Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Books I Read & The Movies I Saw in 2008


  1. Cousin Bette – Honore Balzac
  2. Modeste Mignon – Honore Balzac
  3. The Unknown Masterpiece & Gambara – Honore Balzac
  4. Room for Murder – Thomas B. Dewey
  5. My Fantoms – Theophile Gautier
  6. The Tragic Comedians – George Meredith
  7. To Siberia – Per Petterson
  8. Come Back to Sorrento – Dawn Powell
  9. Equal Danger – Leonardo Sciascia
  10. The Middle of the Journey – Lionel Trilling
  11. Virgin Soil – Ivan Turgenev
  12. Burr – Gore Vidal

  1. Energies of Art – Jacques Barzun
  2. The Money Men: Capitalism, Democracy and the Hundred Years’ War Over the American Dollar – H.W. Brands
  3. Landscape Into Art – Kenneth Clark
  4. The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins
  5. Complete Works: Middle Years, Volume 10 – John Dewey
  6. Bound to Please – Michael Dirda
  7. Stories Done: Writings on the 1960s and Its Discontents – Mikal Gilmore
  8. English Hours – Henry James
  9. Wellsprings – Mario Vargas Llosa
  10. Edwardians: London Life and Letters, 1901-1914 – John Paterson
  11. The Rest in Noise: Listening to the 20th Century – Alex Ross
  12. Defeat: Napoleon’s Russian Campaign – Philippe-Paul de Ségur
  13. Havanas in Camelot: Personal Essays – William Styron
  14. The Liberal Imagination – Lionel Trilling
  15. Picked-Up Pieces – John Updike
  16. Ending in Earnest – Rebecca West
  17. A Piece of My Mind – Edmund Wilson

And here are a few (very few) of the books I never got around to finishing.


  1. Army of Shadows
  2. Audition
  3. Badlands
  4. The Big Lie
  5. Black Peter
  6. Boy Meets Girl
  7. Caesar and Cleopatra
  8. Le Cercle Rouge
  9. Claire’s Knee
  10. Comrade X
  11. Crime School
  12. The Crowd Roars
  13. The Decline of Western Civilization, Part 2
  14. Le Deuxieme Souffle
  15. Don’t Knock the Rock
  16. Le Doulos
  17. Fifth Avenue Girl
  18. The Firemen’s Ball
  19. Hard Boiled
  20. Holiday
  21. Honky Tonk
  22. Judge Dredd
  23. Kid Galahad
  24. The King of Kong
  25. The Lady Killer
  26. Late Autumn
  27. Little Miss Sunshine
  28. The Lovers
  29. Loves of a Blonde
  30. Mademoiselle Fifi
  31. Manhattan Melodrama
  32. Michael Clayton
  33. My Blueberry Nights
  34. My Night at Maud’s
  35. The Night of the Hunter
  36. Notes on a Scandal
  37. Office Space
  38. Pickup on South Street
  39. Prime Cut
  40. The Prime Minister
  41. Road House
  42. Sawdust and Tinsel
  43. Searchers 2.0
  44. Shine A Light
  45. The Simpsons Movie
  46. Sleeper
  47. Stargate
  48. Straight to Hell
  49. Strangers with Candy
  50. Taking Off
  51. Talk to Me
  52. The Tender Trap
  53. There Will Be Blood
  54. They All Kissed the Bride
  55. They Call It Sin
  56. 2 Days in Paris
  57. Two Lane Blacktop
  58. The Weather Underground
  59. Wild Man Blues
  60. Withnail & I
  61. You Can’t Get Away With Murder

Monday, December 22, 2008

Rock & Roll Death Trip

Stories Done: Writings on the 1960s and Its Discontents
by Mikal Gilmore.

There is not much to like about this book, which is unfortunate. I wanted to like it. I greatly enjoyed Gilmore’s earlier book Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock & Roll and would highly recommend it. Stories Done, though, is a let-down.

To start with, the book is a bit of a rip-off. Almost a quarter of it is composed of pieces already published in Night Beat but reprinted in this volume for reasons, Gilmore tells us, of “context.” Even though the “context” of writers recycling their old material is usually that they have nothing new to say. And actually, it’s an overall lack of freshness in either subject matter or ideas which is the overriding problem with this book.

Frankly, this book feels like a morgue. Most of the pieces were written as memoria for recently dead figures from the 60s: Ken Kesey, George Harrison, Johnny Cash, Hunter S. Thompson, Syd Barrett. Throw in some other pieces about the dead Jim Morrison, the dead Bob Marley and a commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the murder of John Lennon; then drag in the corpses from the earlier book (Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Gregg Allman, and Jerry Garcia) and you’ve basically got The Rock-n-Roll Book of The Dead, only without the optimism of the Egyptian original. It’s so bad that the last section of the book is actually entitled “The Living.” The living being, in this case, the 67-year-old Bob Dylan and the 74-year-old Leonard Cohen (perhaps that section should have been called “The Barely Living”).

On top of this, Gilmore doesn’t have anything very original or interesting to say about his figures; he merely dishes up the accepted narratives. When he does diverge from those tired (and tiresome) mythologies the book comes alive. For instance, he makes the strong argument that it was Paul McCartney rather than John Lennon who was the more intellectually profound and adventurous of the Beatles. It was McCartney, after all, who was the guiding force behind Sgt. Pepper as well as the suite of songs which ends Abbey Road. While Lennon was mired in personal problems, McCartney was soaking in the works of avant-garde composers like Stockhausen and John Cage, and attending concerts by bands like Pink Floyd and the Soft Machine. Writing about Jim Morrison’s singing on L.A. Woman (an album he rightly calls “a fascinating portrayal of dissolusion”), Gilmore observes:
Whereas The Doors and Strange Days were largely albums about fear and loss, L.A. Woman actually seemed to live within those states of mind…In songs like the title track, you hear Morrison’s voice push apart and fray and gain a new credibility as it actually struggles not to fall apart. Morrison had always claimed that his biggest vocal influence was Frank Sinatra, and L.A. Woman, for once, demonstrated that influence, in Morrison’s determination to sing as if it were the latest hours of the night and he was sharing a few final words with sympathetic friends.
Another problem with this book is that it completely ignores anything that has to do with Blacks, Women, or Gays. It’s purview is almost entirely white, male and heterosexual. Now, as a white, male heterosexual I don’t necessarily mind that, but since the 60s was about the struggles of non-whites, non-males and non-heterosexuals for greater freedom their invisibility in Gilmore’s narrative is a major problem. Certainly, instead of Night Beat’s retreads, Gilmore could have cranked out a few original pieces about, say, what Black Americans were doing in music during the 60s. And since many of these Blacks are now comfortably dead (Jimi, Marvin, Ray) that shouldn’t be a problem for Gilmore. And, surely, he could find a place for Janis’s casket in this cultural funeral parlor.

