Monday, June 29, 2009

The "Candle in the Wind" Trick

We can deplore the effects of fame on the famous -- it's easy -- but if we do, we are also deploring the only reason we know about their existence. It's what I think of as the "Candle in the Wind" trick, after Elton John's and Bernie Taupin's famous song about Marilyn Monroe. The singer regrets the fame that destroyed Marilyn Monroe's life, and puts forward the standard notion that she would have been better off as the original "Norma Jean":

They set you on the treadmill
And they made you change your name...

Hollywood created a superstar
And pain was the price you paid...

He imagines that he would have gotten along with the "real" Marilyn:

...I would have liked to have known you
But I was just a kid...

Goodbye Norma Jean
From the young man in the 22nd row
Who sees you as something more than sexual
More than just our Marilyn Monroe

But, but, but. There are plenty of "Norma Jeans" out there, beautiful, lively, charming young women, who do escape the ravages of fame, because fame never comes calling. These women are situated in the "real world," they are not tragic, and they are knowable. Does Elton sing songs about them? Of course not. Marilyn Monroe's fame, however deplorable its influence on her life may have been, is the only reason the singer is able to assume the posture of caring about the "real" her. With fame, we want to have our cake and not eat it, too.

Michael Jackson, Ctd.

The predictable media orgy over the death of the "King of Pop" continues. But there never was a moment, not a single moment, when Michael Jackson had anything of importance to offer American culture, and he never did. He had no real artistry -- Quincy Jones was the sensibility behind his albums, as far as that goes -- and he had nothing to say. Oh sure, the Jackson 5 were better than the Osmonds or the Partridge Family, and Michael sang "Never Can Say Goodbye" pretty soulfully for a 12-year-old (but that's in the nature of a stunt). But to compare Michael Jackson to Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, Prince, Frank Sinatra, or other true geniuses of popular music is not only misleading, it's an insult to our collective intelligence. There is no tragedy here, only grotesquerie; there was no height to fall from.

Perform a thought experiment. After Thriller, Jackson's career sputters, and his next couple of albums fail to catch commercial fire. How unusual would that be? Not at all. Then pretend there was no freakishness: no more plastic surgeries, no hyberbaric chambers, no Neverland Ranch, no friendships with little boys, no chimps in matching outfits. Michael grows up, marries, has a few kids. Still wealthy, he fades out of the public eye, retires from performing, moves into the production end of the business (emulating his master Quincy Jones), invests in a nightclub. Essentially, he's Boz Scaggs after Silk Degrees (like Thriller, an album of hits).

Then, at the age of 50, Jackson dies of a sudden heart attack. He hasn't been tabloid copy in 25 years. How "big" would this news be? Clearly, it wouldn't go unnoticed; but without the decades of freakishness, Michael Jackson as a star presence in 2009 wouldn't amount to much. America loved that freak.

Friday, June 26, 2009


Roger Ebert must have been in a particularly foul mood the day he wrote his review of Alex Cox's Walker and gave the poor film zero stars. He's frequently been far more indulgent of batty directorial invention (giving, for example, three stars to Mike Figgis's out there Hotel). It's true that Walker inspired a good deal of ignominy, as a confessedly "anti-capitalist," "sort of anti-American" movie (Cox's words) might be expected to do. But one wouldn't expect Ebert to jump on such a band-wagon, although he does sum up the standard case against Walker efficiently enough ("a pointless and increasingly obnoxious exercise in satire" with no laughs, witless anachronisms, etc.).

None of what bothers Ebert bothers me that much, which is not to say that I find Walker an especially accomplished work. It is, however, if taken in the right way -- but this is a difficulty, as I'll elaborate -- quite interesting. The jokey tone and the sometimes over-cute anachronisms (Coke bottles, newsweeklies, helicopters) are undeniably hard for some to take because they are not out-and-out Pythonesque or Mel Brooksian, but rather play off against a central story-line that is politically serious, with definite implications for our time, and an imperialist central character who is ferociously incarnated by Ed Harris. It's the mixing of tones that is tough, not one tone or another. The anachronistic approach mixing modern technology with older events is familiar from the quasi-documentary television series You Are There, and has been used in other films such as Peter Watkins's La Commune (Paris 1871) and Gualtieri Jacopetti's and Franco Prosperi's Goodbye Uncle Tom.

William Walker was what was called in the 1850s a "filibuster," an American adventurer who tried to push "manifest destiny" to the south of the United States even as the more conventional version of manifest destiny was being pushed westward. A number of unsuccessful expeditions were undertaken to try to win territories such as Mexico, Cuba, and Cental America for the United States, with an eye towards incorporating them as slave states. Walker led several such expeditions into Mexico and Central America, and on his Nicaraguan journey in 1855-1857, he gained a measure of control over the country, though it lasted barely a year. On a subsequent visit to Honduras in 1860, he was seized and executed at the tender age of 36.

Those are the barest bones of the story; it is terribly complex in its details and repays study within the overall context of the politics and diplomacy of the time. (A book on the subject I'm currently reading and enjoying is Robert E. May's The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, which is what prompted me to put Walker in my Netflix queue.)

Here is where taking Alex Cox's Walker "in the right way" poses a challenge. Cox is very free with facts, in the usual way of historical romancers, and his freedom does bother me, also for the usual reason: The actual facts are much more interesting. I have to go to the histories to figure out what the director and screenwriter (Rudy Wurlitzer) made of the material, and as is often the case, that involves a bit of let-down. However, even allowing them their interpretation and their artistic license, as seems fair, the question remains: Who is this film possibly for? The number of viewers who bring enough to it going in to make much of what Cox and Wurlitzer have done is vanishingly small. The number who will follow up thoroughly enough to gain that perspective after seeing the film is way smaller still, human nature being what it is. And even the group that could enjoy the film on a more simplistic level is pretty tiny, because the movie is just not set up to be conventionally enjoyable or even "readable." For example, although I quite liked the "fall of Saigon" vibe with the helicopter in the final scenes, it's going to be lost on the overwhelming majority of most conceivable audiences (outside film festivals and Citerion DVD buyers, perhaps).

So, as with some other films that I like very much (more than Walker) -- Paul Schrader's Mishima, Robert Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie -- I cannot imagine who the directors thought they could reach, or how that microscopic sub-set of humanity could possibly justify the big studio investment that all four of these films had. I know that Jonathan Rosenbaum has often put forward the notion that mass audiences would embrace aesthetically or politically radical films if they were given the proper exposure to them; but I think that's wrong, I see no real world evidence for it. These films I mention began life under the auspices of marketing juggernauts, but they are essentially un-marketable (again, outside festivals and Criterion, which put out both the Walker and Mishima DVDs). I'm glad that recondite big budget follies occasionally get made with the full weight of Hollywood technical talent, acting talent, musical talent (The Clash member Joe Strummer's score for Walker is outstanding). But man, someone takes a bath on these.

POSTSCRIPT: I love this definition of "recondite" that I found through Google: "abstruse: difficult to penetrate; incomprehensible to one of ordinary understanding or knowledge." Yes, that would be Walker's problem.

UPDATE (6/28/2009): To push the Walker / Mishima comparison a bit: I doubt there are many William Walker experts who would find what Cox and Wurlitzer have done with his story to be especially satisfactory, although they might it...hmm, interesting. On the other hand, I doubt there are many Yukio Mishima experts who wouldn't be riveted by what Paul Schrader made of his story, although they might have a quibble here and a quibble there. Mishima is a difficult film, but also a gorgeous, provocative, and heart-breaking film for those who will take the trouble.

Acquisitions, June 20-26

  • Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge (Penguin pb) (Half Price Books)
  • Albert Cohen, Belle du Seigneur (Penguin pb) -- As well up as I generally am on 20th century novelists, I was only dimly aware of Albert Cohen (1895-1981) until recently, and that rather pleases me; there are always more discoveries to make! This 974-page novel (!), published to acclaim in 1968, is the third and longest in a sequence of four set in the period between the world wars. (The first two were translated decades ago but are very hard to find; the fourth has not been translated yet.) Cohen was a Jew born in Corfu, but raised mainly in Marseilles; he was involved for most of his adult life with what we now call NGOs, and the League of Nations figures prominently in the novel-cycle. (I note with pleasure that this Penguin paperback has an entirely period-appropriate painting by Tamara de Lempicka on the cover.) (HPB)
  • R.D. Blackmore, Lorna Doone (Oxford pb) -- The local Half Price Books has started a daily trivia contest; if you are the first to answer the day's question correctly, you get a 15% off coupon. Today's question: "What was the name of Shakespeare's wife?" I was the first to know that the answer was Anne Hathaway, so hello 15% on Lorna Doone! This fact was front of mind, since, as earlier noted here at PMD, the propitiously named Anne Hathaway, the actress, is starring in Twelfth Night at New York's Shakespeare in the Park this summer, with Raul Esparza and Audra McDonald (some cast!).
  • Vic Damone, Strange Enchantment (Capitol LP) -- "Haunting moods of faraway places, with rich string and exotic rhythm backgrounds" -- yes, it was the era of South Pacific, exotica music, and Hawaiian statehood. This album is positively dreamy; the lush arrangements by Billy May complement Damone's smooth voice (he had great pipes) perfectly. This is an original pressing in superb condition, hot diggity! -- all of four bucks on Ebay.

