Friday, April 30, 2010

April 30

Fiddler extraordinaire Mark O'Connor reaches across genres in a way that I thoroughly respect:

Did you know that the world's first animated feature film -- El Apostol, 1917 -- was made by the Argentine film-maker Quirino Cristiani? Did you know that the world's first animated feature film with sound -- Peludopolis, 1931 -- was also made by Cristiani? Me neither:

Cristiani made another silent animated feature -- Leaving No Trace, 1918 -- and a number of shorts between 1916 and 1943, but only one of the shorts survives, El Mono Relojero (The Monkey Watchmaker) from 1938:

This animal fable is in some ways quite uncharacteristic of Cristiani; all three of the features were political satires, emphatically not children's films.

Waggish briefly comments on an excerpt from a Jenny Diski essay on the sociologist Erving Goffman that discusses several other writers' views on Goffman, putting some cross-talk possibilities in play that perhaps deserved more exposition by the blogger himself. Goffman (1922-1982) is a fascinating thinker; well do I remember reading his challenging Frame Analysis as a freshman at Yale -- in my Theater Studies class, of all places, where Goffman's analyses of the "frames" in which we perform everyday actions were shown to be utterly pertinent to the theatrical enterprise by our innovative professor Bart Teush.

Camille Paglia's comment that "You read major figures not because everything they say is the gospel truth but because they expand your imagination, they expand your I.Q.,....they open up brain cells you didn't even know you have" is utterly apt to Goffman.

The Mookse and the Gripes takes on J.G. Farrell's "long, dense" novel about 1919 Ireland, Troubles, which is one of the nominees for the "Lost Booker" prize for novels from the year 1970:

Anne Carson's long-standing interest in mixing genres and forms continues in her newest book, Nox, which is a sort of scrapbook in an accordion-fold:

Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading noticed a 2007 list from the Colombian magazine Semana of the best Spanish language novels of the 1982-2006 period. This is exactly the sort of material I get very excited by when the Internet brings it my way:

What the heck is going on in Arizona? Now the legislature is trying to ban the study of ethnic groups:

The History Blog and The Infrastructurist mourn the loss of 17 great railroad stations:

If there hadn't been a concerted effort by preservationists -- including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis -- during the Sixties and Seventies, New York's Grand Central Terminal and its majestic Main Concourse would have been on this list.

Among notables born on this date are novelists Hugh Hood (Canada) and Jaroslav Hasek (Czech Republic), poets John Crowe Ransom, Winfield Townley Scott, and Juhan Liiv (Estonia), memoirist Annie Dillard, literary spouse Alice B. Toklas, science fiction novelist Larry Niven, Founding Father Roger Sherman, country singer Willie Nelson, composer Franz Lehar, architect Hans Poelzig, philosopher Felix Guattari, film directors Jane Campion, Lars von Trier, and Jacques Audiard, and actors Cloris Leachman, Eve Arden, Jill Clayburgh, Kirsten Dunst, Adrian Pasdar, and Paul Gross. The fine Canadian actor/director Paul Gross, well-known for playing a Mountie in the series Due South, was one of the original ensemble for the great 1993 mini-series Tales of the City, which I still think is one of the best television productions I've ever seen. Unfortunately, when it finally became possible to film Armistead Maupin's sequels More Tales of the City and Further Tales of the City a few years later, Gross was not available to reprise the role of the womanizing Brian. Marcus D'Amico, Chloe Webb, Cynda Williams, and Donald Moffat were not on hand anymore either; OK, Moffat's character had died, but the recasting of the other key parts was injurious to the two subsequent series, despite the welcome returns of Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, Barbara Garrick, and others. There was an even worse acting loss, however: In the original series, San Francisco played itself, brilliantly; in the two follow-ups, Montreal played San Francisco, badly.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

April 29: Special Follow-Ups Edition

Alan Rickman's New York production of Strindberg's Creditors (PMD, April 11) has received excellent notices:

George Simmers at Great War Fiction recommends the new London production of Mikhail Bulgakov's The White Guard (PMD, April 13), another play I am delighted to see revived:

If I was historian Orlando Figes (PMD, April 23), I wouldn't want to come out from under my bed-covers:

The late historian Stephen Ambrose (PMD, April 20) isn't having to live through his own exposure as a fraud, unless ghosts can feel shame:

Everything Ambrose claimed Eisenhower said, including quotes that have often been used by other historians, must now be taken as false.

On a nobler note, more on the late novelist Alan Sillitoe (PMD, April 25):

April 29: Special "Going to Hell in A Handbasket" Edition

In my life I've moved around a lot. In times of stress, what my therapist once called "the geographic option" is always an option for me. It's not just that I'm flexible, or that I enjoy seeing new places and feel comfortable in them quickly. I also never really take root in a spot; I'm ever ready to be on the go again. The thought of being more-or-less permanently tied down to a place because of obligations there is rather distasteful to me, so I don't put myself in that situation. As long as I can bring my pets, books, and clothing with me to a new place, I'll be home. I have a lot of books and clothing, so my life is not quite as portable as it might otherwise be; but still, all that stuff can be moved, and has been, any number of times.

I think this notion that home is wherever you are is foreign to many, perhaps most, people, who cannot feel truly secure away from familiar surroundings, family, and friends. There is certainly something to be said for a support system, and I'm not denying that. But I have never found that familiarity provided any kind of real protection against life's trials; in certain circumstances, it can compound them by shutting off possible avenues of development. Not having a geographic option at all is not exactly desirable when the nation and world are in as uncertain a state as they are.

My move to Korea is now one month away, and I'm eager to see what I make of my new surroundings. The Estonia-based blog Itching for Eestimaa mentions one aspect of the experience that I'm definitely looking forward to:

One of the perks of living in Estonia is that you are far removed from the endless barrage of propaganda that is American political discourse. On the downside, the longer you stay in Estonia and, especially, the stronger your command of the local language becomes, newer, potent forms of propaganda manifest themselves in your daily life.

Being "far removed from the endless barrage of propaganda" does indeed sound appealing, and I imagine it will take quite a while before I have a sufficient command of the Korean language to feel much exposed to whatever sorts of discourse their media engage in.

I won't miss the American political situation, that's for sure. I like this comment that James Howard Kunstler made in his weekly column:

President Obama's speech at Cooper Union last week was a remarkable performance. It managed to appear forceful and serious without containing any really serious or forceful proposals to discipline a banking system that is running a hostage-and-ransom racket on civilization. If this is finally what the Obama Experience is all about than his detractors have been right all along: he is a tool....It's sad to think of this graceful, still rather young man going down in history as the chump-of-the-century, a reincarnation of Herbert Hoover on steroids, with sugar on top.

Justin Erik Halldor Smith makes an excellent point with respect to the Arizona immigration law debate, a point that is often forgotten, and that I used to frequently repeat to my U.S. History classes in the hope that it would sink in. The United States is historically bilingual in English and Spanish; huge chunks of the Southwest, and the Gulf Coast too, were Spanish-speaking well before they were ever English-speaking. (Hat tip to 3QuarksDaily.)