As if all these problems weren’t enough, yet another one pops its head up; namely, Gilmore’s assessments of his subjects. He likes to gush. He has a tendency to engage in the grossest overstatement about someone’s importance, but often completely misses that person’s true significance. For instance, he says of Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:
He was a considerable cultural force who helped transform modern history as much through how he lived his life as through the words that he wrote…Whether we like it or not, we are still living in Ken Kesey’s America. Chances are, it will be a long time before the effects of his life settle enough to be fully measured or easily forgotten.
What nonsense. First off, Kesey did not “transform modern history”; very few individuals do (currently only Mikhail Gorbachev and Osama bin Laden are on that list). Kesey did, though, help to change American society for the better but that was through his writings, not through his life, and certainly not through the ridiculous and embarrassing antics of the drug-addled Merry Pranksters which Gilmore so admires. Thanks to the writings of Ken Kesey – as well as the those of Thomas Szasz, R.D. Laing, and Michel Foucault (and many others) – laws were changed in this country and now people can no longer be forcibly incarcerated in mental institutions against their will. Thanks to Ken Kesey (at least in part), millions of American will live freer lives. And that’s quite an accomplishment. Gilmore, though, never mentions it.

It’s a shame that this book is so disappointing. Gilmore is one of the best writers about Rock & Roll that we have. He is, hands down, among the best interviewers in journalism. The interview with Leonard Cohen which ends Stories Done is masterful; he creates a portrait of the man. It’s a genuine work of art. (His interviews with Jagger and Reed in Night Beat were also exceptionally good.)

Despite its many flaws, there are some touching and beautiful moments in this book. Gilmore describes getting a call from Johnny Cash in 1976 after his brother, Gary Gilmore, had been put to death for murder. Cash had spoken to Gary the night of his execution and had called Mikal simply to offer support and some measure of comfort:
I don’t know that I ever found the peace Cash wished me that day, but I know that in those moments that he took the time to speak with me, I found something that made as much difference as anything might on that impossible day: I heard a voice – from a man who had always represented courage and dignity in my family’s mind – offer a stranger understanding and kindness, without any judgments. That was more grace than I expected or perhaps deserved from somebody who wasn’t a friend in those hours, and I have always been grateful for it.

Cash didn’t have to talk to me that day. He didn’t have to talk to any of us in America about those forces or impulses that hurt and bewildered us. But he chose to anyway, and he did it not because doing so made him a better person, but rather because he wasn’t always a better person, and he knew he had to understand the meaning of that truth at least as much as the meanings of faith or piety.
For me the most effecting part of the book was in the "Acknowledgements and Memoriam" section where Gilmore tells about the gradual disintegration and death of fellow music critic Paul Nelson. The brief portrait is very powerful, made more so by the fact that Gilmore can’t load Nelson and his death with a lot of overblown significance; it’s the stark and simple recollection about a friend who went into a downward spiral and never came out.

Gilmore has always understood that the best Rock & Roll, like the best Blues, comes out of personal confusion, pain and loss as well as from the transcendence and exhilaration of overcoming them through the act of creation. It’s only fitting that the best parts of Stories Done also come from that same place. Yet I can’t help but feel that by sticking to the conventional stories of the conventional figures told in the conventional ways he is, in some way, attempting to insulate himself from this truth.

Monday, December 15, 2008

"He Was Enormous With a Woman"

I've recently purchased a bunch of classic pulps from a local second-hand bookstore near me and I figured that now was as good a time as any to share the covers with my readers:

This one is so over-the-top that I've included the back cover and first page as well:

And here is my collection of Wade Miller originals:

Not a pulp, but still an essential for any library:

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Music and Movie Blog Round-Up

I've been too lazy this week to actually write something myself, so instead I'm going to parasitically refer over to various other art-related blogs that caught my interest:

The Bioscope has an interesting post about George Bernard Shaw’s opinions about movies as well as his career in them.

Self-Styled Siren lists 10 things she loves about old movies. I would add two more things: 1) adorable country cottages you could stay at when life in the city got too tough; and 2) fast-talking dames.

And in case you had any doubts about just how damn good Chinatown really was, check out PilgrimAkimbo’s analysis of John Alonzo’s masterful cinematography and the rule of thirds.

And finally, Michael Monroe muses on the similarity between the music of Anton Webern and that of – I shit you not – The Andy Griffith Show.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

To Siberia

Per Petterson’s newly released novel To Siberia (first published in 1996 but only now available in the US) is something of a disappointment. The first half is very good. The story is about a brother and sister growing up in Denmark in the 1930s and 40s. They have a tough, hard scrabble existence. Their father is a carpenter who “works his way downward”, as his daughter puts it. Their mother a religious eccentric who bangs away at the piano singing hymns of her own composition. Grandpa is an abusive alcoholic given to fits of rage. Suicide takes him out of the novel early. Not surprisingly, the children dream of escape. Jesper, the son, of going to Morocco and the daughter (who narrates the book yet never gives her name – her brother refers to her as “Sistermine”) of boarding the Tran-Siberian Railway and moving to Siberia.

I had read about it, seen pictures in a book, and decided that no matter when and how life would turn out, one day I would travel from Moscow to Vladivostok on that train, and I practiced saying the names: Omsk, Tomsk, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, they were difficult to pronounce with all their hard consonants, but ever since the trip to Skagen, every journey I made by train was a potential departure on my own great journey.
I liked the early sections of the book best. Petterson is at his best depicting the family: the cold and brutal father, the love between the brother and sister. The novel is apparently based on the life of Petterson’s mother and it has that feel of easy intimacy that one gets in a well-told family story. Petterson can sketch a character’s whole life in a few details. Here Sistermine tells us about what happened when her grandfather hanged himself in the barn:

When they cut Grandfather down they found a scrap of paper in his jacket pocket. He was wearing a white shirt and his best suit with watch chain and waistcoat, his thick hair was brushed back like shining fur, and there was no gray in it, because he had eaten bones and gristle all his life.
“Bones and gristle” is a nice touch. Even better is the reference to the Grandfather’s hair as “shining fur” as if he was just another well-groomed animal in the barn.

The Nazis invade, and the novel goes downhill. (Ah, what doesn’t go downhill when Nazis show up?) Jesper, by this point a Socialist, joins the underground resistance and goes into hiding. Sistermine weathers out the occupation as best she can. The gripping family drama is replaced by accounts of ugly encounters between the Dutch and their German occupiers. Accurate? Sure. But not very interesting. Without the relationship of Jesper and Sistermine at the center of the novel, the story becomes disjointed – it loses its soul.

After the war, the brother and sister begin to grow more separate lives. She eventually leaves Denmark and travels to Sweden where she gets pregnant. Jesper makes it to Morocco. We never find out if she makes it to Siberia.

Despite its excellent beginning the novel peters out in the end. I really didn’t care about any of the new characters who show up in the last half of the novel and if you abandon it when the Third Reich arrives you won’t be missing much.

