Sunday, December 20, 2009

Ben-Hur and Reality

Just watched Ben-Hur on TCM. My God, what a piece of crap!

I can’t believe I actually used to like this film. Admittedly, the last time I saw it I was a teenager but still – even then I should have known better…I really should have…

The main thing that caught my eye watching it this time around was just how freakin’ awesome that chariot race was. It's an amazing scene. In an odd way I think my appreciation of that scene now is enhanced by the fact that there are no cgi (computer generated images) involved in it. I'm so used to cgi in movies that when I see something like the chariot race in Ben-Hur the sheer reality of it sticks out. It turns out that computer generated special effects don’t improve current movies, they actually improve older ones. In Ben-Hur those are real horses and real drivers. Those are real people cheering in the arena (which is itself a huge set built on 18 acres outside Rome). When one of the chariots crashes, it’s a real stunt man taking a real tumble off it. Hell, somebody could’ve gotten killed.

I was recently watching Apocalypse Now and got a similar feeling of the power of the real. It was the scene of the helicopters taking off before they attack the village in the “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence. Nowdays a filmmaker would use cgi helicopters instead of real ones. But cgi helicopters would never stir up so much dust. (Think of the errily air-free atmosphere of Manhattan that Tobey Maguire swings through in the Spiderman movies.) And the way in which the choppers lumber into the air with their noses slightly down, like groggy animals rousing themselves to attack - these are details which would escape the eye of a computer programmer.

Don't get me wrong - I love what cgi can do in movies and some movies (The Lord of the Rings, Independence Day, etc.) are unthinkable without it. But the overuse of it has had the effect of cheapening the "specialness" of special effects and, even more perversely, created a situation in which the most impressive special effect may, in the end, turn out to be reality.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Motivation of Great Men

From "Fiction in History" (1973) by the British historian A.J.P. Taylor.
We [historians] manufacture heros simply because they occupy great postions. We forget that most of these heros were mainly concerned to show off and enjoy themselves - hunting, running after mistresses, building palaces, collecting works of art, or merely eating and drinking. If they carry this too far, we rebuke our heros for neglecting what we regard as their true historical duty of ruling. In my own opinion, most great men of the past were only there for the beer - the wealth, prestige and grandeur that went with power.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

In the past few weeks I’ve come across literary examples of each:

The Ugly

Finding myself recently laid off, I figured now was as good a time as any to leap into a book such as Zygmunt Bauman’s The Art of Life. What a promising title. How upbeat! Well, before Bauman tries to tell us anything about the art of life he should perhaps learn something about the art of writing. He is one of the worst writers you will ever come across. His book an exercise in academic turgidity. Here, for instance, he is attempting to explain the fact that a rise in a nation’s gross domestic product doesn’t always translate into an increase of human happiness:
The sole common denominator of the otherwise variegated products of human bodily and mental labor being the market price they command, the statistics of the ‘gross national product’ aimed at grasping the growth or decline of the products’ availability record the amount of money changing hand in the course of buying and selling transactions.
In plain English, “The GDP only measures economic activity.” At another point he refers to the happiness people get from “gathering around a table laid with food that has been jointly cooked with its sharing in mind,” by which he means a meal with family or friends (two groups which are themselves referred to as “person-who-count to one’s intimate thoughts.”)

Oy vey.

The Bad

No one would doubt that unlike Bauman, Norman Mailer was a very good writer. It was in the art of thinking, though, that he sometimes encountered problems. The New York Review of Books has been publishing some of his letters and the following one, a 1965 missive about Saul Bellow’s Herzog, is a good example of Mailerian imbecility:

What I meant when I said Bellow has no ideas was not that there were no ideas in Herzog to be pondered, but rather that these ideas were not Bellow’s own theses, but rather ideas he had picked up in his reading. His mind is very intelligent, very cultured, very cultivated. He’s read a million books and remembered them, but he is not an original thinker. It’s not that I’m that sure about anything, it’s that I go with the animal part of my brain when I’m encountering an idea I have not met before, and none of the ideas in Herzog were in that sense the least bit fresh.
Well, on that basis, none of us have any original or fresh ideas, least of all Norman Mailer - who, as this letter reveals, is solidly enslaved to the modernist cult of originality (picked up from some book, no doubt). If getting ideas from other people or from books is grounds for dismissing a writer then we might as well throw out Shakespeare, Dante, the ancient Greeks, Milton, Joyce, Proust, Kafka, Mann, Balzac – well, everyone actually.

And besides what does it mean to “go with the animal part of your brain” when you encounter new ideas? Does the “animal part” even have the ability to understand “new ideas,” in the sense Mailer means? And how would Mailer have put this into practice? If some scientist was explaining a new and original idea to him (and nowdays only scientists have genuinely new and original ideas) how would the author of Marilyn evaluate it. Would the animal part of his brain tell him to eat the scientist, like a bear’s would? Or would he be like a cat and start purring and rubbing himself against the scientist’s legs?

The Good

Victor Serge’s 1946 novel The Long Dusk is set in Paris in the 1930s. A participant in the Russian Revolution, Serge was an anarchist and novelist who left us excellent accounts of both the nightmare of Stalinism (The Murder of Comrade Tulayev) and the nightmare of the 20th-century in general (Unforgiving Years). His view is apocalyptic; his characters caught in political upheavals which they cannot control or even comprehend. We don’t live under the volcano, Serge seems to say, the volcano is under us – and it is erupting.