On the other side of the U.S./Mexico border....things are not going so well. Juan Villoro at n+1 analyzes what has become "a country of blood and lead":

The drug trade tends to act twice: in the world of events, and again in the news, where it very rarely encounters an opposing discourse. Television amplifies the horror by disseminating, in close-ups and slow motion, crimes with marks of authorship. It’s possible to distinguish the “signatures” of the different cartels: some decapitate their victims, others cut out their tongues, others leave the dead in the trunks of cars, others wrap them in blankets. In some cases, criminals record their executions and send videos to the media or post them on YouTube—after a not insignificant postproduction process. The mainstream news media become the narco’s late-night TV, the zone in which the offense committed in reality becomes an infomercial for terror.

Meanwhile, across the globe, the modern mega-city of Dubai provides its own sort of disgusting-but-transfixing spectacle, equally tied to money flows. (Another hat tip to 3QuarksDaily.)

Dubai may have the world’s tallest building and the world’s largest shopping mall, but it also has the world’s tiniest soul. It’s a plastic city built in steel and glass. It has imported all the worst aspects of western culture (excessive consumption, environmental defilement) without importing any of its benefits (democracy, art). This is a city designed for instant gratification a hedonistic paradise for gluttons to indulge in fast food, fast living and fast women.

The author of that passage, George Fulton, is a journalist based in Pakistan, and he uses the negative example of Dubai to encourage the Pakistani nation in a way that I find kind of thrilling:

So for all you naysayers that bemoan Pakistan and its numerous problems please temper your pessimism. Take time to celebrate our cultural, religious, linguistic plurality and richness. Stop the cynicism coursing through your corroded veins. For all its inadequacies, at least we have a democracy. For all its irresponsibility, at least we have a robust media. For all the police corruption, at least we are not a police state. For all our littering, at least we have paper wallahs [journalists]. Remind yourself that at least we have a heart. At least we have a soul. At least we are not Dubai.

Yesterday, when the AP reported in all seriousness that "Rosy earnings show that corporate America is back," Don Harrold of launched into a memorably funny rant:

At Above the Law, the equally outrageable Elie Mystal discusses a piece by University of Illinois law professor Christine Hurt about the "bubble" in law school tuition and student loans:

But do you know what the real bitch of it is? If it turns out you made a terrible investment by going to law school, it’s impossible for you to get out from under your mistakes. You can’t discharge law school debt through bankruptcy absent a showing of undue hardship. As Hurt points out, you are arguably in a worse position if you are saddled with law school debt than if you took out a sub-prime mortgage that you couldn’t afford....You can’t re-sell your law degree at a huge loss....You can’t rent out your law degree. You can’t even hire the mafia to burn down your law degree and reap an insurance payout. The cost of your law degree just sits on top of you. Law schools are releasing an army of mid-twenties professionals who start off six figures in the hole and will spend their prime earning years just trying to get back to a net worth of $0.

On top of it all, we've still got some interminable wars going on. The Los Angeles Times's excellent theater critic Charles McNulty says that Rajiv Joseph's play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is "the most original theatrical response to the Iraq war to date":

Among notables born on this date are jazzmen Duke Ellington and Ray Barretto, harmonica player Toots Thielemans, novelists Rafael Sabatini and Charles Nodier, science fiction novelist Jack Williamson, children's writer Jill Payton Walsh, journalist Egon Erwin Kisch, publisher William Randolph Hearst, poet Constantine Cavafy, mathematician Henri Poincare, composers Harold Shapero and Peter Sculthorpe, conductors Thomas Beecham, Malcolm Sargent, and Zubin Mehta, film directors Fred Zinnemann and Phillip Noyce, tennis player Andre Agassi, "grizzly man" Timothy Treadwell, and actors Celeste Holm, Jean Rochefort, Richard Carlson, Jerry Seinfeld, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eve Plumb, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Uma Thurman. I don't think there's any question that Eve Plumb's Jan Brady is the favorite Brady Bunch sibling of all right-thinking people. I would go so far as to say that I'm not sure there would be a Brady cult today if it weren't for Jan. Her recognizable humanity amidst a family of plastic kids and plastic parents was striking; her frustrations were yours, mine, and everyone's. Although the basics are present in the conception of the character, it's Eve Plumb who made it all real. Not surprisingly, take-offs on Jan, smartly performed by Jennifer Elise Cox, made for some of the best material in the excellent parody films The Brady Bunch Movie and A Very Brady Sequel.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

April 28

Arianna Huffington's piece on the disappearance of jobs of value in America is one of her best efforts. Hats off:

...the loss of middle class jobs is rarely talked about in Washington. Neither is the way that the useful section of our economy is being replaced by the useless section of our economy. But the numbers don't lie: the share of our economy devoted to making things of value is shrinking, while the share devoted to valuing made up things (credit swap derivatives, anyone?) is expanding.

Huffington points to a good column about the failures of the financial sector by Martin Wolf of The Financial Times, and wryly notes:

When the chief economics commentator at the Financial Times is sounding like the second coming of Karl Marx, you know things have gotten way out of hand.

The difficulty now, of course, is that it is far easier to diagnose what has happened than to reverse it; I do not think it can be reversed.

Great Moments in Politics: A Ukrainian Parliament session erupts in a chaos of egg throwing, fist-fights, and smoke bombs. I don't think we've seen actual mayhem like this in our Congress in many decades -- perhaps not since Senator Preston Brooks's famous assault on Senator Charles Sumner with a walking stick on May 22, 1856:

I recently received the latest Hard Case Crime paperback (since I am a member of the Hard Case Crime Book Club). The late Donald Westlake's substantial Sixties novel Memory had been rejected by his agent and remained in manuscript form for almost fifty years. Now it is receiving such ecstatic reviews that it is a shame that Westlake had to miss this vindication of his forgotten child:

The interestingly conflicted fiction-writer and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi -- whom I always think of as a young guy, but he's a few years older than me -- sat down for an interview with The Literateur:

I only like religion when it’s really horrible, when it’s hateful – only then does it have any point. Look at what’s happened with the Catholic Church – it’ll soon be so regulated that Catholicism will become really bland – there won’t be any hatred left. It’ll be a bit like David Cameron: there’ll be no Tory hatred left, no fire in it. I mean I liked Thatcher because I hated her.

The Canadian publisher Quattro Books is doing its bit to promote short novels, although not indiscriminately; they actually established a set of six criteria for the ones they will look at publishing. Tightly focused series like this are an interesting concept; I mentioned another a few weeks ago, the Penguin India Metro Reads series (PMD, March 30).

Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton's takes on The Great Gatsby strike me as very funny:

The Chicago History Journal blog flags an important new volume in Chicago architectural history, The Autobiography of Irving K. Pond. Pond (1857-1939) was a distinguished author as well as architect, and a significant presence on the Chicago scene for many decades:

...until now there has not been an easily accessible book dedicated to this creative and eclectic early Chicagoan. Irving's autobiography....was only available on micro-film at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The memoir was written between 1937 and 1939 and the entire manuscript was in pencil. Yes, pencil. Please note that including a brief preface, an introduction by Guy Szuberla, the lists of illustrations, buildings and projects, Swan's book is a hefty 588 pages. It is not recommended as a "beach book," but I also couldn't recommend it more strongly. It is a journey back in time with a man who was at the center of Chicago's rise, and he paid attention. He made notes, and they are all here.

The important Portuguese film director Joao Cesar Monteiro (1939-2003), little known in this country, is getting an important retrospective at the BAM Rose Cinemas in Brooklyn:

Over 21 films made from 1969 to his death in 2003, the Portuguese auteur built worlds out of flat screens, a still camera, and soundtracks consisting of people talking softly—all of which would sound terribly boring, save for the men running around in pig masks and the gods with the giant dildos. It's an extremely dark, extremely funny world without a center.