Still, this novel is ultimately worth reading. When Petterson is good he is very good. The early chapters involving the family are vivid and masterful. Twenty years from now I’ll still be able to remember them. (The later chapters were forgotten as soon as I closed the book.) At its best Petterson’s prose is like an enforced hush. Here, for instance, is the young Sistermine ruminating about how she will adapt to the Siberian cold:

…I don’t think the cold will bother me. They have different clothes in Siberia that I can learn to wear instead of now when I have only my thin coat against the wind that comes in from the sea between Denmark and Sweden and blows straight through everything. They have caps made of wolfskin and big jackets and fur-lines boots, and lots of the people who live there look like Eskimos. I might pass as one of them if I cut my hair short. And besides I shall sit in the train and look out of the window and talk to people, and they will tell me what their lives are like and what their thoughts are and ask me why I have come all the long way from Denmark. Then I will answer them:

“I have read about you in a book.” And then we’ll drink hot tea from the samovar and be quiet together just looking.
To Siberia is not a great novel. But Petterson is, nonetheless, a great writer.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Dinner With Henry

Ever wonder what it would be like to have dinner with Henry Miller? If so, then here is a 30-minute documentary in which the 88-year old author of Tropic of Cancer has a meal while talking about the Nobel prize, Blaise Cendrars, why he hates "fucking American workers", and why the chicken is too dry. Oy vey. Well, you can always be thankful that you won't be sitting next to him at your Thanksgiving dinner.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Hopper and Haydn

I’ve spent the past week racking my brains trying to come up with something interesting and profound to say about the Edward Hopper show at the Seattle Art Museum. I got nothing. I think I had a higher opinion of Hopper before the show than after it. There was something paltry about the exhibit. There were just enough paintings to show you his limitations but not enough to impress you with his overall talent.

SAM does this all the time – put together an exhibition which undermines its subject. The earlier show of Impressionists made all the impressionists look bad. Before that the show of Roman sculpture from the Louvre had works so full of 18th and 19th century “restorations” that only maybe a quarter of what was on display was actually Roman. SAM is perfect for Seattle – its art exhibitions are completely passive-aggressive.

Equally annoying is the ad campaign they’re using for the show. It features the painting “Automat” (above) and says “This woman is not a prostitute” (Really? How do you know?), the last word in a large, bold font. A blurb then tells us that Hopper’s paintings depict the changing roles of women in society. Oh, please. Spare me the amateur sociology. I hate it when people try to tell me an artist is significant for sociological/political reasons rather than artistic ones, as if art is there merely to document some other more important issue. It belittles and demeans the artist. Hopper’s painting have value as art, not as political statements. That's no way to advertise an art exhibit. That would be like having a Bruegel show and saying “These people are not receiving adequate health care.”

The highlight of my week – arts-wise, that is – was a production of Il Mondo della Luna at the UW. It’s a little-known opera written by Joseph Haydn in 1777. Two young men want to marry two sisters whose boorish father refuses to grant his permission. The impish lads concoct a scheme in which they drug the old man and convince him, when he awakes, that he has been transported to the world of the moon. Hijinks ensue. In the end, the lovers are united, foolish Dads are put in their place and everyone lives happily ever after - once they get that big, fat dowry.

Sound charming? Oh, you better believe it.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Violins, Kafka & Poorly Behaved Children

From around the Web:

In The London Times Kate Muir found that her life was transformed by merely carrying around her daughter's violin case. The change begins as soon as she walks out of the music shop.

The violin is in a huge red case with hiking straps. “Wear it on your back and everyone will think you’re a professional,” say the Dots [the music store] staff, and I wonder why. But as I head into the bank to sort a financial glitch…the under-manager’s eyes light up. He speeds me through the queue, commandeers an office and asks me about my musical career. I respond vaguely. He waxes nostalgically about his own classical music past. My finances are suddenly all in harmony.

In the coffee shop queue, people immediately strike up conversations: “Is that a violin or a viola in there?” And when I go to buy a weird Goth hoodie for my goddaughter in Camden Market, the stallholder asks me if I want to try it on. “It’s a present,” I sniff, and add inwardly, “Can’t you see I’m a nagging, ancient mother-of-three on an errand?” But of course it’s the violin: it is code for a different sort of person – artistic, freethinking, single. A wearer of Goth tops, not a person with lice shampoo in her handbag. “Where are you playing tonight?” asks the stallholder, smiling.

I now feel all single women should carry an empty violin case if it has this effect. For a single man, a puppy has a similarly safe conversation-opening effect in the park.

Princeton University Press has just published Franz Kafka: The Office Writings. According to the press release, the book

brings together, for the first time in English, Kafka's most interesting professional writings, composed during his years as a high-ranking lawyer with the largest Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute in the Czech Lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

… These documents include articles on workmen's compensation and workplace safety; appeals for the founding of a psychiatric hospital for shell-shocked veterans; and letters arguing relentlessly for a salary adequate to his merit. In adjudicating disputes, promoting legislative programs, and investigating workplace sites, Kafka's writings teem with details about the bureaucracy and technology of his day, such as spa elevators in Marienbad, the challenge of the automobile, and the perils of excavating in quarries while drunk.

Last but not least – if your pesky children are driving you crazy, calm down, help is on the way. Erasmus of Rotterdam’s 1530 treatise “A Handbook on Good Manners for Children” has finally been translated and published in English. An immediate bestseller when it first appeared (and I’m sure the competition was stiff), the book was the first instruction manual for children ever written in the West. Although originally composed in Latin for one of Erasmus’s 11-year old students, it’s full of good advice. Here’s a sample:

Some people, no sooner than they’ve sat down, immediately stick their hands into the dishes of food. This is the manner of wolves.

Making a raucous noise or shrieking intentionally when you sneeze, or showing off by carrying on sneezing on purpose, is very ill-mannered.

To fidget around in your seat, and to settle first on one buttock and then the next, gives the impression that you are repeatedly farting, or trying to fart.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

To Moscow

As we enter the final months of the Bush Administration I have to wonder if W. has any additional foreign policy surprises up his sleeve to unleash on us before he goes away. Parting gifts, as it were; fresh disasters for us to remember him by. If so, then to judge by the quality of his earlier foreign policy decisions, I think it will most likely be the immediate invasion of Russia just in time for winter. That’s the only international fiasco he and his neo-con pals seem to have avoided. In which case, the recent republication of Defeat: Napoleon’s Russian Campaign by Philippe-Paul de Ségur will be required reading.

Ségur (1780-1873) was a French aristocrat who served as Napoleon’s aide-de-camp and witnessed the French Emperor’s doomed invasion of Russia first-hand. His account, published in 1824, is fascinating and brilliant, an accomplishment of the highest literary quality. So high, in fact, that Tolstoy took whole sections of the book and put them into War and Peace. Ségur is a fantastic author. I earlier posted about books I couldn’t finish, this is a book I had trouble putting down. Here is the opening paragraph of Ségur’s book:

Napoleon had moved his troops in Poland and East Prussia from Koenigsberg to Gumbinnem. At the close of the spring of 1812 he reviewed several of his armies. He spoke to the soldiers in a jovial, bluff, often brusque manner, fully aware that by these simple, war-hardened men bluntness was looked upon as sincerity; rudeness as strength; haughtiness as true nobility; while the refinement and elegance that certain of the officers brought with them from the Paris salons were considered signs of weakness and faint-heartedness. Gentle speech was like a foreign language which they did not understand, and whose tones struck them as ridiculous.
It’s been a long time since I’ve come across a book with so strong and vivid an opening. We immediately get a sense of the type of man Napoleon is - intelligent, commanding, willing to put on an act but never losing a certain lordly air (he’s “brusque” and “bluff” but also “jovial” – like Jove), a master of self-command and self-consciousness. We see the class gulf that separates the soldiers from their officers. A whole society and a whole drama are sketched out before us.