How, then, to establish the right tone for the novel? Here are the two opening sentences:
The whole world doesn’t collapse at once. A few little corners of the crumbled ant-hill remain almost intact; and in these corners the ants may think that their peaceful world is still with them.
How beautiful. It immediately sets the tone of foreboding and doom. It also established a certain distance – not a cold or callous one, mind you, but rather a jaded yet sympathetic one. Serge is like an Edward Gibbon who has seen too much. Both men write as dispassionate observers because the scope of their subject requires it but Serge seems to know that there is no safety or comfort in that stance. Both are men of irony – cynics, even - but Serge knows that irony, in the end, will not help you.

Monday, February 23, 2009

As a Man Grows Older...

I recently turned 45 and I’ve noticed that as I get older women are becoming more attractive to me in new and often unique – even idiosyncratic - ways. I don’t know why this is so. But I’m starting to find as I age that their little personality traits and quirks can be completely enchanting.

For example, a few weeks ago, I was going through an art gallery in Pioneer Square, taking notes and hoping to get a blog posting out of the show (I didn't). One of the girls working in the gallery saw me scribbling away in my notepad and came up to talk to me. She asked me what I thought of the art. She was cute. Mid-twenties. A little chunky, but not too much. Fun to talk to. Pleasant to the eyes. Especially pleasant to the eyes was her large cleavage, which her low cut top accentuated. I made it clear to her that I wasn't a collector but nonetheless we continued to chat about the paintings in the show and about art in general. She was a good talker – open, lively. She immediately noticed my New Jersey accent. Even though she was Northwest born and bred, her parents were both from the East Coast so she was familiar with the accent and the attitude. We talked about differences between coasts. All very routine. Engaging in these sorts of casual, quasi-flirtatious interactions with women is one of the nice things about being single. Yet despite both the good time I was having with her, and her enticing chest (just don't look at them, I kept telling myself, just keep your eyes locked with hers!), I wasn’t about to ask her out. She’s too young for me. It’s totally inappropriate, I told myself. Better luck next time, Grandpa.

Then it happened. I mentioned Dale Chihuly. Suddenly a disdainful smirk lit up her face. "Tch!" she said and contemptuously dismissed him with a wide wave of her hand. It was charming, spontaneous, sassy. I was a goner. Fuck the age difference! I have got to ask this girl out! She’s fun. She's exactly what I need in my life - someone who can call bullshit on things and do it with style! Something in the pure insouciance of her gesture won me over. It shows a great strength of character to be able to work in the Seattle art world and still have enough sense of yourself to dismiss the values of that world if they conflict with yours.

Now, at 24 that gesture would scarcely have registered with me. All I would be thinking is: nice boobs, cute, single – gimme. But by 45, though, one begins to realize that all women’s boobs (or butts or legs or whatever) are basically the same, it’s all variations on a theme. And with enough exposure, even the most amazing theme becomes tedious. New things begin to catch your eye, your tastes begin to grow. In my forties I find myself just as attracted to the intangible qualities of a woman’s character as I am to her body. It’s not that the physical diminishes; it’s that the psychological or personal qualities of the woman, the things that set her apart from everyone else, start to make her even more desirable. They give her a new luster.

So, what happened with the girl at the art gallery? Well, I hit on her, of course. I told her that the best and most little known art collection in Seattle is the one at the University of Washington Medical Center (which is true). Since I worked in the building at the time I told her that if she was interested she come by and I would give her a tour. Then I gave her my phone number and we parted. But – alas - she never called. Oh, well.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Noir City

SIFF is holding their annual “Noir City” film festival February 13 – 19 at the Seattle Center. This year the theme is “Newspaper Noir” with most of the movies set in the world of tough, gritty urban newsrooms of the 40s and 50s. How appropriate, how “ripped from today’s headlines”, as it were. I don’t know if you could make a believable crime film set in a contemporary newsroom. Unless boring your readers and destroying circulation are crimes, it’s hard to imagine most modern reporters being capable of something like murder. It’s just beyond them. But the newsrooms of the 40s and 50s – or their mystique, at least – are a different matter entirely. They crackle with noir potential. There’s some sort of connection between noir and the newspaper world of that time – urban, nocturnal, full of desperate and shady characters. Somehow press-themed pulp titles with cheesy taglines immediately spring to mind (Cub Reporter - “He buried more than the lead!” or Copy Girl – “There wasn’t a guy in the newsroom who hadn’t put her to bed, too!”).

I’m going to try to see as many of these films as possible and report back on them. I probably won’t see them all (the laundry doesn’t do itself, you know), but it’s hard to resist any kind of series featuring the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Kirk Douglas, Howard Duff (three times), Vincent Price, Ida Lupino, Dana Andrews, Claude Rains, Tony Curtis, Raymond Burr, Ray Milland (twice), Charles Laughton, Alan Ladd, Donna Reed (twice), Dan Duryea, Broderick Crawford, and Shelly Winters. On the directorial front the festival has films by Fritz Lang, Richard Brooks, Billy Wilder, Michael Curtiz, Anthony Mann and a host of lesser known but quintessential film noir directors such as Phil Karlson and John Farrow. Heck, even Samuel Fuller manages to make his presence felt (see below). Another attraction of this festival is the introduction of each film by host Eddie Muller (whose name itself sounds like that of a character from one of the movies). He gives some background on each film, tells us what makes it unique (and often how rare the print is), situates it within the tradition of noir, and – yes, I admit it – is the source of just about all the fascinating film trivia which you’ll pick up from this post. He is an excellent host.