Jack Stevenson's new book about Scandinavian erotic cinema of the Sixties and Seventies, Scandinavian Blue, sounds like a must-read:

A reference in this post set me off on an odd research trail:

....the most controversial item discussed by Stevenson was actually never made: After his Henry Miller adaptation Quiet Days in Clichy (1970) turned him into a media star, Jens Jørgen Thorson announced his next project would be a pornographic film about Jesus. Chaos ensued.

My immediate thought was that such a film was made (if not by Thorson), because I remembered reading about it in the Medved Brothers' 1980 bad-films book The Golden Turkey Awards. But it turns out the matter is more complicated than that, because the Medveds state at the start of the book that one of the films they describe is "a complete hoax," and over the years a number of people have guessed that the film in question is the gay Jesus movie Him (purportedly 1974). In 2005, the FilmChat blog looked at the evidence (as the Snopes urban legends website had also, although I can't find anything there about this issue now), and noted that although no copy of the supposed film had shown up, at least one Internet poster claimed to remember seeing a contemporary ad for the film. A now-inactive blogger posted such an ad on his site:


A commenter on the FilmChat post pointed out that the actual hoax film in The Golden Turkey Awards was Dog of Norway (illustrated with a photo of the Medveds' own dog). Wikipedia agrees and further observes that reviews of Him have been unearthed in several publications, although an actual print of the film remains elusive:  

The fullest and most up-to-date information can be found here:

Glad to have cleared that up for all of you! For the record, although Him is not a Scandinavian film,a porno Jesus movie did get made over there right around the same time, Ib Fyrsting's I Saw Jesus Die:

I think I need to go clean myself off now...

Among notables born on this date are President James Monroe, humanitarian Oskar Schindler, mathematician Kurt Godel, novelists Harper Lee, Roberto Bolano (Chile), and Johan Borgen (Norway), crime novelist Ian Rankin, satirist Karl Kraus, painter Yves Klein, chef Alice Waters, conductor Paul Sacher, film director Kaneto Shindo, jazz singer Blossom Dearie, talk show host Jay Leno, and actors Lionel Barrymore, Madge Sinclair, Ann-Margret, and Penelope Cruz. Despite receiving a ton of nominations and awards over the years, Ann-Margret is insufficiently acknowledged as a fine actress; perhaps it is hard to budge your reputation after starring in movies like Kitten With a Whip and Viva Las Vegas. But she has done some excellent work, including a memorable Blanche DuBois in the 1984 television version of A Streetcar Named Desire (in which Beverly D'Angelo is also excellent as Stella). An IMDB reviewer ungallantly points out that Ann-Margret is not stage-trained, which is true enough, but her intuitions about this role and her identification with it are formidable. If you can hold your own with the memory of Vivien Leigh in one of her most famous parts, and put your own stamp on it, you are doing something.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

April 27

James Surowiecki, who has written elsewhere of the "wisdom of crowds, " doesn't think that the crowd -- or the nation -- will learn anything much from the current financial crisis:

I concur, and it's one reason why I've grown impatient enough with the country to leave it: The game never changes, and the same people always profit, the same people (you and me) always pay. I've never minded paying my taxes before, maybe because I was naive, but if those taxes are going to pay engorged salaries at Goldman Sachs and Citibank, I mind a good deal. So, by going overseas, I'm hoping to get into a new game, one that isn't so completely rigged against me. (That could be naive on my part, too, but what the heck.)

Yet another Cannes sidebar, The Cannes Classics, has had its line-up announced:

I would personally be most interested in the more obscure items, the films by Mrinal Sen, Pierre Schoendoerffer (whose sea drama Le Crabe-Tambour I love), Rene Clement, Pierre Etaix, Jacques Davila, and Marcel L'Herbier. The schedule is fairly heavy in French films, but this is a French festival after all.

RIP: Peter Porter. The Australian poet (1929-2010), who lived in Great Britain from 1951 on, sounds like an engaging chap as well as a major writer:

There are those (mainly the English) who don't like to hear about things they don't know, and Peter was wasted on them. It was not that he was a conversational monopolist: he was as generous a listener as he was a friend, but he supposed that an interest in poetry, painting, music, politics (and the passing show of vanity that he satirised so well) was the stuff of life. Not having been to university himself, he also believed that knowledge was available to anyone who cared to seek it out: "Much have I travelled in the realms of gold, / for which I thank the public libraries of Paddington and Westminster."

Just yesterday I wrote about Argentine writers in cafes; Porter would have been fun to sit down with in a coffee-shop or a bar. Another such is the Scottish writer Alan Warner (author of the novel Morvern Callar, made into a film by Lynne Ramsay), who joins The Herald's Brian Donaldson for a bit of chat in an Edinburgh pub:

For Warner and his generational kin, the pub is a place to sit and read a paperback or hang out with like-minded souls, sinking the pints and shooting the breeze on the political, social and literary issues of the day....He’s delighted to consider himself part of a wider Scottish literary tradition. “I read all the Kelmans and the Gunns and James Hogg and Alasdair Gray; that’s what excited me with Scottish literature, and I’m not uncomfortable being a part of all that. I know some writers can be a little bit touchy, and a little bit scared of saying ‘I’m a Scottish writer’ because they fear that it might ghettoise them and they want to be seen as ‘international’. But there’s nothing more universal, not just international, than Hugh MacDiarmid’s Scots poems. The early ones are masterpieces. I hope I’m part of all that.”

I like the fact that the 45-year-old Warner is allergic to Facebook:  “I hate Facebook because it just seems to be a lot of showing off:...‘Alan Warner has 300 friends’? F***ing hell ... I suppose I’m just a bit of a fogey that’s still getting to grips with email.”

Marc Myers at JazzWax spins an interesting tale of how pianist Duke Pearson formed a big band in the late Sixties:

Mick Gordon's and Billy Bragg's new musical Pressure Drop, "examining what it means to be British, white and working class," sounds timely and compelling:

The Flemish architects Paul Robbrecht and Hilde Daem appear to fall along the non-grandstanding portion of the contemporary architectural spectrum. Their subtle projects range from this woodland cabin: the Bruges Concert Hall:

Though I have nothing against more theatrical architects per se, it is kind of nice to know that not every modern building designer is trying to twist your eyes out of their sockets.

Among notables born on this date are President Ulysses S. Grant, feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, civil rights activist Coretta Scott King, inventor Samuel F.B. Morse, philosopher Herbert Spencer, baseball player Rogers Hornsby, composers Friedrich von Flotow and Sergei Prokofiev, conductor Guido Cantelli, musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky, historian Edward Gibbon, politician Cory Booker, film directors Theo Angelopoulos and Im Sang-soo, animator Walter Lantz, novelists Ludwig Bemelmans and Yorgos Theotokas (Greece), poets Gilbert Sorrentino, Cecil Day-Lewis, and Edwin Morgan, playwright August Wilson, and actors Anouk Aimee, Sandy Dennis, and Jack Klugman. It is fitting that last night, August Wilson's Fences, the sixth play in his "Pittsburgh Cycle," opened in a Broadway revival starring a powerhouse cast of Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, and Mykelti Williamson:

Monday, April 26, 2010

April 26

Quotation of the day from scientist Stephen Hawking, who wishes to discourage our trying to contact alien civilizations: "We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet."


