Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Ghost Writer (2010)

My only observation on the Roman Polanski controversy has always been, that he would have done far better to take the consequences of his actions early. Evading that has given the matter a ghastly forty-year life that is much longer than the sentence he might have served.

But I will say this: The man is one of our giant film-makers. I watched The Ghost Writer last night and thought it was one of the best films in the paranoid thriller line since the glory days of The Parallax View and The Conversation. The artistry is complete across the board: direction, writing, acting, art direction, cinematography, music (an amazing score by Alexandre Desplat). It is interesting to note that the film cleaned up at the European Film Awards (Best Film, Director, Screenplay, Score, and very welcomely, Actor for Ewan McGregor). It got no Oscar nods at all, but I think that is a function of its being an early 2010 release (and perhaps of having an inept publicist). If it had been released in December, I think that it would have been right in the mix; Pierce Brosnan and Olivia Williams would have deserved looks in the supporting acting categories.

The McGregor and Williams roles were originally slated for Nicholas Cage and Tilda Swinton. I think McGregor is more apt, more naive, than Cage would have been. Swinton would have been just as good as Williams; the role is in her wheelhouse. However, it is exciting for Williams's career that she got to play it; I'll bet she has received lots of calls from directors and casting specialists since the movie came out.

The twilight atmosphere of the film, with the bleak German North Sea island Sylt standing in for Martha's Vineyard, is perfectly matched to the unnerving aspects of the story (or in one word: Creepy!). Although, as with almost any movie thriller, I do have a few plot questions (which Robert Harris's source novel might answer), the story stays on target, culminating in a genuine surprise in the last scene, and one of the greatest final shots ever, an image that both Hitchcock and Antonioni might have admired.

Ebert Presents At the Movies

The first two episodes of the new Ebert Presents At the Movies are up at the show's website, but it is a real struggle for me to watch the streaming videos, because even though I again have a U.S. IP address, so it's not an international issue, the videos halt and stutter every couple of seconds. However, from what I can make out, I doubt this version of At the Movies is long for this world. Christy Lemire of the Associated Press is much better than I expected her to be; she is very sharp on the repetitive humdrum aspect of unambitious movies, maybe because she has been reviewing longer than her partner. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, on the other hand, is overplaying his boyish quality and is coming across as an uncritical softie, despite his bona fides as a cineaste. Way too many thumbs-up! There is a disbelieving glint in Lemire's eye when she looks at Vishnevetsky that telegraphs to the audience, I can't believe they paired me with a high school student! -- and that may seem ungenerous, but now that I've seen the show, I can't say as I blame her. It reminds me of the scenes from In the Loop when the Brits are agape at the American boy wonder bureaucrats. There was a ton of discussion of Ebert's plucking a sharp young writer from the blogosphere and giving him this kind of platform -- Vishnevetsky was a last-minute replacement for the experienced Elvis Mitchell -- and it was indeed a fresh, gutsy move that might have worked, but unless the kid develops on camera awfully fast, the blogosphere is not going to come out of this looking good.

POSTSCRIPT: My cynical suspicion is that Vishnevetsky was told in no uncertain terms that if he was only going to champion Rivette films and the like, he couldn't have the gig; so he is over-compensating by defending Ashton Kutcher and Seth Rogen movies against an industry player who understands far better than he does why such films get made. His approach is naive and wide-eyed -- it strikes me as a little too wide-eyed. The enthusiasm is real, but there are perils to conducting your education in public. I know that I wince at most of what I wrote before the age of 30 -- at the tone, not so much the opinions themselves (my tastes haven't changed much).

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Cold Weather (2010)

Dennis Lim has written a very nice background piece on Aaron Katz's Cold Weather for the New York Times:

I still have to catch up with the whole mumblecore thing, but this sounds like a film I could like a lot. And a young film-maker who counts Robert Altman, P.G. Wodehouse, Carl Barks, and Preston Sturges among his influences has already made a beeline to my approval.

By the way, in February the Times is putting up a paywall and pieces like this will probably no longer be accessible. Most content at the Wall Street Journal and the Times (U.K.) is already blocked off in that way. It's too bad to lose the NYT, but I'm not paying; there are too many other sources of information on the Internet. I understand the difficulties of making money in the Internet era, but I don't think paywalls are a viable solution; you lose 95% of your eyeballs.

Pynchon, Gaddis, and Others

Whether or not you a reader of the great (and reclusive) novelists Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis, the tale spun in this timeline:

and this Wikipedia article:

is completely mesmerizing. I think it would make an excellent movie if told in an appropriate style (Charlie Kaufman! The Fates are calling you!), but anyone who attempted to make such a movie while Pynchon is still alive would undoubtedly get sued by him. However, the courts generally protect dramatic representations of "public figures," which Tom is whether he likes it or not, so I say to any inspired party, have at it! This material is simply too splendid to resist.

Basically, what is involved here is a heap of mysterious people and personae. Pynchon is even more secretive than the late Gaddis (who loosened up) was, but neither has been an open book. From the get-go, some took the two to be the same person. "Jack Green," Gaddis's early champion, was also believed by some to be an alter-ego of Gaddis, although it would appear he was actually a new identity of a rebellious actuary. As time went on, a minor beat poet, Tom Hawkins, becomes fascinated by these identity questions, and in a series of letters published in Northern California newspapers in the Eighties under the pseudonym "Wanda Tinasky," purportedly a bag lady, he asserted that Pynchon, Gaddis, and Green were identical. Pynchon revealed an extensive familiarity with that part of Northern California in his 1990 novel Vineland, which led some to finger him as "Tinasky." Meanwhile, the increasingly destitute Tom Hawkins bludgeoned his wife Kathleen to death and then, after living with the body for a few days, set fire to their house and drove himself off a cliff. That would have meant the end of Wanda Tinasky, too, except that by now there were Tinasky copycats, a fact that should have pleased Gaddis, whose massive first novel The Recognitions is organized around the theme of forgery, and Pynchon, whose obsessive interest in paranoia is evident everywhere in his work.

It took a lot of effort by literary scholars Steven Moore and Don Foster to suss out all this bizarrerie, and of course they become fully-fledged characters in the story, which is the equal of a Gaddis or Pynchon novel.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Too Big to Fail

I just found out about this, an upcoming HBO movie about the financial crisis, with a killer cast directed by Curtis Hanson:

Paul Giamatti ... Ben Bernanke
Topher Grace ... Jim Wilkinson
Billy Crudup ... Timothy Geithner
James Woods ... Dick Fuld
William Hurt ... Henry Paulson
Matthew Modine ... John Thain
Bill Pullman ... Jamie Dimon
Tony Shalhoub ... John Mack
Cynthia Nixon ... Michele Davis
Dan Hedaya ... Barney Frank
Michael O'Keefe ... Chris Flowers
Kathy Baker ... Wendy Paulson

I love it when HBO makes these "contemporary issues" movies; it's a legitimate form, and they are very, very good at it. If you haven't seen Recount, about the 2000 Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision, do yourself a favor and rent it. It's got another rockin' cast: Kevin Spacey, Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr., Laura Dern (brilliant as Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris), John Hurt, Denis Leary, Bruce McGill, Tom Wilkinson.

As for Curtis Hanson, I've been hoping for a worthy follow-up to the great L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys, and this new film could be it.

Women and Television

[Conversations developed at The Blackboard about actresses Donna Reed and Elizabeth Montgomery.]

Women migrated to television because the career opportunities were becoming greater, and the age discrimination was somewhat less. The era of female-headlined movies starring Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Barbara Stanwyck was passing, and the studios were not showing much interest in launching new stars of that type. So Donna Reed and Lucille Ball and Eve Arden and Elizabeth Montgomery were never the stars until they had their own TV shows, and all were over 30 when their shows began; Ball and Arden were over 40. Actresses' careers were ending at 30 in those days.

It's an interesting sociological question, why the Thirties (especially the pre-Code years) were more proto-feminist than the immediate postwar period. But they definitely were. Actresses carried films (and were expected to) in a way that became much less common after 1950. Television brought women back to the fore; Lucille Ball single-handedly had a lot to do with that.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Oscar Blogging

Me and my posse, we follow the film awards, the festivals, all of it. We discuss, we dig in, we have a good time. I say this up front because I don't want to be misunderstood when I say that many Oscar bloggers, such as Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere, have completely lost their minds. This truly is a matter of degree. An unreasonably intense concentration on awards puts the films themselves, and any merits they might have, totally in the shade. What matters to the over-committed is whether you are on the right side or the wrong side. This year, for Wells, that boils down to whether you are a supporter of The Social Network, in which case you are with the forces of light, or The King's Speech, in which case you have cast your lot with the forces of darkness. I mean, it is completely ridiculous; it is also, in a weirdly entertaining way, something to behold. The night before the nominations, Wells was in a funk:

I don't care about listing Oscar nomination predictions. I've been feeling Phase One fatigue for three or four weeks now.