Friday, February 13

Deadline USA (1952)
This film is a gem. Clearly, it’s the Citizen Kane of the newsroom/crime genre. Humphrey Bogart is Ed Hutcheson, the editor of New York Day, which has just been sold to its competitor and is being closed down. With pink slips issued and the clock ticking, Bogie tries to save the paper by solving a murder and nabbing the city’s leading mobster Thomas Rienzi (played with Gandolfini-esque smolder by Martin Gabel).

The film’s attitude towards the press is just this side of worshipful. How worshipful, you ask? Well, every time Bogart starts talking about how closing down newspapers undermines freedom and endangers democracy “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” plays in the background. (That this entire festival is being co-sponsored by the doomed Seattle Post-Intelligencer added much irony to his speeches.) Meanwhile, Bogart’s newsroom of tough, cynical, hard-drinking, wise-cracking reporters (Jim Backus is one of them) follow every lead to bust the bad guys. In the end, Bogart’s in the room with the printing presses ready to run off the last paper, the edition which will indict Rienzi. The mobster calls him there and starts threatening him. Bogart’s response? He gives the order to turn on the presses. When Rienzi asks what all that noise is, Bogie shouts into the phone “That’s the press, baby! The press! And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing!”

The performances in this film are all outstanding and the dialogue has the fantastic 40s-style crackle. When one of the paper’s photographers makes a cheap crack about a murder victim, Bogart fires him on the spot. “That was your mistake,” he tells him. “But I’ve been working here four years,” the man protests. “That was my mistake,” Bogart replies. Later, he playfully suggest to the septuagenarian Ethel Barrymore (who resembles an elderly Gore Vidal in drag) that they get romantically involved. She eyes him icily, smiles, raises her scotch to her lips and mutters, “You’re too old.” (Oh, Christ! It is Gore Vidal!)

Scandal Sheet (1953)
Based on the novel The Dark Page by Samuel Fuller, Broderick Crawford stars as the unscrupulous editor of a sleazy New York tabloid. When his estranged wife shows up and threatens to blackmail him, he kills her and tries to cover it up. Soon his own scandal-mongering reporters, led by John Derek (yes, that John Derek), are trying to solve the crime, drawing the net ever tighter around Crawford. Meanwhile, circulation skyrockets.

This is an outstanding film - tight and gripping. But the main appeal of it is Broderick Crawford. Large and loud, he dominates the screen and my only complaint with this film is that once he commits the murder he doesn’t do much more than sit at his desk and sweat a lot while the second bananas start to get more screen time. John Derek and Donna Reed (the love interest) are very good but they can’t compete with him. In the intro to the film Muller commented that actors like Crawford and Bogart would have trouble getting work today. I’m not so sure I agree with that. After all, if Crawford resembles anyone it’s…well, James Gandolfini (again) – both are big, fleshy, domineering men. Except Gandolfini can project a malevolence that would never have been acceptable in old Hollywood. Nonetheless, Crawford was an inspired pick for this role, which was originally supposed to go to Humphrey Bogart (with Howard Hawks directing). Crawford was a better choice. He's tougher, more threatening, rougher around the edges and utterly lacking in any elegance or charm. Perfect.

Saturday, February 14

The Unsuspected (1947)
Frankly, the story of this film makes absolutely no sense. Suffice to say that radio announcer Claude Rains is up to no good. The main appeal of this movie, though, is its visual style; this is Hollywood “high noir” at its most lush and moody. Director Michael Curtiz really knows how to deliver a visual punch (that final shot in Mildred Pierce is unforgettable) and this film has plenty of them. So don’t even try to pay attention to the story, just relax and soak up the ambiance…

Desperate (1947)
Standard “B” film fare. An innocent man (Steve Brodie) gets caught up inadvertently taking part in a robbery and has to go on the lam to protect himself and his wife. If the cops don’t get him, the bad guys - led by Raymond Burr - will. Not much in this about the press, but it was a solid enough outing, directed by Anthony Mann in his “B” phase. According to Muller, this is the first film to ever use the swinging overhead light for dramatic impact. Hitchcock later adopted it for the end of Psycho and Jean-Pierre Melville took it from Hitchcock and used in Le Doulos. Do these geniuses ever stop ripping off other people's ideas?

Sunday, February 15

Ace in the Hole (1951)
Missed this one.

Cry of the Hunted (1953)
Oh, boy, missed this one, too.

Monday, February 16

The Big Clock (1948)
Excellent adaptation of Kenneth Fearing’s classic 1946 novel. Ray Milland plays the editor of a crime magazine published by press titan (and tyrant) Earl Janoth. When Janoth’s mistress is murdered, Milland is assigned to investigate but soon begins to realize that all the evidence is pointing at his innocent self. Charles Laughton is magnificent as Earl Janoth, you hate him from the first moment he steps off the elevator til the final moment he…well, gets back on the elevator. You hate him from the soles of his shoes to ends of his little mustache, which he doesn’t quite curl, but rather gently touches and strokes with his pinkie finger, as if it was a small animal he wanted to calm before eating. As an added bonus, this film has a second heavy, the scarred and saurian George Macready, who plays Janoth’s lawyer and right hand man. They are the best bad guys in the festival so far.