Michael Jackson

[I responded to a post on Jackson's death at The Blackboard -- ostensibly off-topic for a film noir board, but perhaps not.]

Someone pointed out that with the deaths of Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, and David Carradine, the Seventies Are Really Over.

You just know that the autopsy/toxicology is going to reveal that this is another Anna Nicole/Heath Ledger-type situation.

I've always felt that Jackson was distinctly over-rated. He made three super-slick, very popular albums (Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad) between 20 and 30 years ago. I think a few of the songs are OK, but they don't hold up particularly well. His sister Janet's album Control might be a better album than any of Michael's. Of the Class of Summer 1958 (Jackson, Madonna, Prince, and me!), Madonna has had longer-lasting commercial instincts and a much less freakish life than Jackson, and Prince is a genius far above Jackson's league.

There is no question of Jackson's being a serial pederast -- Vanity Fair celebrity journalist (and Tim Russert's widow) Maureen Orth has been scathing on that point. He just kept buying his way out of it. And among the many other bizarre behaviors, the Frankenstein experiments he willingly had performed on his own face give me the shudders -- I've haven't been able to look at a photograph of Jackson for a long time without wanting to turn away in disgust.

He is the poster child for the sickness that is modern celebrity; compared to him, everyone else, with the possible exception of Elvis Presley (his father-in-law!), is a piker in that respect.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Note About and For Performers

It has been nearly a year and a half now since Heath Ledger died, and I still find myself upset when I think about it. This occurred to me again today as I read a nice Ben Brantley piece in the New York Times about star actors who are currently tearing up the London stage -- Helen Mirren in Racine's Phedre, Gillian Anderson in Ibsen's A Doll's House, Jude Law in Hamlet, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in Beckett's Waiting for Godot. I thought of what pleasures all those great performers have given me over the years, and what pleasures Ledger -- or River Phoenix -- can't give me going forward. It makes me sad.

It is easy to be cynical about celebrity, so I really feel the need to say this: I believe in star power. I don't believe it is everything, and I champion many artists who will never in that sense be "stars" -- but I certainly believe that the power exists, and is usually a better rather than a worse force. It enriches our lives.

But with it come perils, for those so gifted. And those perils have gotten much worse in our era of celebrity, because modern celebrity, although often an inevitable corollary of artistic power, is also its enemy. I heard an interesting segment on fame recently on NPR's Talk of the Nation, prompted by the sudden trajectory of Britain's Got Talent contestant and YouTube sensation Susan Boyle. Henry Winkler was one of the guests, and he said very wisely that the one thing you cannot afford to do when suddenly famous is to believe your own press. You've got to keep a humble head on you, no matter how great the fame or how large your gift.

But for every Winkler or Meryl Streep who handles their fame well, who sets boundaries, there are many young, gifted hotshots who don't, sometimes because they haven't been instructed how to. On the basis of history, you have to worry for them. So what I would like them to know is that, all cynicism aside, all the celebrity shit aside, what you do matters. It brings joy to many and lightens the burdens of many. Please take care of yourselves.

UPDATE (6/25/2009): Since the above post had largely been mentally formed months ago, I simply do not know what to make of my timing in actually writing and posting it yesterday. One day before Michael Jackson's death -- too weird.

My mother was a bit of an occultist and believed that there were "vibrations" throughout the universe, an opinion that some physicists would agree with at a very different level. Who am I to say that she was wrong? I can't. I seem to feel those vibrations sometimes -- probably most do -- and perhaps this is a small instance of that uncanniness.

Politicians and Their Libidos, Revisited

Something that greatly annoys me in American discourse is that evidence for a proposition can pile up almost infinitely and indefinitely, but, if the proposition is "politically inconvenient," almost no one will admit it to be true. Someone like Bill Maher, whom I generally quite like, can make a niche for himself out of being that rare person to call it like it obviously is. Of course Maher annoys people, but if he didn't, I'd have to take that as a sign that we had achieved maturity and grace, which simply isn't going to happen.

Case in point: these randy politicians! In the wake of John Ensign and Mark Sanford, can't we just stipulate that male politicians, like male actors, singers, athletes, CEOs -- in short, any guys who attain to fame, wealth, power -- are highly unlikely to be able to control themselves sexually for any great length of time, no matter the huge penalty to be paid if they are found out, and no matter what their stated "moral philosophy" is? Let's not consider these fellows the "exceptions"; let's look for exceptions in the other direction -- the Christian politician, say, who not only believes what he is saying (which is relatively easy) but can actually live up to it (which is very hard). Some may counter that those who become embroiled in sexual scandals are still a small minority -- but do you really think we hear about more than 3% of what actually goes on? I don't (although over time, because of intrusive new technologies, the percentage is going up).

Gay men make more sense on this issue, perhaps because they face up to the implications of maleness. The number of long-term gay male relationships I know of personally in which absolute monogamy is demanded is -- this is easy to guess -- zero. Every couple has a different accommodation, different "rules," but every such couple I know (or have been part of) has discussed this issue in detail and has come to decisions. It's harder for men to have illusions when it comes to other men, than it is for women -- or voters -- to have those illusions.

UPDATE (6/25/2009): Jon Stewart summed up the Sanford situation well: "Just another politician with a conservative mind and a liberal penis."

UPDATE (6/26/2009): Very apropos is a famous passage from Clare Boothe Luce's The Women (both play and film) in which the wise old mother of the cheated-upon Mary Haines explains how these things work (this is the theatrical text):

Time comes when every man's got to feel something new -- when he's got to feel young again, just because he's growing old. Women are just the same. But when we get that way we change our hairdress. Or get a new cook. Or redecorate the house from stem to stern...a man has only one escape from his old self: to see a different self -- in the mirror of some woman's eyes.

This does suggest that if a 45-year-old guy betrays a sudden mad urge to make a thoroughly impractical vehicle purchase, his wife might well let him do it, after grumbling just a bit for form's sake. He could be sublimating other sorts of urges. Of course, he could also be showing off to his new girlfriend; you never can tell.

UPDATE (7/5/2009): Leonard Pitts has a nice take:

The [male] governor...figures he can get away with it. With the arrogance, recklessness, self-delusion and lack of foresight common to my gender, he figures he can handle it, somehow. Granted, he does this figuring with the part of the body that does not contain the brain, but still, he does it. And then, when it all falls apart, he stands there and insults the intelligence of every human being within earshot.

"I made a mistake?''

Beg pardon, but what he made was a decision.

Birthday: Harry Partch

Born June 24, 1901; died September 3, 1974. For my earliest exposure to this great iconoclastic American composer, inventor of dozens of unique instruments, theoretician of micro-tonal intonation, explorer of the American underlife, I have to thank someone at Columbia Records, which in 1969 and 1971 put out two albums of Partch's music, The World of Harry Partch and Delusion of the Fury. The latter included a helpful demonstration disk of Partch's array of instruments (with names such as Xymo-Zyl, Spoils of War, Boo II, and Mazda Marimba), often constructed from discarded industrial materials. These albums were purchased for the excellent music collection at the Julius Forstmann Library in my hometown of Passaic, New Jersey, which during my youth was curated by music librarian Irwin Heilner, a composer in his own right who once had a piece recorded on Composers Recordings, Inc. I found the records during my numerous borrowing raids on the classical holdings, listened to them countless times, and was hooked.

Most of Partch's music was recorded on his own Gate 5 record label; he is one of those creators -- Sun Ra is another -- who went the do-your-own-distribution route very early on. But it is unlikely that those records would have found their way to the Passaic library -- in fact, none ever did -- so the availability of some Partch music at a macro-commercial level was crucial to my learning about him when I did. Columbia, like other mainstream media outlets, was experimenting a bit at the time to capture the youth crowd, for some of whom Partch in his ornery independence definitely possessed an appeal.

I am proud to know that all the original Partch instruments are now housed, and frequently played, at Montclair State College in New Jersey, just a few miles from Passaic.