And what a drama it is. In August 1812, Napoleon crosses the Russian border with 600,000 troops. As he advances, the Russians retreat, never giving battle and destroying every town, farm and settlement along his path. By the time Napoleon gets to Moscow he has only 130,000 troops left – most of them killed by disease, hunger and heat. Moscow is deserted; Russian arsonist begin to burn the city. By the end of October Napoleon has to retreat. The Russian winter sets in. Temperatures plunge to 20 below zero. With no food, no horses and eventually no weapons the remnants of the army trudge on through a frozen tundra of death and horror while the Russian army picks them off piecemeal. In early December Napoleon abandons his troops and rushes back to Paris. A month later only 40,000 of them make it across the border into Poland.

Ségur brings the whole spectacle to life. He has a remarkable ability to depict a scene. Early in the campaign the French reach the city of Smolensk where they hope to engage the Russian army in battle. Instead they find the city empty and still burning from fires set by the departed inhabitants. Ségur writes:

As soon as Smolensk had been reconnoitered and the gateways cleared of debris, our army marched in. We passed through the smoking ruins in military formation, with our martial music and customary pomp, triumphant over this desolation, but with no other witness to our glory than ourselves. Spectacle without spectators, victory almost without fruits, bloody triumph, of which the smoke that hung heavy around us was a symbol only too clear!
Napoleon had hoped that the Russian serfs would rise up against their masters as he approached. They didn’t. (Of course, if Napoleon had promised to abolish serfdom – which he refused to do – he might have gotten a better reaction.) Instead, the serfs burned their homes and their crops to destroy a man they regarded as literally the anti-Christ. The gravity of the situation starts to sink in to him. Ségur, again:

The Emperor by now was fully aware of the enormity of his undertaking. The farther he advanced, the greater it grew. So long as he had encountered only kings, their defeat had been child’s play. But all the kings were beaten, and now he had to deal with the people.
I like how deftly (and eloquently) Ségur moves from Napoleon’s psychology to the broader causes of his defeat. At the battle of Valoutina the story begins to take on a surreal and comically nightmarish tone. After a day of battle (which killed or wounded 18,000 French and Russian soldiers) Napoleon decided to review his troops. His ranks gather

on top of Russian and French corpses, in the midst of mutilated trees. The earth was beaten hard by the feet of the combatants, plowed by cannon balls, and littered with broken weapons, torn clothing, military equipment, overturned wagons and human limbs…The Emperor was unable to pass before them without stepping over or walking on corpses and bayonets twisted by the violence of the encounter.
Napoleon decides to buck up his troops with a speech, telling them “This battle has been the most brilliant exploit in our military history. You soldiers who are listening to me are men with whom one could conquer the world. The dead here have earned immortal names for themselves.” (Can you name a single one? Even Ségur doesn’t.) He then begins handing out promotions. One regiment is given an eagle standard to carry. Ségur is transported by enthusiasm. “Everything about [Napoleon] was admirable; there was nothing to criticize. Never has a field of victory presented a more exalting spectacle.” As for the soldiers present “their names would be famous over the whole world, especially among their fellow townsmen and families.”

During the retreat from Moscow, hunger and the freezing cold take their toll. “The day following the departure of the Emperor,” Ségur notes, “the sky became still more terrible. The air was filled with infinitesimal ice crystals; birds fell to the earth frozen stiff.” Under such circumstances the army starts to fall apart.

An immensity of woe stretched out before us. We were going to have to march forty days more…Some of the men, already overburdened with present miseries, were completely overwhelmed by the dreaded prospect. Others rebelled against their fate; no longer counting on anyone but themselves they resolved to live at all costs. From that time on, the strong plundered the weak, stealing from their dying companions, by force of by stealth, their food, their clothing, or the gold with which they had filled their knapsacks instead of provisions.
A body of French reinforcements manages to meet them and are shocked at what they see.

When…instead of the expected column of splendid warriors, conquerors of Moscow, they saw in Napoleon’s wake a mob of tattered ghosts draped in women’s cloaks, odd pieces of carpet, or greatcoats burned full of holes, their feet wrapped in all sorts of rags, they were struck with consternation. They stared in horror as those skeletons of soldiers went by, their gaunt, grey faces covered with disfiguring beards, without weapons, shameless, marching out of step, with lowered heads, eyes on the ground, in absolute silence, like a gang of convicts.
On a somewhat lighter note (and, let’s face it, almost all other notes are lighter) I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that even in the midst of such carnage and human misery the committed booklover will still be ruled by his mania. For instance, while the French are occupying Moscow, Baron Paul de Bourgoing billets himself in the abandoned palace of Count Rostopchin, the Governor of Moscow. He spends hours browsing through the library and when he discovers a copy of a book written by his father he writes on the flyleaf: “It is with real pleasure that the son of the author has found one of his father’s books so far from his fatherland. He only regrets that it should be war that brought him here.” Even the chaos of the retreat couldn’t stop the true booklover. Sergeant Adrien Bourgogne recalled:

The road was strewn with precious objects, such as paintings, candlesticks and many books, and for the best part of an hour I would pick up books which I would look through and which I threw away in turn, to be picked up by others who in their turn threw them away.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


The Criterion Collection has recently released two outstanding gangster films by Jean-Pierre Melville, Le Doulos (1963) and Le Deuxième Souffle (1966).

Le Doulos stars Jean-Paul Belmondo (below) as Silien, a gangster who may or may not be a police informer – a “hat”, or "doulos" in French argot. He may or may not have squealed on fellow gangster Maurice, played by Serge Reggiani. Betrayal and suspicion (along with trench coats, fedoras and Melvillian noir cool) abound.

In the second film, Le Deuxième Souffle, master criminal Gu Minda, played by Lino Ventura, breaks out of prison and joins a successful platinum heist organized by Paul Ricci. Afterwards, Police Inspector Blot (the cynical Paul Maurisse) tricks Gu into betraying his accomplices. Paul and Gu are taken in and tortured by the police. Gu breaks out. He sets out to clear his name and expose police corruption, which he does with surprising ease. Then he settles the score with Jo Ricci, Paul’s brother, who’s been shooting and threatening Gu’s accomplices since the start of the film and who, we are led to believe – although it’s not really clear - has turned on Jo as well. Mayhem ensues.

Both films are good but Le Doulos is the better of the two. It’s tighter and more engaging. Once the story begins it moves inexorably to its tragic end. Le Deuxième Souffle, as you can tell even from the summary above, is more cluttered; the story doesn’t flow naturally. Additionally, in Le Doulos we care about the characters. Reggiani, for instance, has the sad face of the two-time (no, make that three-time) loser. You just know anything he does will end in disaster. Despite all his toughness he seems to be very vulnerable, not least of all to his own stupidity – rather like Harvey Keitel in Resevoir Dogs (Tarantino, not surprisingly, is big Melville fan). One has no such reservations, though, about Lino Ventura in Le Deuxième Souffle. He is as hard and tough as the Hollywood film gangsters whom Melville adored. One senses that being roughed up by the police would scarcely faze him.