Strange Triangle (1946)
No film noir festival is complete without at least one femme fatale and Swedish screen siren Signe Hasso plays her in this taut “B” thriller about bank embezzlement and a scheming housewife. Hasso was billed as “the next Garbo” when she made her first Hollywood film in 1943 (the original Garbo had retired two years earlier) – but it was not to be. And you can see why from this film. She’s good, but not that good. She’s not beautiful or compelling enough to be a believable femme fatale (think Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner). Still, she and the rest of the cast give it their best in this 65 minute “B” feature. It’s pleasant enough.

Tuesday, February 17

Chicago Deadline (1949)
No one can mutter “Get me some coffee, will you, baby?” and make it sound so damn cool as Alan Ladd can. In Chicago Deadline he’s a reporter who stumbles across a dead body in a sleazy boarding house. That body belongs to fallen woman Donna Reed – that’s right, Donna Reed. As he begins to investigate the life of this good girl gone bad, the windy city’s seamy underbelly comes to light. This film is a true rarity, there’s only one known print in existence. And it’s a good film, too, whose only weak point, to my mind, was Donna Reed. I never quite believe that she’s a fallen woman. And I don’t think she believes it either. She’s too sunny, too serene, her idea of fallenness is simply to stop smiling and look very serious. Still, it’s always important for actors to try to play against type from time to time so it’s worth seeing for that reason alone. It’s also worth seeing for Alan Ladd, who never played against type at all. He’s a kick to watch, though – cool, smooth, and delivering his tough guy lines with a gusto untainted by the knowledge that many decades later some in the audience might regard them as borderline kitsch.

Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949)
And no one can mutter “So long, copper” quite the way Dan Duryea can (below). In this beaut, he’s a gangster released to Federal Agent Howard Duff to help him bust open a drug smuggling ring. That is, if sexy Shelly Winters doesn’t get in the way! This film was fantastic. Everything in it works. The acting is good, the plot has many twists and turns, think of it as a “B+” film. Heck, even the title is outstanding. Festival host Eddie Muller and some audience members played a quick round of “Name That ‘Johnny’ Movie”: Johnny Angel, Johnny Guitar, Johnny Trouble, Johnny Gunman, etc. Well, hands down, this is the best “Johnny” themed movie title ever. This film was originally called “Cocaine” but the production code of the time wouldn’t allow that. In fact, all through the film it’s not really clear exactly what the drug being smuggled actually is. Cocaine? Heroin? Sudafed? We’re never told. And it really doesn’t matter. It’s a dynamite film nonetheless. It even features a very young Tony Curtis (listed as Anthony Curtis in the titles) playing a mute killer – which means you’ll never have to worry about him saying “I love you, Spartacus.” It can’t get any better than that.

Wednesday, February 18

While the City Sleeps (1956)
This film is pretty bad. Despite its amazing cast, which includes Dana Andrews, Vincent Price, George Sanders, Howard Duff and a mink-bedecked Ida Lupino, it never seems to rouse itself out of its (drink induced?) stupor. It is very slow paced. In fact, it should have been called While the Audience Sleeps or maybe While the Cast Sleeps It Off. It is also just plain weird at times. For instance, at one moment Ida Lupino, for no discernable reason, begins to click her lower teeth against the rim of a champagne glass she’s just drunk from. Huh? The story concerns a psycho killer who’s picking off pretty women in New York City but most of film is about the office politics of a news conglomerate headed by Vincent Price. The two stories never quite connect and we don’t really care about either. Director Fritz Lang can't seem to bring any of the elements of this tale together in a satisfying way. And when even Fritz Lang can’t effectively tell the story of psychopathic killer, we’re all in a bad way

Shakedown (1950)
Another gem. Howard Duff plays a “Weegee”-style newspaper photographer whose ruthless ambition gets him into trouble with the wrong kind of people. Duff puts in a magnificent performance: he’s callous, ambitious, manipulative, and criminal. It was based on a short story entitled “The Magnificent Heel”, and that’s an accurate description of the main character. And it’s a testament to Duff’s talent that he can still make us care about this repulsive character. Despite all the sleazy things he does, we never really want to see him destroyed. Like the other characters in the film, we want to see him reform. He’s not really such a bad guy underneath it all. Right? This is Duff’s film. You can’t take your eyes off him. And he plays this role for all it’s worth – shouting, strutting through the newsroom, at one point even pirouetting. He’s a ball of energy, a man on the make, full of moxie and chutzpah, and unencumbered by ethics of any sort. And if his fate is unfortunate, we also know that he would be the last person on earth to expect our sympathy or pity.

Thursday, February 19

Alias Nick Beale (1949)
In this noir-influenced retelling of the Faust legend Thomas Mitchell plays a politician who sells his soul to the devil (played by Ray Milland) in exchange for a governor’s seat. Darkness, deep shadows, dramatic lighting, fog – director John Farrow uses every device of “high noir” style to create a feeling of menace and dread. And he pulls it off, even eliciting screams of surprise at one of Ray Milland’s many creepy sudden appearances. The performances are all good and it’s a testament to Farrow’s talent that the deep religiosity of the film (in the end the Bible wins – like you doubted that) never becomes preachy or obnoxious. Many of the films in this series are new prints and this is one of them. According to host Eddie Muller this particular print had only ever been show one before. Well, it was gorgeous. I’ve never seen fog so luminous.