Odd Moments in Radio History: Back in the early Nineties, when the New York classical music station WNCN-FM was in its final days, someone in management had the notion of hiring announcers whose delivery styles were not stereotypically "classical," but more pop-sounding. The results were, to put it mildly, bizarre. "Next up, some anonymous 16th century dances for ya, here at Classical NCN!"

If you want to hear something like that clash of matter and manner on the radio nowadays, you could check out Drew Mariani, the afternoon drive-time announcer on the shrinking Catholic "Relevant Radio" network. The Green Bay-based Mariani uses a sportcaster-type voice and delivery, but to talk about the "magisterium" rather than Brett Favre. If Relevant Radio goes under altogether, as seems possible (it's had two major rounds of layoffs and an across-the-board pay cut), Mariani could shift to balls and baskets without skipping a beat.

RIP: Gene Lees. JazzWax has an appreciation of the late jazz critic:

The Neglected Books Page looks at an early novel by Lees, and decides that he was correct to migrate to jazz writing:

John Nathan, whose excellent Yukio Mishima biography I read a couple of years back, gives an extensive interview about his obsession with Japanese culture to Colin Marshall at NPR's The Marketplace of Ideas. His observations about figures such as Mishima, Kenzaburo Oe, and composer Toru Takemitsu are based on his personal relationships with them, and are profoundly insightful:

A world away from Japan is another country whose culture I respond to strongly, Argentina, and it is pleasing to read about a bit of a literary renaissance in Buenos Aires, centering on classic literary gathering spots such as the cafe at the Hotel Castelar:

"The most beautiful thing about reading is talking about it," says Hernan Lombardi, Buenos Aires's Minister of Culture. "There is nothing more lovely than reading some Borges and meeting a friend in a cafe who is doing the same. Part of stimulating people to read is stimulating people to talk about what they read," he says. 

The Minister has a point, and such conversations need to happen in real space and time, face to face. The Internet promised to bring like-minded people from around the world together in lively online discussion, and by and large it has not lived up to that promise. Online "discussions" are both under-communicative and over-communicative. "Under," in the sense that when you post in a group and receive no responses to your point, you can never be sure whether you said something "wrong," or whether no one was interested, or what the deal was; you can't just look at your companions and tell. "Over," in the sense that uninvited people stop at your "table," and even the people you know let their ids spill out, and before you know it there is shouting and spitting and weapons being pulled. Wouldn't usually happen in a cafe. Maybe people's Internet selves are in fact their "real" selves, but if so, I prefer the polite fictions of civilized in-person discourse.

The Los Angeles gallery Edward Cella Art + Architecture is featuring a show of very appealing drawings by architect Frederick Fisher:

(If you fancy you see a Giorgio Morandi influence in that drawing, it's no accident; some of Fisher's other drawings are labeled as homages to Morandi.)

Nearby in Long Beach, the Museum of Latin American Art will be putting on what looks to be a very exciting show of David Siqueiros's landscapes, opening September 11:

The dependably excellent Chicago Opera Theater is apparently doing very nicely by Francesco Cavalli's 1649 opera Giasone:,0,2659380.column

Another stage event that would be worth going a long way to see: Patrick Stewart as William Shakespeare in Edward Bond's 1974 play Bingo. Bond, born in 1934, is one of the world's major living writers, long overdue for Nobel Prize consideration.

Among notables born on this date are philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, philosophers Thomas Reid and Ludwig Wittgenstein, architects I.M. Pei and Peter Zumthor, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, ornithologist John James Audubon, film composer Francis Lai, film directors John Grierson and Douglas Sirk, painter Eugene Delacroix, blues singer Ma Rainey, rock guitarist Duane Eddy, novelists Bernard Malamud and Anita Loos, science fiction novelist A.E. van Vogt, poets Vicente Aleixandre (Spain) and Gabdulla Tuqay (Tatarstan), and actors Carol Burnett and Joan Chen. Marcus Aurelius's Meditations is a book that, two millennia after it was written, still abounds in useful wisdom about how the world actually works. One of its themes is that, although no one else can ever genuinely be trusted, there is no need to make ourselves miserable on that account; after all, they can't trust us, either.

When an opponent in the gymnasium gashes us with his nails or bruises our head in a collision, we do not protest or take offence, and we do not suspect him ever afterwards of  malicious intent. However, we do regard him with a wary eye; not in enmity or suspicion, yet good-temperedly keeping  our distance. So let it be, too, at other times in life; let us agree to overlook a great many things in those who are, as it were, our fellow-contestants. A simple avoidance, as I have said, is always open to us, without either suspicion or ill-will.
The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, in as much as it, too, demands a firm and watchful stance against any unexpected onset.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

April 25

Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me, which is becoming sort of an obsession here at PMD, is playing the Tribeca Film Festival, and Scott Weinberg weighs in very positively:

Regarding Casey Affleck's performance as the oddly gracious psychopath, I'll just let you imagine that this whole paragraph is filled with the highest praise an impressed film critic can give an actor. He walks through the entire film like a force of nature, an unassuming man who has a sick and twisted lunatic just behind the eyes. The performance is a masterpiece of subtle malevolence and deceptive charm.

Affleck is, of course, one of the primary reasons I'm excited about the film; as he demonstrated conclusively in Gone Baby Gone, he is a great character actor who can do wonders for a film as an offbeat leading man (comparable in that respect to Greg Kinnear).

RIP: Alan Sillitoe. I've been working for a while on a "British New Wave" project encompassing fiction, drama, and film, and as part of it I've watched two famous and very fine films based on Sillitoe stories, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (with Tom Courtenay, directed by Tony Richardson) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (with Albert Finney, directed by Karel Reisz). I need to look at those and other books in Sillitoe's surprisingly large body of fiction. 

Speaking of Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, I would like to note that the small town of Mackville, Wisconsin, three miles north of Appleton, is the perfect spot for Saturday night sinning and Sunday morning repenting, given that Bean Snappers, "Wisconsin's wildest totally nude club" (N. 2901 Highway 47), and St. Edward the Confessor Roman Catholic Church (N. 2926 Highway 47) are directly across the street from each other!

I laughed out loud at parts of Lorin Stein's discussion of sexuality in the life and work of the great French writer Guy de Maupassant; apparently he was gifted in more ways than one. The essay as a whole is a thoughtful consideration of Maupassant as a writer with a more than ordinary insight into the sexual urge:

August West at Vintage Hardboiled Reads shares his enjoyment of a 1955 paperback original, Down I Go, by "Ben Kerr" (William Ard):

I found an excellent web-page devoted to Ard, who died of cancer in 1960, at the early age of 37 (but not before writing some 56 books!):

Dennis Miller's nine-part essay "In Search of Ard" at this site is well worth a read. By the way, Budd Boetticher's classic Western Buchanan Rides Alone is based on a novel Ard wrote as "Jonas Ward."

The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum has mounted a show of exquisite glassware by the Austrian form Lobmeyr, founded in 1822:

I was excited to learn that the English National Opera has premiered a new production of Hans Werner Henze's great 1961 opera, Elegy for Young Lovers, to a libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman:

The show is directed by actress Fiona Shaw, who also directed Ralph Vaughan Williams's heartbreaking Riders to the Sea for the ENO in 208. She has some good taste in operas!

