Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Consolation of Philosophy

If you wish to know a subject well, undertake to teach it. Until I taught an Introduction to Philosophy class to high school seniors this fall, my knowledge of the history of philosophy was somewhat scattered and unsystematic. Now I think I have a firm grasp of it. It's as if I was taking my own course, and I think it was a pretty good one - probably the best I've taught since a class on Nevada History at Las Vegas College in the spring of 2000 (which I also had to work up from scratch).

I had read D.W. Hamlyn's excellent A History of Western Philosophy and primary texts such as Plato's Republic, but a long while ago. I didn't have the Hamlyn volume at hand as I prepared this course, so I relied instead on Bryan Magee's The Story of Philosophy and Brooke Noel Moore's and Kenneth Bruder's Philosophy: The Power of Ideas (6th Edition). William James Earle's Introduction to Philosophy and Pierre Hadot's What Is Ancient Philosophy?, both of which I read cover-to-cover, were invaluable, and of course I did a lot of digging around on the Web. One of my side-projects was to create two chronological lists, one of philosophers and thinkers at least mentioned in the course, another of background figures in the history of thought (including not just philosophy, but also science, mathematics, psychology, sociology, theology, etc.). The first list includes about a hundred names, the second is now well over 900. I haven't done much work on integrating non-Western traditions yet - the existing design of the course only included one class on Eastern philosophy and religion - but I hope to do more.

My teaching notes, which I revised at the end of the semesters, now take up more than 200 pages in a binder. I used video a lot in the course - there is more philosophy on YouTube than you might imagine - and I have complete details of all those supporting materials.

Toward the end of the course, I had a lot of students missing classes because of end-of-term projects, academic trips, and so on, so I hit on the idea of turning my class presentations into podcasts which the absentees could listen to, which I did for the last six of about 45 classes. Those podcasts are here for anyone who is interested:

I enjoyed doing these and may eventually make the whole course available in this format. If you should happen to listen to the "Eastern Philosophy and Religion" podcast, the section on Taoism is weak, but will be improved. Otherwise, I'm reasonably pleased with the results.

Now that I have the entire course constructed, it will be a pleasure to continue to tweak it in the future. Certainly I will have more time to read primary texts, a number of which I'm already working on. There is always the danger of over-enriching the course past its status as an introduction, and I've probably already done that to some extent. It's a characteristic of mine as a teacher - to leap up in level. On the other hand, I can only stand so much over-simplification, and I'm painfully aware of how much of that there has to be in any introductory course. I always tell my students in such courses that they are getting a 1.0 version of the subject because it's what they can grasp initially; the 2.0, 3.0, and 4.0 versions can come for them later, and they may look back and say, "My intro teacher had it wrong!" But their intro teacher knew it. You can't start with nuance; you have to start with the broad strokes.

Commonplace Book: Satisfaction

There is no "having it all." The choices we make require sacrifices. Whatever we do, we're always missing something. The key to not feeling cheated is to settle for less than everything while making the most of what's in front of us. This may be what the much-divorced Saul Bellow meant when he wrote, in The Adventures of Augie March, of "the refusal to live a disappointed life."

Stephen Kessler

Friday, December 30, 2011

Frida and Remedios

At one point during my stay in Korea, I had four pets. My older Birman cat, Claire, had come with me from America (and traveled and re-acclimated very well). A few months after I arrived, I succumbed to the charms of a Korean department store bunny whom I named Benjamin; he was with me for only a few months before dying quite suddenly of what seems to have been rabbit hemorrhagic disease, which is borne by insects and can take a healthy rabbit off in a day. That was the case with Benjamin; he was a fireball of energy on a Thursday night, a little mopey and uninterested in food at mid-day on Friday, and when I came back from work on Friday evening, he was gone. I had planned to take him to the vet on Saturday morning if he didn't look any better, but the illness worked too quickly.

In the meantime, I had added first a hedgehog, Tugger, and then a cockatiel, Wordsworth, to the family, both quite charming. When I realized that I would not be staying in Korea for a second year (which had been my plan, to work at a Korean university), but instead would be relocating to Mexico, I did a heavy amount of research on how to bring the animals with me from one country to the other. Unfortunately, Mexican animal import regulations had recently changed to make it exceptionally difficult, expensive, and time-consuming to get any species besides dogs and cats into the country. Only those were considered pets; the rest were all categorized as livestock or zoo animals. So transporting Claire was not going to be a problem, but bringing the others proved to be beyond my ability. In the case of the cockatiel, perhaps this was just as well; birds are pretty delicate, and I would have hated for Wordsworth to be hurt during the travel - breaking a wing in panic or something like that. Tugger, though, was a hardy little guy who was perfectly capable of making the trip, and I deeply regret not being able to get him into Mexico.

Luckily, I was able to re-home Wordsworth and Tugger successfully, so it was down to Claire and me. But then my sweet cat took ill about a month before our flight, her renal system starting to shut down. Perhaps it was her way of telling me that she was not up for one more adventure. I had to have the vet put her down, but that was preferable to her suffering or dying en route.

So, from four pets to none! - it was all sort of weird and distressing. Knowing I would have a nice two-bedroom apartment in Mexico, I began to think about adopting a pair of kittens or young cats, preferably girls from the same litter - and wouldn't you know, a little contact with the local adoption agencies in Culiacan and Mazatlan in the month after I arrived turned up just such a pair. I named them Frida (Kahlo) and Remedios (Varo), after the great Mexican painters.



Remedios, the slightly larger of the two (but neither is very big), is the high-energy cat, somewhat prone to mischief and knocking stuff down. Frida is more relaxed. They are very good together and love to play with each other. They are incredibly gratifying to buy things for: they love every single toy - they go crazy for their new toys, but never stop loving their old toys - they love their cat beds, their climbing tower, their balls, their plush mice, all of it. They are not finicky eaters either. Life seems to be pure pleasure for them, and naturally that makes them a total joy to be around; they are both very affectionate with me besides.

It is amusing that Remedios is the musical cat, who will plop down in front of the speakers whenever I play a Mozart CD, while Frida is the cineaste, who is always up for watching a movie with me (and who looks straight at the screen). As felines, they naturally both have an affinity for books. I couldn't ask for better companions.


Over the past couple of nights I watched Alexander Payne's Sideways for the first time (a recent DVD pick-up; all my viewing now is DVD-based, as streaming video doesn't work too well with the spotty Internet service here in Mexico). Of course, this is a charming, well-written, beautifully acted film, which I truly enjoyed, but something about it was a little depressing, too (as is often the case when I watch Woody Allen dramedies, as well). I guess it comes down to the fact that, Virginia Madsen's Maya aside, I wouldn't want to know or hang out with any of those people. I looked up my friend Robert Kennedy's review at his Cranes Are Flying site (distinct from his Cranes Are Flying blog):

SIDEWAYS (B+) (90)
USA (124 mi) 2004

Breezy, mostly feel-good, relatively mainstream American comedy that parallels the excruciating care needed to produce great wine with the foibles of being human, requiring a bit of the same tender loving care, with moments of hilarity alongside slow moments of isolated anguish, much of it in recovery from the resulting hangovers from nights of excessive drinking. The story follows two single guys, one recently divorced, Paul Giamatti, who is something of a loner, a failed would-be writer, probably a better wine connoisseur, and his former college roommate, Thomas Haden Church, who is about to get married over the weekend and wants one final fling before he loses his bachelorhood. While they couldn’t be more opposite, they have an amazing antagonism, which is brilliantly funny, largely due to the appealing, easy-going manner of Church, whose performance is simply magnificent.

The film turns into a buddy movie where the two visit the California wine country, visit a few vineyards, and due to Church’s incessant charm, pick up a couple of wine savvy girls, Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh (at that time, Payne’s real-life wife), who they take for a ride, never realizing that by withholding the inevitable about the impending marriage, they were only fooling themselves. With bits of slapstick thrown against a quiet realism, it’s an effective film style, and has a fairly seamless feel to it until the abrupt end, which reminded me of the dilemma Tom Hanks faced at the end of CAST AWAY. The constant indulgence of food and wine, and who, might I ask, is paying for all this, mixed with the constant unfulfilled needs of the two guys leads to a middle class void that suggests nothing but trouble ahead. The boyish charm of Church and the meticulous pessimism of Giamatti makes for some scintillating dialogue in their scenes together, however, this seems overly pointed towards people with the economic means to indulge themselves like this. Most of us still have to work for a living. The concept of responsibility was nearly completely absent in this American middle class portrait. While this is a critically acclaimed and much awarded film, I’m not sure it shares international themes, as it seems overly concerned with strictly American consumerism and our own shallow values. And to make matters worse, as if relating to those suffering with a hangover, the over-indulgent musical score sounds very much like some piano-led classic light station, just one step up from Kenny G

The comment "who, I might ask, is paying for all of this" is telling, because it certainly looks as if the men are blowing a lot of money in this pre-wedding week, but maybe Thomas Haden Church's Jack is picking up most of the tab. The film does not avoid economic realities, actually is rather attuned to them, so that most of the characters live in apartments (unusually for an American film) and Giamatti's Miles talks about his life specifically in terms of economic failure ("By my age, if you don't have money, you're nothing"). Although that observation could be made anywhere in America, I think it's telling that the movie takes place in Southern California, where residents' judgments of each other on economic grounds are particularly acute. (It's also delicious that Jack is marrying into a Kardashian-style Armenian family, years before the Kardashians took America by storm.)