Night Editor (1946)
A cop (William Gargan) and his beautiful married girlfriend (Janis Carter) have a rendezvous on the beach. There they witness the brutal murder of a young girl. He’s horrified. She’s turned on. Thus begins one of the cheesiest, raunchiest, tawdriest, most over-the-top (and, hence, most enjoyable) “B” films of the 40s. This film is unbelievably kitsch. And it’s all thanks to Janis Carter. She is a magnificent femme fatale: rich, beautiful, icy, immoral, sexually degenerate and totally irresistible. The screen comes alive every time she’s on it. And the breathless ur-pulp dialogue between her and Gargan has to be heard to be believed; if you merely read it on the page, you would assume it was a parody of noir – and a very good one at that. This film was delicious. And a perfect way to end the festival.
So if you've enjoyed this posting (or enjoyed any of the movies in this festival) check out the organization responsible for rescuing and restoring America's Noir heritage - the Film Noir Foundation.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Acres of Clams

By Knute Berger

It’s hard to take this book seriously. There’s something about Knute Berger that invites derision and mockery. It’s not just his physical appearance (short, rotund, bearded – sort of like the Comic Book Store Guy from The Simpsons, but nicer and furrier); it’s something about the writer’s persona he’s adopted that I find ludicrous and faintly contemptible. He fancies himself a mossback, a “curmudgeon with a conscience”, an earthy, contentious smart-ass (but with a big heart) who’s always on the look out what’s authentic and what’s fake here in Puget Sound.

Actually, he is nothing of the sort. He is, to vary a phrase of Orwell’s, “a licensed curmudgeon” – someone who criticizes but only within the limits set by those in power. He presents no real challenge to the people who count. He is harmless. If he wishes to posture as someone outside the system “telling it like it is”, the powerful will gladly grant him that boon and even play along. He’s sort of like the employee who shows up for work on time everyday, never slacks off, but reads Bakunin during his lunch hour.

Take, for instance, “Paul Allen’s Kool-Aid”, one of the few good pieces in this dreary little book. In it, Berger goes to the sales showroom of Allen’s Vulcan Real Estate company, which owns thousand of acres of property on South Lake Union that it wants to develop (with city financing, of course). There Berger sees a full-blown depiction (with dioramas!) of what the area will look like if Allen gets his way. Berger isn’t buying any of this and is rightly contemptuous of Allen’s plans. He watches a promotional film about what life could be like in Seattle in 2010:

It’s a rosy future: bars, coffeehouses, REI yuppies, trolleys – nothing like we have today, of course. An upbeat newscast from 2010…casually refers to the Seattle Mariners being in the hunt for their second consecutive world title, just to remind you this is fantasy.
Now, Berger is concerned that developers and the so-called needs of the market place tend to ride roughshod over local communities. They often trample on the environment and undermine Seattle's unique quality of life. I completely agree. So he’s against Paul Allen, right? Think again. The piece ends with praise of Allen

But you have to give Paul Allen credit, for while his vision is less bold, it is rendered most tangibly. He has realized that the race to the future will be won by a two-pronged campaign fought in the trenches and in the stars [“in the stars”? What does that even mean?] His staff is fighting for South Lake Union in the streets – lobbying, planning, organizing, co-opting, cajoling, selling. Yet they’re also investing in getting their vision out there in three dimensions. No one else has articulated a more compelling alternative that the public can see, feel, and imagine.
So the diorama really worked for you, eh, Knute? One little three dimensional display and his principles went right out the window. Now that’s journalistic integrity for you. No, despite his posturing, at the end of the day, Berger is as gung-ho as any Seattle Chamber of Commerce hack. EMP? He loves it! The Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park? It’s brilliant! Peter Steinbreuck? Heck of a guy! Berger writes of the city’s chaotic political process:

It may look like chaos – it may even be chaotic at times – but it hasn’t stopped growth or progress or prosperity. Our process, such as it is, has resulted in one of the most loved, most cherished, most desirable, most habitable metropolitan regions in the country.
Please, don’t get the wrong idea about this book, though. Before we arrive at these oases of provincial boosterism, we have to slog through miles and miles of whining and complaint. Berger is a world-class crank. And a tedious one, at that. If this book feels like a rehash, that’s because it is, being composed entirely of pieces Berger has previously written for publications like Seattle Weekly, Eastsideweek, and the website Crosscut (which has such a geriatric contributor base that it should be called Cheesecut).

Why does Knute Berger write? If it is to inform us, he doesn’t do a very good job. The Seattle reader will not learn anything new from this book; and if you’re new to Seattle the lack of background information will render it largely impenetrable to you. The historical information he provides rarely rises above the level of antiquarian trivia.

Does Berger hope to motivate us? And if so, to do what? He doesn’t seem to feel that there’s anything we can really do about any of the myriad of things he hates. He has that Scandanavian/Calvinist sense of helplessness. Developers suck – but the politicians who would limit them can’t be trusted. Boeing sucks – but all the politicians are in their pocket, so what can we do. Politicians suck, too – but they just reflect the will of the stupid, stupid populace. As for the people: “The people are incorrigible.”

Berger seems to feel that what we all need to do is embrace the authentic mossback values expressed in restaurateur/folksinger Ivar Haglund’s song – and later, ad jingle - “Acres of Clams”:

No longer a slave to ambition
I laugh at the world and its shams,
As I think of my present condition
Surrounded by acres of clams.

And now that I’m used to the climate,
I think that if ever man found
A spot to live easy and happy,
That Eden is on Puget Sound.