The shootouts in these films have an interesting rhythm. In traditional Hollywood gangster films the shooting occurs in the course of the dramatic action. Characters face off but will often be moving at the same time; and the shooting is spontaneous, like an emotional outburst. “I said get away from that door! you rotten, double-crossing..!!” BANG! BANG! BANG! Hunch and drop. But Melville’s shootouts are quite different. They are quiet and static. A character pulls a gun, everyone freezes and stasis reigns. Characters talk or even whisper, plot ends are tied together. Then a gun goes off and chaos erupts, leaving most of the characters dead on the floor. It’s almost as though Melville has taken the rhythm of the Hollywood western (the slow ritualized shootout in the center of town) and transferred it to the gangster film. That just about every film-maker follows Melville’s lead is a sign of his influence.

For instance, there's a great moment in the shootout that ends Le Deuxième Souffle. I could not, unfortunately, find a clip on-line so stills and description will have to do. In the picture below Gu, (the one with the guns) has cornered Jo and his henchmen. He shoots Jo (the guy closest to us). Then Antoine (in the white fedora in the back) drops down, pulls out a gun and shoots Gu in the hip. Gu falls to the ground but not before shooting Pascal (the guy at the back in the dark fedora).

Then the camera follows Antoine as he runs across the table to keep shooting the fallen Gu.

From Antoine's point of view the camera follows Gu as he rolls onto his back, raises both guns and fires them directly into the camera...

...sending Antoine (now seen from Gu's point of view) against the back wall, dead.

It's pure John Woo. ("Melville is my God" - John Woo)

With the rerelease of Melville’s films as well as the republication of the tough roman dur crime novels by the Belgian Georges Simenon, we Americans are finally getting a sense of how well the French have taken to the gangster genre, especially in its noir form. It's intriguing that the Americans and the French have developed a noir style of mystery whereas the British have not. They are still wedded to the traditional Agatha-Christie-style whodunit. I think the reason for this is class and the nature of crime. Criminals, after all, are very much like businessmen. They both like to accumulate money. They both take risks and will stake all they have on a single venture. They need to be cunning and energetic to succeed. They’re willing to lie and cheat and steal to accomplish their goals.  The psychological toll for people living in that kind of society can be pathological; they can wind up distrustful, scheming, violent, depressed, paranoid, suicidal, etc., in other words, the perfect noir hero. There is a natural sympathy between the criminal and the businessmen which noir reveals. Here, for instance, is a passage from Gil Brewer’s classic pulp novel The Vengeful Virgin (1958 - and recently reissued from HardCase Crime) in which the narrator, a TV repairman in Florida, ruminates on the prospects that even a small job (legitimate) can present:
You’ve got to whittle every stick you get your hands on, if you expect to be big. Your business has to be the biggest and the best, if you expect it to pay off. That’s how it was going to be with me…I was plenty in debt. But if you’re smart enough to find all the angles and ride them down, you won’t drown. In the beginning, you’ve got to scramble and you’ve got to ride those angles hard, every damned one of them. You don’t let any of them throw you, not even the measliest, because every buck adds up. Either that, or you make it big and fast some way, and quit cold. I had learned the hard way, misfiring across a lot of lousy years, that I would have to slug for it – slug everybody in sight.
Somehow, I can’t picture Lord Peter Wimsey or Hercule Poirot saying that. But I can imagine Edward G. Robinson or Humphrey Bogart saying it. And on the Gallic side of things, Melville’s characters may not say it but they live it - as, too, do the businessmen and criminals of Balzac and Zola and even the peasants of de Maupassant.

Americans have always loved their merchants and after the Civil War the industrial powers completely took over and haven’t let up since. In France the rising business class broke the power of the aristocracy in 1789 but not without massive bloodshed. However, in Britain the newly arrived entrepreneurial class didn’t guillotine the aristocracy; they married into them. Or they bought peerages. Or in some way accommodated themselves to the existing aristocracy, who were not destroyed as in France, but rather domesticated. The newly risen English businessman imagined that with enough money he could buy a country house, join the right clubs and maybe even get a seat in Parliament; they had the expectation (not entirely unfounded) that they could become little aristocrats themselves and leave the grubby and shameful world of the tradesman behind.

In the US and France such Trollopian illusions could never take ground. The businessmen run the show; and there’s no aristocratic refuge, no point at which you can let your guard down. Even if you make it to the top you still have to watch your back. There is no escape, as the trapped heros of noir will tell you. You always have to be ready to “slug everybody in sight.”

Monday, October 20, 2008

Unfinished Books

At some point every serious reader has to ponder the question “How much more of this awful book do I have to read?” Personally, I’ve never been able to figure out exactly when I can abandon a book with a good conscience. There are simply too many very long and very bad books for me to finish every one I start, and each hour trapped with a bad book is an hour not spent enjoying a good one. So a line has to be drawn somewhere. But where? After the first 50 pages? After the first 10% of the book? Or should I give it 25%. I don’t know. On some level I feel that I should finish every book I start regardless of whether I like it or not. After all, sometimes when I stick with a book I wind up enjoying it in the end. That’s especially true with novels. I was about 300 pages into Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady before I realized how brilliant it (and he (and, yes, she)) was. I had a similar experience with The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes. Only about two-thirds of the way through it did I begin to understand and appreciate what Fuentes was doing. This can also work to a book’s detriment, too. I just read Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination and was liking it just fine until, in the last 10 pages, I came across a passage so inane, foolish, and flat-out wrong that I had no choice but to reject the previous 294 pages I’d read as pure, undiluted crapola. But these instances are the exceptions. Most of the times I can tell within the first 50 pages whether or not I’m going to like a book. Which books we don’t finish and why can tell us as much about the reading experience (and the reader) as knowing which ones they do finish. Here, then, are some of the recent books I have started and then abandoned – together with how much of them I read and my assessment of the likelihood that I will ever return to them.

The History of the Thirteen by Honoré de Balzac. Christ, what a slog. I’ve been reading a lot of Balzac this year. Maybe too much. This novel is actually composed of three short novellas, all of which tangentially touch on the dark and nefarious doings of a secret, powerful group called The Thirteen. I made it through “Ferragus”, the first one, without a problem, but it was in the second part, “The Duchesse of Langeais”, that I lost it. Suddenly it was page after page of Balzac’s theorizings on the decline of the French aristocracy or the psychology of women or the sacred mysteries of organ music or some other equally irrelevant topic of which he knows nothing. It was very annoying. Just shut up and tell your story, Balzac, or better yet, shut up, just shut up. Abandoned on page 218 out of 391. Chance of return: medium (well, it is Balzac).

Credit and Blame by Charles Tilley. Tilley is an eminent American sociologist and this book examines the social processes by which blame and credit are apportioned out. Sure sounds interesting. And it was interesting up to a point. I liked Tilley’s observation that giving credit presupposes similar values between the credit-giver and the credited; whereas blame often involves differing moral views between the person being blamed and the one blaming; there’s a deeper, more cognitive dimension to blame. This brief book is well-written; it’s clear and jargon free. Tilley’s examples extended from the founding fathers to African witchcraft to Joan Crawford’s efforts to win the Oscar for Mildred Pierce. This book has a lot going for it. Why I couldn’t get into it, I don’t know. I think I might have stuck with this book if it was more difficult. When I picked it up I was looking for something tough and analytical and scientific and almost Germanic in its unappealing thoroughness. Tilley’s loose, essayistic approach was the opposite of what I was looking for. Abandoned on page 30 out of 190 pages. Chance of return: low.