An aside: Most operas have rather functional and prosaic titles; there are rare exceptions such as Richard Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow) and Anton Arensky's A Dream on the Volga, but I cannot think of an opera with a more beautiful title than Elegy for Young Lovers.

Among notables born on this date are novelists Ross Lockridge and Leopoldo Alas (Spain), poets Walter de la Mare and Ted Kooser, children's writer Howard R. Garis, broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, political leader Oliver Cromwell, pop songwriter Jerry Leiber, pop singer Andy Bell, jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, soprano Astrid Varnay, ballerina Melissa Hayden, painter Karel Appel, film directors Paul Mazursky and Bertrand Tavernier, and actors Al Pacino, Hank Azaria, and Renee Zellweger. Two of today's celebrants are subjects of favorite books of mine. John Leggett's Ross and Tom is a deeply moving account of the lives and suicides of Ross Lockridge and Tom Heggen, two best-selling "one book wonders" (Raintree County and  Mister Roberts, respectively) of the late Forties. I know that Lockridge's family disputes some of Leggett's conclusions and that Lockridge's son Larry has written his own biography, Shade of the Raintree, which I own and mean to read. But Leggett's book is beautiful and empathetic and will not be superseded; a well-written biography retains authority even when some of its facts and interpretations are later overruled.

The second book is, like Larry Lockridge's book, a family memoir: Roger Garis's completely delightful My Father Was Uncle Wiggily, about growing up in a family of popular children's writers, including the indefatigable paterfamilias Howard, whose volumes for the Stratemeyer Syndicate probably number in the hundreds (it is difficult to trace all the pseudonyms, as it has been for William Ard and other "pulp" writers). The title of this book first caught my eye as a kid because, of course, I owned the famous Uncle Wiggily board-game ("The Evil Pipsisewah says, Go back three spaces!").  It's a great read, but there is more to the story: a few years ago Roger Garis's daughter Leslie published her own family memoir, House of Happy Endings, which details the less charming aspects of her grandparents, the mental struggles of her father, and the burden-bearing of her mother.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

April 24

Maurice Richardson's 1950 short story collection The Exploits of Engelbrecht is a "micro-cult" classic that had hitherto escaped my notice, but when John Coulthart at {feuilleton} posted about his design for the Savoy Books reissue, I did a little digging around:

This rare and exceedingly dotty little volume is subtitled "The Chronicles of the Surrealist Sportsman's Club". Maurice Richardson, a British journalist, had read one too many newspaper columns about sport. In reaction he created Engelbrecht: "a dwarf, of course, like nearly all surrealist boxers..." Fifteen sporting episodes explore suitably weird pastimes.
Richardson, who died in 1978, was one of the old school of hacks; he later became a stalwart infester of the Colony Rooms and the sordid pubs round Soho that teemed with pissed-up talent in the 1940s and 1950s.

Through this research, I discovered the Welsh experimental fiction writer Rhys Hughes, who published an Engelbrecht follow-up:

His long novel Engelbrecht Again! is a sequel to Maurice Richardson's 1950 cult classic The Exploits of Engelbrecht and is the most radical of Hughes's books, making extensive use of lipograms, typographical tricks, coded passages and other OuLiPo techniques. 

I was also charmed to learn that:

As well as publishing books in English and having those works translated, Hughes has created books especially for foreign language publishers that will never exist in English. For instance, A Sereia de Curitiba will only exist in a Portuguese version, and the Greek version of A New Universal History of Infamy is radically different from the English original.

Although Roderick Conway Morris wrote a stimulating piece on the 500th anniversary celebration for the Italian painter Jacopo Bassano (c. 1510-1592), it is not accompanied -- on the Web, anyway -- by a slide-show. The last link below, to the Web Gallery of Art, remedies the deficiency:

Charles Isherwood of the New York Times is most enthusiastic about Annie Baker's new play The Aliens, which takes place in a Vermont coffee-house:

Ms. Baker may just have the subtlest way with exposition of anyone writing for the theater today....At the risk of appearing hyperbolic, I’ll go so far as to say there is something distinctly Chekhovian in the way her writing accrues weight and meaning simply through compassionate, truthful observation.

If I received that review as a playwright who had not yet reached the age of 30, I would want to make sure that I was not hallucinating. Being compared to Chekhov and Chardin in the same review -- I mean, holy shit!

I just listened to another excellent interview by Jason Crane at The Jazz Session, this time with baritone saxophonist Charles Evans, whose music and comments alike are exceptionally interesting. I especially enjoyed his observations about the relations between jazz and modern classical music:

Crane is a terrific interviewer who asks sharp, pertinent questions without crowding his subjects; he's also blessed with a great "radio voice."

Here's another fine podcast interview: Joe Magennis at Baseballisms talks with Ed Achorn, the author of Fifty-Nine in ‘84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had. Since I'm a lover of early baseball history, this goes on my "must read" list.

Among notables born on this date are novelists Anthony Trollope and Robert Penn Warren, poet Carl Spitteler (Swiss German), linguist Benjamin Whorf, painters Willem de Kooning and Lyubov Popova, singer/actress/film director Barbra Streisand, film producer/director Wiliam Castle, and actors Djimon Hounsou, Eric Bogosian, Michael O'Keefe, and Shirley MacLaine. Despite my cocking a skeptical eye at Shirley MacLaine's spiritual activities (but hey, it's her life), I have always found her an irresistibly honest and intelligent interviewee. I love what she once said about celebrity: "I didn't want to be frozen in the shadow of my success, hearing the world applaud someone I didn't even know." There are probably a thousand young celebrities who could stand to learn that lesson.

Friday, April 23, 2010

April 23

Patrick Cassels at The Faster Times amusingly examines the brief, frenetic, and commercially significant history of "New Coke," which was launched 25 years ago:

I came from a Coca-Cola family -- Pepsi was evil, and to this day I won't eat in a Pepsi-serving restaurant -- and it is no exaggeration to say that the "New Coke" fiasco made an emotionally trying period for my mother in particular. The re-introduction of the classic Coca-Cola, brought on by relentless consumer outrage, saved her soft-drink sanity.

Alan Massie gives thoughtful re-consideration to Sir Walter Scott (a PMD favorite) and subsequent practitioners of the historical novel:

From the historical novel to actual history: Vulpes Libris re-opens the musty pages of the school-room classic familiar to every Latin student, Julius Caesar's The Gallic War, and finds much to enjoy still:

I agree, although I will admit that Caesar's opening line -- "All of Gaul is divided into three parts" -- has got to be the dullest first sentence in all of world literature; but even that's a distinction of a kind. I am terribly happy to have been part of the last diminishing wave of Latin students in the United States; it was taught in both the private school I attended for grades 7 and 8, and the Catholic high school I attended for grades 9 through 12, and I took it in both places. I keep meaning to brush up and do a little Latin reading. I certainly believe that Latin and ancient Greek (and, for that matter, Sanskrit and classical Chinese) deserve a place of honor in a 21st century curriculum; the people who say that "dead languages" are irrelevant in our swingin' contemporary culture annoyed me even as an adolescent back in the Seventies. The discipline of learning Latin and its beautiful grammar was one of the best educational experiences I ever had.   