Well, that happy, easy-living man on the banks of Puget Sound is clearly not Knute Berger. And, neither, alas, will it be the readers of this book.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Quick Shots

Opera & Death

The heroine of Philippe Boesmans’s surreal and absurdist new opera Yvonne, Princess of Burgundy (which had it’s triumphant premiere in Paris last month) doesn’t sing at all and in the end dies by choking on a fishbone. So, I guess we’ll have to amend the saying “It isn’t over til the fat lady sings” to “It isn’t over til the fat lady chokes on her food” which, if you’ve ridden the bus lately, is kind of true.

Also, there’s no death like an opera death (poor Yvonne notwithstanding). People die in movies, TV shows, novels and on stage. But only in opera do they kick the bucket with so much style, with such orgasmic exhilaration. Take a great TV death like the killing of Sal (“Big Pussy”) Bompensiero from The Sopranos. How dull by contrast to the average opera. Some fat goombah in a jogging suit gets shot on a boat. Whoop-dee-freakin’-doo. How does that compare to the death of Don Giovanni - who’s dragged down into Hell by a chorus of demons? Not even close.

Movies, too, can’t keep up with opera in the amazing death department. Probably the best movie death is James Cagney’s from White Heat (below). (His death in The Roaring Twenties is also considered a classic even though I prefer Humphrey Bogart’s death from the same movie). The shootout which ends The Wild Bunch is still amazing after 40 years; and Don Corleone’s last jaunt through the tomato patch (sorry, no clip) is unforgettable. But still, none of these can compare to the finale of Wagner’s Götterdammerung in which Brünnhilde (on horseback, no less!) leaps onto her husband’s burning funeral pyre while flames engulf the globe, destroying the Gods and purifying the world. Yikes. And the crazy thing is that that’s a happy ending. In most movies the destruction of the world is generally considered a bad thing, only in opera would it be regarded as spiritually uplifting.

Beautiful Words

The 100 most beautiful English words. Alas, “larvae” is not one of them. “Crepuscular” also didn’t make the list. Oh, well. As a bonus, here are the 100 funniest English words.

WaPo's Book World RIP

There’s been a lot of on-line hand wringing over the news that The Washington Post will no longer publish Book World, it’s stand-alone book review supplement to it’s Sunday edition. Terry Teachout rightly thinks the fuss is unwarranted:

I've said it before, but it's worth repeating: it is the destiny of serious arts journalism to migrate to the Web. This includes newspaper arts journalism. Most younger readers--as well as a considerable number of older ones, myself among them--have already made that leap.

Rock & Roll Awesomeness

Meat Loaf will appear with a cartoon dog in a children’s show to help encourage kids to read more. In his episode he will read (and I’m not making this up) "The Lamb Who Came to Dinner."

New York City vs. Seattle

In the most recent issue of The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross writes about how inexpensive it can be to hear much of the best music available in New York City. He attends the Metropolitan Opera (where the cheapest seats are fifteen dollars), the New York Philharmonic (a rehearsal ticket for sixteen dollars), and eight other events over the course of seven days. Total expenditures: eighty-one dollars.

Reading this I couldn’t help but compare it to how expensive the arts are here in Seattle. Good luck getting into the Seattle Opera for fifteen dollars. Let’s face it – we are not an arts friendly city. Seattle Opera, the Seattle Symphony, SAM – all of them get massive financial support from the city and the state and yet give very little back. I recently bought a pair of tickets to see a play at the Seattle Rep; mine was thirty-five dollars, the one for my senior-citizen mother: thirty-five dollars. Seattle has always had an inferiority-complex regarding New York City. Well, when it come to making the arts available to its citizens that sense of inferiority is well-deserved.

Monday, January 26, 2009

LUCO at Meany Hall

It’s always a thrill to watch a group of artists rise to the occasion. The artists I’m thinking of here are the Lake Union Civic Orchestra and the occasion was their concert on Saturday night at the University of Washington’s Meany Hall. This was the first time they had performed at Meany, which is a larger auditorium than their usual venue in Town Hall. And at first the larger space seemed to be presenting them with some problems. The all-German program opened with Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries and the strings seemed to have difficulty filling the concert hall. They seemed a little weak, watery. They needed to project more. However, since most of the heavy lifting in Ride of the Valkyries is done by the brass and percussion, this wasn’t too much of a problem. The piece came off with a bang, even though it struck me that the strings hadn’t quite found their groove.

However, when baritone Clayton Brainerd came out to sing Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music the groove was found. Brainerd is a mountain of man – well over six feet tall, broad-shouldered, big-bellied, a line-backer with a voice to match. He has presence. One pities the actors who have to play mere giants opposite him in Das Rheingod. Now, Brainerd had no problem projecting into the auditorium. And whether it was his example or the power of the music or the excellent conducting of Christophe Chagnard, the strings finally sang, easily filling the hall to match Brainerd’s beautiful performance.

Mahler’s First Symphony made up the second half of the evening and that, too, was outstanding: fresh, engaging, rousing when it needed to be and at times beautifully meditative. Of course, if you don’t believe me, you should at least believe the behavior of the two or three dozen children in the audience, none of whom started whining or crying to leave during the concert. (Even though I did see one or two tots jolt awake suddenly when the final movement’s fortissimo hit them.) By the end of the evening there was no doubt that this ensemble was capable of playing larger venues.

LUCO is a non-profit orchestra whose performers are almost all volunteers. And part of the charm of the concert was the cozy ambiance between the musicians and the audience, many of whom are family members or friends (full disclosure – I know no one in LUCO.). During the intermission many of the musicians could be seen socializing in the lobby with the rest of us. These are people who love their art. They are passionate about music.