To which one commenter sensibly replied:

"Phase One fatigue" might be partially due to the fact that you've been doing hour-long Oscar podcasts about this little awards show for some-teen odd weeks now....These things should never even be thought about until December 1st -- at the very earliest -- even by film critics/journalists. What's the upside? You start burning out on it right around (or long before) the race actually starts actually becoming relevant.

And another accurately noted that Wells has been covering "every fart of the awards season" (in hyperventilating fashion, to boot). The guy, and others like him, need to get a grip.

The truth is, almost no one cares about the Oscars one week after they have been given. The "pre-hash" has eaten up the event, which in any case is a perfect example of a pseudo-event as defined by Daniel Boorstin years ago in his classic study The Image ("an event or activity that exists for the sole purpose of the media publicity and serves little to no other function in real life"). Pseudo-events can be fun -- I don't want to get too superior about it -- but for a fair number of people (Oscar bloggers, MTV watchers, Green Bay Packers fans), they have come to supersede reality.

Stevie Wonder

I had to share this vintage clip of Stevie Wonder singing "You and I," a love ballad so instantly classic he might just as well have inscribed it directly in the Great American Songbook.

More LibraryThing Book Notes

David Grann, The Lost City of Z -- This makes for a decently absorbing read while you are going along, but is finally a weak effort, because there are no new revelations and the significance of the story is not clear. Percy Fawcett's 1925 expedition into the Amazon was an old-fashioned, underfunded, under-equipped fiasco with an unscientific goal. The "lost city" theory was unworthy of a man of intelligence, but fits in perfectly, as Grann does admit, with Fawcett's spurious spiritualism. So to me this came across more as a tale of stupidity than a tale of bravery.

There is a frisson of uneasiness to be had from the notion of the jungle swallowing so many explorers, both Fawcett's party and many of the subsequent expeditions that tried to find him. But as a functional modern magazine writer, Grann brings no sense of poetry or awe to the narrative. The chapters that describe his own adventures are especially blah and reveal him as an inadequate researcher. He gets all worked up over seeing a supposedly inaccessible document that was already available in English translation and that you or I could have found. He offers a very sketchy summary of some interesting modern scholarship concerning the Amazon region in the last chapter that seems meant to vindicate poor Fawcett, and to justify Grann's own superfluous trek into the jungle, but it does not accomplish either task convincingly, and so brings the book to a flat conclusion.

Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City -- This best-seller has a surefire double subject (a World's Fair and a serial killer!) and is quite absorbing; but I think that by historians' standards, Larson cheats (which is to say, makes stuff up, including dialogue and descriptions of people's observations and thought processes) in the interest of providing a novelistic narrative. So although I enjoyed the book reasonably well, I do not respect the author's journalistic integrity. He takes the easy way out time and again.

There is a kind of social capital to be had from reading this sort of non-fiction bestseller because others will have read them or at least heard of them. But there is an enormous variability in their quality, and this is at best one of the middling ones.

Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End -- I persisted to the end of this long novel despite wanting to give up every few pages. I can't say that I was rewarded for my efforts, although I will admit that Ferris's ending is graceful. Long before that, however, all the authorial tricks have worn out their welcome: the first person plural narration, the quirky-but-flat characters, the half-hearted nods at magical realism (such as the business with the totem pole, or the adult who sits in a McDonald's play pit), the sentimental mid-section about cancer. I wish I had been more ruthless and stopped reading.

Chang-rae Lee, Native Speaker -- This is the first book in a long while that I have decided not to continue. I read through page 81 of the 349-page paperback edition, and nothing about the novel was commanding my interest. Since I am usually a very persistent reader and a fairly easy reader to please, I only abandon a book with reluctance. But I am also sensitive to my time being wasted, and there are books I persisted through that I wish I had ditched, such as Joshua Ferris's overrated Then We Came to the End. When you are always reading classic novels, as I am, sometimes the contemporary novels you pick up seem quite weak by comparison (whether that is fair or not). You would like to ask the author, Why are you trying to re-invent the wheel? What you are doing has been done much better already. As it happens, I started Hermann Hesse's bewitching Demian while I was struggling with Native Speaker. Both are first-person novels of reminiscence, and yet what a world of difference! Demian is electrifying, but Native Speaker is dull and aimless. Even the briefest portraits in Demian are sharp and memorable, while all the characters in Native Speaker are lifeless and unengaging.

The saddest part is, I am unlikely to try any other books by the acclaimed Chang-Rae Lee; there are just too many other writers I need to attend to.

Donald E. Westlake, Memory -- One of the finest existential novels in any language, and a truly great (albeit upsetting) reading experience. It is sobering to think that this manuscript couldn't find a publisher in the Sixties and that we only have it in front of us now because of the persistence of Westlake's friend Lawrence Block in bringing it to light after his death. This is the best book that Hard Case Crime will ever publish.

David J. Schow, Gun Work -- Despite a Mexican setting, which I generally like, I found this hyper-violent, rather unbelievable crime novel not very much to my taste, and I wish I hadn't wasted my time finishing it. I enjoy what one Amazon reviewer wrote, that the book is for "gun aficionados who enjoy tales of extreme violence unencumbered by character development or coherent plotting....One would really have to have an in depth knowledge of armaments in order to fully appreciate or even care about the detailed specs given each and every time a new weapon is introduced."

Suzanne Simons, Master of War: Blackwater USA's Erik Prince and the Business of War -- Erik Prince's conservative, militaristic, Navy SEAL man-of-action persona is so extremely remote from mine that he has a certain fascination for me, and this informative account of his life and dealings satisfied my curiosity. It does not sledgehammer him by any means, but it is still a skeptical take.

Brett Halliday, Murder Is My Business -- I have seen episodes of the Michael Shayne television show, but this is the first Shayne novel I have read. I greatly enjoyed it for its crispness and clever plotting, and will certainly want to read more books in the series. (The original "Brett Halliday," Davis Dresser, wrote the first 28 titles, including this one.) Shayne is a manly, blunt, red-headed detective, not given to irony or angst; and Halliday's prose style is similarly efficient and unfancy. This story is set in El Paso, and I liked the Texan and Mexican local color.

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

POSTSCRIPT: Bits of this material have appeared at PMD before, but there is no harm in the occasional re-run.

LibraryThing Book Notes

I try to keep these pithy -- not Twitterific, but punchy in the manner of the great rock critic Robert Christgau.

E.T.A. Hoffmann, The Devil's Elixirs -- This classic Gothic novel about a mad monk is completely deranged, and I mean that in a good way. Don't ask too many questions, just hang on for the ride. When you finally get to the lengthy explanation of who was really who, realize that you will need a PhD in genealogy to understand it. Sample dialogue: "You mad fools, will you tempt the providence that passes judgment on guilty sinners?"

Blaise Pascal, Pensees -- Pascal the wide-ranging thinker and crisp aphorist is, as another reviewer here has well put it, "electrifying"; Pascal the religious apologist is of a more historical interest, but still worth reading. I am very happy with A.J. Krailsheimer's Penguin edition, and strongly recommend it. This is a classic that no educated reader should miss.

John Lange (Michael Crichton), Zero Cool -- As described very well by other LibraryThing reviewers, this is a silly book -- a quick read, but even those few hours constitute a waste of time. I generally trust Hard Case Crime editor Charles Ardai's taste, but sometimes he does let me down. It is also curious that there is no indication given that this is a slightly updated version of the text, augmented by the contemporary "video interview" sections mentioned by another commenter. Were there any other changes made? The reprint is therefore suspect from a scholarly point of view, whereas in the past I have always felt I could trust Hard Case Crime's bibliographic integrity.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales -- It will take me a long time to complete this project, since as usual I am juggling many books at once. But let me say this: Every educated reader with an interest in Chaucer should tackle the full original in Middle English. It has a flavorfulness that is unmatchable. I recommend the massive Penguin edition for its amazing introduction, vocabulary footnotes, explanatory endnotes, and complete Middle English glossary; it truly offers everything you need to make this journey with the Canterbury pilgrims.

Howard Pyle, The Wonder Clock -- Completely charming, both the stories and the illustrations. In some ways this is an early example of a "mash-up," because Pyle borrows and re-combines story elements from many sources. Bright young readers and adults should enjoy the book equally. The stories are good for reading aloud, too; the droll repetitive patterns (many groups of three!) are very effective orally.