The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec by Mary Ellen Miller. What the hell? Why did I even buy this book? Abandoned by page 42 of 247. Chance of return: Zero.

In Hazard by Richard Hughes. Every now and then I try to read one of those sea-faring adventure novels but it never works out. This novel by Hughes (first published in 1938) is the latest casualty in that personal tradition; earlier ones include Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and Typhoon as well as the Aubrey/Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brien. The problem is always the same: I get bogged down looking up all the nautical terms (aft, port, stern, mizzen mast, winches, fore-deck, stretching-screw, mast-stay, etc.) and eventually I’m pawing through the dictionary for hours while my actual reading comes to a crawl. I hate that. It’s frustrating. I like novels – and especially adventure novels – to move briskly. Nonetheless, if you like that whole ship-in-a-storm genre, this book is for you. It’s the story (based on a true incident) of a British cargo ship which gets caught in what seems to be the worst hurricane ever (winds of 200+ mph) in the Caribbean during the 1920s. The characters are well-drawn and Hughes is masterful at building up suspense. The air of the book is ominous; we sense from the start that everything that can go wrong will. Hughes also adds some surreal touches to the story. For instance, Mr. Buxton, the ship’s Chief Officer, has a pet lemur named Thomas who has free run of the ship.

This little Thomas slept all day, and he was not very energetic even at night. But he had one prejudice. He liked the human eye, and he did not approve of it being shut, ever. If he came into Mr. Buxton’s cabin while his master was asleep he would jump carefully on to the edge of the bunk, and then with anxious and delicate movements of his long fingers he would lift the sleeping man’s eyelids till the ball was fully exposed. This he would do to other deck officers too, if he found them (to his distress) with their eyes shut at night upon any excuse whatever.
Abandoned on page 83 out of 239 pages. Chance of return: low.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Searchers 2.0

On Tuesday, film director Alex Cox came to Seattle for the local premiere of his latest film, Searchers 2.0, at the Grand Illusion Cinema. It is the tale of Mel and Fred, two middle-age bit actors in Los Angeles who both appeared together as children in a cheesy western written by legendary screenwriter Fritz Frobisher who so terrified and brutalized them on the set that each man swore revenge. When they learn that he will be appearing at a special screening of the film in Monument Valley (where John Ford shot The Searchers) their path is clear. They will travel there, find Fritz Frobisher, and kick his ass. Since neither man has a car, though, they rope in Mel’s daughter, Delilah, to drive them. And so off they go through the American Southwest in Alex Cox’s thoughtful, funny and engaging meditation on movies, revenge, forgiveness, cars, the Iraq war, John Wayne, Sergio Leone and other topics.

This movie is a lot of fun. The conversations among the three main characters are hilarious. (You can get a sample of them in the clip below.) Now, “charming” (as opposed to, say, “sardonic” or “anarchic”) is not a word I would normally use to describe the films of Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid and Nancy, Walker) but in this case it fits, largely due to the chemistry among this three leads: Del Zamora as Mel, Ed Pansullo as Fred and Jaclyn Jonet as Delilah. Pansullo was especially good, capturing the eccentric and nerdy intensity of a devoted film fan (as in fanatic).

Searchers 2.0 is solid proof that the most important part of any movie is the writing and acting. In the Q & A after the screening Cox (who also wrote the screenplay) mentioned that he wanted to see how quickly and cheaply he could make it. It was shot on digital video in two weeks on a budget of about $200,000. And it’s far superior to most Hollywood movies. In fact, it’s far superior to most independent movies. It’s full of great touches that only talent – yes, that’s right, talent – can provide. For instance, when Fred starts talking about John Wayne’s performance in The Searchers (watch the clip) notice how the light increases on him. If that effect had been done too forcefully then Fred would be reduced to an object of ridicule; we would laugh at him rather than recognize both the awe in which he holds Wayne’s performance and the fact that, on some level, he is seeking the same redemption that he’s describing. The film also shows the makeshift memorials set up in these small Southwest towns to the local kids who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

My only disappointment with this movie was that it falls apart at the end. Cox’s films fall into two categories: the punk (Repo Man, Walker, Straight to Hell), which are exuberant, tongue-in-cheek, satirical, etc. and the realistic (Sid and Nancy – his masterpiece). This film begins as realistic – with whimsical elements hovering around the edges – but then goes into Cox’s anarchic punk mode which, while entertaining, I found ultimately something of a letdown. These characters are very engaging on a human level, you care about what happens to them. And while the resolution of the story makes sense dramatically, Cox abandons the human element at the tend and lards up the film with a tedious Sergio Leone parody.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Robots, Yes! Agit-Prop, No!

What’s not to like about Pop Surrealism? It’s fresh. It’s funny. It’s unpretentious. It’s composed of the visual language which surrounds us – comic books, cartoons, tattoos, advertising, etc. - yet it twists these images around in strange, haunting and sometimes frightening ways. It often shows more intelligence and technical skill (many of the artists are self-taught) than so-called mainstream art. And its appeal is immediate and visceral.

What I enjoy most about it is the supreme confidence of the artists. They really don’t care what you think of them. I get the impression that they paint only for themselves and their like-minded friends. Walk into any mainstream gallery and you are surrounded by paintings and sculptures which practically scream for the approval of the artist’s teachers or of her granting authorities or corporate purchasers or of the critics or of pseudo-intellectual hangers-on, etc. There is no sense of the playfulness that, one assumes, first made this person want to become an artist. But walk into a Pop Surrealism gallery and you see work which, in its playfulness and sense of fun, testifies to the artists’ whole-hearted commitment and engagement in their work. And there's something very invigorating in that.

Like all art, though, it can be done well or it can be done poorly; and a current exhibit at Roq la Rue has specimens of both. Brian Despain does it very well; Victor Castillo does not.

Castillo’s subject seems to be the hollowness of contemporary, mainly American, culture. His paintings feature children with cartoonish faces, empty eyes (to symbolize “blindness, insanity and dehumanization” we are told in the program notes) and bright red hot-dog-shaped noses (to symbolize “cannibalism” ?!). Malevolent grinning figures, often from pop culture – Goofy, Santa Claus (in “Lie to Me”, right), etc. – menace them. It is all very overwrought, full of bitterness and self-righteous sarcasm. Castillo is from Chile and so it is understandable, given the US’s murderous political meddling in that country, that he would find evil and nightmare in the symbols of American pop culture. But this political anger, however justified, cripples his art. In fact, I get the impression that Castillo really hates pop culture. It’s a lie, in his opinion, a grinning happy face which masks the jack-booted thug beneath. So why he has chosen to paint in the style of Pop Surrealism (which in his case should be called Agit-Prop Surrealism) is beyond me. The combination of his message and the style with which he chooses to express it will always prove unhappy.