Hopefully, if they ever again decide they want to just let loose and kick out the jams, mofos, (note to Jimmy Page: Wagner is the hammer of the Gods!) they will return to Meany Hall. Till then, you can find them at their regular home at Town Hall where they will be performing two more concerts for the season, one on April 17th, the other on June 19th.


Friday, January 23, 2009

I Yawn, Therefore I Am

Now, there are few lives as devoid of drama as that of the 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes, and Roberto Rossellini’s 1974 film Cartesius proves this. It strains at holding the viewer’s interest. After all, a life of study and scholarly contemplation doesn’t present a lot of opportunities for dramatic action. It suffers from a general shortage of dramatic tension. Will Descartes write that treatise he keeps promising everyone? Will he more faithfully maintain his correspondence with his friends to tell them his ideas? Will he stay in Holland or return to Paris? Has he found the peace and serenity he so dearly needs for his work? There’s not a lot here for Rossellini to build on. See Descartes cogitate. Cogitate, Descartes, cogitate.

This film is as dry and stiff as the algebra which its subject matter helped create. At 2 hours and 40 minutes, it is monotonous. Rossellini’s visual style, normally austere, is here pared down completely. Every scene seems to have the same rhythm. We begin with a wide shot of a group of people, usually in a large brightly lit room (tavern, lecture hall, salon). As the characters talk and talk and talk, sometimes the camera will slowly zoom in to a medium shot. Then the camera slowly zooms out. Close-ups are rare. Reaction shots are almost nonexistent (I counted only one). From time to time, Mario Nascimbene’s dreary atonal music (composed of orchestra, harpsichord, and bells) will surge in the background. It is all very off-putting and alienating. This film is so cold it makes Kubrick look warm and fuzzy.

Ugo Cardea does the best he can playing Descartes. He is reserved and aloof. Dressed in a large hat, a black outfit with a long cape, shiny boots and a sword always at his side, he resembles (as he struts around, pontificating, with arms akimbo) nothing less than a somber one of the Three Musketeers. The rest of the cast are forgettable since they only serve as intellectual strait-men for Descartes to philosophize with (or at, to be precise.) This film is not entirely devoid of interest. It contains one of the creepiest looking automatons you’ll ever see. And the white bird-like masks which people have to wear when the plague breaks out are hauntingly surreal.

Still, this film is a dud. Although it does a tolerably good job of explaining Descartes's philosophy and his importance to science, a more traditional documentary, rather than this so-called docudrama, would have been better. Drama can be an excellent vehicle to discuss ideas – as the works of George Bernard Shaw and Tom Stoppard show – but it has to be done with a light hand. And Roberto Rossellini has many talents but deftness of touch is not one of them. He is going to educate us for our own good whether we like it or not. Subsequently, the dialogue in Cartesius is bookish, ponderous and slightly ludicrous. For instance, here is Descartes expounding his ideas in an elegant salon surrounded by listeners:

Descartes: …In my treatise, I also prove, with absolute clarity, the existence in me and in the world of a thinking substance distinct from the corporeal, but which of these two is the nature of God? I shall prove that God can certainly not be a composite of two substances: the corporeal and the thinking, because the mixture would be a sign of imperfection.

Fancily-Dressed Lady: Dear René, you speak of the existence of the soul and of God in a very unusual way. You have moved me.

First Gentleman: Your design is very bold and terribly shrewd.

Second Gentleman: But your division of reality into corporeal substance and thinking substance will raise many objections.

Descartes: I shall answer them all. Meanwhile, I must publish my treatise as soon as possible.
Cartesius was originally made for Italian television. Back in the early 60s Rossellini held a press conference and announced that movies were a dead art form. Why he would adopt such a petulant attitude is beyond me. After all, when you’re a famous Italian film director who also gets to bang Ingrid Bergman on a regular basis I think it’s safe to say that the movies have been very, very good to you. Stranger still, he felt that television (and Italian television, at that) was the art form of the future. Fired by this educational zeal, he began to crank out dramas based on the lives of important historical figures. Three of them have recently been assembled in a box set by The Criterion Collection as part of their no-frills Eclipse series. Cartesius is one, the other two are about Pascal and the Medicis (now that one could be good - lots of stabbing and poisoning). Separately, Criterion has also released Rossellini’s The Taking of Power by Louis XIV. How these films fare in comparison to Cartesius, I have yet to discover (and I will let you know when I do) but if Cartesius proves anything it is that an artist can sell out his talent to his own worst pedagogical ambitions just as readily (and ruinously) as he can sell out to political or commercial ones.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire
by Joseph Epstein

If I had to list the one video clip I watch most on YouTube there would be many contenders. But the winner would not be the amazing ending of Lost in Translation or the awesome confrontation between Gandalf and the Witch-King of Angmar which was deleted from the theatrical version of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Nor would it be clips of the comic genius of Alec Baldwin or the comic genius of Sam Kinison. It wouldn’t even be clips of large-breasted Japanese girls cavorting in bikinis. Oh, no. The winner would this (from Swing Time):

This book on Fred Astaire is so bad I loved it. I couldn’t put it down. Joe Epstein is an exceptionally good bad writer. In the future I will purchase any book he writes for the pure joy of watching the amazing – and unintentionally hilarious – things he can do with (to?) our language. He is a linguistic car-wreck, and yet a delight to read for that very reason. This is a rare talent. Most bad writers are boring or repetitive or simply lack any feel for words. Not so with Joe. He is fresh and original. He writes flowingly, is opinionated and moves things along briskly. He has a feel for our language. And that feel is wrong. Words, grammar, metaphors, syntax – scarcely a single part of the English language doesn’t get tripped up, run over and mangled in these 191 pages.

