Saturday, May 30, 2009

Acquisitions, May 16-22

This post is late in coming because my laptop was in the shop for a week, and I fell behind on some things.

  • Perry Miller, The Raven and the Whale (Harvest pb) -- "The war of words and wits in the era of Poe and Melville." (Amazon, used)
  • John Lynch, The Spanish American Revolutions, 1808-1826 (W.W. Norton hc) -- A key volume for my Latin American immersion. (Shenandoah, 1/2 price sale)
  • Bill Malone, Country Music, U.S.A. (University of Texas pb) -- A serious history, up to 1968. (Shenandoah, 1/2 price sale)
  • Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: A Life (Penguin pb) (Half Price Books)
  • John O'Hara, The Farmers Hotel (Random House hc) -- Strange that I have never read any O'Hara, given my interest in American realism. This short novel might be the perfect place to start. (Shenandoah, 1/2 price sale)
  • Matthew Josephson, The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861-1901 (Harcourt, Brace hc) -- A famous book in business history; this is the first edition of 1934. (Shenandoah, 1/2 price sale)
  • Roderick Cameron, Viceroyalties of the West: The Spanish Empire in Latin America (Little, Brown hc) -- Also for the Latin American project. (Biblio)
  • Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (Farrar, Straus and Giroux pb) -- I have read this Pulitzer Prize winner already; it's a magnificent book with excellent notes and bibliography, and I wanted a copy for my library. I do like having a copy of most books I've read.
  • Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (Phoenix pb) -- On the clearance shelf at Half Price Books; 1,200 pages for $2.00; good value!
  • Annette Stott, Holland Mania: The Unknown Dutch Period in American Art & Culture (Overlook Press hc) -- This was one of the books I sold to Shenadoah a couple of years ago that then sold off their shelves. I found this copy (which I suspect is the same one) at Half Price Books.
  • John Hickman, News from the End of the Earth: A Portrait of Chile (St. Martin's Press hc) -- Midway through reading this, I had to return my library copy, and was happy to invest in a copy of my own. (Abebooks)
  • William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida (Caedmon, 3 LPs and booklet) -- I'll write at length in another post about my growing collection of recorded Shakespeare plays. The Caedmon series from the Sixties is especially nice, since it includes booklets with the full texts of the plays. (Ebay)
  • William Shakespeare, Macbeth (Spoken Arts LP) -- Picked up this recording and the next two for $0.99 apiece on Ebay.
  • William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (4 LPs)
  • William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus (3 LPs and booklet)


In my one experience with home "ownership," I paid half the mortgage for three years but did not have my name on the deed, so it wasn't really ownership at all; ultimately I had nothing to show for it. In any case, I did not enjoy co-owning a home, even as nice a home as it was (it was featured on HGTV's National Open House during my residency). The responsibilities involved in keeping a home and grounds simply didn't interest me very much, while they were of completely absorbing interest to my then-partner; this led to a troubling imbalance. I tried to conscientiously shoulder my share of the burdens, but I know that I failed (and I am sure he would put it more strongly than that). I am also certain that whatever I did do was undertaken with a less-than-sparkling attitude. I'm a bad faker, and in my world-view there isn't much time for mowing. Home care is all just chores. I do like taking care of the small details of my life, so long as they are small; but even a small home is big. (Don't get me started on the madness of "second homes" and lake cottages.)

Renting is the perfect solution for me, because for most things that need serious tending, someone else takes care of it -- and the expense is built into the rent. I view a big chunk of rent money as insurance against what can go wrong. The refrigerator dies? It gets replaced immediately and I don't have to pay for it. The garage door breaks (it just did, in fact)? The maintenance guy is there in a snap. Leakage from the attic (a few weeks ago)? Ditto. Ah, the care-free lifestyle!

But what about a condo, I hear someone asking? A little more work and responsibility, but not too much, and the reward of actual equity? The concept doesn't fire my enthusiasm. In some ways, owning a condo is worse than owning a home, because not only do I have to pay for what I want and need, I have to pay for "common areas" and what other people want and need as well. Negotiating with a spouse is tough enough; negotiating with a condo board and all your fellow condo owners strikes me as completely hairy (and condo-owning friends vouch for both that annoyance and for the unexpected costs that arise).

With a couple of notable exceptions, then -- clothing and books -- I'm not real keen on ownership. I do love owning my car (especially now that it's paid off!), but that's it for vehicles. I own scarcely any furniture. I own no investments; I'll take it all in cash. I'm bonded with my cat Claire and other pets I have had and will have, but I don't consider that I own them; they are friends that I love and care for. You don't own your friends.

Ownership is, by and large, just one more over-rated burden.

POSTSCRIPT: That house, by the way, did not reflect my personality at all, not one iota. And that's not because I didn't put in sufficient work; it's not quite like that. I didn't have a vote. I remember prevailing on one minor point, the placement of a desk; I had to fight with all my might for that, and my partner never stopped looking for an opportunity to move the desk again. A home of mine would be neat enough, but filled everywhere with books and working materials; it would not be picture-perfect; it would never make HGTV. My partner banned all books to a small office, and made sure that no knick-knackery of mine was visible anywhere. I paid for half the house, but felt like I was living in a small remote corner of it.


As I have commented before, my "animal drives" have always been somewhat less than those of le homme moyen sensuel. Still, I was never lacking in physical energy, and it is interesting to me to notice how, at a mere age 50, that energy is starting to diminish. I used to disdain napping; now, frequently, a nap seems just the thing. I used to "go out" at every opportunity; now I'd just as soon stay in. (J.B. Priestley wrote wisely in his maturity of the delight of "not going," which youth, of course, cannot bear the thought of.)

Happily, this slight tapering of physical vigor does seem to be balanced by a surge in intellectual energy. But I won't pretend that there is no feeling of loss involved. From the perspective of 50, the notion that 25 doesn't come again is unremarkable, a big whoop. But the notion that 45 doesn't come again -- that seems a bit tragic.

Commonplace Book: Horror Movies

Horror movies make you stop thinking about your problems and start thinking about other people's deaths.

My sister, bless her, as an adolescent during the late Seventies wave of slasher movies

Friday, May 29, 2009

GOP Suicide Watch, Ctd.

Rich Lowry of The National Review provides a valuable clue to the current state of thinking on the Right when he asserts that no judge with articulated "tribal affiliations" can be trusted to be a neutral arbiter of the law. Apart from the blithe way in which Lowry insults almost everyone (true to Young Republican Turk form), catch the implication: that only white Christian males (and the occasional deracinated minority such as Clarence Thomas) will be fair Constitutional umpires, because they have no "tribal affiliations" to distort their impartiality. This is preposterous, of course; white Christian conservative males are as capable of tribalism, for good or ill, as anyone else -- and their behavior during the Obama administration amply demonstrates this.

"White," "Christian," and "male" are not the default settings for humanity -- nor, happily, for the new American electorate.

POSTSCRIPT: In case anyone hadn't guessed, I am a white male, not in the least ashamed of that, but damned proud of America's growing acceptance of diversity and multiculturalism, in all their aspects. My mother raised me for that, and I thank her. Memo to Rush and the rest: There are a lot of us out here.

GOP Suicide Watch

Well. One was hardly expecting Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan, Tom Tancredo, Fred Barnes, Bill O'Reilly, Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove et al. to cheer on any Supreme Court nomination Barack Obama might make, so the fact that they oppose Sonia Sotomayor is at one level a big ho-hum. But the astonishing spectacle of them going after her in the most vilely and openly racist and sexist manner possible is further indication of a political party that is imploding before our very eyes. This is bad for the country, because we need two functional parties; but this may actually be the first time in more than a hundred years in which a third party movement, that takes the reasonable elements of Republicanism back from the angry white clowns, might stand some chance of success. We shall see. In the meantime, guys, keep it up! One result will be that the largest-growing demographic group in America will keep their distance from you for a generation at least, probably permanently. Another result, as Glenn Greenwald astutely wrote in a piece about the anti-gay ravings of conservative talk-show host Andrew Wilkow, is that almost all moderate, intelligent, ethical Americans will perform the same distancing maneuveur (my bolding):

There is lots of ink being spilled about the reasons for the collapse of the Right, the causes of the contempt with which young Americans in particular view them. It really isn't that complicated. They're repulsive. That's obviously not true for all conservatives, but the face their movement puts forward increasingly is this one. What kind of people would listen to something like this and react with anything other than pure repulsion, a desire to remain as far away from people like this as possible?

Indeed. And even the less openly racist attacks on Sotomayor, that go after her intelligence (as Jeffrey Rosen of The New Republic did in his now-infamous smear piece) instead of characterizing her as a member of the "Latino KKK" (Lord help us), do the GOP no favors. They would do better in every sense to quietly sit this one out. You don't go after the intellectual cred of someone who graduated Princeton summa cum laude, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, won the Pyne Prize as top undergraduate, then won admission to Yale Law School and edited its law review -- you don't do that without making yourself look very foolish.