It is funny that, since the movie was shot on location in the Santa Ynez Valley and used actual locations - the Hitching Post is a real restaurant - there are now Sideways tours like the Vertigo tours in Northern California:

The 2004 film Sideways was set (and shot on location) in the Santa Ynez Valley. Since then, visits from tourists looking to recreate the experiences of the fictional characters Miles and Jack, have become common. Fans of the movie can often be seen making a pilgrimage from the Buellton Days Inn to the Hitching Post restaurant.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Reading about Mexico

Living in a new country, I of course want to learn everything I can about it. Just before I came to Mexico, one of my ESL colleagues in Korea gave me Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory as a gift - I read it immediately and naturally was very impressed. The other Greene novels I've read are Brighton Rock and The Heart of the Matter. Greene is a very appealing figure to me; in an email to a friend, I spoke of "channeling my inner Graham Greene" as I adjusted to living internationally.

After I arrived, I wanted to get a handle on the wave of drug trafficking violence that has bedeviled Mexico for a number of years - especially since the city I live in, Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state, is one of the centers of that traffic and that violence. So I ordered Elijah Wald's Narcocorrido, about the genre of Mexican popular music that chronicles the exploits of the traffickers; John Gibler's To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War; and Charles Bowden's Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields. Locally, I also picked up Javier Valdez Cardenas's Los morros del narco: Historias reales de ninos y jovenes en el narcotrafico mexicano and Sergio Ortega Noriega's Sinaloa: Historia breve; my reading Spanish is not quite up to getting through full-length books at any kind of speed yet, but with grammars and dictionaries, I'm pushing it along.

I finished Narcocorrido the other day, and recommend it highly; Elijah Wald's adventures in pursuit of corridos, which took him all over Mexico and the southwestern United States, are entertaining and informative. He wisely doesn't bother with any kind of moralistic tone, which would have been worse than useless in dealing with his subject. Going back to medieval times and probably well before, criminals have been celebrated in songs (sometimes because they commissioned them); there is a natural historical affinity there that is highly worthy of investigation.

I've started on Gibler's sharp To Die in Mexico, and on Ortega Noriega's history of Sinaloa as well. Gibler has already proven very helpful with subjects such as "la nota roja, the crime beat or blood news," which is very noticeable here; both the serious and the more scandalous newspapers run tons of coverage of drug crime, including all the gory and gruesome photographs a crime ghoul could demand.

Of course there is (thankfully) a much more pleasant side to Mexico too - the landscape, the biodiversity, the fascinating history, the colonial architecture, the good spirits of the people. A couple of years ago, I read Joseph Wood Krutch's excellent book about Baja California, The Forgotten Peninsula, which was published back in 1961 when that beautiful area was a good deal less developed than it is today.

One of the items in my new blogroll, Jim & Carole's Mexico Adventure, is a delightful photo-blog that captures much of the enchantment of the country, which given all the current difficulties, it is very good to be reminded of:

I have scarcely started on Mexican film, either contemporary or classic, although I am on the lookout for DVDs of those movies that have English subtitles, and I have found a few.

Latin American fiction in general is a terrible weak spot of mine, so I need to start taking care of that.

Mexico is a huge subject that I will continue to make notes on here.

Classic British Fiction

For the past few years, one of my projects has been to read or re-read classic British novels of the 1775-1925 period. I would consider it an impertinence to "review" these books; the acknowledged classics are pretty obviously great - which is partly to say, within 20 pages I usually know exactly why they are classics - and even the lesser volumes are cherishable. I concentrate on these books as experiences, not as objects to be assessed (with new books, both those dimensions are in play). It is especially good to encounter them now, in my fifties, when the life-adventures they describe are all much clearer to me than they could have been in high school or college. My early readings of some of these novels were not without value, but the later readings are incomparably richer.

Here is a list of the completed volumes in the current project, in the order read:

Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit
Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her?
George Eliot, Middlemarch
William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair
Jane Austen, Emma
Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native
Charles Reade, It Is Never Too Late to Mend
Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent
Charlotte Bronte, Shirley
Sir Walter Scott, The Antiquary
Anne Bronte, Agnes Grey
Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White
James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
George Gissing, The Whirlpool
Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage
Bram Stoker, Dracula
George Meredith, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel
H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Currently I have two more books in progress in this project, Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, which I am about to finish, and James Joyce's Ulysses.

There are all too many novelists I have not covered yet, but intend to. Some of the biggest names on that list are R.D. Blackmore, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Samuel Butler, William Carleton, Benjamin Disraeli, Maria Edgeworth, John Galt, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Kingsley, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, Charles Lever, Frederick Marryat, George Moore, Margaret Oliphant, Thomas Love Peacock, Mark Rutherford, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Robert Smith Surtees. It's not as if one could ever run out - it's an abundant period.

Thai Film

Wise Kwai blogs on Thai film at Wise Kwai's Thai Film Journal (now in the blogroll):

He writes about his favorite Thai films of 20ll, including Pek-ek Ratanaruang's neo-noir Headshot, here:

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Diablo Cody

I am not knowledgeable about the work of Diablo Cody beyond hearsay, having seen neither Juno nor Young Adult. But I found Jeffrey Sconce's blog post about the "Codyverse" of interest:

Sconce suggests that "three basic questions...inform the narrative progression of both films" I mentioned above:

1. Why are there no "normal adults" anymore?
2. What is the proper relationship for a "normal adult" to have with popular culture?
3. Who shall and shall not be granted proximity to a precious, precious baby?

Of course, the territory of the first two questions was staked out a long time ago by Nick Hornby and cannot be considered fresh, so it's the third that provides the twist, "how profoundly invested the Codyverse is in maintaining rigorous moral parameters related to proper suburban breeding." It wouldn't be the first time a hip surface has masked an underlying conservatism.

POSTSCRIPT: I have no yearning toward babies myself, and I'm very glad that I have never been responsible for one (in any sense). But I should check out some of the works related to that yearning, such as Henry Jaglom's film Babyfever and John Sayles's film Casa de los Babys. I will admit that I have tended to shy away from those, as well as all comedies in the Three Men and a Baby tradition.

Back from Hiatus

The blog is back from a seven-month hiatus during which I relocated from Korea, where I was teaching ESL at a private adult academy, to Mexico, where I'm teaching in the humanities department at a subsidiary campus of a major university, mainly in the "prepa," or university high school. Before I left Korea, my beautiful 15-year-old Birman cat Claire passed on - what adventures we had together! - and when I arrived in Mexico, I adopted a pair of beautiful shorthair female cats from the same litter, whom I named Frida (Kahlo) and Remedios (Varo) after the great Mexican painters.

My living arrangement in Mexico, a spacious two-bedroom apartment in a nice neighborhood, is very much more comfortable than my tiny square one-room provided apartment in Korea, and I am grateful for that.

I shut the blog down for a while in part because I was spooked by what is happening with blogs in general - more and more of them are moving to commenting systems that do not allow people to comment unless they have and are willing to be identified by a Facebook account. Since (paranoia alert!) I consider Facebook to be a surveillance tool pure and simple, I find this unacceptable, and I have stopped commenting on those blogs.

I have never been active at Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter, and I got off LinkedIn (although that is a much better service). I don't much want to be found by the people who might find me at those sites. Even this blog is under my Web pseudonym (and always has been). About the only "social networking" site where I am active, and I really use it more for cataloguing, is LibraryThing, also under the pseudonym:

So why have I revived the blog? Mainly as an overflow space for material that I don't mind sharing with my correspondents, but don't want to inundate them with, either. I have made the blog unsearchable by Webcrawlers, so it should hardly ever show up in search engines. I'm not interested in a wider readership, but rather in communicating with those whom I already trust, who include old friends and the members of the three web discussion groups I participate in regularly: the private Yahoo Group I founded, Confabulation; 19thCenturyLit, also at Yahoo Groups; and the erudite film noir board, The Blackboard. Visitors from LibraryThing are welcome as well - book people are great!

This blog has consistently morphed and changed its approach over the years, since I'm kind of a restless guy. The first big change I have made this time is to add a blogroll that consists of all the blogs whose feeds I receive in my Google Reader, and I will keep this up-to-date, which means that blogs will frequently come and go. I'm constantly trying out new blogfeeds to see how much useful information I get from them, but there are also old stand-bys that are consistently terrific and that I would never abandon unless they stop publishing.

The blogroll is not a perfect picture of my interests by any means - ideally there would (and probably will) be more art, architecture, music, history, philosophy, beer, and clothing blogs. Literature and film blogs dominate because there are so many of them generally, and therefore inevitably more good ones too. Lord knows I've tried hundreds!