Elif Batuman, The Possessed -- The subtitle sounds irresistible: "Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them." And the book starts engagingly, but by the time I reached the halfway point, I realized that it was simply a cobbling together of magazine pieces with no through-line. Batuman writes in a Bright Young Thing tone (unfortunately rather generic), and her humorous phrasings are occasionally reminiscent of Daniel Kalder, who also writes about Russia. But Kalder really something to say; Batuman does not, and her attitudinizing eventually becomes wearisome. When she states with mock rue that after her summer in Uzbekistan, she was done with poetry, "the Caucasus, the Russian East, and the literatures of the peripheries," all I could think was, who really cares what you are done with? To be fair, there are glimmers of interest scattered throughout the book that, although they don't amount to a lot, perhaps barely justify the time a Russophile might spend reading it: a clear account of Rene Girard's literary theory in relation to Dostoevsky's novel "Demons," for example. So at best, and not wanting to come down too hard on a young writer who could develop, I give this a borderline recommendation.

Dolores Hitchens, Sleep with Strangers -- As has been widely noted in the hardboiled community, this is an excellent classic P.I. novel. Detective Jim Sader of Long Beach, California, makes a sharp study in male mid-life crisis (probably a somewhat worse experience in the Fifties, when 40 was our 55). All that keeps this novel from five-star status is that the solution to the mystery is not strongly related thematically to the other concerns of the story.

Bram Stoker, Dracula -- Bram Stoker makes brilliant use of the technique of multiple perspectives perfected by Wilkie Collins in The Woman in White. Anyone with the slightest interest in horror or vampire fiction has got to read this seminal novel, of course, but they may be surprised by how little Count Dracula is "onstage": after the lengthy opening sequence in Transylvania, he barely appears again until the final pages. If a book that helps to define its genre is a classic, then this is definitely one.

Andrew Smith, Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth -- It has become all too common for non-fiction narratives to be written in the form of the author's "quest for the story" (and, coincidentally, for him/herself). Probably the whole format ought to be banished for anything but extremely occasional use; but I have to admit that Andrew Smith's Moondust offers an occasion where it works, because some of the surviving moonwalkers were quite hard for Smith to snare, and their elusiveness is actually central rather than incidental. (Where have you gone, Neil Armstrong?) The quest for the story here is fascinating, step by step, and the material that comes out of it is enthralling. A book justifies its structure by delivering the goods, and Moondust does just that.

Yann Martel, Life of Pi -- This novel is moderately entertaining for a while, but disintegrates badly toward the end and winds up being not much more than a fluently written time-waster with unrealized literary pretentions. The Man Booker Prize? Really? Who were the judges that year?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Thoughts on Writing

If the writing comes to me, I can wake up with a post in my head, and it is just a matter of setting it down, and disseminating it quickly (which seems to be necessary to me) in the appropriate venues -- depending on the case, this blog, my private web-group, and/or one of the public boards I participate in. Although I am pretty old-fashioned in many ways, the Internet seems tailor-made for my writing style for several reasons: I am primarily a writer of notes, not essays; I am a short-take guy; and I love to publish instantly (but also to tinker slightly with wordings and to add further thoughts after the initial publication). The conditions haven't been so propitious for a writer of that type since the days of the 17th and 18th century broadsides coming out of English and French coffee-houses.

However, I simply refuse to go on Twitter. Short is OK, but longer is good too, as the occasion demands, and I will not submit to a 140-character limit.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Joe Pyne

Speaking of broadcast hosts, the minor legend Joe Pyne (1924-1970) was cut from an entirely different cloth. Robert Kennedy shared his memories of Pyne with me:

I certainly remember Joe Pyne on the radio as a kid, who was a John Bircher and a right wing lunatic, but very erudite, so he didn't sound like a lunatic until he lost his temper and started calling everybody jerks. But he ventured in the likes of Morton Downey Jr. These guys just loved to argue and yell a lot, rudely calling people names, regularly inviting Nazi's or the Ku Klux Klan on his show during the height of the 60's Civil Rights movement, supposedly to offer equal time, all of which grows tiresome after awhile...

I caught up with Pyne much later, long after his death. I've watched a lot of clips of his television show on YouTube, and find him kind of mesmerizing, and certainly historically important, because he is so clearly one of the sources for every shock jock who followed him. Smoking killed him at 45, but I think maintaining that kind of projected anger day in and day out probably marked him as an early casualty as well. He often looked as if he was about to explode; no one can be that way for long without a cost to themselves.

This is part of a teaser reel about Pyne's "fascinating forum":

Here is Pyne debating a hippie and LSD fan. Frankly, this "totally aware" walking cliche makes for an easy target:

Pyne, in a more suave and relaxed mood, banters with the dithering Helen Gurley Brown:

Unlike a total blowhard such as Rush Limbaugh, Pyne has what seems to me a weirdly appealing side -- if you could imagine an intelligent, well-dressed, and carefully coiffed Archie Bunker, this might be him. Of course, the passage of time takes away the immediacy of a provocateur's affronts, and leaves a nostalgic residue instead. Limbaugh and Glenn Beck will be interesting historical artifacts, too.

POSTSCRIPT: I wondered about the hippie, and figured that with a distinctive name like Lars Kampmann, he might be researchable. It turns out that he is a minor historical figure (which is more of a historical figure than I will ever be). Here is an obituary:

Lars Kampmann, 45, of Redwing, died of AIDS Thursday, Mar. 16, 1989. Mr. Kampmann was a founder of the Anonymous Artists of America and maintained a residence at the AAA Ranch in Redwing. At the time of his death he was staying at the home of friends in San Diego, CA. Born in Denmark, Mr. Kampmann was a multi-talented actor, director and musician, as well as the author of the book "I have AIDS", which was recently published in Denmark. Many Huerfanos will remember his direction of the play "Huerfano", an oral history. Along with Adrienne Berkun he operated "Northern Lights Cafe" in La Veta. Before his illness he was an active volunteer for The Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York City. A friend wrote, "To those of us who were close to him, Lars was the Most steadfast and loyal friend. His dignity and courage was unswerving and inspiring. He was never boring, and to the end he was uncomplaining and more concerned for his loved ones than for himself. Integrity, compassion, gentleness, enthusiasm, humor, courage, selflessness and impeccable style were his in abundance. Lars lived fully and without hesitation, he had a tremendous love of life and made no compromises. We relied upon him for all of these things and much more. He will be greatly missed."

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Lively Art of Conversation

Sometimes the best way to employ a medium is not to particularly exploit its qualities, counter-intuitive as that seem. Television can thrive on pure talk, what Chicago Sun-Times columnist Irv Kupcinet called "the lively art of conversation," without any visual flourishes. Consider two Chicago classics, The Sportswriters on TV and Kup's Show itself (both of which were nationally syndicated). The former, which ran on cable from 1985 to 2000, consisted of nothing more than a bunch of Chicago-area sportswriters (including the great Rick Telander) sitting around a table jawing about sports. That was it. It was positively anti-visual, but it was also mesmerizing.

Kup's Show, hosted by Kupcinet from 1959 to 1986, was in a classic talk show format that, unless I am missing someone, only Bill Maher has cultivated recently: You invite interesting people on and encourage them to talk about all kinds of subjects, not just to you the host, but to each other. Dick Cavett and Merv Griffin also used to do this very well. But, unfortunately, it was the Johnny Carson Tonight Show model that "stuck" -- host-centric, and relentlessly promotional on the part of the guests. I admire Carson as a comedian and a skillful "driver" of his program, but he did the genre no favors by eliminating the free conversational aspect.

Matt Zoller Seitz just wrote a positive and insightful piece on Maher, but did not especially highlight this aspect of his hosting practice, which I think is important to notice:

My friend Robert Kennedy and I agree that the endlessly amusing and original John Waters could host a "lively art of conversation"-type show brilliantly if he wanted to take that project on; naturally, Maher has had Waters as a panelist on Politically Incorrect and Real Time a number of times. If anyone wanted to try emulating Kup, Cavett, and Griffin, I would truly be up for it. (Charlie Rose has great people on, but not in an open group format, and although a smart, well-informed guy, he is a bit of a starry-eyed suck-up, really not all that different from the lowbrow Larry King.)

I find it interesting that one of the philosophical beliefs that Maher and John Waters share is that it is incumbent upon us all to become smarter people. Thus Maher's "Do you read?" comment quoted by MZS, and Waters' insistence, repeated again in his latest book, that we should all read the hardest books we can lay our hands on. Dick Cavett is an incredible reader, and although one may not think of Merv Griffin as an intellect, in fact he was a very smart guy, one of the best businessmen in Hollywood, and, worth noting, the creator of the game show Jeopardy!, one of the rare post-50s television shows that really celebrates intellect. Griffin actually brought philosopher Bertrand Russell on his show to discuss the Vietnam War, which is a Maher-like move even though Griffin's and Maher's hosting personalities couldn't be more different.