In addition to setting hobo lyrics brilliantly in a piece like "Barstow" -- which is on The World of Harry Partch and is a great introduction -- Partch went in for large-scale ritual music dramas based on ancient Greek classics. I always felt that he had an affinity with Carl Orff, who was similarly inclined, and it turns out that "Partch admired Orff's neo-archaic musical style, melismatic and percussive" (Daniel Albright, Modernism and Music).

POSTSCRIPT: While I'm shouting out libraries for their music collections, I should also note the Rutherford Public Library across the river from Passaic. Rutherford, of course, was the residence of the great poet and pediatrician William Carlos Williams, and has always had a nice library. While the strength of the Passaic music collection dates from the mid-Sixties -- we got every Bernstein Mahler recording, for example -- Rutherford was weaker in acquisitions at that time but had absolutely amazing holdings from the early LP era, the Fifties and early Sixties, seemingly including every obscure European composer who had been recorded at a major label. Some fool later de-accessioned all of these LPs, ruining the efforts of a pioneering and sensitive music librarian; but during my high school years the collection was intact, a real treasure trove for exploration.

I was, you will have detected, a true library junkie at an early age. My mom arranged for me to have an adult library card in Passaic by the time I was in 6th grade, as I'd already been reading adult fiction and non-fiction for years at that point, and the librarians trusted me. Since the Rutherford and Nutley Public Libraries were easily accessible to me on my bike and by bus, I paid small yearly fees to gain borrowing privileges at each of those fine institutions. I have the happiest memories of all this!

Unsurprisingly, my first paid job was at the Passaic library, for which I worked throughout my high school years and during college summers, usually but not always in the Children's Room (one of the best I've ever seen anywhere). While I was at Yale, my "financial aid" job was at the Yale Forestry Library, a fascinating place; not many people realize that Yale has one of the world's great graduate forestry schools (now known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies).

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Menswear Moments: Alan Ladd

[A poster at The Blackboard mentioned the Alan Ladd version of The Great Gatsby.]

Ladd had quite a bit in common with Gatsby. Remember the "beautiful shirts" scene in the novel?

...[Gatsby] opened for us two hulking patent cabinets which held his massed suits and dressing-gowns and ties, and his shirts, piled like bricks in stacks a dozen high.

“I’ve got a man in England who buys me clothes. He sends over a selection of things at the beginning of each season, spring and fall.”

He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher—shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.

“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before.”

Ladd, in his personal enthusiasm for nice clothing, was a lot like that. He too had risen from the lower middle class to the point where he could open a walk-in closet to show a reporter a neat line of fifty suits and as many pairs of fine shoes. "Not bad for a kid from Arkansas, huh?" (I'm reciting this story from memory and forget where I originally read it, but I remember it vividly.)

Some Notes on...Neo-Nazis

(1) These people aren't going away. In fact, events of recent weeks (the George Tiller murder, the Holocaust Museum attack, the Minuteman murders in Arizona, the Muhs murder in Texas, etc.) leave me fearful that the right-wing lunatic fringe of all sorts is freaking out under an Obama administration, and, with ample "moral" and philosophical support from "mainstream media" wingnut types, are becoming emboldened and reckless in their actions.

(2) If you read that first bullet point to mean, in part, that I consider Rush, Sean, Bill, Glenn, Ann, and the rest to be spiritual accomplices of the sickest fascists out there -- you read me correctly. Indeed, that is a huge part of our dilemma right now. And the media love extreme opinions --they're entertaining! Unfortunately, they are also something more than that. Frank Rich has written eloquently on this subject of late ("The Obama Haters' Silent Enablers").

(3) Although not at all religious, I see no reason why I cannot "pray," which is to say, send out a hope to the universe -- and thus, every day now, I pray for the ongoing success of our extremely competent and dedicated U.S. Secret Service. Enough said.

(4) I just finished reading William H. Schmaltz's 1999 biography Hate: George Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazi Party, which provides useful historical perspective on Neo-Nazis, the White Power movement, The New Order, Christian Identity, and related fringe movements. Schmaltz's research, especially in FBI files, seems impeccable, although it is unfortunate that his idea of composing a book is to put all his research on the page. We get very little insight into what made Rockwell tick -- which, admittedly, would be a tough assignment -- but we do get, say, exhaustive detail on every single one of his college speaking engagements. Thus the book is, as one Amazon reviewer puts it, "monotonous." Despite Rockwell being such an incendiary individual, there is limited drama or understanding to be had from The Collected Rants of anyone.

(5) Schmaltz's book does put into ample context one of the funniest pieces I have ever read in The Onion, "Today's Neo-Nazis Have No Respect for Tradition," which is so unexaggerated that it might have been written word for word by an old guard Neo-Nazi:

You can't just call yourself the Master Race—you have to act like it, and hold yourself to a higher standard than those you despise and wish to exterminate. Have you seen the way these [neo-Nazi] kids dress? Their idea of a "uniform" is a T-shirt and combat boots. The rural militias are even worse, with their filthy fatigues and long hair and beer guts. Excuse me, but I hardly think hillbilly rejects are what our great Führer had in mind when he dreamed of a world filled with Aryan supermen. I wouldn't even let them in my front door, let alone conspire with them to blow up a synagogue.

The entire piece falls in the "so funny it hurts" category.

(6) The Onion piece should not lead one to suppose, however, that Rockwell's minions actually acted much like a "Master Race," apart from consistently dressing in uniform (khakis, ties, combat boots, swastika armbands). (Hate makes very effective use of photographs of Rockwell and his gang.) The American Nazi Party was conspicuously a rotating bunch of total losers whose main talent seems to have been getting into fistfights -- with each other. Financial backing was always this close to non-existent, so the Neo-Nazi "life" was ascetic, boring, unfulfilling -- few stuck around for very long.

(7) Rockwell's attention-getting tactics were moderately effective agitprop consisting of bullyish low-level violence and puerile clownishness (his father had been in vaudeville). But the techniques were not effective in attracting volunteer support or sustained media coverage. Even when Rockwell shifted his focus from demonizing Jews (in keeping with his Nazi inspirations) to demonizing blacks (more in line with the anxieties of the Sixties), his "success" was extremely limited. There were other groups ahead of him in the racism game, and those groups weren't tarred by the "Nazi" association, which, only twenty years after the end of World War II, was still raw for most Americans.

(8) Both the text and the photographs in Hate tripped off my "gaydar" in a major way. The ANP was an entirely male movement, with recruits living in pathetic "barracks," sometimes without electricity when the bills couldn't be paid. The men, who included "self-hating Jews" (Dan Burros, Leonard Holstein) and other unstable types trying to escape from themselves, spent all their time together, and the record Schmaltz compiles is notably light on the subject of their seeking any sort of female companionship. They did, however, get off on dressing in uniform, playing with their guns (one stormtrooper killed himself accidentally that way), and so on. I don't necessarily get a gay reading off the twice-married, seven-times-a-father Rockwell, and he did sometimes have a girlfriend around. But the rest of them -- Matt Koehl, Alan Welch, Robert Lloyd, and others -- I'd bet you a whole stack of Judy Garland records that the majority were gay. Even Rockwell admitted that the movement attracted some "queers" (although he held that they reformed quickly), and FBI counter-intelligence agents tried to bait Rockwell with reports of Alan Welch's "unnatural" activities.

(9) The still surviving Matt Koehl, Rockwell's second-in-command who eventually took over the ANP after Rockwell's assassination, hails from Milwaukee, and eventually relocated the by-then re-named New Order to Milwaukee from increasingly expensive Northern Virginia, the ANP's long-time base of operations. According to Schmaltz, the greatest electoral success the ANP or affiliated groups ever had was in a Milwaukee school board race ("it managed to garner one in every five voters"). This does not surprise me; as I've mentioned before, the racism of a sizable minority of whites in the Milwaukee area is, even in 2009, shockingly open, among "professionals" as well as proletarians. Commentary just this side of out-and-out racist is common both in Milwaukee talk radio (Mark Belling, Charlie Sykes) and print commentary (Patrick McIlheran, Rick Esenberg). It's one ugly scene.

(10) The extreme right lacks a publicly identifiable Rockwell-like spokesman just now (not that I'm wishing for one). David Duke's time has passed, and Matthew Hale is incarcerated in the ADX Florence supermax. I do fully expect someone new along these lines to emerge during this administration; history suggests that likelihood.

(11) A book that I recommend on the subject of the Christian Identity movement is Michael Barkun's Religion and the Racist Right, which I read a few years ago.