POSTSCRIPT: I love what Molly Ivins once said of one of Buchanan's rants, that it "sounded better in the original German."

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Commonplace Book: Liberty

Liberty calls for sanity, a modicum of scepticism, and tolerance: a man must be prepared to believe that he may be mistaken, if he is to treat others as equals.

Lewis Namier

Commonplace Book: Re-Reading

For some time now I have aimed to win my case only on appeal. I write only to be reread.

Andre Gide

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Quentin Tarantino and Kill Bill

Quentin Tarantino is the ultimate Mr. Pop Culture Head, which for me (snobbery alert!) is a damning title. I have no problems with pop culture per se, or with film culture; I have problems if they are all you expose yourself to. In the pop culture hall of mirrors, we get reflections of reflections. Camille Paglia once complained that while earlier generations of rock musicians studied art and poetry, the new generation simply absorbs the earlier generation; actual knowledge is at an ever farther remove. It's like that with Tarantino. An earlier director such as, say, Douglas Sirk, knew "high culture," history, philosophy at an intimate level; Tarantino knows Sirk. When Tarantino talks about "mythology," which he will do, it is quite clear that he only knows about mythology in the refracted forms of Superman comics and spaghetti westerns and such. Of the source materials and theories of mythology, he knows nothing (or close to it). The danger is that his fans will think that what someone like Quentin Tarantino knows is all that there is to know.

I dismissed Kill Bill Volume One in a sentence, and later added a note about a particularly lame narrative strategy I took exception to. Kill Bill Volume Two is an improvement on Volume One (or, completing it, raises the whole a notch or two), but of lame narrative strategies there are, unfortunately, still plenty. The "super truth serum" that crops up in the final confrontation between The Bride and Bill is a very lazy trick. From my theater seat, Tarantino's besetting sin in Kill Bill lies in his failing to make me believe in and accept the terms of the "world" he boasts about creating in the making-of featurette -- a basic "suspension of disbelief" problem, in short.

The gears of this machine don't mesh properly. If Uma Thurman's The Bride is so damn smart, how can she allow herself to be so easily bested by Michael Madsen's Budd? Or, if there to more to Budd than meets the eye, which is plausible, what is he doing eating humble pie as a bouncer in Barstow? And so on: I won't run out the possible catalogue of WTFs. But there are dozens of them. And the "rules" of the Kill Bill world seem to change from scene to scene. (I am genuinely glad that it is not as easy to pluck out people's eyeballs and stop their heart with five fingertips in our world. There would be bodies on every street.)

A key to the problem is discernible in Tarantino-the-raconteur's over-frequent use of the word "cool." He collects bits from all over for their coolness, not for their usefulness. The theory seems to be that if you cram the maximum possible number of cool recyclings into one movie, you will wind up with the coolest possible movie. But such is not the case. Tarantino enjoys addition -- this plus this plus this -- but is less enthusiastic about and less good at subtraction, multiplication, and division.

Kill Bill Volume Two does offer an opening sequence, the bridal rehearsal massacre, in Tarantino's best manner, with the camera (always curiously sentient in QT films) taking a pass on showing us what then becomes offscreen violence, as happens famously more than once in Reservoir Dogs. That strategy was effective then and it is effective now. I would never deny that Tarantino is an immensely talented visual director (or a clever concocter of dialogue); I just wish his sensibility matched his skills. Tarantino is also a sensitive director of actors: Thurman, Madsen, and a devilish Darryl Hannah are quite good here, and David Carradine, given the plum part of Bill in part because of his own weight of pop culture associations (Kung Fu), rises to the occasion with a wily and compelling performance. I don't "like" the conception of Bill the death-master, who is a very movie-ish character, an aging alpha male living off the fumes of his own bullshit. But you can see where Tarantino would identify with such a character, and Carradine certainly makes the most of him.


In Charlotte Bronte's complicated novel Shirley, one of the heroines, Caroline Helstone, is smitten with a man of business, Robert Moore, who loves his mill machinery considerably more than he cares for her. Caroline becomes lovesick in the most precise sense, physically ill because she has over-invested in a man who (we can see) doesn't possess the qualities she imputes to him. There is a lesson in that.

I have written before about my skepticism concerning the modern model of companionate marriage. In every respect, we load too much onto the figure of the spouse, who becomes the locus of our hopes, dreams, emotions. No one could live up to it. Little wonder, then, that marriages tend to fracture, or, short of fracturing, severely disappoint: the assumptions going in are all wrong and way heavy.

Personally, I do not find being the focus of intense expectations to be a pleasant experience. If I am not the answer to my own problems, as clearly I am not, how I can be the answer to another's problems? Nor do I wish to put anyone else in such an unenviable position. So I would not be a spouse, a lover, a parent; a business partner; a famous person, a powerful person, a person who runs things. These are just various ways of disappointing others, and then (naturally) feeling guilty for doing so. Strange that people long for these roles so much.

No one is capable of being a universal, unlimited Mr. Fix-It. My capacity to fix things is by and large restricted to what I have been trained to fix; as a teacher, say, or as a writer, I don't feel horribly burdened by expectations because (a) the expectations are circumscribed by the roles, (b) I've had extensive training and experience in the roles, and (c) therefore, I'm confident I know what I'm doing. It is not unreasonable to expect a dentist to fix teeth, or a plumber to fix sinks, or a psychologist to provide insight into our emotions; that's what they're for. But it would, of course, be unreasonable to expect the dentist to tackle the sink or the plumber to analyze us. Spouses, though, are expected to fix everything and to be everything. Thanks but no thanks!

Saturday, May 23, 2009


This is the less patient and thoughtful version of the post I made the other day on "Torture Porn" at Cannes:

What is up at Cannes this year? There are at least three films -- Kinatay, Antichrist, and Enter the Void -- that, based on all descriptions, I will have to steel my nerves to watch, and I cannot guarantee that I will be able to do so. I've been postponing watching Salo for one reason or another for thirty years now! Yes, I am a big chicken. But is this the future of cinema? Because, if it is, I may just have to withdraw from the scene and retire to a country cottage with a stack of Barbara Pym novels, and read about spinsters and curates.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Paddy Chayefsky

I do want to say how proud I am of Patti. You know, she's willing to step up and do something like go into the jungle...Neither one of us are celebrities; I prefer to be compared to people like Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and others in history, not these comparisons.

Ex-Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, talking about his wife Patti's joining the cast of I'm a Celebrity -- Get Me Out of Here!

I am scarcely the first to notice this, but Paddy Chayefsky, the author of Network, was some kind of prescient genius. In his invaluable annual Movie Guide, Leonard Maltin notes that the movie "looks less and less like fantasy as the years pass." I'll say. 33 years ago -- 33 years ago! -- Chayefsky saw it all coming: reality TV, infotainment, the blurring of news and entertainment divisions, the manufacture of celebrities out of nothing. Everyone remembers Peter Finch as Howard Beale, "the mad prophet of the airwaves," but what about the other segments on Howard's show?

Sybil the Soothsayer (telling us what's going to happen tomorrow and next week)
Jim Webbing and His "It's the Honest Truth" Department (another angry man telling it like it is, on behalf of middle-of-the-road white guys everywhere)
Mata Hari and Her Skeletons in the Closet (celebrity shockers!)
Vox Populi (interactive segment with viewers voting on their opinions on the issues)

How is this line-up materially different from what we see on cable news nowadays? Not at all. Glenn Beck (who is a mad prophet, all right) has explicitly evoked Howard Beale as a model.

Some of the best scenes in Network are the behind-the-scenes negotiating sessions, which are both hilarious and sinister. My favorite is the revolutionaries dickering over the contract language for The Mao Tse-Tung Hour ("The Communist Party's not gonna see a nickel of this goddamn show until we go into syndication!"). One imagines that the confabs between Rod and Patti Blagojevich, their agents, and the reps for I'm a Celebrity were a lot like these scenes. Only it's not "outrageous satire" (Maltin's phrase) anymore: it's our reality. Paddy, you nailed it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Commonplace Book: Amateurism

Your delightfully if perhaps almost sinfully free of responsibility and can spread himself as thin as he likes over the vast field of nature. There are few places not covered with concrete or trod into dust where he does not find something to look at. Best of all, perhaps, is the fact that he feels no pressing obligation to "add something to the sum of human knowledge." He is quite satisfied when he adds something to his knowledge. And if he keeps his field wide enough he will remain so ignorant that he may do exactly that at intervals very gratifyingly the amateur, any flower he has never seen before is a new species so far as he is concerned.