It's good to be back, and I look forward once again to posting material that captures my interest. Some of it may be meaningful primarily to me, but you never know, which I why I want it all to be available to the few dozen people I am interested in communicating with. I am definitely not trying to be a commentator who has a broader influence; whatever ambitions (and delusions!) I have ever had of that kind are hopefully behind me. The competition for attention is too fierce, and I don't want to be a politician-type spending my life pointing at myself; we live in a world where far too many people are doing that already.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Giving Cinephilia a Bad Name, Part Two

Sam Juliano cannot contain himself:

Allan Fish has now officially launched the ‘Mother’ of all film lists, a project that is as remarkable in its audacity as it is in sheer comprehensiveness. Allan is arguably the most authoritative film connoisseur online (or anywhere for that matter) and this list is far more than a labor of love, but written proof that this eccentric, outspoken and utterly brilliant Brit has travelled further than his peers in terms of scope and discernment. The project is merely a prelude for the intended publication of his long-awaited film book, and encompasses the posting of the 3,000 greatest films ever made, with 600 a day through Thursday of this week. The endeavor was urged upon Allan from early last year, and he has complied with approximation, even while admitting the arbitrary nature of such a listing was stifling. Still as a resource, there isn’t a better and more valuable film list available anywhere. And that revelation is perhaps Allan’s most untouchable claim to prominence in the film world. Bravo, Allan!

Oh, I give up. What point is there in denouncing the follies of your times when the objects of your complaints not only fail to respond cogently to your criticisms, but really haven't got the foggiest idea what you are talking about? It's as if we were raised on different planets. Admittedly, this Fish list is a minor folly in the big picture, but I am a minor writer; it represents a perfect target for my pipsqueak outrage -- I'll leave the bigger subjects for masters of outrage such as James Howard Kunstler, Camille Paglia, and Niall Ferguson (to pick a diverse bunch). But no matter how small the target, its (psychological) defenses can still be surprisingly impenetrable. So there is probably no particular ground to be gained by enumerating these facts:

1. It's just a list, and a mish-mash of a list at that. Given a few days lead time, I could put together an approximation of this list myself, without having seen the films. No one would know the difference. Once you come up with the names of 3,000 films that have had some acclaim -- a few hours work on the IMDB and other sites -- the order of the items beyond the first 200 or so is of scant significance. You could throw darts. And I hope that is what Mr. Fish did, because the thought of him wasting hours of his life on contemplating "Should Jacques Rivette's Duelle be #2,467 or #2,468?" is rather depressing.

2. It is not a list of "the 3,000 greatest films ever made," nor even an approach to a consensus about such -- how could it be, if it merely represents one fanatic's taste at a single moment in his viewing history? The notion that this enterprise could be "authoritative" or "comprehensive" is daft. The Sight and Sound decade polls are interesting because they represent a cross-section of established critics and directors with enormously different agendas. I am sorry, Allan, but like me, you are just some guy. Nice try at getting your buds to claim greater significance for you, but believe me, that gambit has been tried many times before in cinephilia, both online and off.

3. If the "arbtrary nature" of making such a list was "stifling," why take it on? I perceive this bit of lame excuse-making as the only visible attempt to counter any of my objections, but the fact is that Mr. Fish, like others I could name, is so deep in his OCD-fueled list-making hell that he not only repeatedly foists his lists on the world, he turns them into damned countdowns. Oh my God, what will Allan's number one movie of all time be? This will be definitive! Actually, it's rather less definitive than a countdown of Paris Hilton's bed partners, which is at least a bounded class that only she can comment on.

4. Stop with the adjective pile-on already, Sam -- eccentric, remarkable, audacious, comprehensive, brilliant, outspoken, authoritative, "further than his peers in scope and discernment," revelation, untouchable, "merely a prelude," valuable, prominent, "far more than a labor of love." We get it! You're killing me here! It is the most amazing list ever -- I bow before its staggering listiness. Now will you please go away?

5. It is odd, since criticism is their thing, that many cinephiles deal very poorly with criticism at the level of the enterprise -- not "Was this executed well?" but the more important prior consideration, "Was this worth doing in the first place?" To them, the enterprise is somehow sacred and beyond criticism, a fact I discovered long ago when I bad-mouthed the emphasis on the making of top ten lists in a certain circle -- it was as if I had ritually murdered a puppy, you have seldom seen such a vehement repudiation (of my argument, my motivation, my character, the works). My friend Robert Kennedy, who truly is adding to our knowledge of film at his Cranes Are Flying website and blog, has rightly pointed out that it does no purported critic any good -- not a Pauline Kael, not an Andrew Sarris, not a Mike D'Angelo, not an Allan Fish -- to be surrounded by yes-men. It is very telling that, in the Wonders in the Dark comments, Sam Juliano said he stomped on me "to spare Allan that kind of unfair attack" -- as if any questioning of the concept of the list was utterly beyond the pale. Fill in your own "They can dish it out, but they can't take it" comment about many online film critics; you won't be far off.

6. It makes me sad to conclude that cinephilia makes some people stupid(er). But it does seem to. This is not a phenomenon unique to this obsession, I hasten to add -- sports fanatics are frequently completely la-la -- but by some logic I cannot get to the bottom of, it is worse for certain enthusiasms than others. As an obsessive myself, I live close to the edge, and perhaps for that reason I sometimes react with an especially pronounced horror to people who I think have gone over the edge. It is not a future I want for myself. Anyone who reads my critiques as being a kind of self-checking mechanism is approaching the heart of the matter. As Hermann Hesse wisely wrote, "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."

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Giving Cinephilia a Bad Name

Warning: bad-tempered fit of spleen ahead.

A dimwit named Allan Fish at the occasionally useful filmblog Wonders in the Dark has decided to grace humanity with an un-annotated list of his top 3,000 films, just the titles, countries, release years, and directors, in order, counting backward from 3,000 to 1. I could not resist taking a potshot at this, in the form of a comment which may or may not get published at the blog. If it doesn't, I get that; I'm not fond of insults, either, and I've moderated some comments of that type out of existence here. However, I will archive my reaction at my own blog, because I truly want to record my objections to such an exercise:

Well, since you said you need to have your head examined…you do understand that this is exceedingly childish, right? That this is the sort of thing that gives cinephilia a bad name? That the dedicated study of movies needs fewer people such as yourself, who would undertake such a cockamamie project, and more who are past the adolescent, High Fidelity-esque “art-house fanboy” stage? You do know all this, right?

Am I being as childish as Mr. Fish? Quite possibly, and without a doubt I am also being unkind. But this sort of intensive, labor-heavy trivialization of something that matters a great deal, the history of film, will never sit well with me, at least not coming from someone over the age of 20. And a top 3,000...yikes. Come back, all my prior betes noires; none of you can begin to compete with this. Fish has out-fished you.

POSTSCRIPT: In the interest of cultural sanitation, I'm not linking to the list; it's easily found. But here is a representative sample of ten films:

2965 Michael Clayton (US 2007…Tony Gilroy)
2964 Ormen (Sweden 1966…Hans Abramson)
2963 The Assassin (Italy 1961…Elio Petri)
2962 Cutting it Short (Czechoslovakia 1980…Jiri Menzel)
2961 An American Werewolf in London (US/UK 1981…John Landis)
2960 Troy: director’s cut (US 2004/2007…Wolfgang Petersen)
2959 Hamlet (UK-TV 2009…Gregory Doran)
2958 My Sister, My Love (Sweden 1966…Vilgot Sjöman)
2957 Let George Do It (UK 1940…Marcel Varnel)
2956 Never Let Me Go (UK 2010…Mark Romanek)

What could this possibly mean? That Mr. Fish has diverse tastes, that he has seen a lot of obscurities, that he neither privileges nor dismisses Hollywood movies? Welcome to the club(s). That Troy is ever so slightly better than An American Werewolf in London in the cosmic scheme of things? If the order of these ten films were scrambled, or they were placed elsewhere in Mr. Fish's 3,000, or he removed them all and replaced them with roughly equivalent titles not currently in the list, would that add to the sum of the world's knowledge? It wouldn't even add to our knowledge of Mr. Fish.

UPDATE: Did I not understand, Sam Juliano of Wonders in the Dark huffed, that Allan Fish was one of the most acclaimed film bloggers and that he has seen "over 8,000 films in his life"? I'll assume that Mr. Fish is not an old man, so if he has seen 8,000 films in his life, he has done very little else; he has not actually lived a life, and what he has to say about the films in question is highly unlikely to be of much interest. Of course, in the case of this list, he isn't saying anything.

Mr. Fish himself picked up the volume theme. "How many of this 3,000 have you seen? Once you have seen them all, and the several thousand that missed out, then you can come back here and start insulting me...Now go get an education!" You know, Mr. Fish, it is quite possible to get a more balanced education than watching 8,000 movies. That you and Mr. Juliano are all worked up over the numbers merely underlines my point about the fanboy mentality. Someone could have seen no prior films and still have more pertinent to say about Citizen Kane than a cinemaniac.

I suffer from OCD myself, I recognize the symptoms, but with assistance I have learned when OCD is simply not relevant. The assessment of art is one of those occasions. Mr. Fish, psychological help is available!