Menswear Moment: Night and the City

In the opening scene of Jules Dassin's seminal noir film Night and the City, Richard Widmark's nattily dressed small-time loser Harry Fabian is being chased through the streets of London by a man he owes money to. I love Harry's spectator shoes and stylin' checked sportcoat, but what I love even more is that when he discovers that his boutonniere has dropped on the pavement, he dashes back a few feet, picks it up, starts to re-insert it in his buttonhole (finally pocketing it in haste), and only then resumes his flight. This, gentlemen, is getting your priorities straight!

Here is Widmark in a later scene, different outfit, but boutonniere still prominent:

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Short Take: Night Train (1959)

[Posted excitedly at The Blackboard.]

I'd like to offer a quick recommendation for the Polish noir Night Train (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1959), readily available on DVD from Polart. Just to sketch it out: This is one of the great train films of all time, right up there with The Narrow Margin and The Lady Vanishes. Image by image, it's breathtakingly cinematic, but it's also richly human and emotional. There is a manhunt sequence at the 3/4 mark, off the train and into the darkling countryside, that is one of the most impressive sequences in post-war cinema -- real goose-bump territory. The ethereal jazz score, featuring vibes and a wordless female vocalist, is utterly distinctive and adds strikingly to the film's overall effect. This is a ride you won't forget.

It is interesting how great films announce themselves right at the start -- it took all of thirty seconds of the credits, pairing an overhead shot of a busy train station with the otherworldly jazz, for me to know in my gut that Night Train was something special.

POSTSCRIPT: The reviews for this film at the IMDB are appreciative and quite good -- much better than what I've come across in standard film references, which don't seem to especially "get" the film.

The leading man, Leon Niemczyk, who gives a compelling performance, looked familiar to me, and then I figured out why -- he starred in Roman Polanski's mesmerizing debut feature, Knife in the Water, three years later. (He was one of the busiest actors in Polish film history; he passed away in 2006.) Knife in the Water is a film that bowled me over when I saw it as an adolescent; I should give it another look.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Gary, Indiana

Speaking of spooky abandoned places, this terrific visual essay at makes it look as if Gary, Indiana was hit by a neutron bomb that took out all the people but left the decrepit buildings standing (sort of). Here is a sample shot:

Minor League Baseball

As part-"owner" of a minor league team, the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers --it is a publicly owned team, and I am one of more than 200 shareholders -- I am bound to take an interest in noteworthy books about minor league ball, and 2009 has brought forth a doozy, Matt McCarthy's Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit, which is shaping up as a kind of Ball Four of baseball's lowest rung. McCarthy is a Yalie who was, improbably, drafted in a late round by the Anaheim Angels in 2002, mainly because he was a lefty who could throw 90 MPH (but not consistently). He put in a struggling year on the Provo (Utah) Angels (now Orem Owls) of the Pioneer rookie league, and was released the following spring. He kept a journal of his experiences -- out of sheer boredom? or did he have a book contract already, as Scott Turow did when he entered Harvard Law School (which resulted in One L)? McCarthy doesn't say; but in any case, a good deal of the humor of the book comes not so much out of the predictable young-guy hi-jinks but out of McCarthy's obvious mental distance from his teammates. He truly is a mis-fit, as the title indicates; he's slumming. The stuff he thinks about is so far outside the norm of what anyone involved with pro baseball thinks about, you can easily see why he would find Harvard Medical School (where he wound up) a much more congenial environment.

McCarthy's book is selling well, but of course it has been controversial, for a number of reasons:

(1) He broke the locker room code, which, as Jim Bouton could tell you, wins you no friends (although later, your book may come to be considered a classic);
(2) Many of the players, coaches, and others called out by name come off as immature, racist, sexist, homophobic idiots --no surprise there;
(3) The book touches very lightly on steroids, but it's enough;
(4) The book also discusses what everyone suspects, that there is a wide, sometimes nasty gulf between Anglo and the ever more numerous Latino players in professional baseball;
(5) Although McCarthy does his best not to seem snobby, of course he is -- it's sociologically inevitable;
(6) McCarthy got some facts wrong, and possibly embellished a few things, which is pretty much the norm for all memoirs (who doesn't read these things with a shaker of salt close by?), but can get you toasted in the New York Times.

I, personally, don't care so much about the artistic license as whether McCarthy got the essence of the subject right; but some folks, wanting to neutralize that essence, will seize on a mis-reported box score or a mis-dated incident as grounds to dismiss the whole report. Chris Mehring, radio announcer and blogger for the Timber Rattlers, and a capital fellow, has indicated that he won't even read Odd Man Out, which I think is self-defeatingly pre-emptive -- I can't imagine anyone involved with the minors not reading this book -- but whatever. McCarthy has clearly touched a nerve, and this is the sort of book that ought to make those reported on uneasy; if minor league professionals had embraced Odd Man Out, I would have suspected it of being the usual b.s., and it wouldn't have risen to the top of my reading pile.

Sports at the level that McCarthy writes about are a sad enterprise, both from the inside looking out and from the outside looking in. Most of the players will never "make it," but the majority of them lack an "out" (such as McCarthy obviously had all along), so they hang on as long as they can; baseball is all they know. McCarthy writes (more about his teammates than himself, I think):

We couldn't make a living playing minor league baseball; we could barely subsist. But playing professional baseball was better than not playing professional baseball, and for many of us this was about seeing how long we could play the game and not do anything else.

Odd Man Out
reveals the imaginative world of young American and Latin American athletes as dreary, pathetically uninteresting, inadequate; and that of their elders as no better, really. The most wince-worthy moment in the book comes when the minorly unhinged Provo manager, Tom Kotchman, gets some good news about how his son Casey Kotchman (now a first baseman for the Atlanta Braves) is performing in another minor league, and feels he must share it with his own completely uninterested players (my bolding):

"You guys will never know anything...until you have a kid of your own. You think about them day and night and you just want the best for them...You dedicate your whole life to your kids...You just want 'em to be healthy, and you just want 'em to grow up right...and be good at sports."

Saints preserve us.


I have learned that I can't expect myself to stay in synch with someone for a lifetime when I have a hard enough time staying in synch with anyone for an afternoon. What I want to do from minute to minute is so entirely my deal; I don't want to compromise it, but I don't want to force it on anyone, either.

Creative Intent

There's a debate going on in a corner of the "horror blogosphere" (everything has its blogosphere) as to whether it is important to consider (or, sometimes, to guess at) creative intent in discussing depictions of violence in film. Call me old-fashioned, but I think it's very important. It isn't everything, it doesn't dictate all your conclusions; but it's important. I say this in part because works of art are intentional objects; they're not puddles. One participant in the debate stakes his argument on the fact that any utterance has a deeper meaning, whether or not that meaning is intended; and I'll concede the point. Almost every utterance is interpretable and discussable in both sociological and psychological terms; and I often find those discussions quite interesting. But those approaches don't differentiate with respect to value, they un-differentiate; they completely level the playing field. That is right for the purposes of the sociologist and psychologist, but it doesn't help me much as someone engaging with the arts. I want to know what objects are more worthy of my time and attention; I am not obligated to give equal time and attention to everything that's out there, nor could I. We can chemically analyze both a meal from McDonald's and a meal from a fine Thai restaurant, but I know where I'd rather eat.

To put it as a thought experiement: if I sat Francis Ford Coppola or Eric Rohmer or Edward Wood, Jr. down and had them each free-associate into a microphone for an hour, the results would no doubt be fascinating sociologically, psychologically, and even, in a nascent way, artistically; but they wouldn't be shaped works of art, and it would be unfair to those gentlemen to discuss them as such. Intentionality matters.

Friday, June 19, 2009

My Wardrobe: The Most Wanted

I made up this list a while back for posting on one of the menswear boards. I've since snagged two of the eight items (both hats).

Items I'm on the lookout for, in my size and at the right price:

1) Navy and white striped boating blazer

2) Double breasted navy chalk-stripe suit with a 1930s Chicago gangster vibe

3) Vintage black bowler -- The difficulty was hitting my price; nicely preserved bowlers tend to go for a lot on Ebay. I finally got lucky on a real beauty. I've bid on brown and pearl-gray bowlers, too, but the bidding got past my comfort zone, and I've become a very disciplined bidder.

4) Complete kilt outfit (this will be $$$)

5) Reverse chalk-stripe suit (either SB or DB), black striping on medium grey (Dick Powell wears a suit like this in Murder My Sweet)

6) Vintage tweed single-breasted suit with an All Creatures Great and Small vibe

7) Vintage olive-green fedora -- Found one on Ebay -- tough color. Then, amazingly, found a second one: slightly different shade, velour rather than felt.