Joseph Wood Krutch, The Forgotten Peninsula

This is me all over. The only professional status I would claim is that of a teacher; I have been thoroughly trained in pedagogy. Otherwise, I am an amateur in all branches of knowledge, and avail myself of the delights that Krutch describes.

Pursuing a Thread: Benin Expedition

There is a long tradition of Sherlockian pastiche, stories not by Conan Doyle but using the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, or using characters who "stand in" for the famous pair. The most developed series of stories in the latter vein are August Derleth's Solar Pons stories. (Basil Copper continued the series after Derleth's death -- a pastiche of a pastiche?) I picked up The Chronicles of Solar Pons, a late volume in the series, with high expectations (and with some sense of state loyalty, since the prolific Derleth is one of Wisconsin's most celebrated authors), but found them disappointingly flavorless. The stories are set a generation after Holmes (and sometimes refer to him), but the Chronicles, at least, entirely lack the feel for an era and the rich atmosphere that distinguish Conan Doyle's writings. I think a linguistic analysis of the Pons tales would detect a poverty in the descriptive language as compared with the Holmes stories; the Pons tales are quite flat.

One Pons story caught my attention a bit more than the others. "The Adventure of the Benin Bronze" refers to an episode in African colonial history with which I was unfamiliar, the 1897 "Punitive Expedition" to the Kingdom of Benin (which was located within the modern nation of Nigeria, and is to not to be confused with the modern nation of Benin, formerly Dahomey, which is also in West Africa). The Punitive Expedition was a reaction to an ambush of a small British force (the "Phillips expedition") by defenders of the Kingdom of Benin who felt threatened by the impending "visit." This ambush left nine of eleven British officers dead (two escaped). The Philips expedition was a somewhat ambiguous effort; although clearly intended to make the King of Benin play the Britons' commercial game (or be replaced by those who would), it was launched without warrant from the home government and with manpower completely insufficient to force any sort of miltary conclusion. If, as some modern interpreters would have it, it was a genocidal power-grab, it was a fairly inept one; perhaps it is more fair to see it as reflective of the genocidal power-grab that was colonialism in general, but not really "out there" as a specimen of same. In any case, the deaths of the nine British officers ensured that the next steps by the colonizers would be more focused and horrible, and so they were. The Punitive Expedition captured the Kingdom of Benin, ousted its leaders, and established British supremacy.

In the wake of the Punitive Expedition, a mythology rapidly spread that the capital Benin City was a "city of blood" awash in human sacrifice. Derleth makes use of this lurid imagery in his Solar Pons story. Robert Home examines all the evidence in his excellent and fair-minded reconsideration, City of Blood Revisited (1982), and finds that there was certainly blood, from public executions of convicted criminals (there are photographs of "execution trees"), and there may have been some "human sacrifices" -- but this is hard to assess at this historical remove, and certainly not a phenomenon that British military were prepared to place in any sort of anthropological context.

Home's short book is a very compelling read that I might not have discovered were it not for Solar Pons (and my habit of pursuing a thread). Home is very good with the personalities involved, both English and African. There was no unanimity on the side of the Benin leadership as to how to deal with the British, and the British were not quite monolithic either. Home draws a sharp contrast between such as Ralph Moor, the head of the Niger protectorate who had little regard for the natives (and who later committed suicide after his career foundered), and others such as the more flexible Henry Gallwey, an Irishman who like others of his nationality had less emotional commitment to the racist imperatives of colonialism and therefore tended to "get on" with Africans much better.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Commonplace Book: Imagination

We can, at any time, double the beauty of an actual landscape by half closing our eyes as we look at it.

Edgar Allan Poe

Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves

Five members of the Cannes 2009 Jury: Sharmila Tagore, Robin Wright Penn, chairperson Isabelle Huppert, Asia Argento, Shu Qi. Isn't that a delightful picture? What a cool group of actresses. It's enough to make you proud of living in the year 2009. Whatever the problems of our time, it is unquestionably an era that embraces internationalism and empowerment to a greater extent than we have hitherto known. There is nothing wrong with feeling a little good about that.

Pursuing a Thread: Latin America

I continue to approach Latin America from a variety of angles. For an overview of the culture up to the early 19th century, I have found Mariano Picon-Salas's A Cultural History of Spanish America very useful. I spotted this book on a shelf at the University of Wisconsin -- Green Bay's Cofrin Library, and eventually picked up a used copy of my own. (Bookfinder, a site that aggregates listings from Amazon, Abebooks, Alibris, Biblio, and other sources, is generally where I do my research to find reasonably priced copies of books I want.) Picon-Salas's last two chapters, on the Enlightenment era in Spanish America, intersect nicely with the studies I posted about yesterday. The Enlightenment was especially revolutionary in Hispanic cultures because their separation of politics and religion was quite incomplete, and their embrace of market capitalism very sketchy, compared to other European cultures at that date. Picon-Salas has a lot to say about this.

I've been concentrating just now on three geographic areas: Mexico; Cuba; Argentina and Chile.

Mexico: Joseph Wood Krutch's The Forgotten Peninsula (1961), about Baja California, was a delightful read. Krutch caught Baja on the cusp of major (primarily touristic) change, when it was still somewhat virginal (the Spaniards had always had a heck of an unsuccessful time there). You never know when a shapshot will catch something that is about to be gone.

I also read a fascinating essay by Ronald Ecker on "The Tlatelolco Massacre in Mexico," an event that has spooked me for years. I remember first encountering a reference to it in J. Hoberman's and Jonathan Rosenbaum's Midnight Movies, in the chapter on Alejandro Jodorowsky, who was in the vicinity when the 1968 massacre took place. I have a library copy of Elena Poniatowska's Massacre in Mexico that I hope to get to soon.

Cuba: T. J. English's entertaining and informative Havana Nocturne, about the activities of the Mob in Cuba in the decades before the Revolution, overlaps with my other explorations on crime of the 1920-1960 era (which was partly brought on by my enthusiasm for the television series The Untouchables) and on the CIA. Lillian Llanes's book of photographs, Havana Then and Now, helps me visualize a city I've never visited (but would love to).

Argentina and Chile: I have always been taken with descriptions of Buenos Aires as one of the most labyrinthine of cities, and found some more writing in that vein in Jorge Luis Borges's peculiar "biography" of the early 20th century Buenos Aires poet Evaristo Carriego. It's really not so much a biography as a series of essays (on tango, and so on) that revolve around the city and Carriego. I also re-watched Martin Donovan's 1988 Buenos Aires-set thriller Apartment Zero, which I found somewhat less impressive on a second viewing -- the ending is facile -- but still flavorful, with a fine lead performance by Colin Firth. Apartment Zero's depiction of an older apartment building full of "characters" came to mind in the early chapters of British journalist Miranda France's Bad Times in Buenos Aires, since France seems to have taken up residence in just such a building -- maybe it is the norm. France is dyspepetic about the city, as her title indicates, but shrewd and insightful nonetheless, and frequently laugh-out-loud funny in that way British travel writers have (see: Peter Biddlecombe, Daniel Kalder). I especially enjoyed her descriptions of Argentina as a country obsessed with psychoanalysis, a tendency I had read about elsewhere (Woody Allen is one of the most popular film-makers there).

Argentina and Chile fit together geographically, and in some respects (not all) their experiences run parallel -- their political situations in the Seventies, with death squads and thousands of los desaparecidos (the disappeared), were thoroughly unsavory and still cast a shadow. Miranda France writes about this at length with respect to Argentina, and I watched Costa-Gavras's 1982 film Missing, about the disappearance of American journalist Charles Horman in Santiago, to get a feel for that era in Chile. It's not news to report that this is an exceptional film; Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek are sensational in it. The atmosphere is powerfully somber, and I don't think it's fair to say, as some have, that the film privileges the disappearance of one American over the deaths of thousands of Chileans. Every story has its hook, and what happened to Horman is the hook here, but the film brings you up right up against the reality of a country awash in death and political terror. It is sad that should so often be what you do find in investigating the recent history of Latin America.

Now I'm reading former British Ambassador to Chile John Hickman's News from the Ends of the Earth, to give myself more of a perspective on the history of this singular country.

Just a Thought

Have you ever thought that Prince is actually "Prince" Formerly Known As "The Artist" Formerly Known As "The Artist Formerly Known As Prince" Formerly Known As "Prince"? We won't even get into that symbol thing...

I do think he is the best pop musician of his generation (which is my generation). Favorite lesser-known Prince song: "Vicki Waiting" off the Batman (non-)soundtrack.

POSTSCRIPT: Someone has written a brief piece entitled "Prince and his relationship with his own name"; by now, that could be the subject of a Ph.D. thesis.

On a related note, whatever happened to Terence Trent D'Arby after he became "Sananda Maitreya"? "Wishing Well" is my favorite Prince song not actually by Prince.