A modern historian finds himself in trouble, in yet another literary scandal: Professor Orlando Figes has admitted to writing what journalists are calling "savage" anonymous reviews of the works of "competitors" at Amazon. He went after books in his subject area (Russian studies), books that competed against his for literary prizes, books by writers who had given him negative reviews, books by people he disliked. For the past few days, his wife Stephanie Palmer tried to take the fall for him, but he has "come clean," not that it will do him much good, because this is unacceptably crappy behavior for a scholar of this stature, and the repercussions have only just begun. Let us admit, however, that from a sideline standpoint this is good juicy fun and will undoubtedly goose the book sales of everyone involved.

To clear our heads, Let's Take a Walk! I agree with Curious Pages that the illustrations in this 1963 children's book are quite wonderful, reminiscent of the UPA cartoons of the Fifties:

Viewers of Werner Herzog's amazing documentary Grizzly Man will be interested to read more about bear-lover and bear-victim Timothy Treadwell:

Is the world ready for the Bollywood Brokeback Mountain?

Adrian Fischer does a helpful survey of breakthrough Venezuelan music for SoundRoots (although I wish there were clickable audios in the post):

Among notables born on this date are playwright William Shakespeare, novelists Vladimir Nabokov, J.P. Donleavy, Maurice Druon (France), and Halldor Laxness (Iceland), science fiction novelist Avram Davidson, crime novelist Ngaio Marsh, humorist Artemus Ward, physicist Max Planck, President James Buchanan, composers Ethel Smyth and Ruggero Leoncavallo, dancer/choreographer Michel Fokine, painter J.M.W. Turner, sculptor Fritz Wotruba, baseball player Warren Spahn, film directors Frank Borzage, Ronald Neame, and Michael Moore, cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, pop singer Roy Orbison, and actors Simone Simon, Shirley Temple, and Judy Davis. Ernest Laszlo, certainly one of the greatest noir cinematographers, just a hair's-breadth behind John Alton, shot Impact, Manhandled, the 1951 version of M, While the City Sleeps, and D.O.A.. There was never a blacker night in noir than the great opening scene he filmed for Kiss Me Deadly:

Notice how the gas station that Mike Hammer pulls into has a positively "phosphorescent" glow against the pitch night, as Jack Shadoian noted in his great critical study Dreams and Dead Ends  -- a "gas station of the imagination."

Thursday, April 22, 2010

April 22

Tevi Troy at the Washington Post takes a pleasant look at U.S. Presidents and their beloved books:

I have always found it pleasing that perhaps our most "outdoorsy" President, Teddy Roosevelt, was also one of our most bookish: There is no contradiction in that. And for all my quarrels with Obama, he does follow in a great tradition of reading and writing Presidents, and political leaders of other nations going back to Marcus Aurelius and earlier. Men of state should be men of letters, in my view, and in some cultures the two are very close indeed; it sometimes seems that half the great Latin-American writers of the 20th century were ambassadors and diplomats (Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes among others).

Anne Matthews has compiled a lovely list of books about women "on the road," with not a dull or predictable item on it. I would add any volume by the adventurous and inspiring Isabella Bird (1831-1904), whose splendid A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains is a favorite of mine.

The celebrated Australian children's author Patricia Wrightson has pased away at 88. I must say, the Times (U.K.) publishes the best, most detailed obituaries I see anywhere; they invariably inspire you to want to know more about the subject, and to explore their work:

Brian Eno biographer David Sheppard gives a fine interview to Colin Marshall of NPR's The Marketplace of Ideas:

A totally different style of music: Sometimes, bopping around YouTube, you come across something that you had completely forgotten. Back in the early Eighties, when I was working at the record counter at the Doubleday Bookshop at 5th Avenue and 53rd Street in Manhattan -- an experience I have written about here before -- we got in all the British as well as American cast albums, and one of them was Andrew Lloyd Webber's Song & Dance, which opened in the West End in 1982 with Sarah Brightman, and on Broadway in 1985 with Bernadette Peters (after I had left New York and moved to San Francisco). Pretty much all of us in the shop (and our sophisticated clientele as well) thought it was Lloyd Webber's best score, and there was one number in particular, "Unexpected Song," that was a knock-out. Flash-forward to this afternoon, when I came across a clip of Peters singing this song -- which I must not have heard in 25 years -- at a London concert. It reduced me to tears.

Among notables born on this date are philosopher Immanuel Kant, psychologist Otto Rank, litterateur Germaine de Stael, novelists Henry Fielding, Ellen Glasgow, and O.E. Rolvaag, poet Louise Gluck, painter Odilon Redon, film directors John Waters and Johnnie To, jazz bassist Charles Mingus, violinist Yehudi Menuhin, contralto Kathleen Ferrier, pop singers Glen Campbell and Peter Frampton, musical scholar Eric Fenby, photographer Laura Gilpin, and actors Sheryl Lee, Carol Drinkwater, Jack Nicholson, Eddie Albert, and Jason Miller. Louise Gluck, who turned 50 some fifteen years ahead of me, wrote acutely of middle age in her 2001 collection The Seven Ages. Because I have now reached that estate, I find those poems exceptionally moving. "Reunion" is a beautiful example:

It is discovered, after twenty years, they like each other,
despite enormous differences (one a psychiatrist, one a city official),
differences that could have been, that were, predicted:
differences in tastes, in inclinations, and, now, in wealth
(the one literary, the one entirely practical and yet
deliciously wry; the two wives cordial and mutually curious.)
And this discovery is, also, discovery of the self, of new capacities:
they are, in this conversation, like the great sages,
the philosophers they used to read (never together), men
of worldly accomplishment and wisdom, speaking
with all the charm and ebullience and eager openness for which
youth is so unjustly famous. And to these have been added
a broad tolerance and generosity, a movement away from any contempt or wariness.
It is a pleasure, now, to speak of the ways in which
their lives have developed, alike in some ways, in others
profoundly different (though each with its core of sorrow, either
implied or disclosed): to speak of the difference now,
to speak of everything that had been, once, part
of a kind of hovering terror, is to lay claim to a subject. Insofar
as theme elevates and shapes a dialogue, this one calls up in them (in its grandeur)
kindness and good will of a sort neither had seemed, before,
to possess. Time has been good to them, and now
they can discuss it together from within, so to speak,
which, before, they could not.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Ten years ago, I taught briefly at a South Side Chicago charter high school whose student body was made up 100% of African-American students who wanted to improve their lives. I know I learned a lot more from them than they learned from me. In talking about movies, they brought my attention repeatedly to a recent film called Belly, which they said was "the real deal," not "the usual junk." It took me a long time to catch up with the film, but my students were quite correct about it; and it is greatly to be regretted that writer-director Hype Williams has not made another feature, although he remains active (and much sought after) in the music video world.

Belly was not, it's fair to say, well understood when it appeared in 1998. Reviewers took it to task for simultaneously glamorizing and moralizing about the "gangsta lifestyle," as if that uneasy mix had not been a feature of all gangster films going back to D.W. Griffith's The Musketeers of Pig Alley in 1912. I am struck, indeed, by how comparable Belly is to an early sound film gangster classic such as The Public Enemy (1931). Putting them head-to-head, if you dock Belly a few points for narrative incoherence and for not having a lead performance quite as strong as James Cagney's, but then add back all those points and more for Hype Williams's style, you can easily see that this film equals an acknowledged classic. That was scarcely acknowledged in 1998.