8) Gucci navy suede snaffle-bit loafers

If I found every one of these, I'd easily come up with a new list. I'm a shark when it comes to clothing -- always continuing to move forward and devour.

My Wardrobe: Tied Flies

I mentioned in the post on bouttonieres that I don't wear them in the left buttonhole, so as not to compete with the pocket square on the side. However, I will use that buttonhole for the occasional lapel pin, or, more distinctively, a vintage tied fly. I got that idea from the estimable haberdasher Marty Mathis, who has a shop in downtown Minneapolis, and with whom I've interacted on several menswear boards. It's a great touch; I buy the flies on Ebay and I get compliments on them all the time. The fly's barb, which I grind down slightly to make it less sharp, fits needly through the buttonhole and rests on the inside of the lapel, holding the fly in place.

Marty's shop, by the way, provides a great example of the shopping conundrum I mentioned in my last post. I would love to meet Marty and to see his shop, but even if I visit Minneapolis, I can't go; the goods, I know, are just too high-end, and I'm not in that buying league. What would I do -- buy a pocket square or pair of socks for $40.00? I'd feel ridiculously cheap on the one hand, and would be spending an amount way over my budget for such an item, on the other. Marty wouldn't make me feel bad, but I would feel bad. An even worse sort of experience, which I assume we've all had, is moseying into a high-end shop out of curiosity and getting the big chill once a salesperson sniffs out (as they do) that you're not "money." That's one of life's shittiest moments; you feel about two inches high, and I know that my hatred for the salesperson in those situations verges on the murderous. There's nothing like being scorned by a suck-up!

Acquisitions, June 13-19 / Thoughts on Bookstores

Another relatively quiet week on the acquisitions front.

  • Joseph Conrad, Almayer's Folly (Oxford pb) (Book Store)
  • Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (Penguin pb) -- It was announced the other day that Conkey's, a long-time independent bookstore in downtown Appleton, was shutting its doors. Conkey's had handled textbooks for Lawrence University and Fox Valley Technical College, but recently lost the latter contract, which accounted for about 50% of its sales, to Barnes & Noble in a competitive bidding process (low bid took it). I have mixed feelings about this. It is supposed to a litterateur's reflex to mourn the loss of an independent bookstore, but I hardly ever bought at Conkey's. The staff was not ingratiating, and most everything was at full price (and I don't pay retail). I get such great deals at Amazon, Bookfinder, etc., that it is hard for me to see how brick-and-mortar stores specializing in new books, other than perhaps the mega-chains, can survive (and even Borders is said to be hurting). I mourn second-hand bookshops more, and was recently saddened to see the excellent Mike Plonsker Books in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, shut down (although not before I bought a big stack o' books at the going-out-of-business sale). But their days too are numbered, outside a very few favorable selling situations: some (but hardly all) college towns, a handful of vacation areas (Door County has three fine second-hand shops). I am most apt to but at second-hand shops when their prices are quite low, and they have occasional sales that lower them still further. Otherwise I can just check Bookfinder to compare all the copies of a title available from online sellers for both pricing and condition, and make an informed decision. I am always bargaining mentally, even if sellers aren't aware of it, and I'm a tough bargainer. Physical stores don't stand much of a chance against buyers like me in this day and age. (Conkey's, clearance)
  • Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d'Urbervilles (Oxford pb) (Conkey's, clearance)
  • Lewis Namier, Avenues of History (Hamish Hamilton hc) -- This is one of those books I had out from the library (on the recommendation of Bernard Bailyn, who mentions Namier warmly in several of his works), but I didn't finish it in the alloted time, so I was happy to puchase a copy of my own. It was nice to find this 1952 UK volume with a dust-jacket! (Amazon, used)
  • Charles Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer (Oxford pb) -- Widely considered to be the greatest of all Gothic novels. (HPB)
  • Robert B. Parker, Passport to Peril (Hard Case Crime pb) (Hard Case Crime Book Club)
  • Thomas Fleming, Liberty! The American Revolution (Viking pb) -- Companion volume to a PBS series, with excellent illustrations. I read a similar illustrated volume, Bart McDowell's The Revolutionary War from the National Geographic Society, when I was very young, and it got me hooked on that period of history.
  • William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew (Caedmon, 2 LPs and booklet) (Ebay)
  • William Shakespeare, Othello ( Argo, 4 LPs) (Ebay)

POSTSCRIPT: An advantage of shopping online (or in a national chain store, although the selection is typically much less) is that it is attended by no feeling of obligation to buy anything; whereas when I go into an independent bookstore or clothing store, I feel that not buying something is rude; I can detect the store owner's disappointment if I don't. I don't much like that feeling of obligation, and I'll bet a lot of people don't; when we talk about the "de-personalization" of modern life, we tend to forget that it has its upside.

There is a charming independent men's clothier near me that regularly sends me $50.00 off coupons for purchases of $100.00 or more. I'm tempted to use them, but I know that I would make a purchase just a smidge above the $100.00 minimum, which would disappoint the two owners, who really want customers to use those coupons on $500.00 purchases. So I don't use the coupons. Sometimes the calculus of shopping when you know a store owner personally is just too complicated -- if you're not rich enough to fling your money around.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

The celebrated Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films die between numbers, and there aren't enough numbers. As great as the dance sequences are, the twenty minutes of lumbering plot and unfunny comedy that you have to sit through to get to one are a penance. As a film-lover, I feel I need to watch each film through -- once; after that, I'll be happy to just re-play the good stuff to my heart's content.

Part of the problem with these films is that the relation of the dances (and, for that matter, the song lyrics, which Astaire always sings with charm and musicality) to the story (such as it is) is usually quite weak. The musical was still an evolving genre, both on stage and on film, and although a few tightly conceived works -- Show Boat, Strike Up the Band -- did exist by the time the Astaire/Rogers films were made, they were not used as any kind of model. Astaire/Rogers-type musicals were light and frothy, and in those days light and frothy musicals were not conceived to need any sort of organic impetus. Just whip 'em up. It took Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! in 1943 to really change the landscape for all musicals. Until then, the songs in musicals were largely interchangeable -- and were, in fact, frequently interchanged. Most if not quite all Astaire/Rogers numbers would work equally well in any of their first eight movies, up through Carefree (the last two, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle and The Barkleys of Broadway, are special cases). Sometimes, though, a number seems palpably to have got into the wrong film: the elegant "Let's Face the Music and Dance" ends the generally jaunty Follow the Fleet very awkwardly.

I don't have the reference right at hand, but I believe it was Gilbert Adair who wrote that one way of confirming Astaire's greatness was to freeze-frame during the dances; his body would always be captured in a position of "supreme elegance." I have tried this, and it is of course true. It is likely that, just as athletes tend to have hand/eye coordination that beggars that of the general population, that Astaire was in the stratosphere when it comes to the neglected sense "proprioception," defined as "the sense of the orientation of one's limbs in space." This can be aided by consciousness and intelligence but is largely instinctive. In a very real sense, Astaire's body had a mind of its own.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Zone

I was arrested by the above image at the extremely interesting culture blog {feuilleton}, and learned that it shows an interior from the St. Peter's College seminary in Cardross, Scotland, a Le Corbusier homage that must have had one of the shortest half-lives of any ambitious modernist building -- only 14 years in its original function, less than 25 years in any active use. Opened and acclaimed in 1966, it was, as its Wikipedia entry tells us, functionally obsolescent upon arrival, a victim of changing practices in the Catholic Church. Like some other modernist masterpieces (Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater comes immediately to mind), its artistry was in advance of its engineering, making it difficult to maintain and prone to "water ingress." It only lasted as a seminary until 1980 (with an ever-dwindling population of seminarians), was tried unsuccessfully as a drug rehabiltation center, suffered from a bad fire, and generally began to crumble quickly away. Brian Dillon, in a piece in the Guardian this February, calls St. Peter's a "vast complex of futuristic rot" and adds:

Vandalism, graffiti and pure desuetude have turned the seminary into a cinematic ghost. It's a place...that resembles nothing so much as the desolate and sentient "zone" in Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 film Stalker: a place where snow falls slowly upon vacant altars, where stagnant pools are so full of rot that they look horribly alive even at the edge of winter, where a startlingly tame robin will perch on your head as you step delicately over the rubble.

There is a growing sub-culture of appeciators of modern ruins; the excellent blog Abandoned Places captures sites submitted from all over the world. Russian examples are in particular abundance, which would not have surprised Tarkovsky.