Beer: Quake

My experiences with Quake, a brand of the Cold Spring Brewery in Minnesota, are worth saving from RateBeer. First:

I should have known better, really. I mean, here was this 22-ounce bottle of 8.2 beer on sale at Whole Foods for 99 cents, which should have set off alarm bells. I did feel like the beer equivalent of a wino, buying it.

And then I tasted it. Oh my. I managed like three horrified sips. Indescribable. Truly a gruesome experience.

So now I'm really looking forward to the huge bottle of Quake Chocolate Cream Ale that I also purchased for 99 cents. Not. Actually, I confess that I'm afraid of it. I'm afraid of a bottle of beer.


After having one of my most indelibly unpleasant beer experiences ever with a 99 cent, 22 ounce bottle of Quake Red Cream Ale, the burning question was, could Quake Chocolate Cream Ale live up to such negative perfection? I am happy to report, that and more so! Two mouthfuls were enough to prove the point; as for the rest of it, down the drain it went! I must find Quake Honey Cream Ale and complete my Quake troika of horror.

But I never did find it, and will have to be content imagining the third side of the triangle. All the Quake ales appear to have been discontinued, a mercy to mankind.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Pursuing a Thread: The Enlightenment

There are a number of outfits -- The Teaching Company and The Modern Scholar among them -- that produce audio and video university courses for those who never lose their thirst for learning. The audio courses are perfect for the car, and since my local library has a number of The Modern Scholar courses on CD, I've been checking them out. I must say that they are very impressive. Only the most compelling and charismatic (and clearest) professors get hired to do these courses, and they make excellent listening.

The first such course I listened to all the way through is Thomas Schmidt's The Enlightenment, which consists of 14 half-hour lectures and a small book. It opened up vistas I hadn't explored for a long time. The Modern Scholar thoughtfully makes copies of the accompanying books for these courses available to library borrowers for just a shipping charge, so you can pursue your studies further after returning the library set -- a nice touch. Using the book's suggestions for further reading as a guide, I've been doing just that.

The first follow-up was a bit of a bust, unfortunately. Schmidt recommends Dorinda Outram's The Enlightenment (2005), which I obtained through interlibrary loan and was not impressed by. I posted a little review at Amazon and Library Thing:

"A typical example of Modern Academic Style -- impotent, equivocal, non-committal; everything is 'problematic.' It has some potential although unpleasurable use as an indication of the current state of academic debates concerning the Enlightenment (although on that score, it will go out of date fast), and it can point one in the direction of some better books, such as Albion W. Small's The Cameralists, an interesting, confident 1909 study that can still be read with pleasure and profit one hundred years after publication -- because of that very confidence (as well as the depth of Small's research). The mousiness of Outram's text is, by contrast, extremely unattractive."

(I haven't finished the long Small volume yet, but it is an excellent specialized political science study.)

The next volume I picked up after Outram and Small was a winner, Robert Darnton's The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (1982), about the writing and publishing scene in France and nearby countries in the late 18th century. Darnton, a celebrated scholar, is everything that Outram is not: decisive, engaging, and unpretentious. His prose style is straightforward and delightful, and the subject-matter is stimulatingly down-to-earth -- you will have no idea just how grubby Grub Street can be until you read this book. Sample choice bit that made me laugh out loud:

Charles Theveneau de Morande, one of Grub Street's most violent and virulent pamphleteers, lived in a demimonde of prostitutes, pimps, blackmailers, pickpockets, swindlers, and murderers. He tried his hand at more than one of these professions and gathered material for his pamphlets by skimming the scum around him. As a result, his works smeared everything, good and bad alike, with a spirit of such total depravity and alienation that Voltaire cried out in horror.


I believe that I am the pre-eminent financial under-achiever of the Yale University Class of 1980. I will never be able to know this for sure, of course, but I would like to think it is so. To be in the bottom 5% would merely be depressing, but to be the lowest lifetime earner in a class of 1,300 graduates would be sort of a sweet inverse distinction.

I just received my annual Social Security Statement, which is why I'm thinking about this. Including my graduation year of 1980 (I was a May graduate), I have had 29 years as an adult earner. My numbers are brutal. In 9 of those years, I made less than $10,000 (yes, you heard right). In another 7 years, I made in the $10,000-$19,000 range, for a total of 16 of 29 years earning less than $20,000.

In five years, I made in the $20,000-$29,000 range; in three years, in the $30,000-$39,000 range. One year, I nicked the 40s at $40,218. So in 25 of my 29 earning years, I made less than $41,000.

My four best years have come during the last six: one year in the 50s, two in the 60s, one in the 70s. But the other two of those six years were transition years between jobs (as 2009 is, too), and I was only in the 20s those two years.

The grand total for 29 years is (drum roll) $676, 537. I know people who made more than that for a bonus last year.

To make matters worse, I started with no family money, and never got any because there never was any. I have never owned property; I paid half a mortgage for several years, but my name was not on the deed (long story) and I walked away with nothing. I have never had investments, not even a 401K, and cashed out my one tiny retirement account years ago. On the bright side, this does mean that I haven't lost a dime in the downturn!

The question that arises is, how is it that I am still alive?

Torture Porn

One day after Cannes reacted in shock, horror, and fascination to Brillante Mendoza's Kinatay, it reacted in shock, horror, and fascination to Lars ("I am the best film director in the world") von Trier's Antichrist. We all probably guessed that with that director and that title, this would be a fairly extreme piece of cinema, and so all reports indicate it turned out to be. (Speaking of those reports, fair is fair and I must admit that the most thoughtful overnight takes I read on both Kinatay and Antichrist were by none other than Mike D'Angelo.) Gut-wrenching is in style these days, both in pop cinema and in art cinema. On the art side, there have been a lot of children of Salo in the past decade or so: Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, Takashi Miike's Audition, Thomas Clay's The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, Lukas Moodysson's A Hole in My Heart, Kim Gok's Exhausted, Marina de Van's In My Skin, Steve McQueen's Hunger, to name just a few. I don't mean to be facile by lumping these varied films together (especially as I've only seen one of them) -- just to indicate that there is plenty of envelope-pushing going on. On the pop side, of course, there are the Saws and the Hostels and a whole sub-culture of underground "extreme gore" films, some of which have serious pretentions and drift back in the direction of art films (but then John Waters always insisted that art and exploitation films were really the same beast). An interesting bulletin board post on the "hardest films to watch" can be found here.

I can read the reviews of all these films, and I do; but I can't get myself past the theater entrance. The one film that is indisputably of this type that I've seen is Irreversible, and it took a considerable build-up of curiosity for me to rent the DVD and put myself through it. In the event, I thought the film was brilliant, amply justifying Roger Ebert's praise in his thoughtful review, one of his very best. The review ends memorably:

The fact is, the reverse chronology makes Irreversible a film that structurally argues against rape and violence, while ordinary chronology would lead us down a seductive narrative path toward a shocking, exploitative payoff. By placing the ugliness at the beginning, Gaspar Noe forces us to think seriously about the sexual violence involved. The movie does not end with rape as its climax and send us out of the theater as if something had been communicated. It starts with it, and asks us to sit there for another hour and process our thoughts. It is therefore moral - at a structural level.

As I said twice and will repeat again, most people will not want to see the film at all. It is so violent, it shows such cruelty, that it is a test most people will not want to endure. But it is unflinchingly honest about the crime of rape. It does not exploit. It does not pander. It has been said that no matter what it pretends, pornography argues for what it shows. Irreversible is not pornography.

A lesson I take from my viewing of Irreversible and from Ebert's analysis is that, although I may decide based on descriptions that I don't wish to see a film, I can't on that basis reject its merit out of hand. Irreversible sounded like a mere epater le bourgeois provocation (no wonder the French make so many of these things; they have the perfect phrase to describe them), but it turned out to be a profound experience that I would defend as passionately as Ebert, although not as skillfully.

Why haven't I made myself watch more such films, when I have no problem reading descriptions of them? I ascribe my reluctance to the power of images. A wise friend of mine once said that there were images he simply didn't want "renting space in his head," and the only way to prevent that was to avoid them. Words are an abstraction of experience, and I can always deal with abstraction; but images can be very literal. Sometimes I fear them, honestly.

As to why these sorts of cinematic experiences are proliferating at all levels: In the decade of waterboarding and Abu Ghraib, need we ask? Future sociological historians of film are going to be all over it. But there is also a long-standing tradition in film of pushing to the limits of the watchable (Un Chien Andalou, for example), and a prurient fascination with visualized sex and violence that, to support John Waters's theory of the fungibility of art and exploitation, is equally strong among directors in both arenas. Why aren't there (by and large) serious filmmakers who make quiet films about gentle souls who garden and make tea? There are novelists who work the quiet and gentle, but apart from the occasional Yasujiro Ozu or Eric Rohmer, film directors don't go there. Because it is not commercial, not even "art-house commercial"; because it is not career-advancing (while scandal usually is); because (I'll advance this thesis gingerly) film is not ultimately that subtle a medium. Less abstract than literature, it is also inherently more sensational (to use that word very precisely). The medium itself reaches for sensation rather than subtlety or abstraction.