So it seems that a high level of self-education and the cultivation of the lively art of conversation go hand-in-hand.


I was checking out a fashionable businessman's photoblog, and one detail gave the lie to his carefully constructed "hot young executive" vibe. He works in a cubicle. Granted, it is a neatly arranged cubicle, but still -- a cubicle. The advent of the cubicle was the death of dignity in corporate life.


Beware of news reports that seed their own backlash -- pseudo-stories, manufactured controversies, obvious hype. The backlash is just part of the loop. Even "Is this a story?" becomes a story. "Reporting the controversy" when the controversy was concocted is almost as reprehensible as creating it. And this is 75% of the news these days.

Not Finishing Books

Although I generally believe in persevering with books to the end, I have had some experiences lately that made me decide that I should allow myself the luxury of abandoning certain books if they have not engaged me after 75 pages or so. Almost all of my blah reads are contemporary novels (including crime novels). When you read a lot of classics as I do, the thin, unsatisfying quality of many current fictions -- even highly lauded ones --is glaringly apparent. If I am reading your book side-by-side with a novel by Dostoevsky or Dickens, yours had better be pretty good, or it is going to look very bad!

Joshua Ferris's intermittently clever Then We Came to the End, for example, became penitential as it went along, and I really had to force myself to finish it. I will admit that there was a mild pay-off to this effort in the form of a lovely ending, but long before that, all the authorial tricks wore out their welcome: the first person plural narration ("we" did this and "we" did that), the quirky-but-flat characters, the half-hearted nods at magical realism (such as some unbelievable business with a totem pole, and the story about an adult who sits in a McDonald's play pit), the sentimental mid-section about cancer. I could not reconcile the high praise the book received with my assessment of it as, at best, a middling effort.

Another painful book to get through was David Schow's violent, preposterous thriller Gun Work in the Hard Case Crime series. As a shrewd Amazon reviewer put it, "Unfortunately its appeal is limited to a very distinct niche audience. Specifically gun aficionados who enjoy tales of extreme violence unencumbered by character development or coherent plotting...One would really have to have an in depth knowledge of armaments in order to fully appreciate or even care about the detailed specs given each and every time a new weapon is introduced."

Yann Martel's Life of Pi was a quick and undemanding read that I wasn't tempted to abort, but it didn't add up to much in the end. (The Man Booker Prize? Really? Who were the judges that year?) Zero Cool by "John Lange" (Michael Crichton), also in Hard Case Crime, is an extremely silly book but also zipped by.

So, with those disappointments in mind, I dropped Chang-Rae Lee's acclaimed Native Speaker after 81 pages because I found it dull and aimless, and it was boring the pants off me -- no story to speak of, affectless narration, insubstantial "characters" (really just names on a page). Because I am living in Korea, it is not exactly news to me how rigid first-generation Korean immigrants in America might be, and also not difficult to guess what effect that might have on their offspring ("Am I Korean? Am I American?" and so on). As a novel of the immigrant experience, the portion of Native Speaker that I completed did not hit a single unsurprising note.

More recently I'm in the process of being unimpressed by Leighton Gage's Brazil-set crime novel Blood of the Wicked, which is mechanical and uninspired so far. I haven't been able to get on with this one because it's in a box in storage just now (along with some other books in progress that I wasn't able to bring on the plane to Korea). Probably I will finish it eventually because it is not too too bad, and the effectiveness of a crime novel does have a lot to do with how the author pulls off the denouement. I'll give Leighton Gage one chance to show me his endgame moves.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


A blogger whom I otherwise admire included this passage in a recent post:

It’s impossible to anticipate, before you have children, the range of things you will give up for them and because of them. Of course, there are many much greater things you gain, but sometimes surely all parents have wondered where that other person, the one they used to be, has gone – along with that other life they used to lead!

That "of course" is doing a lot of rhetorical work there, and I took exception to it in a comment. The "of course" seems to indicate the author's belief (but see my Update, below) that it is self-evidently true that there are "much greater things that you gain" by having children than by not having them; therefore, to remain childless makes you foolish or incomplete. Well, I pointed out, there are many of us who did not find it at all impossible to anticipate the things we might have to give up for and because of children; and who decided, on that basis as well as others, never to have any. Both the natalist and anti-natalist positions can have merit at the micro level, the individual level; given our increasing environmental concerns, the anti-natalist position has perhaps rather more merit at the macro level -- in other words, the planet could probably stand having fewer people. However, as far as the decision to have children, live and let live, I say (well, up to a point; I do have it in for those "Quiverfull" Protestants who are having 18 or 19 kids and then making reality shows about it).

There is a subconscious bigotry against the childless which is all too common, and that many who remain childless have to spend a good deal of energy enduring. It should stop. To the possible comeback that the blogger's comment was merely casual and not meant to carry weight, I would reply that she is a literary scholar who analyzes tiny juxtapositions of words for meanings that their authors probably did not "intend," and it is not unfair to scrutinize her own words as closely.

UPDATE: The blogger in question did finally respond graciously to my objection:

Patrick, you’re right about that “of course”–it misleadingly suggests I take as a general position something that I meant purely autobiographically, that is, in my own experience of parenting the things I have gained have outweighed the losses.

I am very glad to have that clarification. I have slightly revised my post here, but have left it up rather than taking it down, because the underlying issue is an interesting one.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Korean Christianity

In my private web group, my friend Robert Kennedy commented on the treatment of Korean Christianity in Lee Chang-dong's film Secret Sunshine. I responded:

You have Korean Christianity and the "everpresent cheerful smile" well-pegged. It is something of a national joke, because even though Christians are numerous, non-Christians run for cover when they are around. Christian proselytizing, although seemingly sunny and benign, is intense, and not just for Jehovah's Witnesses anymore, although they too are plenty active here (and by "here" I really mean "here," as in the walkway outside my apartment). Frankly, I have never encountered a variety of religion that is so resolutely simple-minded as Korean Christianity. I have one student whose personal relationship with Jesus, described exhaustively in class every day, is reminiscent of a child's relationship with his imaginary friend. Or have you met Harvey, the six-foot rabbit standing next to me? Like that.

Another student told me that, if I was accosted by a Korean Christian, as I surely would be, I should say that I am "busy, or a Buddhist." Then she paused. "On second thought, say that you are busy. They will not believe that you are a Buddhist."

A Word on Teaching

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece in one of its usual veins, with academics fretting about student non-engagement and non-preparation; in this particular case, their frequent failure to complete, or even try, assigned reading. I commented:

The real “answer” to so many sincerely troubled pieces here at the Chronicle is the same: Teaching is futile, and you are operating in an existential void, so get used to that. Edward Gibbon said it perfectly more than 200 years ago: “The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.” You will never “reach” most of your students, although you have to act as though you could. Many of them will never “do the reading,” because for whatever reason, they have no interest in doing so. Many of them are taking the class to get credit for taking the class, not to learn the material the class is ostensibly meant to convey. Thus it ever was; thus it ever will be. So you, the teacher, should do what you think is best — knowing in your heart of hearts that it makes all too little difference — and get on with the business at hand. As with so much of life, the effective path is difficult to find precisely because there is no effective path; the important thing is to develop the proper Stoic attitude that will see you through.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Political Assassination

I have been thinking for quite a while that in our super-heated political and media culture, violence and assassinations were inevitable, and now it has happened. Although the Arizona event looks like political assassination from the right, I am quite certain that we will see violence from the left too; if I was Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, I wouldn't think that any amount of protection was enough.

Sarah Palin's connection to the event in Arizona is troubling:

Howard Fineman believes this incident will hasten the "end of access" to our public officials:

I applaud Sheriff Clarence Dupnik of Pima County for speaking truth at a difficult time:

When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And, unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry. It's not unusual for all public officials to get threats constantly, myself included. And that's the sad thing of what's going on in America. Pretty soon, we're not going to be able to find reasonable, decent people who are willing to subject themselves to serve in public office....People tend to poo-poo this business about all the vitriol that we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of doing that. That may be free speech. But it's not without consequences.

This kind of plain honesty is what is best about the American West, and in my eyes it makes Sheriff Dupnik a hero today.

POSTSCRIPT: More on Sheriff Dupnik here:

He has been fighting this fight publicly for a long time; today's remarks were in his personal tradition. We need more public servants like this.

POSTSCRIPT: Representative Giffords was the first Jewish representative elected from the State of Arizona. Suspect Jared Lee Loughner's Internet list of his favorite books includes Hitler's Mein Kampf. So it is possible that there is a hate crime dimension here.