Shot for shot, Belly is an amazingly beautiful film to look at, every image strongly colored, brilliantly composed. As you might expect of an experienced music video maker, the editing and the soundtrack-to-visuals match are hypnotic. The language, admittedly, can be a little difficult to understand; this is one film whose DVD really ought to have offered English language subtitles, because the argot sometimes verges on the inscrutably private (as with British and Scottish gangster films). The often hilarious profanity does carry one along, though, as with a David Mamet play, or The Sopranos. In all these cases, as Leon Wieseltier noted of The Sopranos, the language is "cruelly inadequate" to the characters' needs, and therefore tragic as well as funny. In Belly, "fuck," "shit," and "nigger" are tortured to carry an awful lot of semantic weight, but it is impossible not to notice that a larger vocabulary would help work against a certain imprecision of communication. It is hard to have ideas when you don't have words to think them with, and conversely, when the ideas that you can have are shaped by the few words at your disposal, failure of imagination is one likely result. That sort of failure is certainly on display in Belly (although the secondary female characters suffer less from this than their men; they occupy a larger sympathetic universe).

But, refreshingly, Williams is not ultimately overly punitive with his two leads (played by Nas and DMX). In the end, he allows both of them epiphanies, and what appear to be escapes, although the departure of Nas's Sincere and his family is only spoken of, not seen, and is possibly contradicted by the accompanying images -- is he imagining it? That ambiguity lends beauty to the film's conclusion.     

I enjoyed Belly for its seriousness, its style, and its humor, which is saying much of any film. It is unique, both in general feel and in many specifics. This is the only movie in which you will ever see young gangsters watch excerpts of "Bunny Boy" in Harmony Korine's Gummo on a large-screen TV ("What is this shit?" one of them perplexedly asks); a great meta-movie collision, which I hope Williams and Korine had a good laugh over. This is also the only movie in which you will ever see a character named Knowledge played by an actor named Power, which I take to be a submerged point.

April 21: Special Follows-Up Edition

Joseph Jon Lanthier at The Rumpus agrees with David Denby that the Argentine Oscar winner The Secret in Their Eyes is an exceptional film (PMD, April 12) :

The Los Angeles Opera production of Franz Schreker's The Stigmatized (PMD, April 4) gets a thumbs-up from Mark Swed:

The New York Times confirms that Schreker is hot:

The ensemble Ne(x)tworks recently took on Morton Feldman's six hour Second String Quartet (PMD, April 5):

The Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, news in New York (PMD, Aptil 6), is also news in Los Angeles with a concert performance of his opera La Commedia:

The German New Wave director Werner Schroeter (PMD, March 8), has passed away at age 65. We need many more of his films on DVD; nothing is currently available at Netflix.

April 21

The idea of Matt Damon and Keira Knightley starring in a new film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's gorgeous novel Tender Is the Night strikes me as promising:

The novel has been adapted for the screen twice before; as a feature film in 1962, with Jason Robards and Jennifer Jones as Fitzgerald's doomed glamor couple Dick and Nicole Diver; and as a cable mini-series in 1985, with Peter Strauss and Mary Steenburgen. I've seen neither adaptation, but the latter sounds more promising, both for the extra length (useful in capturing the subtleties of a novel) and for the spot-on Strauss/Steenburgen casting. I expect that Matt Damon would be every bit as good a Dick Diver as I picture Peter Strauss being.

Johnny D. Boggs at True West magazine compiled an enterprising list of "The Top 10 Western Movies You've Never Heard Of," many of them with a noir coloring:

Another nice list is Michael Foley's grouping of "absurd classics," in which Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett rub up against David Foster Wallace and The Bible:

A world literary classic that incorporates plenty of absurdity -- and plenty of everything else -- is the 8,000 page Urdu Tilism-e Hoshruba, which is beginning to appear in an English translation that will eventually extend to many volumes:

More octogenarian jazzmen: Pianist and bandleader Randy Weston celebrated his 84th birthday last week, and is going strong:

In The Checkout podcast, Weston has a lot to say about Africa and its music; he visits the continent regularly. This Atlantic essay describes the huge presence of China in the contemporary African economy: 

Baseball reporting for the brand-new season has emphasized the absence of fans in the stands, with a number of stadiums setting record lows for single-game attendance:,235390

Hello, Major League Baseball! The economy has finally caught up with you! Although, really, the cost of going to any major league sports event has been a scandal for a while, and for the average financially challenged American family has become an infrequent treat at best. Those who have minor league baseball or hockey teams nearby, as I did in Northeast Wisconsin, can know the pleasure of going to games often, having a good time and eating and drinking well, for a fraction of the cost; their kids will be catered to by stadium staff and have much better access to players, as well. 

Photographer Eirik Johnson captures a certain melancholy that I associate with the Pacific Northwest. The slideshows at Johnson's own website are excellent:

Among notables born on this date are novelist Charlotte Bronte, crime novelist John Mortimer, sociologist Max Weber, ecologists John Muir and Garrett Hardin, philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts, Queen Eliabeth II, politician Thomas Kean, comedian Elaine May, film director Edwin S. Porter, rocker Iggy Pop, and actors Andie MacDowell, Patti LuPone, Charles Grodin, and Anthony Quinn. Moderate Republican Tom Kean was a phenomenally popular Governor in my liberal-leaning home state of New Jersey; he won re-election to a second term in 1985 by the incredible margin of 71%-24%. His manners were naturally patrician and preppy, but he was utterly without fakery, and people responded strongly to that. He later served as the President of New Jersey's Drew University, a beautiful little school that grew in stature under his leadership. Kean, like one-time Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld (who won his 1994 re-election by a similar margin, 71%-28%), serves as a wonderful example that moderate Republicans can command real devotion in essentially Democratic states, a lesson that the current incarnation of the GOP seems utterly uninterested in.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

More re Controversial Films

Anthony Lane at The New Yorker writes as negative a review of Kick-Ass as Roger Ebert did, but with a somewhat lighter touch:

[The film introduces] a pair of....crime-fighters, Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloë Moretz). The twist is that they are father and daughter, perhaps the closest duo since Oedipus and Antigone, though, unless you have a particularly corrupt text, you will not find Antigone greeting a roomful of evil men with the words “O.K., you cunts, let’s see what you can do now.”

This line has already plunged the film into a froth of infamy, and, if you really think that [Matthew] Vaughn and [Jane] Goldman....planned it any other way, you are behind the times. A film casts its bait, and we bite.

But do we bite? Although, in a neck-and-neck race, Kick-Ass ultimately nosed past How to Train Your Dragon as the weekend's box office champ, it nonetheless significantly underperformed expectations. The bulk of the audience was under 25 and male, the fanboys who could be expected to buy into the concept -- but a lot of other people stayed away. What gives?

My analysis, one of many possible, is that the controversy attending the film did it more harm than good, and for this reason: To extract "cultural capital" from a controversial film, you don't actually have to see it.  I can discuss Kick-Ass quite as vigorously as anyone who got out to the theater, because I have followed the controversy and know all the talking points. The actual film is a superfluity. Any film or book that, however serious its "message," can be encapsulated in such a way runs exactly this risk. I mentioned in an earlier post that upon seeing Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, I concluded that it was a fine -- in fact, great -- film. But most people who read the coverage of the movie know simply that it includes a nine-minute rape sequence, and that is all they will ever know about it. The controversial fact trumps the celluloid evidence: Noe is hoist by his own petard. The "gross-out" factor that Stephen King discusses intelligently in his critical study of horror, Danse Macabre, got precisely the attention it might have been expected to get, but at the cost of potential viewers dismissing any need to experience the film that Noe directed.