Pauline Kael once pointed out that movies have featured rape since their inception, since rape, after all, combines sex and violence. It is unsurprising that the latest art house torture porn should zero in on rape and sexual mutilation. These had a heyday in the early Seventies, too: Pasolini, Peckinpah, Bergman's Cries and Whispers, Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses, Marco Ferreri's The Last Woman. The new extremity can well be viewed not merely as a response to the times, not as a shocking novelty, but as a tendency that film circles back to, albeit in a slightly freer visual climate each time.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


In both Muriel Spark's novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and the fine film version with Maggie Smith, the characters who dislike the charismatic teacher Miss Brodie disapprove of her because of her "vanity"; she teaches well, but she also too much enjoys teaching well and being charismatic to her students -- fatally so in her judges' estimation. Well, Miss Brodie certainly preens; she is guilty of some foolishness (and Spark stacks the deck by having this indirectly lead to one student's death). But my mental rejoinder is, if vanity is to be used as a hanging offense, why in some cases and not in others? Vanity, after all, is pretty close to universal; in the personal sense, or the Thackerayan public sense, or both, it is an explanatory element (not the explanatory element) in everything we do. Saints enjoy their saintliness, the charitable enjoy their charity. This gets us nowhere. Condemnation has to find more of a peg to hang itself on than that!

The Incredible Shrinking Man

I watched one of my favorite movies, The Incredible Shrinking Man, for the umpteenth time last night. You know who this film always reminds me of? Ingmar Bergman. The Seventh Seal came out the very same year, 1957, and both films are completely preoccupied by the question of man's place in the universe. The Seventh Seal is coming out of a European art film tradition and The Incredible Shrinking Man is coming out of an American pulp film tradition, but one can make too much of that, I think. Is there really that much distance between Bergman's chess-game-with-Death conceit and Richard Matheson's diminishing-man conceit? I would argue not; and ultimately The Incredible Shrinking Man doesn't even try to hide its existential tracks in genre familiarities, going out in a blaze of philosophical poetry that even Bergman might not have dared:

I was continuing to shrink, to become...what? The Infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the Man of the Future? If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world? So close...the Infinitesimal and the Infinite. But suddenly I knew that they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The Universe, worlds beyond number, God's silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment I knew the answer to the riddle of the Infinite. I had thought in terms of Man's own limited dimension. I had presumed upon Nature. That existence begins and ends is Man's conception, not Nature's. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!

It is an astonishing ending. ("I had presumed upon Nature" makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.) Interestingly, everyone has always assumed that these words are Richard Matheson's, since he wrote the source novel and the screenplay. But they are not in the novel; Matheson did not write them, and for a long time he didn't even like them. Turner Classic Movies confirms that this closing speech was written by director Jack Arnold, who fought the studio (Universal) hard for his ending. This, in Arnold's words, was "the only fight I had with them on The Incredible Shrinking Man, and I won it. They wanted a happy ending. They wanted him to suddenly start to grow again, and I said 'Over my dead body.' So they said, 'Well, let's test your ending.' And at the previews it went over so well, they agreed it was best to keep it. But I had something of a to-do with them at first, and I had to explain that this was not a film suited to a happy ending."

Now that is some auteur-ish behavior! Since It Came from Outer Space and The Creature from the Black Lagoon among Arnold's other films are very well done and of considerable interest, I think his entire output would merit a careful look. Probably someone is way ahead of me on that.

UPDATE (6/15/2009): In the same box set as Shrinking Man is another Grant Williams science fiction film, The Monolith Monsters. It's a nice effort in the gigantism genre, as the monsters aren't giant insects or shrews or gila monsters, but silicon-based rocks from a meteorite hit that swell to enormous stature when exposed to water! Definite points for originality. The setting is a California desert town; something about the desolation of Southwest desert landscapes, plus their shooting proximity to Hollywood, has led to all sorts of "monster" films being shot there -- The Andromeda Strain, Phase IV, Duel.

Grant plays a geologist in this movie and is as appealing as ever; he's one of those actors I have a permanent crush on. A glamor shot from his portfolio will probably make it clear why:

Is Daniel Handler a Pyromaniac?

One could be forgiven for thinking so. In the 13 volume A Series of Unfortunate Events ( a masterpiece), everyone sets fires. The bad guys set fires, the good guys set fires, adults set fires, children set fires, people die in fires, buildings are destroyed in fires, secrets are lost in fires. This roman fleuve is actually a roman feu; it's one long conflagration. And there is something distinctly creepy about this obsession, especially for a "children's book." Even as a huge Handler admirer, I can't deny that baby Sunny Baudelaire's line "Burn down hotel," at the climax of The Penultimate Peril, is one of the most unsettling moments I have ever encountered in literature. Talk about transgressive! Jean Genet could take lessons from Handler in that.

The fire motif comes roaring up again in Handler's screenplay for Kill the Poor, directed by Alan Taylor and based on a novel by Joel Rose. This tale of the strange denizens of an apartment building on Manhattan's Lower East Side in the early Eighties is constructed around a mysterious fire, which the narrative circles, and circles, and circles some more. I wouldn't call it a particularly successful film, but it's definitely got fire and then some. If I was interviewing Daniel Handler, this would be the first question I'd ask: "What is with all the fire, dude?" Although maybe I don't really want to know.

Kill the Poor has a strong central performance by David Krumholtz that helps hold the movie together; without him it would probably seem really ramshackle. The story does beg the question of why he wants to live in this stupid building with his wife and newborn; the movie could be viewed as a sly argument for everyone moving to New Jersey, already. The building is physically dangerous, the residents are all dislikable and, to varying degrees, nuts, and the neighborhood is supposedly overrun by junkies (although we barely see them -- as many have noted, this is a de-populated movie with very empty streets). Ah, but it's New York! This is one of those Gotham-centric Sweet Mysteries of New York stories that those of us beyond the Hudson may ever have a hard time grasping. I was raised in New Jersey, and I know. New Yorkers can be completely irrational on the subject of their city: it's not affection, it's some mystical trip.

Director Alan Taylor comes by way of quality television (Oz, Homicide, The West Wing, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Carnivale, Rome, Big Love, Lost, Sex and the City -- he's done 'em all). This project may have been one of those that was years in the filming because of budget issues (it has that feel to it); it was certainly years in the releasing -- it was theatrically released in 2006 but had to have been mostly filmed by 2002, because one of the stars, Cliff Gorman as Krumholtz's uncle, died that year.

POSTSCRIPT: I haven't read any of Handler's adult novels -- The Basic Eight, Watch Your Mouth, and Adverbs -- yet, although I intend to. I did see another film for which he wrote the screenplay, Rick, and liked it quite a bit. The story is a loose modern adaptation of Verdi's Rigoletto set in the business world, with Bill Pullman in a pull-out-all-the-stops performance as a toadying executive. Sandra Oh as a job applicant gets to deliver a curse against him that is one of the great imprecations on film.

Some Notes on Miracle in the Rain

(1) In Miracle in the Rain, director Rudolph Mate is doing straight what Douglas Sirk does curled, without the ironizing or aestheticizing (which I love in Sirk). The straight approach is devastatingly effective. Watching Jane Wyman's breakdown in this film (very well played, perhaps her best performance) is excruciating in a way that spills over the sides of the romantic film genre format: it is like being present at a real tragedy in your own life.

(2) A commenter at Glenn Kenny's Some Came Running blog, on the occasion of Van Johnson's recent death, notes that in Miracle in the Rain, Van Johnson
"plays that affable, agreeable guy practically as a force of nature; his character somehow enhances and enlivens the lives of everyone he meets or even comes into contact with." I completely concur with that. Of all the Van Johnson films I have seen, this is the one that by far makes the most interesting use of his "Van Johnson" qualities.

Some Notes on Charlie Wilson's War

(1) Menswear Moment first: I absolutely love the unique shirts that Charlie Wilson wears, in real life and accurately re-created for the movie, described at Ask Andy as "button-down dress shirts with epaulets (apparently to keep his suspenders in place), french cuffs and buttoned flap pockets." The collars and cuffs were often contrasting, too. Now that is in-your-face style! The shirts were made for Wilson at Hamilton Customer Shirts in Houston. I'd kill for one. (Naturally, some of the Ask Andy types are appalled by them.)