Friday, May 6, 2011

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

Enjoyable, but ultimately disappointing. I like Joseph Gordon-Levitt very much, and the concept and (by and large) the execution of the time-shuttling structure are fine. But much of the content feels too cutesy to me. Robert Kennedy correctly notes the cop-out of the ending in his review:

After spending the entire film deconstructing the typical Hollywood love story, basically reprogramming the audience’s expectations by refusing to allow the couple to succeed, something only hinted at in the disappearing memory play and disoriented editing structure of Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry’s ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004), but here does the director lose his nerve and retreat back to a safe and formulaic ending, something that could just as easily have been chosen by an audience poll, as it lacks the refreshing originality of the rest of the film.

I think the retreat to formula starts earlier than that, actually. The appealingly unreal version of Los Angeles feels a lot like Woody Allen's appealingly unreal versions of New York (Gordon-Levitt = Edward Norton in Everyone Says I Love You), and the greeting-card company setting is all too obviously a movie writer's TV-sitcom-mediated idea of a "workplace." Tom Hansen's best buddies are standard-issue guy-comedy characters. Zooey Deschanel's Summer is in a long line of kooky (to greater or lesser extent) romcom girls. The big musical number looks to be a crib from the method of the Allen film and the (superior) television series Eli Stone, which premiered seven months before filming for (500) Days of Summer began. Tom's corporate breakdown has been done a thousand times. The voiceover narration is, as Robert Kennedy again correctly notes, weirdly stentorian, without offering any reason for being so; by contrast, the rather similar narration in the unknown (and also superior) Canadian indie One Week, with Joshua Jackson, pays off very cleverly indeed in the end.

Despite my sympathy for Gordon-Levitt's Tom Hansen, I couldn't work up any feeling of wistful lost romance because Deschanel's Summer Finn seems calculatingly sadistic from the get-go (or is it just that Tom is remembering her that way? Not clear). It is one thing to acknowledge in your heart of hearts that romance is always contingent and often fleeting; quite another to remind your current squeeze of that unpleasant truth at every possible opportunity. 500 days of that would be way too many.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Mammal Watch: Siberian Weasel

I am an enthusiastic mammal-watcher, which is harder to be than a bird-watcher because mammals are more visually elusive. Last night as I was walking through Yongji Park in Changwon, I saw a mustelid mammal that I thought might have been a feral ferret. But the coloration also matched the Siberian Weasel, which is indigenous to Korea. Here is a picture of the Siberian Weasel that I lifted from the Web:

I got a really good look at this mammal, since it was not particularly fearful and the lighting in the park was good. After I got home, I posted queries at the forums at Animal Rescue Korea and (an excellent site). Respondents confirmed that the Siberian Weasel has adapted to urban environments in Korea and China, and is seen in Seoul, Busan, and Shanghai, also on Jeju Island off the South Korean coast. So I was able to confirm my sighting as this species, which excited me considerably. There is not much mammal action around here; I’ve only seen Red Squirrels a couple of times locally. And I've never seen any mustelids in the wild before, so this was a great experience.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

In the Shadows

Have you ever noticed how in biographies, a fringe character who pops up periodically but about whom little is known is always described as a "shadowy figure"? Well, that guy is me. It's not so easy to be mysterious in our electronic era as in earlier times, but I am doing my best. This blog, of course, is written under a pseudonym (one of several handles that I use online). I have never been on Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter, and recently deleted my LinkedIn account. I have been scrubbing a lot of my Internet presence elsewhere as well. I have moved rapidly from city to city and lately from country to country, and am about to make another such leap. Usually when I leave a place, the vast majority of people I knew there never hear from (and perhaps about) me again. I want to be hard to find, except for that small group of family and friends that I keep apprised of my movements.

Our worldwide social movement towards oversharing of information, total personal transparency, and constant surveillance both overt and covert, appalls me, and whatever little I can do to resist it, I will. I rather expect that a small but vigorous counter-movement will form around this notion of renewed privacy and semi-visibility; Mark Zuckerberg et al. have swung the pendulum so far in their "We Live in Public" direction that an opposite if not equal reaction is probably inevitable.

The surveillance society, a development of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon concept employing all the latest modern technologies, is especially troubling to me. Lately I have noticed how about half the visual content on local television news programs in Korea is made up of hidden camera videos. Blaise Pascal once said that "the sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room"; but we may all have to do that if we wish to have any personal zone whatsoever.

We are not only over-watched, we are over-identifiable. It used to be that you could remake your identity fairly easily. Crossing borders without papers was common. Then, as Paul Fussell discusses in his wonderful book Abroad, passports and visas became required burdens and avatars of modern identity. You could still gallivant around in your own country without much fuss as late as the Fifties and Sixties, the time of On the Road and The Fugitive. The premise of The Fugitive, that Richard Kimball could move from state to state without ever having to produce a picture ID, open a bank account, or obtain a driver's license -- without ever having to prove who he is -- is unthinkable nowadays. We are demanded to produce such proof all the time.

It becomes harder and harder to say, as Frank Sinatra sings in "Angel Eyes," "Excuse me while I disappear...." But I think that when the ability to disappear, to not be known, is lost, something fundamental has been taken from us. And yes, I admit that when that ability does exist, people will misuse it to evade taxes, to escape from the consequences of their crimes, to bail out on responsibilities -- naturally they will. There is no benefit without that kind of corresponding deficit. But it is a trade-off I would happily return to. A world without shadows is glaring, frightening, and Orwellian.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

David Foster Wallace

With David Foster Wallace's unfinished novel The Pale King coming out, there has been a surge of essays and articles about the late writer, and one of the most interesting is this account in The Guardian (those British newspapers strike again!) of a visit with his widow, artist Karen Green:

I love this bit about Wallace's friendship/rivalry with Jonathan Franzen:

Franzen was one of very few literary figures with whom Wallace kept in touch. They had both been beset by similar doubts about their work, and about the future of the American novel, which they had attempted to resolve in different ways; Franzen committing himself to "old-fashioned" storytelling in The Corrections, Wallace persisting with his sense that fiction had to be frenetically alive to the way "experience seemed to barrage me with input".

Green recalls their rivalry with a smile. "They were really great together, you know like two kids in the back seat of the car, squabbling, it was really delightful to see them together. Jon has lost that neck-and-neck competitor, his soccer-field pal."

In one corner of the room where we are talking is a beautiful guitar given to Green by Franzen, which she is learning to play: Leonard Cohen and Rufus Wainwright. "Jon was one of David's very, very few writing friends," she says. "He was sort of like a god to David and I think Jon maybe felt something the same about David. And he has been an incredible friend to me since [Wallace's suicide] happened. He feels like a brother."

At the end of the article, there is a nice little annotated bibliography of Wallace's writings.

RIP Sidney Lumet

What a great film-maker he was (and by every report I have ever read, a fine and thoroughly decent man). Roger Ebert has put up a thoughtful obituary:

Lumet's output is equally rich in accepted classics, and re-discoverable neglected films. He started out performing on the Broadway stage as a child, and always had a marvelous touch with actors, who revered him. He is underrated as a visual artist because he created a separate style appropriate to the needs of each movie. And as a dramatic director, keeping the audience involved in every scene, very few are in his league.

I am partial to so many of his films, but would give special shout-outs to Prince of the City, probably his most complex movie, and in my view a masterpiece; the stunningly tense Fail-Safe, under-appreciated because of its proximity to the identically plotted Dr. Strangelove; and Network, in which Lumet, brilliant screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, and an incomparable cast, foresaw the world we live in now.

POSTSCRIPT: Jeffery Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere is with me on Prince of the City:

To me Lumet's masterpiece is Prince of the City ('81) -- a nearly three-hour-long drama about the morality of finking out your friends in order to find your morality, and entirely about New York cops and mob guys and district attorneys and junkies, most of it set in the offices of this or that prosecutor with guys dressed in suits and shirtsleeves with cold takeout food and tepid coffee on the desk.

POSTSCRIPT: I found an interesting tidbit in a tribute piece by Clint O'Connor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

When I asked about some of his all-time favorites, he wouldn't bite. "I'm not going to tell you that," said Lumet. "If I tell you about the ones I feel good about, it makes orphans of the other ones."

Robert Altman made a very similar comment in an interview once: The films are all my children; whatever one you say you don't like, I'm going to stick up for that one and say it's a favorite.

No orphans.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Human Jungle

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

In addition to everything else that Sigmund Freud wrought, he made inadvertent major contributions to the practice of narrative. Since the Freudian sub-conscious is a place where information can hide, the ascendancies of the mystery as a genre and of the surprise ending as a narrative device can be partly traced to Freud. Further, the process of accessing the sub-conscious can usefully form a major strand of a story’s plot, with the accessor, usually a psychologist or psychiatrist, playing an important and often heroic role, and the end results of the access being one or more cathartic big “reveals.” Variations on this narrative template have been ubiquitous in literature, theater, film, and television for many years, to the point where it can seem rote and tired and needs a special dose of cleverness to revive it (as in The Sixth Sense).