A second suspect is currently being sought, and it will clearly be a long while before we know everything about this event. But some commentators are already spinning that because Loughner may have been a seriously disturbed individual, this was not a "political assassination." That is ridiculous. As Andrew Sullivan has already noted, "some mental illness is probably a key part of this. But this does not exonerate violent or excessive rhetoric from the far right or far left: it's precisely the disturbed who can seize on those kinds of statements and act on them. The danger of violent rhetoric, especially involving gun violence, is its interaction with the disturbed." And a public killing, or attempted killing, of a political figure is a political assassination, plain and simple. James Fallows is very helpful on that point:

POSTSCRIPT: Keith Olbermann was pretty amazing in a special Countdown tonight -- check out his "Special Comment: Violence and threats have no place in democracy."

Of course, none of the changes that Keith calls for so passionately will actually occur. 9/11 did not make us thoughtful, and Tucson will not make politics and media more civil. In fact, the "debate over the debate," the spin/counterspin, has already started with a vengeance in this instance. But it was a vintage moment for Olbermann, channeling Edward R. Murrow -- "Good night, and good luck." We will need the good luck.

POSTSCRIPT: This timeline of incitement is detailed and sobering:

Great Casts

I think that of all the films I have seen in my life, Glengarry Glen Ross has hands-down the most impressive cast. I mean, Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, Jonathan Pryce, and Alec Baldwin in the same movie? Lemmon said it was the greatest ensemble he had ever been a part of. The IMDB reports, and I have read often elsewhere, that "During filming, members of the cast who weren't required to be on the set certain days would show up anyway to watch the other actors' performances."

A close contender on the distaff side is Michael Cacoyannis's underrated version of Euripides' play The Trojan Women, with Katherine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, Irene Papas, and Genevieve Bujold all on fire. Pauline Kael memorably said, "The actresses come from different cultures, but they all bring intensity of life to the screen; that's what makes them stars. If a movie releases that intensity, [that's] what matters most."

Hillary Clinton

I was thinking today that the one Obama cabinet pick that has worked out impressively is Hillary Clinton; I think she is a really solid Secretary of State. Then I thought that when all is said and done, Clinton may well have to be considered the most significant woman ever to participate in American public life, even if she never becomes President. The combination of her impact and her actual power has scarcely been equaled, except perhaps by Sandra Day O'Connor.

Other women who might be considered in this context (I'm sure I'm missing some):

First Ladies: Abigail Adams, Dolly Madison, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Nancy Reagan

Office and Title Holders: Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, Jeannette Rankin, Madeleine Albright, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Condoleezza Rice

Journalists and Reformers: Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jane Addams, Ida Tarbell, Rachel Carson, Dorothea Dix, Rosa Parks, Helen Keller, Coretta Scott King, Clara Barton, Mother Jones, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Barbara Walters

Menswear Moment: 1950s Paperback Cover Fashion

Rex Parker at the excellent vintage paperback blog Pop Sensation posted this sensational cover by artist Eddie Chan (yet another subject for further research):

Everything about the guy's outfit is killer -- the hat, the shirt collar, the tie, the pocket square, the French cuffs, the drape of the suit, the patterned socks, the lace-up shoes. Wow.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Canon City (1948)

I watched the 1948 prison break film Canon City on Netflix, and found the visual strategies fascinating. There are at least four distinct shooting styles used: 1) standard semi-documentary, for the establishing scenes shot on location at the real prison; 2) expressionistic, with lots of extreme close-ups, interesting shadows, arty angles, and so on, for most of the dramatic dialogue scenes; 3) lyrical/poetic, for most of the outdoor scenes recreating the snowy night of the prison break (which occurred on December 30, 1947, in Colorado; the movie was in theaters exactly six months later, on June 30, 1948); 4) theatrical, mainly scenes in houses showing whole rooms and placement of people in proscenium-arch style (or close to it). I've seldom seen a more pictorially diverse Hollywood feature from that era. No sticking to one style for director Crane Wilbur! But I'm not sure whether this indicates aesthetic sophistication, or catch-as-catch-can incoherence.

The escapee played by Scott Brady, Jim Sherbondy, had a troubled subsequent career and was eventually memorialized in a 1976 paperback original biography, The Gray Walls of Hell by John Harvey Williamson, that goes for a pretty penny on the second-hand market.

Cry Vengeance (1954)

I watched this Mark Stevens noir -- truly a Mark Stevens noir, both directed by and starring him -- last night through Netflix. The film is listed as being in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio at the IMDB; however, it is not listed as being made in an anamorphic process (not so indicated in the film's credits either), and it looks perfect as shown by Netflix in the Academy ratio. So this must be one of many instances where the widescreen ratio was achieved by a soft matte during projection. Personally, I think that such films often look better in Academy ratio, although occasionally you'll encounter an instance (John Cassavetes' A Woman under the Influence comes to mind) where the director has failed to "protect" the bigger image, and boom mikes and such show up in the unmatted picture.

Anyway, Cry Vengeance. I quite enjoyed it, even though the plot and characters are standard-issue. Stevens shows himself an adept director visually -- the compositions are pleasing. But what really saves the film is the location shooting in San Francisco and Ketchikan, Alaska. I love the hermetic worlds that soundstage filming can create, but I also feel that genre films gained by "busting out" into the real world during the Fifties. It was a new frontier. And in my personal experience, perhaps because I was trained as a historian, I always find the semi-documentary aspect of such films to be completely riveting; my eyes feast on the simple revelation of what things looked like. I am pretty easy to engage, really, and a film made largely in such a piquant location as Ketchikan does the trick!

Based on the performances of his I have seen, Mark Stevens' specialty seems to have been psychological pain. The pop psychologist in me has to wonder what his life was like, because anguish just drips off the screen whenever he is up there. Stevens was a strikingly handsome guy, at least early on; from the standpoint of one gay man's taste -- mine! -- he rivals William Holden in the "handsome as it gets" category (although this was apparently partly achieved by darkening his red hair and covering his freckles). Yet I haven't often seen Stevens in self-confident or optimistic mode -- I should look at the musicals he made, I suppose -- and his characteristic gloom undercuts his good looks pretty thoroughly. In Cry Vengeance, in which he plays a psychotically vengeful "Mad Max" type (as with Max, his family has been killed), the pain manifests in facial scarring fx, as well as in the acting itself. Mark Stevens does not seem like a promising date.

Looking at his IMDB filmography, I notice among other marginal projects late in his career a 1969 drama intriguingly titled Cry for Poor Wally, also featuring Elisha Cook Jr. and Russell Johnson of Gilligan's Island fame, that seems to have disappeared completely. I haven't even been able to uncover what it was about. My life is strewn with "subjects for further research."

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

This Navy Scandal Is Overrated, If You Ask Me

In case you haven't caught up with the latest tempest in a teapot, a Navy Captain with the improbably delicious name of Owen Honors has been fired because of a series of videos he produced for the on-board amusement of sailors during his stint as executive office of the USS Enterprise in 2006 and 2007. Now, before anyone gets worked up over the breathless newspaper descriptions of the material in question (raunchy, explicit, controversial), they should take a look at the 12:09 video embedded in this Salon article (before it is blocked by someone):

OK, yes, there is definitely politically incorrect humor there, but nothing worse than you would see on a cable comedy show, and a lot less than you would get on the average episode of South Park. The tone of the video from where I sit is light-hearted, cheeky, and po-mo; frequently, on Captain Honors' part, self-deprecating and good-sportish; certainly not vicious -- this isn't another Abu Ghraib, folks. I laughed out loud at several bits. Is this particular video homophobic? Probably, but then so is Jimmy Kimmels's infamous "I'm Fucking Ben Affleck" (which I also laughed at, a bit uneasily) Does the video enforce straight male in-group norms, as anthropologist Lionel Tiger discusses in the Salon article? Undoubtedly. But the video is rather sophisticated and well-made for an amateur piece -- I liked the scene with the doubled Captain Honors -- and one could easily argue that what it is "saying" about gender and sexual orientation is not all that simple, and that it is hard to know whether the complexities are intentional or not. If we can credit that Jimmy Kimmel's intentions are ironic, why not Captain Honors'? There is always a lot of sexual tension aboard a Navy ship, and the video both reflects that and, in its clumsy, no doubt inappropriate way, tries to defuse it. I think it would be nice to keep a sense of proportion here; I don't believe this is a hanging offense, or worth ruining a Naval officer's career over. Slap him on the wrist and be done with it. Otherwise we're just sacrificing Captain Honors to the media's need for continuous scandal. If the facts are no worse than what we now know, I would sign a petition on his behalf.