Richard Linklater In Way Over His Head

The films we lazily call "bad" -- and I do not excuse myself from this -- are usually films that, annoying or stupefying as they may be, present strong points of interest, often such that we may completely change our minds on re-exposure to them. I remember lambasting Leos Carax's Pola X back in 2000, for example, but I still remember it ; it's like no other film ever made, and surely that counts for something? All cineastes recall Roger Ebert spearing Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny as the "worst film" ever shown at Cannes, although he completely recanted his criticism after seeing Gallo's re-cut and final version (films are sometimes rushed to Cannes in less-than-absolute form). I doubt that Roger or anyone squawked particularly when Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation was shown in competition at Cannes in 2003, because it is not memorably "bad" but rather, truly lame and forgettable. That is the greater aesthetic sin by a long shot. Trust me, Fast Food Nation is a much worse film than, say, Plan 9 from Outer Space -- much, much worse. It doesn't achieve what it seems to set out to do, and it has no especial reason to exist in the first place.

"Adapting" a non-fiction book that has no storyline as a fictional feature is a dicey business, and usually amounts to no more than purchasing the book's title for its recognition value (as Woody Allen was quite forthright about doing with Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex...But Were Afraid to Ask). Linklater apparently thought that he could turn Eric Schlosser's popular expose Fast Food Nation into an Altman-esque, multi-character panorama of how the fast food industry touches on multiple points of American life. You could do that, I suppose, although the danger of preachiness (not avoided in the end result here) is such that I think I would advise any fiction film-maker to steer clear; better just to enlist Michael Moore to make a polemical documentary. (I like Michael Moore; that's what he's for, and he has a very entertaining way of being self-righteous.) The screenplay that Linklater and Schlosser devised is simply a disaster, with characters appearing out of nowhere and disappearing just as fast, major plot-lines dropping in mid-stream or petering into nothingness, and the big gross finale, out of Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle and Georges Franju's documentary film The Blood of the Beasts, an anti-climactic and lazy "pay-off." Linklater doesn't come within a million miles of Sinclair's and Franju's ferocity -- it's as if we should be morally appalled because cow innards look icky. These city kids, I'm tellin' ya...

I hold no brief against Linklater's work in general -- I like Before Sunrise, I like Waking Life; I take him on a film by film basis. But he simply hasn't got the technique of a Paul Thomas Anderson or a David O. Russell, that would enable him pull an effort like Fast Food Nation off. The film shouldn't have been at Cannes.

POSTSCRIPT: I've got nothing against the actors in Fast Food Nation, either; they do their best, and I was partly drawn to the film because I'll watch Greg Kinnear in anything. Today happens to be Kinnear's 46th birthday, so Happy Birthday, Greg! You are the best quirky leading man out there.


Decoy (1946) is a B noir picture from Monogram that lays fair claim to the description "death-haunted." The plot involves an execution and an actual raising from the dead. All the key players except the cop wind up dead. A femme who is indeed fatale drives a car over one of her co-conspirators three times to make sure that he is dead. The film's leading lady died of pneumonia at age 33, after making just one more film. The film's director (who at the time of filming was married to the leading lady) passes out of recorded history four years later, at age 37, and most likely also died prematurely. The film itself had to resuscitated after being unavailable for 30 years and becoming a legend.

Director Jack Bernhard met actress Jean Gillie, who had been acting in British features since 1935, during his time in Great Britain during World War II. He had gotten a start on a Hollywood career before the war, assistant directing or associate producing several pictures from 1938 to 1942 (he also wrote one B western film). On returning from Britain with Gillie, he launched on his career as a director with the very well-shot Decoy, and made nine more low-budget films, several of them noirs, before "disappearing" in 1950. He and Gillie divorced shortly after making Decoy together; never trust those wartime romances.

Gillie has developed a posthumous reputation on the strength of Decoy, but I'm not sure if that is due to any unique gifts so much as the nature of the part, which is as evil as they come. (Nedrick Young wrote the screenplay from a story by Stanley Rubin.) I can easily imagine other actresses playing this part and having just as much of a field day with it. The rest of Gillie's career looks unremarkable, although you can't tell until you see the films; she did mainly secondary roles in her British films, top-lining only one or two.

You can tell that Bernhard's gifts as a cub director are something out of the ordinary from the opening sequence of Decoy, which is a pip. A man who already looks half-dead is examining himself in the broken mirror of one of the crappiest bathrooms in cinema history (really, the gas station owner ought to be ashamed of himself). This sad specimen is Dr. Craig (Herbert Rudley, who bears a startling resemblance to Charles Grodin), who has been duped by Gillie's Margot Shelby into using "methylene blue" (an actual substance) to revive her gassed death-row boyfriend, Frank Olins (Robert Armstrong, looking to have aged about a hundred years since King Kong). Margot is no sentimentalist; she only wants Olins alive (briefly) because he knows where a whole lot of money is buried.

Having no clue as to any of this yet, we watch the zombified Dr. Craig stumble to the roadside and catch a lift to San Francisco -- he is one unsettling hitch-hiker -- where he will confront the heartless Margot. This ten-minute sequence is mesmerizing throughout, because we can tell that something really bad has happened and we become pretty desperate to find out what. It's a model of how to hook the viewer.

We always hear about how B pictures could function as a laboratory for young directors to try out different visual and dramatic approaches, but with the occasional praiseworthy exceptions who did just that -- Anthony Mann, Joseph H. Lewis -- most B directors just cranked the sausage out. Bernhard is clearly in the group of genuine artists; through camera placement especially (and good camera placement doesn't cost anything), he does everything he can to make his financially strapped picture "pop!" Putting in little, telling details doesn't cost much, either, and I was amused to come across this reference from a defunct blog in a Google cache, demonstrating just how subtle Bernhard could get: "In the bizarre world of Decoy, it's no wonder the careful viewer can spy this headline on a prop newspaper: Earth Forces Laid to Cosmic Impulse." I always try to read those fake newspaper headlines and sometimes pause my DVDs to do so, so I find this very funny -- and extremely apt.

After vanishing even from television screens for a very long time, Decoy re-surfaced in a collector print at the American Cinematheque in 2000, thrilling the audience and especially blowing them away with the triple run-over. "DVD Savant" Glenn Erickson describes the reaction:

The scene that had the Cinematheque audience climbing the walls is when Shelby commits a grisly murder with impeccable Martha Stewart manners. She runs over one of her confederates with her car, and then backs up and runs him over twice more for good measure. Then she gingerly retrieves the treasure map and the jack used by the victim to change her flat tire. It must be seen to be believed.

Unfortunately, the folks at Warner DVD did not have access to this print when they prepared the otherwise excellent DVD release (on which Decoy is paired with Andre De Toth's tough Crime Wave), so the DVD is missing "this extra six or seven seconds of mind-blowing sadism" (Erickson). Maybe that can be remedied on a re-release.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

My Wardrobe: Bouttonieres

I mentioned my fondness for wearing bouttonieres in a post on the movie Worth Winning last year. Here in Wisconsin, I typically start wearing them in May, as soon as we are past topcoat weather and there are some decently priced flowers to be had. Carnations are the sturdiest lapel flowers; I buy a bunch to keep in a vase at home for four to ten days, and snip off one flower for my outfit each day. A carnation can last all day without water, which few cut flowers can; with other species, it's best to think in terms of separate bouttonieres for morning, afternoon, and evening. I like the variety of colors that carnations are available in; today I bought a bunch of pink carnations which will look smashing with my blue suits. I've thought of getting into cultivating carnations (or at least mini-carnations) in pots on my second-floor balcony, and I may give that a try.

If I purchase a mixed bunch of flowers, I tend to try wearing all the blooms to see which work best; some drop petals quickly, which is a no-no. As a guide I look to a charming book, The Bouttoniere: Style in One's Lapel, by Umberto Angeloni of the renowned Italian suit-maker Brioni. One British journalist quoted in the book is very fond of picking wildflowers for his bouttonieres; I'll have to see what's growing around here and give that a try.

Men classically wear their bouttonieres in the buttonhole in the left lapel, but I defy tradition by wearing them on the right, held in place by a safety pin. My reason for this is that I always wear a pocket square in the left breast pocket of my jacket -- it is one of my few invariables -- and I don't want to load up competing points of visual interest on one side of the outfit. To my eye, the pocket square on the left and the bouttoniere on the right balance each other nicely.

Among my wardrobe accessories, only hats generate as much comment as the flowers do. Seeing a bouttoniere, people usually think I'm going to a wedding! -- and when I tell them I'm just celebrating the season or the nice weather, they seem to find that a very pleasant impulse. Bouttonieres inherently convey a good mood; they're jolly as well as spiffy. For that alone I would like them; and the colors and textures they add to an outfit are richly rewarding as well.