The title of the 1963-1964 British psychiatric television drama, The Human Jungle, perfectly captures the appeal of the Freudian scenario for storytellers. The jungle of the mind, like the actual physical jungle, is wild, it is lush, and there are things in it you cannot see, at least not at first. I wish I could say that The Human Jungle rings interesting changes on the typical psycho-narrative, which was worked pretty hard throughout the post-war era. But in the episodes I have watched, it is fairly standard stuff, offering predictable and humdrum revelations that are insufficient pay-off even for the low investment of a televised hour. Its noir markings are exceedingly faint, although the smoky credit sequence, with our hero-psychiatrist listening pensively to a taped patient session while slow background jazz plays, seems to promise more in that regard.

Herbert Lom plays psychiatrist Dr. Roger Corder with an intense manner (that is however capable of relaxing into friendliness) and a slightly beady stare; one imagines he might be good at hypnosis if required. Like most psychological professionals in this sort of set-up, he is a locksmith who can provide you with the missing key. He is assisted by an ambitious young colleague (check), a trusty secretary (check), and a seemingly madcap but actually quite sensible teenage daughter whom he is raising alone as a widower. The widowerhood provides an aura of personal loss that suggests that Dr. Corder will not have to fake his empathy with patients: he too has suffered.

The episode “Fourteen Ghosts” is quite emblematic of the series and its approach. The wife of a prominent judge has been arrested for shoplifting. Naturally she has no economic reason to steal, so the kleptomania is expressive of deeper issues (as it is in Hitchcock’s Marnie). When a woman shoplifts, then you can be sure that somewhere, sometime, the men in her life done her wrong, and in this case it doesn’t take Dr. Corder long to figure the particulars out; you or I could have done it. Lady Shaw had a difficult relationship with her rigid father, and now has an even more difficult one with her super-rigid husband. Hubby the judge has his own deep unresolved traumas, and Dr. Corder diagnoses that he too should submit to therapy, but of course the judge is having none of that. He wears down quickly, however, this being television, and his shameful war history of responsibility for the deaths of others (implied in the title) comes spilling out.

The Shaw family situation also includes a supportive and sensible daughter, a type apparently thick on the ground in Britain at that time, and a son-in-law who has been unfairly rejected by the judgmental judge for not being “good enough” for his daughter. (A penniless artist! It just won’t do!) Even from my brief description, you can sense the metaphoric group hug this is all going to end with. Another triumph for Dr. Corder!

I am scarcely immune to the pleasures of this type of story; I bawl my eyes out every time I watch Ordinary People. But that is an unusually effective example of the classic-style psychological family drama, partly because it is more realistic: the super-rigid mother played by Mary Tyler Moore adamantly refuses the group hug and packs off instead. It is a standard that The Human Jungle doesn’t measure up to. Despite my fondness for Sixties London in black-and-white, this series is too blah and formulaic in its execution to win me over.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mystery of the Day

Why would people still go to journalism school, when serious professional journalism is essentially over in this country -- over as a business, over as a profession? Many, perhaps all, of the folks in public radio are about to be out of a job. It's not just that you can't find a journalistic job because of the intense competition; there is virtually no place to be hired. In the words of a student at my Korean school, The Future Is Dark. (We native teachers at the school feel this would be an excellent name for a depressive pop band; one wag suggested that it could put on a "Kill the Lights" tour.)

Along these lines, the fine freelance cultural commentator Colin Marshall was just grousing at his eponymous blog:

...watching people work hard and well while clearly getting paid for it — and probably having their proficiency positively effect their quality of life — in any setting tortures me. Over time, I’ve whittled my wish list down to one compound item: to be able to work hard at what I’m good at, to only do that, and to have my accomplishments therein translate into something. Anything....Writers? Forget it; can’t get paid for that anymore. Filmmakers? Forget it; can’t get paid for that anymore. Broadcasters? Forget it; can’t get paid for that anymore....Feel free to do all that stuff on the side while, for a paycheck, you either suffocate in alienated Kafka-hood or ask people if they want that macchiato extra wet.

I commented:

I can't be sure of the level of irony here, so for the sake of argument, let me just take the post straight. I think the notion "Do what you love and the money will follow" was always a remote dream for most, but yes, it is probably getting even worse today, as the production of "content" of all forms is increasingly hobbified and unpaid. So I think the only realistic model is "Do what you love, and do something else (that you don't dislike) for money." That leads a lot of us to teaching, for obvious reasons.

But whatever activity it leads to in the second category, it is important to preserve free time for the first category, and that, in turn, often means forgoing a "normal" or conventional family or romantic life. In other words, it is not usually possible to work eight hours a day at the secondary money-making activity, come home to the spouse and kids and house, and also keep up the beloved primary activity.

Well, I didn't say this was going to be easy. But I have found throughout my life -- I am 52 now -- that I can make some (not much, but enough) money, and maintain all my interests and creative outlets, by opting for an unconventional and frankly semi-monastic kind of life. Surprisingly perhaps, it is also a reasonably satisfying one.

Everyone's solution will be different, of course. But trying to "have it all" is usually not practical. Something, somewhere, has got to give. Only you can decide what that something needs to is one thing to accept temporary privations as a condition en route to making it and "getting to work hard at what [you're] good at," and quite another to accept privations as an ongoing precondition of getting to do what you're good at in your spare time, for little or no monetary compensation. Do you love what you love that much? That's the question. Many don't, and that's OK too. Most people can't accept the trade-offs involved in the pursuit of a true avocation -- first and foremost among them that it is an avocation.

Absolutely the worst stumbling block in your one wish is the phrase "to only do that." That is where the fantasy and its likely unrealizability is concentrated, in those four little words.

POSTSCRIPT: Another phrase in Colin Marshall's wish, "to have my accomplishments....translate into something. Anything" is vague but bears thinking about as well. What would that something be? Money? Recognition? Despite Colin Marshall's sophistication and extensive knowledge of cutting-edge world art, there is a naive and sweetly American character to this assumption that you have a gift, you get to exercise that gift, and you get rewarded and recognized for using it. What world is that in? 95 times out of 100, the difference your creative gift makes in your life is to make it harder and more complicated, not easier. I'm sorry, but this is true. And although it may be depressing to contemplate, it is immature not to.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Arbor (2010)

Robert Kennedy's latest review at his excellent Cranes Are Flying blog, of Clio Barnard's quasi-documentary portrayal of the late Scottish playwright Andrea Dunbar, The Arbor, rang a bell for me. Where else had I read about this recently?

[I]n format alone, this is a dizzying conception that defies convention and has the audience on their heels from the outset....Most of the time characters are speaking directly into the camera, as if in an interview format, though each, as it turns out, is a recreation. Other times the cast is gathered on the front lawn and enact neighbors watch from the street. I’m not sure when it clicks in, but at some point you stop fighting what you initially can’t comprehend and start appreciating what’s happening onscreen, as the film only grows more intimately compelling until the audience is completely riveted and even overwhelmed by the material....The presentation is so radically different than what viewers are used to that they may have a hard time realizing what they’re witnessing, but they’ll certainly pick up what’s essential....[I]t uses the power of the theatrical performances, some of which are sensationally powerful and worthy of an award nomination....This is unconventional filmmaking combining the dramatic power of language with a fierce new sense of theatricality, a major work brilliantly directed, using a dazzlingly inventive conceptual design to accentuate some of the most intimately personal and humane material to ever grace the screen.

I wracked my brain and finally remembered that I had seen a post about this film at another excellent blog, the self-titled Dr. Tony Shaw, "Mainly the Obscure, and/or mainly 'Outsider' Literature," which is an RSS feed in my Google Reader, and which I recommend highly. Dr. Shaw has always got good stuff, and it is obscure and outsider for sure.

The Arbor (2010) is a documentary about the life of the playwright Andrea Dunbar, with the state of Thatcherite northern England in the 1980s as a backcloth. Or is it more about the aftermath, the heritage of Dunbar, both artistic and personal? Certainly it's one of the best films of the year, although don't expect it to win any Oscars: this is definitely arthouse only....Clio Barnard's film is experimental, taking the words of survivors - above all Dunbar's two daughters Lorraine and Lisa - with actors lip-synching them....[T]he a mélange of the lip-synched episodes, documentary television footage, and scenes from The Arbor performed on the grassy area of Brafferton Arbor....[T]his is a wonderful movie that I don't recommend to anyone expecting thrills galore. The lip-synching, and the various stories told in hindsight, tell us how impossible the truth is to find, or rather, perhaps, that truth is plural. Brilliant is a word that comes to mind for this engrossing film.

It certainly comes across that both Kennedy and Shaw were ultimately thrilled by the richness of the material and the aesthetic challenges the film presented.

More on Andrea Dunbar at her Wikipedia entry:

A feature in The Independent:

Another in The Telegraph:

And a third in The Guardian. These British newspapers are serious. I love them!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Alan Ladd

[Responding to a "Noir of the Week" on the Alan Ladd movie Saigon at The Blackboard.]

There is something ambiguous and mysterious about Alan Ladd -- maybe it is his slight blankness, the fact that you could project onto him -- that made him natural casting for Jay Gatsby, even if the movie didn't turn out so great.