Honesty does compel me to admit that Captain Honors is pretty hot, especially in his bathrobe, and you are welcome to read my defense of him in that light. Life is complicated, and none of our motives are quite pure.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

World for Ransom (1954) / Robert Aldrich's Actresses

By signing up for a VPN (Virtual Private Network) service, I was able to switch my Korea-located computer to an American IP address, which enabled to me to sign up for Netflix streaming again after a seven-month lapse. The first film I watched was Robert Aldrich's compositionally dazzling noir World for Ransom. This film serves as a warm-up for Kiss Me Deadly both thematically (Cold War/atomic bomb paranoia) and visually (many of the shots will show up again with minor variations in the later film, and also in the subsequent Attack). Gene Lockhart's villain Alexis Pederas is of exactly the same type as Dr. Soberin in Kiss Me Deadly -- he'll peddle the end of the world to the highest bidder.

The female lead in World for Ransom, Marian Carr, shows up as the lascivious Friday in Kiss Me Deadly. She disappeared from movies a couple of years later, and I can't turn up a thing about her subsequent history; she just "drops out," as is said of the frightened Ray Diker in Kiss Me Deadly. Carr made nine noir-related films in a brief career: San Quentin, The Devil Thumbs a Ride, Ring of Fear, Cell 2455 Death Row, When Gangland Strikes, The Harder They Fall, Nightmare, and the two for Aldrich.

Come to think of it, two other actresses in Kiss Me Deadly were semi-dropouts. Maxine Cooper married screenwriter Sy Gomberg and her career puttered out after 1960, with only three later bit roles; she died just last year. The German-born Gaby Rodgers worked in theater and (up to 1962) television, but had only one other feature credit besides Kiss Me Deadly, a hitherto-unknown-to-me 1953 crime film called The Big Break, directed by Joseph Strick (who was associated mainly with offbeat projects such as the film version of James Joyce's Ulysses; he died this year). The Big Break is described thus at the IMDB:

An independent film using the streets, buildings and parks of NYC as sets that was distributed by bottom-feeder Madison Pictures which means it was barely distributed at all, as Madison was mostly the supplier of changed-title PRC films made a decade or so earlier. Marty (James Lipton) is a shipping clerk in the garment district and a wise guy trying to cut corners and get by on angles, and not very good at it. He meets Helen (Gaby Rodgers) and decides to change his ways, but lack of patience in slow-progress jobs leads him to become involved with a neighborhood gang.

Yes, that James Lipton, the host of Inside the Actors Studio! Has anyone seen this film? The location shooting would seem to relate it to such other New York-based indie projects as Little Fugitive, Killer's Kiss, Shadows, Blast of Silence, and Who's That Knocking at My Door?, which were made with some regularity in the Fifties and Sixties.

Rodgers, who married the famed songwriter Jerry Leiber, is still alive as far as I know. She gave an interesting interview in 2002:


World for Ransom has a perfectly downbeat noir ending, in which Dan Duryea's protagonist discovers that the woman for whom he risked everything was lying to him all along, isn't the least bit interested in him, and, what's worse, isn't even interested in men:

In a shockingly vicious attack on Duryea, Carr slaps his face and informs him that she hates all men, finds them repellent, and that she only put up with [Patric] Knowles because the relationship was purely platonic. Stunned by her rejection of him, Duryea leaves Carr and wanders the streets of Singapore...The rather sensational lesbian overtones in Carr's character were even more explicit in the original version of the film, which opened with a lesbian kiss. This, of course, was cut by the censors.

The dialogue is a little oblique, but yeah, that's the gist of it. We might have guessed that something was up with the Marian Carr character from her odd name alone, "Frennessey" (with its suggestion of "frenetic"). (Names are very revealing in these early Aldrich films. Dr. Soberin in Kiss Me Deadly is indeed "soberin[g]," and as we see from the art dealer's prescription bottle, his initials are "G.E." As Jack Shadoian notes, General Electric's motto was "Progress is our most important product"!)

What makes this all especially interesting is that it is the only the beginning of Aldrich's career-long interest in the "twilight world" of lesbianism. Let us not forget that this is a director who can boast Sodom and Gomorrah in his filmography!

In the interview with Gaby Rodgers that I linked to earlier, she discusses Aldrich's concept for her "Lily Carver" character (whose name suggests a castrating man-hater):

[Rodgers] asked Aldrich how she was supposed to portray Lily Carver; he told her that he wanted her to play a lesbian! So she had her hair cut short and wore (as she described it), a "tuxedo." (That's that surprisingly modern-looking black suit with the white lapels.) She naturally asked if she had any scenes with other women, and Aldrich said no. So the short hair and the tux are all that indicate Aldrich intended for her to be a lesbian for this part.

A correspondent pointed out to me that there are also some lesbian overtones in Christina's initial dialogue with Mike in the car -- she throws out general criticisms of "man, wonderful man," and we learn later that she was rooming with another woman (the real Lily; the Gaby Rodgers "Lily Carver" is an impersonator). Christina's comments to Mike pick up where Frennessey's monologue at the end of World for Ransom leaves off, dovetailing the two films (released only a year apart) nicely. The possible relationship between Christina and Lily gives added poignance to the death of Christina's pet bird, since in another sense her "bird" (woman), Lily, does die pathetically. (Howard Hughes in his book Crime Wave points out that, despite the line of dialogue about Christina's roommate "letting" the bird die, it most likely died from radiation contamination in the apartment, sort of a canary in the uranium mine.)

Another thematic link between these two early Aldrich films: Lily's address to Mike Hammer at the end -- "Kiss me, Mike. The liar's kiss that says, I love you. You're good at such kisses..." -- recalls Frennessey's kisses of Mike Callahan, which are of precisely that type.

Aldrich went on in the Sixties to direct Kim Novak as a bisexual actress in The Legend of Lylah Clare, and then upped the ante with the most explicit mainstream lesbian picture to date (a pretty good one, too), The Killing of Sister George. He closed out his career in 1981 with ...All the Marbles, a comedy about lady wrestlers that, while not overtly lesbian, cannot be said to stint on woman-on-woman action.

On the other hand, as Alain Silver has pointed out, Aldrich probably made more films without any significant women characters than almost any other director:

Attack (no women at all)
The Flight of the Phoenix (no women at all)
The Dirty Dozen (no significant women)
Too Late the Hero (no women at all)
Ulzana's Raid (only very minor women characters)
Emperor of the North (one tiny female speaking part)
The Longest Yard (only minor women characters)
Twilight's Last Gleaming (only very minor women characters)
The Choirboys (only minor women characters)

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Concept of the "Hollywood Flop"

[A friend and I were discussing David Fincher and The Social Network, which I haven't seen yet, although I did remark, "Since The Social Network is about the hive-mind, there is a certain creepiness in a hundred critics and groups saying it's the 'movie of the year.' It's a Facebook movie with a lot of Facebook friends."]

I was enamored of Fincher after Zodiac, a little less so after Benjamin Button, which was slick and anonymous in a troubling way. A personal bias of mine is that I have a hard time forgiving directors for making "Hollywood flops" (such as Michael Mann's Public Enemies). They should make their own flops. I use an Altman standard there (but it might as well be a Godard standard, or a Kurosawa standard): If Altman made flops (and you won't get me to admit it, I even like Quintet), they were always his flops, not some studio's. An idea he had may not have worked out, but it was his idea, not a notion of what would sell. That was one reason why I found Martin Scorsese's The Aviator so alarming; It was a Hollywood flop from a director I would have thought was beyond one.

Admittedly, the Altman standard is a high standard, as most directors who work in or near mainstream American cinema will have a Hollywood flop or two: John Cassavetes had Big Trouble, Mike Figgis had Cold Creek Manor, Gus Van Sant had Finding Forrester (after which he found religion and went back to his indie roots), and so on. When Quentin Tarantino says that he cares about "the shape of his filmography," I find that both sharp and endearing, because I think what he means is: No Hollywood flops for me. All my films will be mine.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Interesting Exchange

Patrick Murtha: I am trying to pin down a recollection. In the early Seventies, one of the networks -- I believe it was ABC -- ran a summer series of classic black-and-white movies over several weeks. Two of them were definitely Portrait of Jennie and The Spiral Staircase. Can you or any of your readers help me identify which other films were screened in this series? It was my introduction to classic Hollywood as a young adolescent, and I have always been grateful for it.

RGJ, Webmaster, I am incredibly impressed with your memory. ABC aired a four-week series called The Movie Classics of David O. Selznick during the summer of 1971. This was the first time any of the films had been seen on television. Here are the four films that were shown and their air dates:

Tuesday, June 22nd, 1971

"The Spiral Staircase"
Tuesday, June 29th, 1971

"Portrait of Jennie"
Tuesday, July 6th, 1971

"Made for Each Other"
Tuesday, July 13th, 1971

Again, I am amazed that you were able to remember so much about this brief summer movie series.

