness, and glamor, and naughtiness, and the frisson of excitement, and enchanted evenings, and unexpected encounters. Not to be found here. And that's a part of life that the young hanker after, and that they should have access to as part of their adult birthright. What each young adult does with those possibilities is entirely individual -- maybe a lot, maybe not much. It's up to them. But an experience of life that doesn't involve exposure to the sexual carnival is, if you ask me, overly sheltered. Tame.

Although I am notably cynical about whether sex actually delivers what it promises (that's my seasoned view), I am even less patient with any worldview that tries to undercut the obvious power and intense hold of sex. Big city life completely acknowledges that power; small city life pretends a higher virtue, and boringly incarnates it, too.