It also helps explain why he is far and away the most iconic male noir star among gay men. I believe this was always the case; recall the photo of Ladd taped inside Sal Mineo's locker in Rebel without a Cause. (Mineo would later say that he played Plato as film's first "gay teenager" at Nicholas Ray's express instruction.)

Ladd aged rapidly after 35, which was fairly common in those days, but his aging did not give him the physical authority it bestows on some actors; he went from being boyish to looking like an oldish boy.

(Aging can be especially hard on shorter actors in Hollywood, I think; Audie Murphy's career also started to fizzle after 35, and even the great James Cagney had to make major adjustments and develop as a character actor.)

Ultimately Ladd's story, with his attempted gun suicide at 49 and his eventual fatal overdose at 50, is one of Hollywood's saddest. His alcoholic mother had committed suicide years before; probably he was always at risk, and not well-equipped emotionally to deal with the downslope of a movie career. An interviewer asked him in 1961 "What would you change about yourself if you could?", and he replied, "Everything."

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Woefulness of Golf Writing

Jonathan Wall at Devil Ball Golf wrote a pretty bad post about Justin Rose's failure to win the Transitions tournament. I responded:

Why are we clinging to this notion that there is a "will to victory"? Statisticians in all other sports have long since discredited the notion of clutch performance and "winner psychology." Tiger Woods didn't blow everyone away for a decade because he had some steely-eyed will to victory; rather, he was simply more talented than anyone else playing at that point (and disciplined about his talent, which it helps to be). If you are talented enough, you will win or have a late lead in a certain number of tournaments, especially on courses or in formats (match play) that favor your particular gifts. But you cannot affect the performance of the other golfers, only your own; and while you can get in your own way by letting your nerves get the better of you, I don't believe that you can "seal the deal" by thinking the right sort of thoughts. Too much golf writing focuses on the presumed psychological state of the week's winner, and not on their statistical profile, the type of course, the mix of competitors, injury issues, and other factors far more germane to determining a tournament's outcome.

Golf writing, with its repeated mantras like "He knows how to win," is pretty darned primitive in some ways. Notice all the emotionally loaded language in Mr. Wall's piece:

"After struggling to break through on the PGA Tour..."
" seemed like Rose had finally turned the corner."
"He was playing with a confidence that had been missing from his game for some time..."
"...should [we] be genuinely concerned about Rose closing out tournaments again [?]"
"...we know he's got what it takes to seal the deal."
"...he'll learn from his final round struggles and come out a better player..."
"He's too good a player not to take something positive out of this experience..."

This is lazy, vapid writing. The phrasings are vague sportswriter-speak -- "turned the corner," "got what it takes," "something positive." I learn nil about Rose as a player from reading this pap. I'm not saying that emotions have nothing to do with to playing the game, but I somehow doubt that Mr. Wall is a trained psychologist or is that intimate with the workings of Justin Rose's mind, so this is pure armchair pop psych based on no discernible psychological information. Sportswriting should hold itself to a higher standard than that.

Specifically, I would say that what you gain from playing a particular course are insights that might help you the next time you play that course, not "something positive" that will assist you "going into the Masters." All that language really implies is the need for a fiercer determination on Rose's part. Mr. Wall may think that fierce determination wins tournaments, but I do not. I think that talent wins them.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

RIP Augustus Owsley Stanley III

The Grateful Dead's (and many others') LSD chemist/producer/supplier was a colorful figure, to say the least:

I first read extensively about Owsley in Jay Stevens's incredible history Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream, a book I cannot recommend highly enough. But he shows up in every chronicle of the era. This slightly cheeky New York Times obituary shows that he stayed eccentric right up till the end.

As it happens, I am just now reading Jack Kerouac's brilliant On the Road, which of course has its share of thinly disguised "characters" of the postwar fringe. Neal Cassady would have crossed paths with Owsley Stanley through Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters (whom he also supplied copiously with hallucinogens, many of which he concocted or commercialized himself, such as the notorious STP).

Here is a 2007 profile of Owsley Stanley that appeared in Rolling Stone:

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Duel at Silver Creek (1952)

[Posted at The Blackboard.]

I have never seen Don Siegel's 1952 color Western The Duel at Silver Creek, with Audie Murphy, Stephen McNally, and Faith Domergue, mentioned as an off-genre noir. But I watched it tonight through Netflix streaming, and I think it qualifies: it's got a noir-like narration by McNally, a lynch mob, a preponderance of night scenes in the mid-section, and, most pertinently, a femme fatale who is an actual cold-blooded, on-screen murderess. I can't think of another such in any Western I've seen from that era. Check this film out, it's interesting. It's a bit of a Johnny Guitar precursor, too: most of the characters have campy nicknames such as Lightning, Rat Face, Dusty, and Brown Eyes, and the outfits worn by Audie Murphy's Silver Kid and Eugene Iglesias's Johnny Sombrero are positively pimpin'.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Commonplace Book: Desire

So Dantes, who three months earlier had wanted nothing except freedom, felt already not free enough, but wanted wealth. It was not the fault of Dantes, but of God who, while limiting the power of man, has created in him infinite desires!

Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo (tr. Robin Buss)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

David Lynch Is Keeping Busy

With his new web-store:

With his upcoming gallery show:

But apparently not with any new feature films. It figures. Why is it that artists who are clearly amazing and professional in their primary medium want to be loved for their dilettantish and amateur work in secondary media? I will sometimes follow these side ventures, grumbling as I do, but really, isn't it all kind of arrogant?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Emmett Gowen

Rex Parker at Pop Sensation posted this strange paperback original cover from 1937:

I dug around and came up with this information about the author, which I posted as a comment:

A Tennessee Erskine Caldwell, apparently. This was his third and final novel, after Mountain Born (1932) and Dark Moon of March (1933), which has a great cover in this 1952 reprint:

Gowen (1902-1973) had a sordid beginning: "Court-martialed from the Marine Corps, Gowen served three years in the Naval Prison at Parris Island, South Carolina before being dishonorably discharged in 1923. He taught himself the craft of writing as a reporter on several Memphis newspapers while churning out stories for pulp magazines." But he persevered after these early struggles with military justice and fiction-writing to become a freelancer for outdoor magazines and a field guide for hunters and fishers in Mexico and Central America. His final gift to readers was the formidably titled On Man and the Good Life: Leaves From the Notebook of Emmett Gowen, Being a Rather Loose Collection of Writings, Notes and Folk Beliefs on the Delights of Farming, and Other Subjects Related to our Earth, and Tennessee in Particular, Including Some Interesting Things That Grow on It, and Live on It, and the Health-Giving Properties Thereof (1974). You can find a bibliography of Gowen's work here. I think I am Emmett Gowen's new biggest fan.

POSTSCRIPT: Another commenter found comparisons of Gowen to Erskine Caldwell and James Thurber here, as well as this tidbit: "The author taught at Commonwealth College, closed in 1941 as subversive by the Arkansas attorney general." Emmett Gowen rocks!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Hidden Fear (1957)

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

Andre De Toth’s Hidden Fear (1957) is poised between two styles, and enacts the transition between them over the course of the movie’s running time. The first style is the Euro-moody postwar thriller in the vein of The Third Man and Mr. Arkadin, which dominates the first two-thirds of the film; the second style is the Sixties action thriller, which is prefigured in the last third, especially with an extended multi-vehicle chase sequence (car / motorcycle / helicopter / boat).

Hidden Fear was a location shoot in Copenhagen, using Danish technicians and many Danish actors. John Payne plays detective Mike Brent, whose sister Susan has been hanging out with a seedy crowd in Europe and gotten herself pinned with a murder rap. Mike is here to help, but also harbors quite a bit of anger against his ne’er-do-well sibling, and in one memorable scene, actually roughs her up (“You tramp!”). There surely was a lot of violence against women in Fifties crime films, wasn’t there? The mood of these later noirs is decidedly undecorous, and their protagonists are angry, embittered men.

Mike Brent is no exception. “Brennt” is “burns” in German, a language well-known to Danes, and Payne, his career on the wane – this was his last feature film until 1968 – expresses plenty of fiery rage, when he is not merely grim. Payne was 44 when Hidden Fear was made, about to put his time in on one of the ubiquitous TV Westerns of the era, The Restless Gun. He is quite physically imposing; at 6’2”, he towers over his European co-stars, and De Toth often puts him dead center in the frame, striding purposefully in his sharp-cut, shoulder-padded suits. Sneering and potentially lethal, he is a precursor to Dirty Harry.

The local atmosphere in the night scenes is rather fun, with the typically shadowy streets and alleys, and flavorful musical accompaniment (is that an accordion I hear?). But the noirish flourishes are mostly decorative. We do get a tour of the Danish bar scene, including one nightspot with a revolving indoor carousel. We learn, no surprise, that Danish girls like American men, and American men like Danish girls. Had it been made a decade later, the film would have pushed that angle considerably harder!