Epstein writes in a jaunty, conversational tone which at times degenerates into showbiz clichés: “This was it, Broadway, the big time.” “Whatever the magical ingredients that made for movie charm, [Astaire] possessed them. He lit up the joint – any joint he may have been in – turning the silver screen quite golden.” In comparison to the refined and elegant Myrna Loy, Ginger Rogers “was more in the mode of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of girl. But what you were likely to get wasn’t bad at all; it was pretty damn fine, in fact.” He even does sound effects: bang! poof!

Some of his metaphors are laughable. After returning from their triumphal dancing tour of England, Fred and his older sister Adele “were leading the good life, the high life, a fine breeze stirring them gently on their way in the fast lane.” Later he tells us: “The young [film producer] Pandro S. Berman saw that the Astaire-Rogers coupling was the white donkey upon which he and RKO could ride into Jerusalem. Like Astaire, Berman soon acquired a ten percent share in the gross of those movies, and so perhaps rode into Jerusalem instead in a Rolls-Royce.”

Beginning a sentence about how Astaire looks better on screen in black and white than in color, Epstein adopts a distinctly unusual syntax: “Something there is inherently glamorous about the combination of black and white…” Yes, there is, Master Yoda, yes, there is.

Here he seems to think that parts of speech are interchangeable. “No one has ever been able to explain the clustering of talent that shows up at certain points in history: [for instance] the genius composers who arrived in Austria and Germany…”

Most assessments of the Astaire-Rogers duo have treated the latter as a lesser talent. Epstein tries to praise her and the results are hilarious:

Despite all the talk of Fred Astaire bringing “class” to the partnership, it might be closer to the truth to say that it was Ginger Rogers who brought class – specifically something of the lower middle or maybe even the working class. In pursuing Ginger Rogers in the movies they did together, Astaire may have been going a bit down-market, in the way that Charles Swann goes after Odette de Crecy, the cocotte of Marcel Proust’s great novel.
And also:

In a great many stills of the two dancing, one notes Astaire’s large hands around Rogers’s waist, rather like a short but firm leash, always in place lest she wander too far.
And then there’s this one:

[Rogers’s] kittenish sexiness, with a strong aroma of the witty behind it [WTF!], is what Fred Astaire needed to play against to show himself to greatest advantage…Ginger, as the name suggests, provided the perfect seasoning.
So, if I’ve got this right, Epstein’s idea of praising Ginger Rogers is to compare her to, by turns, a whore, a dog and a condiment.

This book is light and fluffy, and Epstein often struggles to come up with something profound to say about his subject. If, like me, you don’t know much about Fred Astaire, you’ll pick up some interesting information about him. I learned, for instance, that Astaire wore a toupé, that his shoe size was 8½, and that he was no shorter than 5’ 7” but no taller than 5’ 10” (it turns our that his exact height is in dispute (and I didn’t know that either!)). I learned that when George Gershwin died the last word he uttered was: “Astaire.” (Are they sure it wasn’t: “Despair”?)

I also learned about Astaire’s early years when he and Adele were a famous dance team. She’s quite a character: coarse, foul-mouthed, beautiful and sexually precocious. At seventeen she admitted “I’ve already got quite used to people grabbing my fanny backstage – that is, when they weren’t all homos.” When she caught someone looking up her dress she asked him whether he saw “the ace of spades.” “Why the fuck shouldn’t I say what I feel?” she once replied when the prim Fred apologized for her behavior. In her mid-thirties she left the stage and married into the English aristocracy. But her spirit was undimmed: she once made a needlepoint cushion for Fred and his wife: one side depicted flowers, the other read simply “Fuck Off.”

This book, like most encomiums of movie stars, contains insight and idiocy in pretty equal measure (and I’ve given examples of the later) – but it does, nonetheless, contain insight. For example, Epstein makes some perceptive comments about the difference between Astaire’s charm and that of William Powell:
Contrast Fred Astaire with William Powell, whose suavity helped make the Thin Man movies so delightful. Powell in his movie persona is sophisticated in a way Astaire in his movie persona is distinctly not. Powell’s character is world-weary, properly cynical, looking forward only to another of his perfectly confected cocktails. Astaire breaks out the champagne from time to time, and in one of his movies (The Sky’s the Limit) he actually gets drunk, but his drunkenness turn out to be no more than an excuse to do a dance atop the bar. Like Astaire, Powell is always handsomely tailored, lives in starkly white plush apartments, drives flashy cars. But the good life, one might say, is all that is left to him, since he has previously seen the rest of life for what it really is. Powell’s lack of enthusiasm, his witty cynicism, are among the chief marks of his sophistication; Astaire, urbane yet not entirely sophisticated, retains his enthusiasm, for the girl, for the song, above all for the dance.
This pleasant little wisp of a book (published as part of the Icon series by Yale University Press) will make for a few hours of very entertaining reading. I only wish that it had been more lavishly illustrated, we only get two rather measly photographs. As for the text, I wouldn’t have them change one crazy word.

Thursday, January 08, 2009