(2) The shirts are a clue to the personality, of course. Something about Charlie Wilson's sort of larger-than-life Texan personality appeals to me, in a way that alpha males usually don't. Why is some self-confidence winning and some repulsive? It has to do with generosity of attitude, I think; and in my experience many Texans are indeed generous and hearty in a way that makes you smile at their egos instead of wincing at them. They spend freely, they admire easily, they have a high old time. Their self-possession doesn't take anything away from you. The self-confidence of the sociopathic CEO type that I mentioned in the last post is, by contrast, off-putting. For the particular CEO I dealt with, it wasn't enough for him to be smart; everyone else had to be stupid.

(3) It's nice to see Tom Hanks playing something other than a purely saintly part. Wilson is a good guy, for sure, but he knows how to have fun; the petty churchly moralities inveighing against sex, drink, drugs, gambling, etc., mean nothing to him.

(4) The entire cast is in fine form, actually; you can tell that Philip Seymour Hoffman is having a blast, and John Slattery does a nice warm-up for his Mad Men role. Overall, the film is very entertaining and goes down easily.

Short Take: Executives

Barbara Tuchman notes the "perfect and unblemished confidence" and "marvelous incapacity to admit error" of World War I leaders such as Joseph Joffre and Henry Wilson; their counterparts, of course, are the narcissistic CEOs of today. Having had prolonged unhappy dealings with one such, all I can say is that Tuchman wasn't exaggerating; I now know what it is like to be around someone who truly feels that they are God's gift. Not fun.

Novelists and Money

I suppose there is no man in this Vanity Fair of ours so little observant as not to think sometimes about the worldly affairs of his acquaintances, or so extremely charitable as not to wonder how his neighbour Jones, or his neighbour Smith, can make both ends meet at the end of the year.

William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

Thackeray addresses, in a way that novelists surprisingly seldom do, our intense curiosity about our neighbors' finances, especially in Chapters 36 and 37 0f Vanity Fair, "How to live well on Nothing a Year" and "The Subject continued." Tom Wolfe, many years later in 1987, takes up the Thackerayan approach in this famous passage from The Bonfire of the Vanities:

I'm already going broke on a million dollars a year! The appalling figures came popping up into his brain. Last year his income had been $980,000 but he had to pay out $21,000 a month for the $1.8 million loan he had taken out to buy the apartment. What was $21,000 a month to someone making a million a year? That was the way he thought of it at the time- and in fact, it was merely a crushing, grinding burden - that was all! It came to $252,000 a year, none of it deductible, because it was a personal loan, not a mortgage.(The cooperative boards in Good Park Avenue Buildings like his didn’t allow you to take a mortgage on your apartment). So, considering the taxes, it required $420,000 in income to pay the $252,000. Of the $560,000 remaining of his income last year, $44,400 was required for the apartment’s monthly maintenance fees; $116,000 for the house on Old Drover’s Mooring Lane in Southampton…Entertaining at home and in restaurants had come to $37,000. This was a modest sum compared to what other people spent…The Taliaferro School, including the bus service, cost $9,400 for the year. The tab for furniture and clothes had come to $65,000… The servants...came to $62,000 a year. That left only $226,200, or $18,850 a month, for additional taxes and this and that, including insurance payments (nearly a thousand a month, if averaged out), garage rent for two cars ($840 a month), household food ($1,500 a month), club dues (about $250 a month) - the abysmal truth was that he had spent more than $980,000 last year. Well, obviously he could cut down here and there - but not nearly enough - if the worst happened! There was no getting out from under the $1.8 million loan, the crushing $21,000-a-month nut, without paying it off or selling the apartment and moving into one far smaller and more modest - an impossibility! There was no turning back! Once you had lived in a $2.6 million apartment on Park Avenue - it was impossible to live in a $1 million apartment!

Somehow this passage seems quite pertinent at our particular juncture in U.S. history. Adjust all the amounts upward by a multiple of at least ten.

Commonplace Book: Dissatisfaction

"Nobody in particular is to blame, that I can see, for the state in which things are; and I cannot tell, however much I puzzle over it, how they are to be altered for the better; but I feel there is something wrong somewhere."

Charlotte Bronte, Shirley

Dennis Day!

Today is the birthday of:

Dennis Brain, the great British French horn player, born in 1921, died tragically young in 1957 in a car crash. Brain inspired many composers to write pieces for him, including Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith, Matyas Seiber, Humphrey Searle, Peter Racine Fricker, York Bowen, Gordon Jacob, Lennox Berkeley, Malcolm Arnold, and Elizabeth Lutyens; Francis Poulenc wrote an Elegie for Horn and Piano upon hearing of Brain's death.

Dennis Potter, the British dramatist and legendary television writer, born in 1935, also died too young at 59.

Dennis Hopper, the nonpareil American actor and director, born in 1936, still truckin' and long may he. Happy 73rd, Dennis!

It is, clearly, Dennis Day.

The Castle of Privilege

Beware the aggressive "I'm just telling it like it is" tone: It always hides an agenda. There is a repugnant lit-blogger/professor, D.G. Myers, who compiles "canons" of contemporary fiction that pointedly and deliberately exclude almost all works by women, blacks, Hispanics, any "minorities," gays and lesbians. Some white Jewish males make it into the lists, since Myers is Jewish himself, but that is quite consistent with the neo-con flavor of the enterprise. (I don't know if Myers has published in Commentary, but he should; he'd be right at home.)

In thinking about Myers (which I try not to do), I'm reminded of my two favorite whipping boys here at PMD, Joseph Epstein and Mike D'Angelo. They can stand in for others whose work I also dislike, but whom I don't want to waste time writing about. The commonalities in this group interest me, though. Epstein is an easy match for Myers: he boasts in his essay "I'm History," about his being fired from his 20+ years editorship of The American Scholar, that during his tenure the quarterly published virtually nothing on black history, feminism, or gay and lesbian studies. Also like Myers, Epstein for reasons of personal antecedents has a sharp eye for anti-Semitism and a very reasonable sensitivity to the oppression of Jews; this has not, however, increased his sensitivity to anyone else's oppression.

D'Angelo is a more subtle case. As a hipster, he can't possibly wear exclusionary politics on his sleeve. But the fact is that his critical sensibility is very largely attuned to movies about what it's like to be a white guy, and to the white guy directors that make them. (The one Spike Lee film that Mike and the "Little Mikeys" hold in high regard is, natch, 25th Hour.) Mike has no time for African cinema, or minority directors in general, or gay and lesbian themes, or feminist themes (although, to be fair, a few women directors sneak onto his Top Ten lists): That stuff is all just tiresome to him. One of my fellow Confabulators noted the irony of Mike's traveling 6,000 miles to Cannes 2009 in order to (so far) like Pixar's Up better than anything else on display -- a film that is about to open on 2,000 screens across North America. This bent is not new for him: Toy Story 2, which was Number One of his Top Ten in 1999, drove him to ecstasies that the notably parsimonious D'Angelo seldom allows himself ("1999's sole flat-out masterpiece -- part rollicking adventure, part knockabout comedy, part eloquent disquisition on the inevitably ephemeral state that is happiness"). He has a big soft spot for the decidedly guy-ish David Mamet (don't get him started on State and Main; actually, his irrational enthusiasm for that OK but nowise special picture is as close as D'Angelo gets to being charming). For someone who sees so much international cinema, and likes some of it, his bedrock tastes are pretty conventional (Spider-Man, Gladiator) and getting more so as time goes on.

I don't want to overdo this and go all Academic Feminist on D'Angelo's ass. For one thing, I have little taste for the excesses of "political correctness" myself, and have defended sinners against the "new commandments" on historical and other grounds. But that's not really what we're talking about here. D'Angelo is entitled to his taste, and although he is snarky with it, I don't think he's truly evil with it (as Myers and Epstein are, in my book). But it is difficult not to conclude, in this multicultural age (actually, all ages are multicultural), that D'Angelo's well-turned prose constructs a Castle of White Male Heterosexual Privilege for him and his buddies to gaze out at the world from. Most of these fellows can write; they construct those castles skillfully from the ground up, but the foundations are rotten.

Someone like Norman Mailer could be said to share certain of these tendencies; there was lots of boy's clubbism in Mailer's generation. But Mailer, in my view, does something much more interesting with those tendencies, probing them every which way. Myers, Epstein, and D'Angelo are not noticeably self-enquiring writers; quite the opposite. (D'Angelo: "Admitting I was wrong gives me ulcers.") Since we all have our less than noble aspects, I do think that owning them, exploring them, possibly in the process modifying them, is the smart way to go.