This happens time and again. I know all about Lukas Moodysson's A Hole in My Heart, for example, and specifically that its "money shot" involves someone throwing up into someone else's mouth. I'm done! I've seen the film! -- although, of course, I haven't. I can describe whole scenes from Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo to you, and I'll bet my descriptions would be quite accurate, but I haven't seen that film, either. And these are films with purportedly "serious intent," that I could make a case for seeing (which is how I persuaded myself to see Irreversible). I can't even be bothered to try making an argument for my seeing most of Takashi Miike's work; Ichii the Killer will probably never darken my Netflix queue.

My point being, in the pursuit of attention, a director can overplay his hand. I think that Gaspar Noe and Lukas Moodysson are profoundly serious men. But they need not have gone quite so far in their visualizations as they did, to achieve the same artistic effect; and going as far as they did cost them a huge chunk of their audience (even if those same potential viewers lapped up the verbal descriptions). Even the makers of a pop entertainment such as Kick-Ass can run into the same wall: that the descriptions of the movie are enough, and in fact displace the movie.

The Subtlety of the Coen Brothers

I've been on a bit of a Coen Brothers kick since watching A Serious Man a few weeks ago. I've never flat-out disliked a film of theirs, although The Man Who Wasn't There and Intolerable Cruelty would not rank among my favorites based on a single viewing apiece. A Serious Man, though, hit me very hard, and I may wind up ranking it as their best film. It is clearly a movie made for re-watching, and not made to yield all its secrets on superficial acquaintance. Predictably, a number of critics dismissed it on that ground -- the movie was "odd" or "off-putting" or "peculiar." (Those word choices could also all be code-speak, disturbingly, for the intense Jewishness of the movie.) I do not feel that I am in any position to provide a thorough "reading" of the movie, but I would like to make a contribution on one small point that I have not seen anyone else take up.

Part of what A Serious Man is "about" is the role of chance in the universe and to what extent "God" controls that chance. Does he simply create the game and then roll the dice, in the manner of J. Henry Waugh ("Jahweh") in Robert Coover's novel The Universal Baseball Association? Certainly there appears to be a malevolent pattern in the events that befall the film's protagonist, Larry Gopnik, but maybe he is just on a bad roll? The film considers the issue in depth, just as Larry Gopnik himself does, but offers no resolution because none is really possible. God is not that scrutable.

Amidst the re-creation of late Sixties suburban Minnesota, there is a detail that may appear to be a throwaway gag -- Gopnik's son Danny keeps complaining that their home's TV aerial needs to be adjusted because he is having difficulty getting a clear picture for his favorite show, F Troop. But since the F Troop reference is repeated several times, and since the film's poster features Gopnik on the roof with the aerial, one may reasonably suspect that there is something more going on.
Since I was born in 1958 and am therefore close to the fictional Danny Gopnik's age, I too watched a good deal of F Troop as a kid, and am still able to recall the lyrics to the theme song, which, as was not uncommon with TV theme lyrics in those days (The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres), set up the "situation" of the show. Here is the first stanza, with my bolding:

The end of the Civil War was near
When quite accidentally,
A hero who sneezed abruptly seized
Retreat and reversed it to victory.

Pure chance in action: Ken Berry's Captain Wilton Parmenter becomes a hero "quite accidentally" because an innocuous sneeze is taken as a signal by his troops, who fortuitously reverse their direction and "seize" victory. The credit sequence is full of accidents (including an errant cannon shot that brings down the fort's look-out tower):

So the chain of events that brings F Troop into being is a perfect illustration of the same randomness -- or what looks like randomness -- that brings Larry Gopnik low. Gopnik appears to have done nothing so bad as to deserve his calamities, and the hapless Parmenter certainly did not earn his heroic status through any exercise of military skill, but there you have it: that is the world we live in. The repeated references to F Troop in A Serious Man, however, are far from accidents, because in relation to their own films, the Coen Brothers really are Gods.

April 20

Laurie Fendrich ponders human insignificance in the face of forces of nature such as the Icelandic volcanoes:

Long ago, I was persuaded of the truth of evolution. But unlike a lot of people, I'm not a happy camper about it. Add together volcanoes and Darwin, and you arrive at a world where we are nothing but an accident perched precariously on the surface of the planet.

This reminds me of Stephen Crane's magnificent short poem:

A man said to the universe:
"Sir I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."

(The total short corpus of Crane's deliberately "unpoetic" poetry, 135 items in all, blew my mind when I was an adolescent and still does so today.)

Jeff Jarvis thinks that our response systems to events like these eruptions is inadequate:

Anne Applebaum contemplates how the transportation disruptions created by the ash clouds bring us face to face with what a world without cheap, regular air travel would be like -- a world which, thanks to Peak Oil, we are on the cusp of anyway, so people had probably better get used to it. (It is doubtful that they will do so gracefully, howwever.) 

More literary fakery, and this is quite the scandal: The late popular historian Stephen Ambrose -- and very popular he was, too, a go-to historian for Hollywood types -- is revealed to have faked most of the interviews he claimed to have held with his biography subject, President Dwight David Eisenhower:

This revelation comes after a history of other accusations of plagiarism and inaccuracies against Ambrose, which are getting to be par for the course for many writers, alas -- but claiming to have held interviews that you never held takes the misbehavior to a whole different level (PMD, April 9).

Sam Ruddock at Vulpes Libris has written a fine review of Nii Ayikwei Parkes's novel Tail of the Blue Bird, and followed up with an interview with the author:

Like The Checkout, The Jazz Session offers excellent audio interviews with jazz musicians, in this instance vibraphonist Joe Locke:

Happy zoological news: Sibree's Dwarf Lemur, a species so obscure that scientists did not even know whether it was extant or extinct, has been re-discovered in Madagascar in a reasonably sizable breeding population:

Maritime photographer Bob Chilton shows in a new exhibition that he has a distinctive visual sense for subject-matter that can easily become hackneyed:

No, this is not a public urinal (although it would make a very attractive one). Rather, it is an arts information pavilion in Madrid:

Among notables born on this date are novelists Peter S. Beagle, Steve Erickson, Sebastian Faulks, and Henry de Montherlant, science fiction novelist Ian Watson, humorist Josh Billings, poet Pietro Aretino, financial writer Andrew Tobias, jazz vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, Latin jazzman Tito Puente, pop singer Luther Vandross, conductor John Eliot Gardiner, figure skater Toller Cranston, silent film comedian Harold Lloyd, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, sculptor Daniel Chester French, painter Joan Miro, baseball player Don Mattingly, and actors Jessica Lange, George Takei, Andy Serkis, Veronica Cartwright, Nina Foch, Ryan O'Neal, and Crispin Glover. When you are visiting the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, I can definitely recommend a visit to Daniel Chester French's estate Chesterwood, a pleasing property where you can learn a lot about the creator of the seated Abraham Lincoln sculpture at the Lincoln Memorial. My mother taught me long ago never to pass up a historic home that you were within 50 miles of!