Brian Despain, on the other hand, knows exactly what he’s doing. His small mini-show contains portraits of robots. These paintings are quite beautiful. Each robot is delicately rendered and the colors (mostly browns, yellows and silvers) are dark and lush. The robots even seem to have their own personalities. I especially liked "Ghosts" (below). The central figure leaves a strong impression of pride and even defiance. If he’s on, that is. The plug dangling from his left hand makes us unsure. Is he unplugged and dreaming of being automated like the wind-up robots circling his head or is he still on (after all, his eyes are lit up) but now free from his reliance on a power source? And if so, is that a good thing? And the background isn’t very reassuring, is it? Often Despain’s robots are standing in fields with dark clouds gathering behind them, creating a powerful feeling of foreboding and even melancholy. For some reason, robots are often depicted as figures of sadness. On many sci-fi novel covers they stare off wistfully and forlornly into the distance. I’m not sure why this is so. It is true that we depict them as soulless killers, too, but that ambivalence just makes our relationship to them more interesting. Clearly, we can’t stand the idea that a robot would be as uninteresting as most humans. We simply will not accept hum-drum robots. We can imagine them as time-traveling killing machines, but never as bores or dullards or snobs or that drip from the office who tells you endless stories about his latest trip to Thailand.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Early Films of Miloś Forman

The Northwest Film Forum is currently running a retrospective of Czech director Miloś Forman’s early films. There is not a single dud in the lot. Except for Taking Off (1971), his first American film (which I have not yet seen and hence will remain silent on) I can say that they are all excellent films – funny, insightful, well-crafted and still as fresh as the day the footage came back from the lab.

Forman’s directorial debut, Audition (1963), is the weakest film of them all, though. It’s a combination of two documentaries about musicians. The first, If There Was No Music, shows two brass bands rehearsing for a competition. In the second, Audition, a bunch of young singers go on a round of auditions in hip Czechoslovakia; think of it as Czech Idol, circa 1963 – lots of cute girls with beehive hairdos and guys in dark coats looking moody in a Jean-Paul Belmondo way. This is one of those films that looks better - and cooler - in black and white than it ever would in color. Still, watching an hour’s worth of footage crammed with people belting out 45 year-old Czeck pop tunes gets dull after a while.

However, Black Peter (1963), Forman’s first fictional film, is not dull at all. It has no real plot. We see the young and churlish Peter start his new job - spying on customers at the local supermarket to catch shoplifters. We see him berated at home by his father. We watch him go out a few times with his girlfriend. He attends a dance and meets some friends there. One of them gets drunk. All very mundane, and yet compelling. In fact, with its handheld camerawork and grainy look, this films feels more like a documentary than a fictional film. And that’s intentional. At the time, Czech films were made under the rubric of “socialist realism” which basically meant upbeat Communist propaganda. To grab a camera and film your friends and family members (Forman was notorious for using mostly non-professional actors) was not just an artistic choice but a political one, too. The actors in Black Peter are all very good. Ladislav Jakim (above), who plays Peter, is perfect in the role. His casual adolescent truculence is charming if you’re under forty, infuriating if you’re over. Jan Vostrčil is excellent as Peter’s father, pacing back and forth in their tiny apartment, his thumbs looped in his suspenders, endlessly hectoring his son to grow up or warning him to beware of the wiles of women. Vostrčil is a pleasure to watch and it’s no surprise that Forman put him in all his Czech movies.

Loves of a Blonde (1965) tells the story of a young girl in a small town who falls in love with a musician performing in a band at the local dancehall one weekend. After their 2-day fling he returns to Prague and she goes back to working her dreary job at the shoe factory. She misses him and soon shows up on the doorsteps of his parent’s home in Prague. They don’t like her at all. When the son shows up the next morning it become obvious that he doesn’t really like her much either. She returns home and to her life in the factory. It sounds more grim than it is. The film has a light touch and a sense of humor which keep it from becoming a downer. And Hana Brejchová is very good in the lead. She conveys a strength and vulnerability that keep her sympathetic but never pitiful. In the clip below we watch her as she tries on her sleeping lover’s overcoat. This film was a big international hit, both commercially and critically, and it’s easy to see why. It is quite funny. The dance hall scenes are especially good as middle-aged soldiers try to score with the young and uninterested factory girls in town. One trio of soldiers is particularly pathetic. One of them takes off his wedding ring and puts it in his pocket. It promptly falls out of the leg of his pants and rolls across the dance floor, right under the table of the women he’s flirting with.

In The Fireman’s Ball (1967) a group of firemen in a small Czeck town hold a big dance (how Forman loves a dance) in which, not surprisingly, everything goes wrong. The raffle gifts keep getting stolen by the guests. The firemen decide to hold an impromptu beauty contest but can’t find enough attractive women in the hall despite making one contestant strip down to her bathing suit in the back room while they breathlessly oogle (below). When a house catches fire they’re unable to put it out so instead they set up the bar and simply watch the place burn down. They even, at one point, almost set their own hall on fire. They are, in short, that old standby of Eastern European and Russia literature, the ridiculous bureaucrat. Dostoyevsky and Gogol mined the same territory. And Forman’s fellow Czecks Jaroslav Haśek (in The Good Soldier Švejk) and Franz Kafka (in…well, everything) show the various responses of people trapped in the bureaucratic machine. We English-speakers brag about Dickens’ Office of Circumlocution Office and Melville’s Bartleby but to really appreciate the nightmare of officialdom you must go to writers east of the Elbe.

But Fireman’s Ball is more than that. It is also a very funny satire about communism. It’s soon apparent that this gaggle of middle-aged, paunchy, bungling firefighters is supposed to represent the leadership of the Communist Party, either Czech or Russian. As I sat watching Fireman’s Ball I couldn’t help but remember the attempted coup against Soviet leader and reformer Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. The “hard-line Communist coup”, as the US press immediately called it (was there ever a “soft-line” Communist coup?), soon fell apart and the plotters began hurrying to get out of the country. I’ll never forget the TV footage of them scrambling to board a plane leaving Moscow. It was hilarious - a handful of fat, middle-aged men (very much like our Czech firemen) pushing, pulling, shoving and slapping each other out of the way to enter the airplane door. They looked ridiculous, like The Three Stooges or the Keystone Cops. “What’s next?” I thought “‛Hard-Line Communist Coup Meets The Mummy’?” The judgment of history could scarcely be more devastating or cruel than that footage. The project of Soviet Marxism had been reduced to comedy - a crude, slapstick routine performed on an airport tarmac by doomed clowns. Honestly, shooting the plotters would have endowed them with more dignity.

Like most American filmgoers I tend to think of Forman’s movies (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, Ragtime) as being bleak and depressing so it came as a pleasant surprise to discover that his earlier work was humorous, intimate, and, at times, even light-hearted.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

"She learned to say 'No' - the hard way"

Caustic Cover Critic has a great collection of pulp and trash novel covers. Here's a sample:

See them all here.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Styron's Latest

What is it about William Styron that makes me dislike him so? I certainly haven’t read enough of his work to build up a good, healthy, invigorating hate of the man as a writer. In fact, aside from Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness I haven’t read him at all. I’ve managed to avoid his two most successful novels The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice (although I did see the movie version of the latter) and I have no doubt that if I go to my grave never having read either of them my life will not have been diminished one jot.