The aggressive "I'm just telling it like it is" tone is, of course, available to women writers (Pauline Kael, Camille Paglia), gay writers (Larry Kramer, Michelangelo Signorile), and black writers (any number of rappers "keeping it real"). But given the historical use of preserving the status quo to which it has typically been and still is put, we might want to take a pass.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Filling In the Hitchcock Gaps

Back in March I posted this comment on my lifelong Hitchcock Project at Confabulation:

"I have seen more films by Hitchcock than by any other director. Lately I have been trying to conscientiously and systematically fill in all kinds of viewing/reading/listening gaps, including my Hitchcock gaps. Hitchcock films I have watched lately for the first time, or the first time in a very long time, are Torn Curtain and Topaz (both interesting but problematic); Stage Fright (underrated); Frenzy (phenomenal); To Catch a Thief (light but enjoyable). Gaps that remain to be filled are: all of the silents except The Lodger (which is to say, The Pleasure Garden, The Ring, Downhill, Easy Virtue, The Farmer's Wife, Champagne, and The Manxman); the silent version of Blackmail (I've seen the sound version); Elstree Calling (a marginal film with some Hitchcock-directed sequences); Waltzes from Vienna; Mr. and Mrs. Smith; The Paradine Case; the two shorts Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache; the U.K. version of Strangers on a Train; Family Plot; and all of the Hitchcock-directed TV episodes. (I have seen the 3-D version of Dial M for Murder.) I really need to look at Jamaica Inn and Under Capricorn again, as well; those are the most urgent re-visits."

I've kept at it since then, watching the following:

  • The Manxman -- Charles Barr in his excellent book English Hitchcock speaks very highly of this film, which Hitchcock himself dismissed, and I would tend to concur with Barr rather than Hitchcock. The melodramatic elements from Hall Caine's source novel are laid on a little thickly at points, but there is a good deal of visual and narrative subtlety as well. As is often the case in Hitchcock, it's the woman who creates all the difficulty (Hitch really did have a misogynist streak); the coy waffling of Anny Ondra between her two suitors, the strapping Carl Brisson and the proto-yuppie Malcolm Keen, effectively ruins all three of their lives, a less than neat trick. This fact undercuts one of the moments that Barr identifies as powerful and that is certainly cinematically well done, when Ondra is erroneously informed that the less favored man has (conveniently) died. I couldn't care if things turned out well for her, because she didn't seem to deserve it.
  • Mr. and Mrs. Smith -- Always cited as an anomaly in Hitchcock's output, his only non-criminous romantic comedy of the sound era. The direction was apparently undertaken as a personal favor to the great Carole Lombard, but the film does her character no favors, because -- again -- she is the problem. This is quite literally one of Stanley Cavell's "comedies of re-marriage" (although I don't believe Cavell cites it), since the couple, Lombard and Robert Montgomery, discover that they aren't properly married and have to re-hitch (the ads for the film made use of the "hitch/Hitch" pun). They would be better off not doing so, especially the weak Montgomery, whose performance is delightful but whose husband is a doormat. The wife manipulates him to the point where he is professionally non-functional and entirely focused on her whims, and the ending puts them back at square one; nothing has changed. The problem for the audience is, comedies of abuse -- and the wife's behavior here is abusive, make no mistake -- just aren't that funny. There's a little bit of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo in this set-up -- and Ball in fact idolized Lombard and modeled herself comedically on her -- but the difference is in the strength of Desi Arnaz (the most underrated actor in television history): Lucy and Ricky are evenly matched.
  • There are a few fun scenes scattered throughout Mr. and Mrs. Smith: a nice bit in a restaurant with a cat; a drunk scene with Gene Raymond in fine form; and a breakfast table scene early on with a cute visual trick that I mentioned at the Shadowplay blog (where blogger David Cairns is going through Hitchcock's entire output, one film per week): "Look for a bit of expressionistic technique in the first reel that I’m not sure anyone has noted. During the breakfast table scene between Lombard and Montgomery, she is playing footsie with him under the table, and he is wearing grey ribbed business socks (very becoming with his grey pinstripe suit and black wingtips; Montgomery is always sharp). After Lombard asks whether he would marry her if he had it to do all over again and he answers no, cut back under the table as she withdraws her feet from his — and his socks are quite visibly now in a light/dark zigzag pattern, no longer solid at all! There is no way I can see this as a continuity glitch; Hitch was too careful visually and the change is too expressive of what just happened. It’s a brilliant touch but obviously very subtle — I’m not sure I ever would have noticed it if I wasn’t a total menswear geek who pauses DVDs on wardrobe details."
  • Bon Voyage / Aventure Malgache -- Hitchcock's World War II "propaganda shorts" for the French, which were impossible to see for many years, are fascinating little exercises, of considerable narrative complexity for their half-hour apiece lengths. Bon Voyage shares the climate of The 39 Steps in its story of a downed RAF pilot assisted by the Underground in his attempt to escape France. Aventure Malgache, set piquantly in the distant French colony of Madagascar, is framed as a shaggy dog story told by a former colonial attorney in a theater dressing room, and represents Hitchcock in a very sly mood, a la The Trouble with Harry.
  • Speaking of The Trouble with Harry -- that's the apt point of reference for the underrated Family Plot, Hitchcock's last film, which turned out to be a much wittier and benign note to go out on than if he had finished his career with the bleak Frenzy, or gotten to make his aborted final project, The Short Night, which was going to return to Frenzy's preoccupation with rape. The cast of Family Plot -- Barbara Harris, Bruce Dern, Karen Black, William Devane -- makes an engaging group. (Harris and Black had just been in Nashville for Altman the year before, although I don't believe they have any scenes together.) Although the film is far from heavy, it's not so light as to be without menace; in fact, I kept expecting worse things to happen than did, but that kept me very alert. There are a couple of marvelous scenes in a cemetery, the latter of which makes very effective use of geometric patterning from a high camera angle (unsurprisingly, the crew confirms that this flourish, like the splayed dress in Topaz, was very important to Hitchcock).
  • It is said that Barbara Harris's famous wink to the audience at the end of Family Plot was her improvisation, happily embraced by Hitchcock. As a gesture to end a career, the only equal I can think of is the last scene of Altman's A Prairie Home Companion, where Virginia Madsen's Angel of Death appears about to pick one of the expectant actors -- but you know she is really selecting the director himself, and that proved to be the case.
UPDATE (6/16/2009): Since the above post I've re-watched the entertaining Foreign Correspondent, with my favorite Joel McCrea in the lead; and the extremely impressive Sabotage, based loosely on Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, which I recently read. The Secret Agent is so intensely literary a novel (in a good way) that Hitchcock and his screenwriter Charles Bennett were probably wise to merely lift some basics of the plot and a few characters, rather than to try to be fully "faithful" to a difficult book; they do, however, catch its harsh tone. Perhaps because Conrad is so uncompromised a writer, this film is one of the rare instances in Hitchcock where the worst not merely threatens to happen, but actually does happen (and more than once). In later interviews, Hitch tried to back off the implications of the famous bus sequence and to suggest that he rued not handling it differently. I think, if he was being serious, that he was quite wrong about that: It is one of his greatest scenes.

Sabotage, shot by Bernard Knowles, is also one of the most visually beautiful features of Hitchcock's career, and of its decade.

UPDATE (6/17/2009): David Cairns just posted an excellent, detailed, and funny essay on Foreign Correspondent at his Shadowplay blog, as part of his "Hitchcock Year." Despite my fairly frequent carping about critics, I am grateful to writers like Cairns who undertake lengthy examinations of films with energy and verve. I could never do it; as earlier mentioned, I'm a terribly lazy writer. Don't let the relatively high frequency of posts here at PMD fool you; short blog posts are perfect for me, because I can get in and out of a subject quickly. I have no stamina, and tire of description especially fast; I always marvel at the loving, precise descriptions in my friend Robert Kennedy's online reviews.

So keep up the good work, guys!

UPDATE (6/24/2009): David Cairns posted on Mr. and Mrs. Smith and included pictures of Hitchcock's sock trick, to which I responded:

Thanks for posting the side-by-side visuals of the socks! I'm a little buzzed over the fact that between us, we have brought to light a Hitchcockian detail (and a really fun one at that) that no one else seems to have noticed or commented on before now. Since Hitchcock's films are among the most "looked at" and painstakingly analyzed ever, it is pleasing to realize that discoveries can still be made. Also that my menswear fetish has paid a dividend.

A commenter wrote that "The sock thing's a bit of a stretch," and I, totally missing the pun and the accompanying "wink" emoticon, laboriously and unnecessarily explained it all again. Really, I should just stay out of "Comments" sections (which is why I don't have them here).

In tribute to Robert Montgomery, I selected a dark gray pinstripe suit, medium gray ribbed socks, and black wingtips for my outfit today, reproducing Cairns's first photograph. 

UPDATE (5/14/2009): Here are the two screen captures of Robert Montgomery's socks, seconds apart:

Commonplace Book: Marriage

"There are happy marriages. Where affection is reciprocal and sincere, and minds are harmonious, marriage must be happy."