The plot, such as it is, involves a double-crossing counterfeiting ring led by Alexander Knox and Conrad Nagel. Their scheming is not of much consequence except to set up the cat-and-mouse antics of the film’s final section. It must be admitted that the chase is nicely done, with cool POV and helicopter shots, and a nifty explosion. James Bond beckons.

POSTSCRIPT: Fellow Blackboarder Dan in the MW pointed out that John Payne was actually one of the first actors to take an interest in playing James Bond; he held an option on the novel Moonraker in the mid-Fifties, although nothing came of it. The Payne on display in Hidden Fear would have made a quite credible Americanized Bond, with the anger turned down and the charm turned up.

The very first on-screen Bond was another American, Barry Nelson, in an hour-long adaptation of Casino Royale that aired on the television anthology series Climax! on October 21, 1954.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Golf and Aging

[Comment posted in response to an article about the decline of Canadian golfer and former Masters champion Mike Weir at Devil Ball Golf.]

For some reason, people don't seem to realize that age is a factor in golf just as it is in all other sports. Weir peaked between 30 and 35. This is something that many golfers do. He has been on a slide since them. Also not unusual. He is about to turn 41. The odds are very long that he could recuperate his game sufficiently to be a Top 50 golfer again. There will of course always be a few golfers whose decline is slower, or who defy gravity and play their best golf in their forties (Kenny Perry, Steve Stricker). But this is an exceptional group; most golfers will wither in relation to the competition by the time they hit that age, especially with today's young bucks crowding the field.

Time does not stand still for golfers. It is perfectly possible also that Tiger Woods has hit his peak and is in a natural phase of decline that has nothing to do with his personal troubles, his attitude, or any of the other pop psychological explanations beloved of sportswriters. He and Mike Weir might have that in common.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The King's Speech (2010) and Beethoven

I had read that Colin Firth's big speech in The King's Speech is underscored with Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, and during the montage sequence of the Best Picture nominees at the Oscars, I got a sample of that. Tom Hooper has used a trick here that is well-known to horror movie directors: Let the music do the work. Even I could make a scene emotional by using one of the greatest stretches of music ever written! It shows a curious lack of faith in your lead actor -- in a film devoted to the theme of vocal delivery, to boot -- to undercut his handling of this key scene by thus "sweetening" it. It also doesn't exactly demonstrate that you deserve your Best Director statuette. Most directors are very aware of the general truth that music is more inherently emotional than imagery, but most great directors provide a dynamic interplay between the music they use and the rest of what they put up on screen. Kubrick comes right to mind; Woody Allen with the Gershwin score of Manhattan, as well. Hooper's employment of the Beethoven, by contrast, strikes me as lazy and cliched.

The temptation is in some ways understandable, however. Beethoven, ahead of his time, is a wonderful film composer. I happen to be watching Bernard Rose's Immortal Beloved, which can use all the Beethoven it wants by virtue of being a film about Beethoven, and apart from Gary Oldman's rather madcap lead performance, what is most enjoyable about the movie is the director's partnership with the composer. The matching of the editing and camera movements to the Beethovenian rhythms is marvelous.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Film Comment Selects

A number of interesting-sounding items in this year's "Film Comment Selects":

Kim Ji-woon's revenge thriller I Saw the Devil was a scandal here in Korea last summer, with my students actively warning me against going to see this "vile...sick...cruel...disgusting" film (and Koreans generally have strong stomachs). Korean cineastes take a bit of exception to the perceptions, created by Park Chan-wook and fed by this new film, that Koreans are an especially vengeful people and that this is a specialty of their cinema. As one said to me, "It's just a handful of directors -- we don't think America is like a Quentin Tarantino film!" Touche.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Crash (2004)

I watched Paul Haggis's Crash, and I'm a little bit in shock that this film won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Original Screenplay. Although technically proficient and gamely performed by ace actors, the movie is completely demented. Haggis is so conceptually crude that he makes the blunt and tabloidy Samuel Fuller look like Eric Rohmer by comparison. The extremely schematic, literal, and over-emphatic aesthetic does give Crash a certain fascination. In Haggis's vision, virtually everyone in Los Angeles is a nasty, overt, verbal and physical bigot. They're all id without a trace of protective ego or superego; they're not even worried about holding their jobs.

Once he has established this hell on earth, all Haggis does for the rest of the movie is to push buttons with varying degrees of effectiveness. Sometimes this works -- Matt Dillon and Thandie Newton "sell" their pair of big scenes even though one may cringe at what they are being asked to do. The arc of Terrence Howard's character, although illustrated for us in the most obvious ways, has a certain psychological logic that is one of the most realistic elements in the film, and Howard runs with that. Really, all the actors are fine; they deserved their Screen Actors Guild award for Best Ensemble, especially since the material does not help them a lot.

There is a nice bit of magical realism involving a child's belief in a reassuring story her father tells her, but even here Haggis undercuts himself by making sure that we know that there is a literal explanation for what happens. Paul, we could have figured that out without your camera underlining it for us! This is a writer/director who cannot tolerate a shred of ambiguity; he is a misanthrope with obsessive-compulsive disorder. The old theatrical mantra -- "Tell them what you're going to do; do it; then tell them that you've done it" -- is pushed as far in this film as I have ever seen it pushed, so in that sense, Crash is one of a kind.

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, I like the alternative formulation I read once in a Kenneth Tynan or Penelope Gilliat review: "Tell them what you're going to do; do something else; then deny having done it."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Commonplace Book: Love

It is wrong that anyone should become attached to me even though they do so gladly and of their own accord. I should be misleading those in whom I aroused such a desire, for I am no one's goal nor have I the means of satisfying anyone....Thus, just as I should be culpable if I made someone believe a falsehood, even though I used gentle means of persuasion, and it gave them pleasure to believe it and me pleasure that they should: in the same way I am culpable if I make anyone love me. And, if I attract people to become attached to me, I must warn those who might be ready to consent to the lie that they must not believe it, whatever benefit I might derive from it.

Blaise Pascal, Pensees

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Attention Economy

In the attention economy, to be temperate in your tone and modest in your conclusions is to get nowhere. If, for example, you write a quiet, helpful, interesting book about parenting, you are unlikely to get a lick of attention; but if, like Amy Chua, you put yourself forward as a "Tiger Mother" and borderline child abuser, the world will beat a path to your door! The process of getting attention is even more depressing to observe than the outrageous things that are said and done as part of the process; the heavy hand of marketing is everywhere. And although I am as prone as the next moralist to want to scold people for their idiocies, the fact is that is just another form of feeding the beast. Silence is difficult to maintain in the face of the never-ending onslaught of "Look at me!" provocations, but any and all comebacks are enabling to the provocateurs and their handlers.

This is why I sometimes just want to go back to bed in the morning.

William Dean Howells

Levi Stahl posted at his blog I've Been Reading Lately about his enjoyment of William Dean Howells's Indian Summer, and I commented:

Not to push the comparison too hard, but I always think of Howells as an American Trollope. (Arnold Bennett is another good parallel.) He is a delightful writer and a delightful personality. Anyone who could be friends with both Henry James and Mark Twain clearly had diverse gifts! A Hazard of New Fortunes is a great social novel that I recommend strongly. Howells's technique is solidly mainstream, but his outlook can be surprisingly modern; significantly, the very last words of his novel of divorce A Modern Instance are "I don't know!" The open-endedness is both daring for its time and quite humanly attractive. Howells may be a minor writer, although I rather think he skirts being a major one; he is, in any case, a lovable and supremely readable novelist.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Golf Notes: Dubai Desert Classic

I must be one of the few obsessive golf fans who has never played a round of (non-miniature) golf, although I keep promising myself that one day, I will learn to play the game, badly. In any case, I should post more golf notes here at PMD, in line with the project of reflecting all my interests.

Yesterday, I was lucky to find an Internet stream of the final round of the Dubai Desert Classic, and watched it till the end. It was a very exciting tournament with a lot of golfers in contention, and the blazing young Spaniard Alvaro Quiros finally prevailing. This morning, I saw a mopey column by Shane Bacon at the Devil Ball Golf blog that started thus:

This story should be about a 28-year-old Spaniard that won his fifth European Tour title on Sunday in Dubai, emerging from an incredibly star-studded field to do so. It should be about Alvaro Quiros, the long-hitting heartthrob that posted three 68s to end his week, the last coming on Sunday when Quiros made two eagles (the second being a hole-in-one) in his first 11 holes. But the story isn't. You know what this story is about. It's about Tiger Woods...

It went on in that vein of let's keep talking about Tiger by asking why we're still talking about Tiger, a fairly transparent trick. I responded:

I am a little puzzled here, since this story is a perfect example of the phenomenon it is complaining about. What the media concentrates on is up to the media. Write about Quiros instead, please! The guy is an exciting golfer who has won every year he has played the European Tour. Like many of the up-and-comers, he is great for the game and is a completely media-friendly subject -- handsome, likable, best buds with Kaymer, super-long off the tee. What more do you want? Tiger is a tired story not least because the story has now been told a thousand times, and there are only so many ways you can spin it. Quiros is fresh.