Patrick Murtha: Thank you so much for the detailed information! Up till now, I have never met anyone who remembers the series besides me. I was 12 that summer, about to enter the 8th grade, and seeing these movies was a revelation that turned me into a lifelong fan of classic film. I was particularly blown away (pun intended!) by the storm climax of Portrait of Jennie.

As I recall, ABC's promotion of the series was vigorous and captured my attention. They made it a showcase event.

Little Richard

JazzWax: You taught Paul McCartney your signature falsetto "Wooo" in Hamburg, Germany, in 1962, before the Beatles were the Beatles.
Little Richard: Oh yes. Paul’s my buddy. He’s a real gentleman. He’s beautiful. The Beatles were barely known then. They opened for me at the Star-Club [laughs]. I had gotten the inspiration for that 'Wooo' from gospel singer Marion Williams.

JW: What about Elvis?
LR: Elvis was a good friend. One of the sweetest gentlemen. A good singer, especially with gospel.

JW: Which jazz musicians told you they enjoyed your music?
LR: Tab Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae—all of them. Peggy Lee used to come to hear me.

JW: So, did Little Richard kill jazz?
LR: Kill jazz? Oh no, no, no. I don’t believe rock 'n' roll could kill jazz. Nothing can kill jazz. Jazz is an original. Jazz is beautiful music. I don’t believe that. Jazz is still here. Real rock 'n' roll musicians love jazz. A real musician loves all types of music. 

The Future of Dressing Well

[Also from a few months ago, posted at Style Forum; still pertinent.]

I am concerned about many aspects of the future -- who isn't? -- and one of them, of minor import perhaps but still interesting, is the future of men dressing well. I am not concerned for the usual reasons put forward -- that younger men are not interested in sartorial matters (actually, some of them are) or that "business casual" has destroyed the culture of dressing well for work. Rather, I am concerned that we are not producing enough of the sort of men that will take to dressing well as professional statement, self-expression, and pleasurable hobby. It seems to me that the inclination to be a sartorialist depends on two main underpinnings besides sheer taste: Confidence, and money. Those in turn rest largely on the opportunity to make a good career for oneself, and that is where I think the problem lies. Certainly we are in an economic contraction now, and just as certainly we will "come out of it" eventually; but we may be emerging into a vastly different, just-in-time world where the possibility of a stable professional career is a mere dream for most. If there is no job to dress for, no job to feel pride in, and no job to provide the disposable cash for buying, the sartorial bent loses its relevance to many potential adherents.

My unscientific guess based on reading the menswear boards is that the sartorial habit is strongest among lawyers, bankers, and business executives, with a smaller but still significant appeal to certain academics, journalists, politicians, public officials, medical professionals, and "creative types." Unfortunately, there is a contraction of career opportunities going on in many of those fields; for example, the difficulties that current law school graduates are having in finding decent legal employment have been widely reported (and yet, such is the nature of human hopefulness, the number of law school applicants and attendees continues to go steadily up, further crowding the field for future job-seekers).

The economic prospects for university graduates -- not just in America, but around the world, such as in Korea where I am now living -- are, to put it as mildly as possible, not what they once were. The sartorial inclination does not absolutely require a sizable income, as many wily buyers who post here at Style Forum can attest -- but without doubt, sizable incomes are a great boon to the hobby and help it to thrive. If fewer men have access to that type of income, that undoubtedly has its effect on the way they dress. And if employment and incomes are not steady, but contingent and intermittent, that goes a long way toward destroying the confidence that dressing well expresses. If you feel like crap about your life, the panache of your tie knot doesn't matter much.

My personal experience is perhaps slightly instructive. Although I have three degrees from excellent universities, I never aimed for the big money, and I never made it. However, I definitely had stretches of time when I was quite comfortable, and therefore an enthusiastic consumer. In the past ten years, though, a series of changes in fortune variously attributable to mergers, business closings, shrinking commissions, governmental financial crises, etc., have economically marginalized me to the extent that I am now out of North America altogether, teaching ESL to adults at a private academy in Korea. My career prospects are much better in the world-at-large than at home, and I expect to be teaching at a Korean university after my current contract ends; going abroad seems to have been a smart move, and I am encouraged by that. Still, I am at the point right now when a hundred dollars is a lot of money to me, and that is just not a circumstance that encourages sartorialism.

However, at least I do have a job and some forward prospects. I suspect that there is a reasonably big group of los desaparecidos from the menswear boards who simply stop posting because the economy has taken them away. A lot of highly educated and experienced people that I know have taken a lot of whacks. The loss of confidence that I see in them is quite distressing. And an unconfident society is unlikely to be a sartorially distinguished one.

POSTSCRIPT: The responses at Style Forum were largely uninteresting. Readers today seem largely unable to engage with whole arguments; they seize on particles of arguments. This is partly because of mental incapacity, but also because, in the time of the Web, they do not read word for word. Skimming is perilous, and when most reading is skimming -- watch out!

Paul Hindemith's Cardillac

[Written back on October 20, 2010, but what the heck.]

I am always excited to read about stagings of important but little-performed 20th century operas, so the news that the Vienna State Opera is having a hit with Paul Hindemith's Cardillac, based on a story by the German Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann), is very welcome. The third link below has an extensive selection of photographs of the production.

I have not yet heard Cardillac, although there are several recordings (including one with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the lead) and even a couple of DVD performances (I'm really just starting to catch up with the whole opera-on-DVD category). But I became acquainted a few years ago with another major Hindemith opera, The Harmony of the World, in a CD performance on the Wergo label led by conductor Marek Janowski, and I was blown away by it. Hindemith has long been a particular favorite of mine, and although his reputation as a great modern composer is secure, I seldom come across a real fan, which is too bad. He is the equal of a Prokofiev, with whom he in fact has some affinities.

Companion Animals

All my pets are doing well with the arrival of the new year. Benjamin Bunny was scheduled for neutering surgery a few weeks ago, but he escaped the knife when our vet Dr. Kim determined by manual examination that both his testes were undescended. They probably never will descend, and since he is presenting no behavioral difficulties at all, there is no need to go into his abdominal cavity to try a much riskier surgery to remove them, as they might be undeveloped and difficult to find. So Benjamin is safe as houses.

Benjamin is also delighted that the upcoming Chinese/Korean year is the Year of the Rabbit. He'll have you all know, it's his year!

My Birman, Claire, really seems to have benefited from the additional stimulation that Ben provides. I was a pretty predictable presence for her, but he is not, and I honestly think it has given this 15-year-old cat a new lease on life. She has become more playful and even more affectionate, and she is demonstrably fond of her rabbit friend except when he is being a little too persistent about sniffing her hindquarters.

Tugger the hedgehog has been a great addition to the household. The other animals are curious about him, and he seems not to be afraid of them. I take Tugger out for handling every night, and I also gave him a teeshirt with my scent for bedding material. The result has been that he has become very comfortable in my hand, not balling up or prickling at all; you can tell a relaxed hedgehog because his spines are completely down and smoothed out. Tugger is a gentle soul who loves to sniff; hedgehogs proceed mainly by sense of smell. He is thriving on his diet of special hedgehog chow, freeze-dried mealworms, and silkworm pupae. The latter are a popular Korean snack for people, available in every store, but I can't develop a taste for them; they have a very strong and peculiar smell that lasts for hours as an aftertaste. Tugger, however, loves them. He is an insectivore after all.

So my long-standing Doctor Dolittle tendencies are finding a good outlet here in Korea. Could there be a cockatiel or some other bird in the future? Possibly -- a cat and a bird together are challenging, but I've managed it before, and Claire is a very peaceable feline. I've got room for a bird-cage on top of the refrigerator (wink) -- we shall see.

POSTSCRIPT: It is interesting that many people with my level of OCD and neat freakiness might have problems with one pet, let alone a larger group. But I seem to do fine with it. Of course my pets are usually pretty fastidious themselves. And their emotional demands are quite "neat" and predictable, unlike those of people. I think that's key for me. Once you have routines with pets, you can and should be very regular with them. They like the predictability, too.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Korea Is Just a Gig

I'm starting my eighth month teaching adult ESL at a private academy in Korea, and although I do plan to stay in this country and get a university job -- unless a better such job beckons elsewhere in Asia -- I have to say that living in Korea has become rather uninteresting. I registered plenty of new impressions during my first three months or so, but after a while there is little more I can discover from personal observation as a lowly ESL teacher in a regional city. Everything new I am learning about Korea now is coming from books. Personal experience is really quite limited as a basis for learning about most things; our personalities tend to find narrow grooves in our environments. Books are potentially far less limited.