"It is never wholly happy. Two people can never literally be as one: there is, perhaps, a possibility of content under peculiar circumstances, such as are seldom combined; but it is as well not to run the risk: you may make fatal mistakes. Be satisfied, my dear: let all the single be satisfied with their freedom."

Charlotte Bronte, Shirley

Birthday: Tamara de Lempicka

Born May 16, 1898; died March 18, 1980. I only recently discovered this Polish-born Art Deco painter, which means I'm way behind Madonna, who is "a huge fan and collector of her work" according to Wikipedia. (Madonna and I share bio-rhythms, I'll have you know; I was born on August 15, 1958, she was born on August 16, 1958.) Lempicka, who was bisexual and not shy about it, led an interesting life and was on familiar terms with such as Picasso, Gide, O'Keeffe, Colette, de Kooning, and Cocteau. She has an immediately identifiable style as a painter, "clean, precise, and elegant" as the useful Wikipedia entry rightly states. I'll say more: her paintings are hot -- as in, incredibly sexy. Catch this:

It's called Adam and Eve, and it can certainly make you understand how the human race got going. I'm more qualified to speak about the male figure, which is one of the most erotic I've seen in mainstream art, but both are wows. The story goes that Lempicka, in France at the time, was looking for a male model for Adam, and, in her own words (courtesy of Edward Lucie-Smith's excellent Art Deco Painting):

In the street nearby I saw a gendarme, a policeman on his beat. He was young, he was handsome. I said to him: "Monsieur, I am an artist and I need a model for my painting. Would you pose for me?" And he said, "Of course, Madame, I am myself an artist. At what time do you require me?" We made arrangements. He came to my studio after work and said: "How shall I pose?" "In the nude." He took off his things and folded them neatly on a chair, placing his big revolver on the top.

Be still my beating heart!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Edgar G. Ulmer

[From a debate at The Blackboard about the merits of Edgar G. Ulmer and, specifically, Detour.]

Although I am the farthest thing from an Ulmer expert, I do think that arguments about him, and this one in progress is pretty stimulating, amount to arguments about "auteurism" itself. There is a kind of economic determinism involved. Everyone pretty much agrees that Ford and Hawks and Hitchcock were auteurs, and could be auteurs because their talent and (equally important) their ability to "work the system" enabled them to work with other top talents, both crafts-people and actors, and to have budgets at their command to realize their visions.

Where does that leave an Ulmer? He is coming from a background very similar to that of Douglas Sirk -- Central European exile, roots in theater -- and although perhaps not quite as intellectual as Sirk (who was a formidable mind indeed), he is also a serious fellow, as the interview with him in Kings of the Bs bears witness. That interview is also heart-rending, because reading it one "feels Ulmer's pain" at the gulf between his intentions and his means. He is very clear in the interview about which films he feels that he best overcomes those limitations in. Maybe he is not as talented as Sirk -- but let us remember that Sirk worked on a lot of junky projects in his first decade in Hollywood, and then caught some breaks (his teaming up with the energetic but taste-free Ross Hunter was, oddly, among those breaks -- maybe the most important one). Ulmer seems hardly to have caught a break in his life.

The debate around Detour specifically is whether something in the necessarily threadbare manner of the film incarnates its theme in a way that a more polished, accomplished production could not. Gilbert Adair writes very well on this point in his one-page take on Detour in his fine visual history of film, Flickers. Many viewers and critics have decided that yes, the manner and the matter of this movie "click." Those who don't see that may never see it, but they are not going to un-persuade those who have seen it.

The "Cannes Death Rattle"

[From a conversation-in-progress at Confabulation, about an article and other commentary on the "Cannes death rattle."]

Usually I'm the first to jump on a pessimists' bandwagon, but I honestly don't think the art film/film festival situation is as dire as all that -- or, at least, not more dire than it has been for a while. Multiplex box offices are simply no longer a place where the majority of films we care about make a significant portion of the money that they do eke out. It is too bad for the "large screen experience," there is no doubt of that, but in an era where advanced segments of the world technological market are watching movies on cell phones, as in Japan and Korea, we probably need to re-calibrate our sense of what a cinematic experience is. Television sets are where 90%+ of movie experiences are going to take place. (At least the television sets got larger, although I'm not taking advantage of that yet, still watching everything on my 17 inch laptop.) In my eyes, the life of a "movie" now starts with the DVD release; the theatrical release period is at most good for a little advance buzz, as the festivals are.

Cannes is still the gold standard for festivals: Cannes will be going strong five, ten years from now, I feel certain. Everyone is just in a grumpy mood this year, understandably. I'm can't believe I'm the one telling people to cheer up!

Fictional Strategies

As a connoisseur of fictional technique, I enjoy authors who mess with me a little. That's one reason I adore Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, whose narrator is so spectacularly unreliable that he refracts all facts that enter his zone of consciousness. I also love the way that the deliberately flat narration of Flaubert's Sentimental Education suddenly and spectacularly gives way after some 400 pages to one of the most famously expressive passages in all of literature, and also skips forward more than a decade in doing so:

He traveled.

He came to know the melancholy of the steamboat, the cold awakening in the tent, the tedium of landscapes and ruins, the bitterness of interrupted friendships.

He returned.

He went into society, and he had other loves. But the ever-present memory of the first made them insipid; and besides, the violence of desire, the very flower of feeling, had gone. His intellectual ambitions had also dwindled. Years went by; and he endured the idleness of his mind and the inertia of his heart.

Gustave, mon cher, my heart almost stops beating when I read that.

In recent days, I've had similar encounters with fictional sleight-of-hand of various delightful types:

  • In Charlotte Bronte's Shirley, the titular character does not make an appearance, not even by reference, until the last chapter of the first volume of a three-decker novel.
  • Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent plays a dazzling (but fair) series of chronological tricks on its readers without ever acknowledging the case, not even at the very end. The novel forces you to go back and analyze what exactly happened (and to consult critics who can help you doing so). It's positively fiendish.
  • At the three-quarter mark of Andre Gide's The Counterfeiters (Les Faux-Monnayeurs), the reader has probably completely accepted that the title of the novel is merely metaphorical, and aptly so -- only to have a real counterfeiting plot suddenly manifest itself! What the heck?
  • Not only that, but up to that same point, I was reading the action of the novel as roughly contemporaneous with its date of publication (1925). It is possible that I was missing dating clues that a French reader would pick up; I'll have to look into that further. I did notice that no one seemed to be talking about the Great War, but figured, 1925, maybe they had tried to move on by then. Well, late in the novel a historical figure appears prominently in a party scene -- playwright Alfred Jarry, whose Ubu Roi scandalized France -- and immediately a loud alarm went off in my head; wasn't Jarry long dead by 1925? He was. He died in 1907, and Ubu Roi (referred to in the scene) was first produced in 1896. That restricts the possible time-frame of the book, and apparently a later reference to a 1904 wine narrows it still further, to the 1904-1907 period. I was twenty years off. Damn!
UPDATE (5/31/2009): Gide himself was confused about whether to set The Counterfeiters in the pre-war or post-war period, so that makes me feel better. He writes about this in the Journal of The Counterfeiters, at first coming to the conclusion that "I cannot be retrospective and immediate at the same time"; but that is, eventually, the route he did decide to go, in part because the historical incidents he was drawing on for his plot (there were several) were all pre-war. The immediacy is definite; the book doesn't read as "retrospective" although it in fact is, and that is what tripped me up.

Some Notes on The History Boys

(1) The entire theatrical cast of twelve that starred in Alan Bennett's play in the West End reprise their roles in the film version; that is probably close to being without precedent.

(2) The film improves as it goes, but settles for an ending that too easily appeals to sentiment. This ending might have played better in the theater, where artifice can fly; it rings false in a realistic film adaptation.

(3) The male teachers played by Richard Griffiths and Stephen Campbell Moore and the headmaster played by Clive Merrison are all repellent individuals, or so they seemed to me; only the lone female teacher, played by Frances de la Tour, comes off well. The one moment when I warmed to one of the adult males comes during an excellent scene at mid-point, when Griffiths analyzes Thomas Hardy's poem "Drummer Hodge" in a one-on-one with Samuel Barnett (the best performance among the "boys"). This scene does capture the spark of genuine teaching and learning; it's lovely.

(4) All of the numerous gay men in the movie are attracted to straight men, never to other gay men. In particular they are drawn to the foxiest of the "history boys," Dakin (as women are, too, and Dakin is well aware of his omnisexual power). They read way too much into him. It's the old story of the need to project other qualities onto beauty, to provide some kind of emotional or even intellectual rationale for a basically hormonal response. Very smart people have fooled themselves that way; I know I sure have, although I hope (pray) to have outgrown it.