However, it was while reading Havanas in Camelot, a posthumous collection of Styron’s essays, that I finally understood exactly why I find him so unappealing. The insight came while reading “A Case of the Great Pox”, Styron’s account of the treatment he received after contracting a dose of syphilis while serving in the Marines during WWII. He’s sent off to the naval hospital on Parris Island and put under the care of the stern and judgmental Dr. B. Klotz. The protocol for venereal disease patients in the 1940s is chilling to modern ears. They were put in their own separate ward. Their robes were marked with a large, yellow V. The mess hall and the bathrooms had specially designated tables or toilets for them to use. When allowed to attend movies at the base, they are cordoned off from the other men behind a yellow ribbon. Even worse were the meetings with the vindictive Dr. Klotz who never misses an opportunity to fill Styron with despair and guilt. As the days pass and his test results keep showing high levels of spirochetes in his blood Styron gives in to “self-lacerating reveries”:

Days passed in a kind of suspended monotony of fear. Meanwhile, the weight of hopelessness, bearing down on my shoulders with almost tactile gravity – I thought of a yoke in the animal, burdened-down sense – had become a daily presence; I felt a suffocating discomfort in my brain. Sitting on a camp stool next to my bed, remote from the other marines, I began to withdraw into the cocoon of myself.
When his gums start bleeding the dentist at the base diagnoses him with Vincent’s disease, a type of trench mouth. Styron starts swabbing his gums with gentian violet and the disease goes away. And so too does the syphilis. It turns out that Vincent’s disease is caused by a different spirochete, one which, in rare cases, can appear in blood tests as a false positive for syphilis. Klotz had ignored that possibility and it was only when he went on leave and his replacement, a genial Southerner named Moss, ran the appropriate tests that the truth is discovered. He never had syphilis. Styron complains to Moss about Klotz: “What this means is that Dr. Klotz could have told me there was a possibility of a false positive. A possibility. But he didn’t do that…He could have spared me a lot of misery. He could have given me some hope.” Moss replies “He was punishin’ you, boy, punishin’ you.”

Now, what annoys me in this whole incident is that Styron never gets mad at Klotz. Where’s his anger? He get abused by this odious little man and his main response is depression and despair. Reading this essay I kept wanting to cry out, “God dammit, Bill, get mad! Get pissed off! Stand up for yourself!” Imagine how Henry Miller or Charles Bukowski or Gore Vidal or Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller would have treated this incident. They certainly wouldn’t have compared themselves to burdened-down animals. In the end, one either likes the personality of the author or one doesn’t and, despite all his talent and accomplishments, I doubt I will ever warm to Styron’s emotional passivity.

Still, if you’re a fan of Styron’s you’ll like this book. The essays are all of a personal nature. He smokes cigars (the “havanas” of the title) with Jack Kennedy. He attends Francoise Mitterand’s inauguration. He writes of his friendship with Truman Capote and James Baldwin. He travels cross-country with Terry Southern. Short pieces deal with censorship, movies, and his family’s slave-owning past. He’s dismissive of the list of the 100 best English-language books compiled by the Modern Library, even though he contributed to it. “I was a little shocked at what the ten of us had wrought, not only in respect to the list’s glaring omissions…but in respect to its generally oppressive stodginess.”

And to end on a note of praise, let me say that his description of first reading Truman Capote is spot-on:

The first story of his that I read was, I believe, published in Mademoiselle. After I finished it, I remember feeling stupefied by the talent in those pages. I thought myself a pretty good hand with words for a young fellow, but here was a writer whose gifts took my breath away. Here was an artist of my age who could make words dance and sing, change color mysteriously, perform feats of magic, provoke laughter, send a chill up the back, touch the heart – a full-fledged master of the language before he was old enough to vote.

Monday, September 08, 2008

An Arts Grab Bag


Modern Guilt by Beck. Immediately my mind free associates – Modern Love by David Bowie. Is there a connection? No, not really. Beck’s album is
a collection of 10 tight, well-crafted songs. They’re dense and multilayered, drawing on a wide range of influences, from surf music (“Gamma Ray”) to electronica to rock ‘n’ roll (“Soul of a Man” - my favorite). It’s a pleasant enough album and it’s all over in about 35 minutes, but it doesn’t amount to much lyrically or emotionally. It feels slight. One misses the depth and power evidenced on his 2002 release Sea Change.

Visual Arts

The Foster/White Gallery in Rainier Square is as good a place as any to see the strengths and weaknesses of Seattle’s art scene.

Among the best pieces in the gallery are Jamie Evrard’s still lifes of fruit. I like the quick and energetic brushstrokes; it's almost as if the painter was hungry and wanted to finish off the painting so she could eat the fruit. The colors are bright and the paint is often thick, giving the work a sensual appeal. I find that her work is best on a small scale, though. Her large canvases often turn into little more than a chaotic hodgepodge – an impression aggravated by her tendency to let the paint on the lower part of the canvas streak down to the bottom. Why she does this, I have no idea. But her smaller paintings are very good. I especially liked the ones in which Evrard adds a black bar to the painting to additionally frame the fruit (such as in Italia - Four Mandarins, seen above). It adds a concentration and intelligence to the piece.

Dale Lindman’s large abstracts (like Fire and Ice, left) were my favorites. I could lose myself for hours in these paintings. The colors and patterns pull me right in. These paintings feel industrial and yet organic at the same time. Lindman's work evokes the textures of steel, rust, dry and cracked earth, even the channels formed by running water.

Some of the pieces in the gallery were funny - intentionally so, I hope. Judging by Pink Swink (below, right) - which also would be the name of good fruit drink - Bratsa Bonifacho seems to have found inspiration for his art from the blocks of letters used in traditional typesetting as well as from the symbols menu in MS Word (check out the Wingdings set and you’ll see what I mean).

This being Seattle, there is a great deal of glasswork in the gallery – some of it is good, much of it mediocre (a.k.a. by Dale Chihuly).

John de Wit’s surreal glasswork either clicks with you or it doesn’t. His sculptures have the quality of an obsession, like a haunting set of images which the artist just can’t shake. It has the feeling of compulsion, which is good. However, if you don’t happen to share his visual hang-ups and quirks then his work may bore and baffle rather than engage you. In the first category, for me, was his series of what I can best describe as large hot-water bottles wearing crowns (oh, yeah, that's what they look like); whereas his series of sea-polyp/sponge-like sculptures (such as Snappy, left) belonged in the later group. Why did I like one but not the other? Who knows?

Emily Wood’s new paintings, at The Lisa Harris Gallery, are all landscapes of the Idaho and Montana countryside. Although she can do a good job of rendering light and sky these paintings fall short when it comes to capturing the beauty and grandeur of the American West. There’s no doubt she loves this terrain; she just can’t seem to convey that love to the viewer. I think this is due to her fondness for cluttering up her canvas with too many trees and shrubs. Everywhere you look there’s an unnecessary glob of foliage. A more stripped down, abstract approach would suit her better and play to her strengths. For instance, in Hawthorne in Fall (below) simply remove the tree in the center and the painting immediately opens up – suddenly the power of the landscape comes through. Less is more, Emily, less is more.


And finally, the opening scene of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame performed by animated legos.

Very entertaining - even though I would get rid of the music. Honestly, is there any medium Beckett isn't good in?