What the media is terrified of is that once Tiger ceases to be a story, a lot of casual fans will stop following golf. And you know what? That is exactly right. It cannot be helped, so get over it. There will still be plenty of real fans who want to read stories about what is actually going on, not what could be happening in an alternate universe.

POSTSCRIPT: Here is a fun exchange about Quiros from the weekly Sports Illustrated golf roundtable:

Gorant: Alvaro Quiros outlasted everyone in the desert, helped by an ace in the final round. What do we think of this guy? He's crazy long and has a decent short game. Has he reached his apex as an exciting and excitable occasional winner, or is there another level out there for him?

Van Sickle: He could be the Spanish Dustin Johnson, or D.J. could be the American Alvaro Quiros. Either way, I love watching them play. They're great for the game.

Godich: Agreed. And anybody who can post a triple bogey and still win has what it takes to get to the next level. He has won in each of the last five years. That says something.

Bamberger: Absolutely he has another level in him. He's just learning to play, truly. He has horrible distance control. He's wildly inconsistent as a putter. He's so much fun to watch and listen to. He could win a Masters when he gets it all together. He can be a Vijay, and he could be around for a long time because he's fit and has a range of interests and hobbies. I'm a huge fan.

Lipsey: I sure wish he played Stateside. He's as fun to watch as anybody, and a lively speaker too.

Evans: A few years ago we analyzed Alvaro's swing, and according to Jim Suttie, one of our Top 100 teachers, there is not a more athletic swinger of the golf club in the world.

Dusek: No one has more fun, or smiles more easily on the course, than Quiros. I watched him crush tee shots at Firestone using a persimmon driver two years ago (he'd never hit a wooden wood before), and he was giddy. He was laughing and joking, and everyone else on the range stopped to watch him blow the ball by them using a 30-year-old club.

Herre: Quiros is a freak, but he is in ascendance. Sort of reminds me of Bubba Watson, but with a more conventional swing. Still makes the big number now and then. I think we'll be hearing a lot more from him.

Wei: Quiros reminds me of [a] more eloquent, gregarious Dustin Johnson.,28136,2048870-3,00.html

Wordsworth the Cockatiel

...has arrived! The latest (and presumably, for a while, the last) of the family of animals in my apartment is named after either William the poet or his sister Dorothy the diarist, depending on its sex; the clerk at the store thought female, but I'll wait to hear what my vet says. I bought the cage and accessories first and set up the "real estate," then got the bird. Wordsworth is a beautiful gray and white cockatiel with orange cheeks and splendiferous long tailfeathers. Since she was hand-reared, she was immediately comfortable perching on my finger and liked it right away when I stroked her back; she bonded with me quickly and is very companionable. My elder cat Claire has barely taken notice of her arrival, and Wordsworth herself seems unconcerned by the other animals (including Benjamin the rabbit and Tugger the hedgehog). That's one advantage of her coming from a store -- there, she was surrounded by hubbub, so slight noises and such don't faze her at all. Like any healthy cockatiel, she is a lively, curious bird who loves to explore and play and is decidedly expressive, happy to make eye contact and to cock her head quite adorably. Her reaction to the change in her life seems to be, "Hey, this home and parent thing is awesome!"

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (Please, Please Turn It Off)

The key theater critics and their employers decided collectively to call Julie Taymor's bluff and review A Musical for the Misbegotten on the occasion of its fourth announced opening date, February 7. The opening had been postponed once more until March 15, but the theater assessment community wisely decided that enough is enough already, that there is a product that people are shelling out big money for, and it is time to review the damn thing. Taymor and her production team had cynically tried to exploit a traditional courtesy of theater, which is that a production isn't reviewed until its "opening night," to indefinitely delay actual professional write-ups of the show's content. That, as much as the series of injuries that has plagued the show, is making me keenly dislike Julie Taymor. Now that the critiques are in, predictably they are not kind. Jonathan Mandell at The Faster Times summarizes the carnage and provides links:

POSTSCRIPT: The Playgoer puts it all in context:

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Living Small

My parents, primarily my mother, raised me to enjoy a better life than they did, and you know what? -- I don't think I managed it. Let's just concentrate on the socio-economic aspects. My parents, a salesman and a nurse (who only worked sporadically until the divorce), were solid members of the burgeoning postwar American middle class. They bought a spanking new house with a huge yard in a pleasant suburb. They had three kids without thinking much about it. We had occasional family vacations. My dad bought a new car like clockwork every two years.

Now, to put it mildly, I am far better formally educated than my parents were; my mother struggled to make sure that I would be. But to what ultimate avail? I have never done, or felt myself able to do, most of what they did rather automatically. I've never owned property, never had my name on the deed. I've never been interested in having kids, but if I had been, I don't know when I would have managed it financially, and three would be incomprehensible! My vacations have been few and far between (and essentially solo), and I have never bought a new vehicle.

It could be that I am a failure of unique and historic dimensions; hey, I'm willing to entertain that possibility. Certainly I didn't always play my hand well. But the upshot is that I slipped out of the middle class, not recently but pretty much from the get-go after my finishing college in 1980, although I couldn't have realized it at the time. The Seventies, of course, was the decade when the ground-rules of the "American Dream" -- not well established, maybe they only really existed from 1945-1970 -- began to change. I caught that inverse wave with a vengeance (and graduated into a terrible economy -- the recession of 1980-1982 is now part of taught history).

So the notion of "living large" is laughable to me, and my occasional extravagances -- another book, another suit, a high-end beer I don't really need -- are puny in the scheme of things (which is not to say that I don't feel guilty about them sometimes). If I were ever to try to live large or recklessly, the fates would slap me down so hard that I would never forget it -- if I was still alive to think about it. The moments in my life when I have so much as edged towards living a little better, I have been humbled, badly; sometimes put back to square one for my impudence. No, living small is the only option for me. I have no real understanding of people who can live large and get away with it -- but I should, because I went to college with them, those already rich through their families, and those who became rich by making shrewd career decisions in the new meritocracy. You could triple my income and the level of my lifestyle, and I still wouldn't be remotely consequential in their context.

Part of the story of our times is how the perception has become ingrained that if you raise wages for the ordinary worker, it will wreck the economy, but if you deprive plutocrats of an nth part of their winnings -- say, a slightly smaller six-figure bonus? -- they will lose all incentive to perform (and yet what good they are performing, I generally couldn't tell you). It's like the two groups aren't even members of the same species anymore. One is doomed to live smaller and smaller, reduced to postage stamp scale; the other, in the words of James Howard Kunstler, is "bored beyond belief with wealth beyond imagining."

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Watching Classic Films

Just as I am tackling classic novels I should have read decades ago (Vanity Fair, Middlemarch), I am gradually trying to fill in cinema gaps as well. I am seldom if ever disappointed in my viewing. As I have written in my profile at LibraryThing, I am easy to please, although that is partly attributable to my pre-selecting my experiences carefully.

Lately I've been watching some of the DVDs I've picked up locally. I bought a box set of Kieslowski's Three Colours and watched the first film, Blue, which I thought was great. I've purchased a whole bunch of budget Chaplin DVDs and watched Monsieur Verdoux, which lived up to everything I had ever heard about it. This weekend I took in Almodovar's All About My Mother, and found it extremely satisfying. So much has been written about these films (including, very well, by my friend Robert Kennedy here) that I doubt I have much meaningful to add to their praise. I am, however, taking the trouble to write up notes on the obscure films noir I've been viewing, and will do the same for Westerns, because if you don't do that, those sorts of movies tend to blend together in the mind -- there are too many similarities of plot, casting, photographic styles.

Out of Step

The curator of the Something Beautiful photo-blog recently wrote:

I have learned the hard way that in some respects I’m pretty different from the majority of folks. I’ve found, over and over, that when I do the mental shadow-boxing exercise (i.e., “What would I do if I were in that person’s situation?”), I frequently come up with a result that bears little resemblance to what that other person actually winds up doing....I am an unmarried, childless, apartment-renter with an inexpensive car; I am compelled to be creative; I have had an unusually varied career.

To which I commented:

I think we must be constituted very similarly, because I could make checkmarks next to almost all the points you list! At 52, I also am single (quite happily; LTRs have not proven to agree with me); childless (unless you count pets, currently a cat and a rabbit); and a life-long renter. I’ve changed careers and jobs quite a bit, and although I’ve spent most of the past 16 years in education, even during that period I took a time-out to try commercial real estate brokerage for a couple of years. I’ve lived all over the U.S., and now I’ve come to Korea to teach ESL (at a private academy to start; later at a university, I hope).

Like you, I have come to realize that the factors that motivate most of my peers’ decision-making — marriages and romantic relationships, children, career management, home ownership, commitment to place, religion, investments — simply don’t exist for me in the same way. My life has always been essentially about my interests and enthusiasms, which range from the life of the mind generally, to my animals, to more epicurean and indulgent pleasures such as fine menswear and good beer.

Dick Cavett once complimented Edward Gorey for creating a completely individual lifestyle in a world in which most people, no matter what their original intentions, seem finally to capitulate to the norm. I’m hardly a Gorey, but I do feel some kinship, and I feel it equally with what you have written here.