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 be....it 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 scenes....as 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 film...is 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..."
"...it 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.