Intersection: Andre Gide / Hermann Hesse

Each of us really understands in others only those feelings he is capable of producing himself.

Andre Gide

If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn't part of ourselves doesn't disturb us.

Hermann Hesse

Favorite Poems: Intimacy

Since I have seen you do those intimate things
That other men but dream of; lull asleep
The sinister dark forest of your hair
And tie the bows that stir on your calm breast
Faintly as leaves that shudder in their sleep;
Since I have seen your stocking swallow up,
A swift black wind, the flame of your pale foot,
And deemed your slender limbs so meshed in silk
Sweet mermaid sisters drowned in their dark hair
I have not troubled very much with food
And wine has seemed like water from a well;
Pavements are built of fire, grass of thin flames;
All other girls grow dull as painted flowers,
Or flutter harmlessly like coloured flies
Whose wings are tangled in the net of leaves
Spread by frail trees that grow behind the eyes.
Edgell Rickword

Rickword (1898-1982) wrote this when he was a quite a young man; it was published in his first collection, Behind the Eyes, in 1921. Those last four lines build up an amazing excitement out of prepositions and conjunctions:,

Commonplace Book: Motivation

The sources of our slightest acts are as diverse and remote as those of the Nile.

Andre Gide, Journal of The Counterfeiters

Monday, June 15, 2009

Stray Dog

[Cross-posted as a "Noir of the Week" at The Blackboard.]

Given that there is a long-standing argument as to whether the cycle of "semi-documentary" post-war American crime films -- The Naked City, The House on 92nd Street, He Walked by Night, and so on -- are truly "noir" or not, it probably won't do to extend the argument across the Pacific and try to decide to whether a Japanese post-war semi-documentary crime film is truly noir. So let's hedge and say that Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog (1949) is a policier with certain noir characteristics -- not least of which is the conflictedness of its protagonist, a rookie detective played by the great Toshiro Mifune. Mifune had played a devil-may-care yakuza gangster in the noir-ish Drunken Angel for Kurosawa just two years earlier, and the two pictures between them show off his incredible range. Mifune's Detective Murakami in Stray Dog is an extremely earnest young policeman who beats himself up badly over the loss of his Colt revolver to a pickpocket on a bus. Three superiors, most importantly the seasoned homicide detective Sato (Takashi Shimura), have to counsel him to ease up and get on with business ("Instead of brooding, prevent the next incident"). The pursuit of the lost Colt takes Murakami and Sato through a cross-section of the petty Tokyo underworld and ultimately involves them in the investigation of a murder committed with the gun. Murakami comes to feel that the murderer, Yusa, is his dark double, both being veterans whose knapsacks were (gallingly) stolen on the way home from the war-front, but who made very different life-decisions thereafter. Murakami applies psychological empathy to his investigative process, but the more experienced Sato, although an exceptionally warm and generous person, has no sentimentality concerning criminals -- nor does he feel that a cop can afford to.

Stray Dog is as emotionally rich as one would hope for from a first-rank director such as Kurosawa. A visual motif repeated throughout the film involves looking at the sky, often a night sky, which the characters do -- or the camera does on our behalf -- at moments of great feeling, such as when Sato brings Murakami to his modest ("just a glorified shack") but very happy home. But this is no sappy visual poetry, because it is embedded in a context of thrilling formal rigor. For example, Kurosawa experiments extensively with multiple planes of focus in this movie; a typical three-shot (and Kurosawa is very fond of three-shots) has one person foregrounded (sometimes quite exaggeratedly), one person mid-grounded, and one person backgrounded. This technique has a Wellesian flavor, as do quite a number of specific shots (the descending opening shot of the Blue Bird nightclub, or the shot from within the innards of a carnival game). I wonder if Citizen Kane had played in Japan as of 1948, when Stray Dog was made? (A Google search didn't help me on this.)

Kurosawa also utilizes the semi-documentary style with panache (and it is interesting how seamlessly it fits with the more baroque visuals). My friend Robert Kennedy speaks of this as Kurosawa's "street style":

The camera moves fluidly through crowded streets, following the detective through Tokyo’s poverty-ridden streets for one entire reel without any dialogue, capturing the physicality of the people, the style, the mood, especially the heat, contrasted against Western influences, the introduction of the gun, baseball, white suits, dancing girls, the blues, jazz, and classical music.

The long sequence that Robert describes is one of several kinetic sequences, also including a chase sequence with the original pickpocket; a "tailing" sequence; a professional baseball sequence that blends on-location footage shot by Kurosawa's crew with studio re-takes; and the final show-down between Murakami and the criminal Yusa in a mucky marsh. The film as a whole is beautifully balanced between kinetic and static, exterior and interior, action and dialogue, specificity and generalization. Stray Dog represents the then 38-year-old Kurosawa as an indisputable Young Master, and it is interesting to note that his slightly younger contemporaries, Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini (the three of whom together formed a strong international admiration society), made The Seventh Seal and La Dolce Vita respectively in the 37-39 age range. Perhaps that is roughly the time when, for many, life maturity can match technical mastery.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Saturday, June 13, 2009

George Romero and Me

It all began on a fall evening in 1975. I and a couple of high school buddies were visiting our favorite teacher, who had left the school a year after teaching us freshman English (in a notably free-wheeling style). He and his wife lived in a cabin way out in the woods of northern New Jersey; it was pretty remote. We all chatted for hours that Saturday night and then someone noticed that the late night horror movie on one of the local TV stations was Night of the Living Dead, which all of us had heard of but none of us had seen. We decided to give it a go.

I'll never see a movie again to that particular effect. We were in the middle of nowhere, in a house that could have been the double of the one where the characters hole up in the movie. The local station showed the film uncut or very close to it, sparing of us of the trowel-stabbing, intestine-chewing, hysteria-provoking madness. The realistic manner of the film was unlike anything we had ever seen before, and in that context was completely convincing. My buddies and I had to drive home afterward, through the woods at 1:30 in the morning, and the three of us were scared shitless all the way.

That was my introduction to George Romero. I would often say, in my phase as a young buck of a critic, that Night of the Living Dead was the "best American film of the Sixties," a thoroughly silly statement since I hadn't and never will see all the American films of the Sixties -- still, it indicates my excitement, and the film is remarkable. J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum in their excellent book Midnight Movies call it "as apt a projection of 1968 as anything American movies were ever to produce" -- a much more focused and defensible characterization.

It took me a while to catch up with any other Romero features. Hungry Wives AKA Jack's Wife AKA Season of the Witch (his third film, released in 1972) I have not seen to this day -- and I'm distressed that its original 130-minute version (the Hungry Wives cut) appears to have gone missing, one hopes not permanently. (The Jack's Wife cut, which is available on DVD, runs 104 minutes, the Season of the Witch cut only 89 minutes.)

During my college film society days, I saw a 16 millimeter print of Romero's 1977 vampire film Martin -- impressive, albeit very bloody. The less well-known 1973 film The Crazies hit me much harder; in some ways it is still my favorite Romero film, and apart from Night, certainly the one I've seen the most often. My first viewing of it was in a 42nd Street grindhouse around 1979 -- the perfect setting. Normally I would not venture into one of those theaters, but this was a Romero film, I'd take my chances.

The scenario of The Crazies -- a biological weapon that provokes extreme psychological reactions is accidentally released by a plane crash into a town's water supply -- is several orders more plausible than the zombie scenario of the Dead films (as well worked out as those are). This has an interesting "side effect": the Dead films are richly metaphoric -- the zombies have to stand for something, or maybe many things -- but The Crazies isn't particularly metaphoric at all; we are watching a chain of events that could happen. In that sense, it has more in common with a contemporaneous bio-thriller such as The Andromeda Strain than with Night of the Living Dead. And part of what it shares with Michael Crichton's tale is a sense of utter futility. Only "chance" (mutation) saves the world in The Andromeda Strain; at the end of The Crazies, as open an ending as I have seen in a commercial feature, it is simply not clear how things will go down. The doctor who is part-way toward an insight into how to thwart the virus is accidentally killed; the one townsman who seems to have a natural immunity is uncooperative after seeing all his friends destroyed.

Admiring Night and The Crazies as I did, you might think I would have rushed to see Dawn of the Dead. But my "gore avoidance" reflex came into play; the descriptions sounded too harrowing. When I finally caught up with the film recently, some 30 years later, I realized that the needle on film violence had moved considerably, and that in the intervening years I had seen quite a bit worse (although the quick shock cut to the "exploding head" is still impressive). What I wasn't entirely expecting is how funny Dawn is; there is a vein of humor in Night, of course ("Are they slow-moving, Chief?" "Yeah, they're dead. They're all messed up"), and throughout Romero's work, but Dawn of the Dead, with its famously apt shopping center setting, is in some senses a zombie comedy. (Although it can be quite moving, too; the scenes dealing with the decline and death of SWAT policeman Roger are as tear-provoking as anything I've seen in Romero.) However one defines Dawn, the film lives up to its well-deserved critical and popular reputation; this is a film that just flat-out works.