Culture shock was slow to set in and I wondered whether it would manifest itself at all, but ultimately it did quite strongly. The Korean-slash-Asian emphasis on the family, hierarchy, conformism, motivation by negative rather than positive reinforcement, leader worship, etc. -- in short, the Confucian elements -- don't especially resonate with me, as a Westerner or as an individual. I have not found my time here to be a Kumbaya experience, partly because Koreans demarcate a clear bright line between themselves and non-Koreans, and if you are not inside that line, frankly you just don't count. I have had occasions when I thought I had built up good-will by my efforts, only to find that it crumbled at a touch -- that there was no genuine reciprocity. I may be painting with a broad brush, but I would say that although Koreans can be quite kind to non-Koreans in certain superficial (but not the less welcome for that) ways, they simply do not define them as worthy of true consideration. North Korea's pronounced isolationism is an expression of a deep tendency in Korean character generally, not just some anomaly. This used to be called the "Hermit Kingdom," after all; it was the last Asian nation to open to the West, and the undoubtedly justified suspicions of and intense alarm at any sign of colonialism continue to this day (and were strongly exacerbated by the Japanese Occupation from 1910 to 1945).

Korea is a plucky nation with a somewhat unfortunate geographic position, pinned forever between the two great powers of China and Japan -- and these days South Korea is virtually an island geographically, since North Korea cuts off its land access to the rest of Asia. South Korea is dependent on the United States for its very existence -- if American troops pulled out, North Korean troops would push in -- and its citizens are simultaneously grateful for that and resentful of it (most Koreans when asked will tell you that its government's strings are pulled by American puppeteers). An American here, placed in a classic double bind, can easily feel as if s/he is living inside someone else's psychological complex, and that is always wearying.

I have been reading a lot of Korean history -- very compelling history it is, too -- and although that gives me a good context for Korean attitudes and a certain sympathy toward them, I'm never going to overcome a base antipathy toward the relentless, slightly cruel edge of the culture. Koreans work and study what must be the longest hours in the developed world --"diligent" is the adjective of choice here -- but the workplace and school can be phenomenally unpleasant settings, with psychological and corporal bullying both prevalent. ("Back to hell," one businessman student of mine says as he leaves my morning class for work.) Korea has a ridiculously high suicide rate made much worse by the social unacceptability of seeking help for mental health issues. A student in discussing the idiom "rat race" said matter-of-factly, "When a Korean is tired of the rat race, he just kills himself." I looked alarmed and said as reasonably as I could, "You know there are some intermediate steps that could be taken?" She smiled. "Oh yes, we know, but that is still what he would do."

There is of course lots positive to be said about this country too -- adults here are so much more aware of world affairs and geography, for example, it makes me positively embarrassed to think about their American counterparts who can't find Canada and Mexico on a map. I admire some of what I see. But I would be less than honest if I didn't admit that overall, the experience of living in a truly different culture (I don't think I would find most European-based cultures this different) has made me a little more skeptical about the prospects for multiculturalism, and a little less complacently "multicultural" myself. It is so easy to say that you are multicultural, but a little harder to live it. I'm critical of America and the West, sure; but I'm an American and a Westerner through and through, and I'm also proud of that. If I had been a British civil servant in 19th century India, I hope I wouldn't have been an unthinking colonialist; but I doubt very much if I would ever have "gone native," either. At best I would have absorbed and tested some new concepts. I'm one body with one lifetime, and to the extent that there is any "there" there, my cultural definition and limitations are part of it, for better or worse.

POSTSCRIPT: One Korean trait I strongly admire is their relaxed attitude about religion. Buddhist, Christian, shamanist, atheist, no one cares what you are. Politicians are not required to perform any ritual obeisance toward religion; it is not an issue. About one-third of Koreans are non-believers, and will tell you so candidly; no stigma attaches to it. My Korean students do not "get" American religious controversies and culture wars, and I like them for not understanding, because those idiocies of my culture are not worth understanding. The idea, for example, that anything other than hard science including evolutionary theory would be taught in a school is simply preposterous to a Korean.

About the worst thing I can say about religion in Korea is that sometimes the Christian proselytizing can be a little much. There is one guy who has been knocking on my door for months and who waits in the street outside my house to ambush me with the good news -- a stalker for Christ.

Restrepo (2010)

I haven't seen this acclaimed Afghanistan documentary yet, but it is a Spirit Award nominee and was on the National Board of Review list of the five best documentaries of 2010; it also won the prize for best documentary at Sundance 2010. This interview with film-makers Sebastian Junger (famous for his book The Perfect Storm) and Tim Hetherington is exceptionally good:

Public Enemies (2009)

I'm not sure what I think about Michael Mann anymore. He was responsible for two of the most stylish and influential television series of the 1980s, Miami Vice and Crime Story. He started his big-screen career with a bang with the hypnotic Thief and carried through on its promise with Manhunter and Heat. He was still in good form on The Insider. (I have not seen The Last of the Mohicans, Ali, or the feature version of Miami Vice.) He has a tremendous visual gift, both pictorial and energetic, and is especially good with the expressive uses of color cinematography. He began as a writer and can be a good one, as he demonstrated with the screenplay for Heat.

And yet, Collateral was just a genre doodle with a few good performances and scenes, and the most recent Mann film, Public Enemies, is far worse than that.

Bryan Burrough's book Public Enemies is a complex, thrilling, contrapuntal account of the simultaneous and overlapping careers of six of the great American criminal gangs in 1933 and 1934, and the sometimes laughably inept attempts of the nascent FBI to bring them down. I can't recommend the book highly enough; it's got everything. Including, apparently, too much plot for Michael Mann, who stripped the story down from six plot-lines to one -- John Dillinger's. The Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson stories only come in as throwaways, with their facts completely altered; Alvin Karpis of the Barker-Karpis gang makes a brief appearance; Machine Gun Kelly and Bonnie and Clyde are not mentioned at all.

Mann shows a contempt for his factual sources that is not justified by what he puts up on the screen. I have some problems that way with Bonnie and Clyde, too, particularly the over-glamorization of the ratty-in-real-life protagonists, yet there is no doubt that what Arthur Penn created is a great movie. Public Enemies takes the wrong lessons from Bonnie and Clyde, putting slick photography, studied performances, and meticulous period re-creations in the service of a meretricious re-writing of history, and without gaining any entertainment value thereby. Mann pumps up the violence, pumps up the body counts, glosses up everything, and yet the result is still deeply dull.

If a film-making team wanted to stick to Dillinger, OK, but the result would be far more interesting if they followed the facts where they lead, and made the movie in a grungier, messier, less perfectionist style. Think The Honeymoon Killers, or Altman's Thieves Like Us; but Mann could never direct a film like that. Mann puts Dillinger in a glass case, and for all his camera dynamism, the movie is dead on the screen. He wastes his most game performer, Marion Cotillard, by re-conceptualizing Dillinger's moll Billie Frechette as a comparative innocent, when in fact she was a gold-digger who was already married to a convicted robber! That is a lot more of a compelling character proposition; and I have no doubt that Cotillard could have played it, and that it might have sparked Depp to better work. He's fine physically as Dillinger -- unlike Clyde Barrow, John D. was a wickedly handsome, well-dressed guy -- but both he and Christian Bale as G-man Melvin Purvis are stiff as period actors, not loose and alive the way you need to be to make the past into a present.

Given that this is a big-budget film, it represents a criminal waste of resources. A film like Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate is often criticized for wasting resources; and indeed, it went ridiculously over its already astronomical budget, and on a scene-by-scene basis, it doesn't "work" any better than this movie of Michael Mann's. And yet -- it is personal, it has compulsion written all over it, it is what Pauline Kael used to admiringly call a "folly." That is one point on which I utterly agree with Kael; she memorably said that "The tragedy of movie history is not the follies that get made, it's the follies that don't get made." (Come back, Pola X, all is forgiven!)

Public Enemies is something of a disaster. But it is not that kind of a folly, alas.

Ferenc Erkel

This is exciting news. The Los Angeles Opera is going to present what is said to be the American premiere (although I have a feeling it isn't) of Ferenc Erkel's classic 1861 Hungarian opera Bank Ban, under the baton of music director Placido Domingo:

It is not clear if it going to be performed in Hungarian, although one would hope so; if not, then a performance in English translation would be preferable to one in another language. The opera has been recorded by conductors Vilmos Komor, Janos Ferencsik, and Tamas Pal.

Here is more on Erkel (1810-1893), who composed nine operas in all:

At least one other Erkel opera, Hunyadi Laszlo, has been recorded complete.