(One logical question bugs me a little: How it is that the re-animated zombies are so physically weak in a muscular sense, yet their teeth seem five times stronger than any human teeth could possibly be? The scenes in which zombies chomp into people's shoulders are memorable, of course, but I don't think my teeth could do that....)

I missed Knightriders in 1981 -- the Arthurian twist on motorcycle gangs sounds quite original -- but I did see Romero's first Stephen King collaboration, Creepshow, in its initial run in 1982, and reviewed it. King made it clear in his excellent critical book on horror, Danse Macabre, that he admired the pants off Romero, and they have been within each other's orbits ever since. King has a bit part in Knightriders, and Romero later filmed King's The Dark Half (and planned a film version of King's suspense novel The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon which never made it off the ground). Creepshow left me cold, but that could be because I didn't know enough about EC Comics; I might feel differently today.

I didn't keep up with Romero in the Eighties and early Nineties, missing Day of the Dead, Two Evil Eyes (his omnibus film with Dario Argento), Monkey Shines, and the aforementioned The Dark Half (which, as a Timothy Hutton fan, I need to see!). Then Romero himself seemed to check out for a number of years, re-emerging in 2000 with Bruiser, which I saw in one of its first screenings, with the director present. I wrote a capsule for the IMDB, under the title "Disappointment Screams 'Straight to Video'!":

George Romero previewed Bruiser, his return to feature film-making after a long hiatus following The Dark Half, at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. Although the audience of Romero fans was respectful in questioning the director afterward, the movie has to be considered a severe disappointment. The central conceit (which I won't spoil) comes off as thoroughly gimmicky. Romero explores the same territory that Mike Judge does in Office Space -- the malaise of modern office life -- but not very insightfully. (There is a certain similarity in the endings of the two pictures, locating "authenticity" far down the pay scale from the executive suite.) Peter Stormare contributes an over-the-top performance as a ghastly philandering boss that is the acting equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. Ultimately the picture, shot in Toronto and financed by a Canadian company, resembles nothing so much, my friend Eric Johnson astutely pointed out, as the third-rate stuff you discover on Cinemax at three in the morning.

Originally the mini-review was even harsher than that, but I later edited out some of the snarkier language. Fortunately, the Siskel Center also screened Romero's second feature, There's Always Vanilla, in the same series, and that I was able to greet with unabashed enthusiasm. There were already severely disparate reviews at the IMDB, so I jumped in:

The house seems to be divided on this one, so let me break the deadlock with a rave review: this is one terrific little movie. Funny, surprising, sharply directed, engagingly written (great movie line: "our very existence depends on that beer"), well performed, and absorbing all the way. Great title, too! (Yes, it is explained in the film.) As Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out, There's Always Vanilla is highly evocative of the early 70s; and like many timely films of that era, it has been unjustly neglected. A realistic romantic comedy with a deft side-take on television and advertising, it turns interestingly serious in an abortionist sequence that illuminates the era of Roe v. Wade. Lead actor Raymond Laine is a find, charming yet believable. This movie is only screened very occasionally, and the print I saw (with the less memorable alternate title The Affair) is unfortunately color-faded. But if you ever get the chance to see this, it is a must. Romero at his best.

After coming down so hard on Bruiser, I was glad to have a "balancing" reaction to this much better film. Since Bruiser (which did indeed go straight to video in the U.S.), Romero has returned to the Dead series with Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, and the upcoming ...of the Dead (we seem to be running out of variations). I figure I should tackle all these in the proper viewing order.

The Dead saga gets very complicated, because there are also re-makes of each of the first three films; a re-worked version of Night, with new sequences, by Romero's original collaborator, John Russo, and a sequel to that re-worked version, Children of the Living Dead; and an entirely separate series of five Return of the Living Dead films, the first of which is based on a novel by John Russo that is a sequel to the original Night. Got all that? Don't worry if you don't; it took legal action to figure out who had the rights to what. Romero can't use the phrase "Living Dead" anymore, for example, but Russo can. (Off-Dead, there is also a remake of The Crazies currently in production.)

Since my Romero gaps look easy to fill, I will be reporting back.

Cat Alert

Claire has been impressed by two feline performances lately, a tabby in The Incredible Shrinking Man, and a Siamese in Hangover Square (which we watched last night). Both cats are important to the movies' plots. In The Incredible Shrinking Man, the relation of Grant Williams to his cat necessarily changes quite a bit as he shrinks from six feet to three inches, with unhappy consequences (not the cat's fault, Claire points out!). In Hangover Square, the cat serves as her original owner Linda Darnell's surrogate, and to underline this, they meet their unfortunate fates simultaneously (a scene that Claire did not enjoy, but understood to be crucial to the story-line). The Siamese is quite adorable when it parks itself on top of the piano as Laird Cregar is composing.

Too Many Cooks

I have been reading Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novels in publication order, and about a hundred pages into the fifth, Too Many Cooks, I was enjoying myself as usual but thinking that modern readers would have to take the book with some historical sensitivity, as there was a fairly high quotient of unfortunate racial terminology, some of it emanating from the breezy and not overly sensitive Archie Goodwin. I knew that Rex Stout was famously liberal in his politics -- Hoover's FBI predictably kept a file on him -- but thought, well, the times (Too Many Cooks was published in 1938).

Oh me of little faith! Too Many Cooks is actually a seriously anti-racist book. I shouldn't say too much about how Stout manages this since the book is, after all, a mystery novel, but I will note that there is a two-chapter sequence (Ten and Eleven) that dazzlingly makes clear Nero Wolfe's advanced thinking in a way that we, the readers, get it, but Archie, the narrator, doesn't quite. It's not one of those pulling-out-the-rug-from-under-the reader sequences beloved of mysteries; it's more the equivalent of slipping the rug back under our feet while we're standing there.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Acquisitions, June 6-12

Another fairly quiet week. Well, I am unemployed -- have to watch the cash and all. (Next week is the last week I'm being paid severance for -- I cut my expenses way down as soon as the severance payments started, but moving onto my unemployment benefits will take me into a new phase.)

  • James Thurber, My World -- and Welcome to It (Harvest pb) (Book Store)
  • Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure (Oxford pb) (Half Price Books)
  • Richard G. Lillard, Desert Challenge: An Interpretation of Nevada (Bison pb) -- When I lived in Las Vegas for six months, I actually taught Nevada History, as well as the U.S. Constitution, at a local two-year college -- both those courses are required to be taken at Nevada colleges, under state law. Every night, I had to teach myself the Nevada history I was lecturing on the next day! It was kind of fun, I must say, and as a result I still have a real fondness for the subject. This book is one of those that I started but didn't finish at the time -- the time pressures I was under were intense -- and I'm looking forward to digging into it again. Film scholar David Thomson's In Nevada, which I did finish, is another excellent book on the state. (Amazon, used)
  • Richard D. Altick, The Scholar Adventurers (Macmillan pb) (Amazon, used)
  • Michael Scott, Tom Cringle's Log (Owl/Heart of Oak Sea Classics pb) (Amazon, used) -- Early 19th century British sea fiction.
  • Robert Rosenblum, On Modern American Art: Selected Essays (Abrams hc) -- On the clearance shelf at Half Price Books.
  • The American Literary Naturalism Newsletter, Volume 3, Nos 1-2 -- An unexpected benefit of joining the Frank Norris Society.
  • The James Fenimore Cooper Society Newsletter, Volume xx, No. 1 -- I belong to the James Fenimore Cooper Society, too. If I could afford it, I'd belong to a hundred of these single author/artist/composer societies.
  • Dick Haymes, Love Letters (Memoir LP) -- I picked up three Dick Haymes reissue LPs in pristine condition from a British collector for about $3.00 on Ebay. The Argentina-born Haymes (1916-1980) is an under-celebrated vocalist of the 1950s, necessarily overshadowed by the ubiquitous Frank Sinatra, but with his own mesmerizing style. His version of the Hoagy Carmichael/Johnny Mercer "Skylark," on the Moondreams LP, is one of the finest tracks of its era, absolutely gorgeous.
  • Dick Haymes, Moondreams (Capitol/Pathe Marconi LP)
  • Dick Haymes, Rain or Shine (Capitol LP)