Monday, October 30, 2017

Why Game of Thrones is Stupid

Because it has dragons - and dragons are stupid.

Any story that has dragons is immediately suspect.  When you think of great stories - The Godfather, Casablanca, Bridge on the River Kwai (just to stick to movies) - none of them have dragons.  And I'm pretty confident that they would not have been substantially better if they did.  Even movies that you think could make good use of a dragon - Mad Max: Fury Road, Raiders of the Lost Ark, My Dinner with Andre, et al. - don’t really need any (except maybe for that last one).  And even Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon doesn't actually have a dragon in it; and the title itself goes to great lengths to reassure the viewer that if by some mishap or oversight there were a dragon in this film it will remain hidden - you will not see it.

Dragons are for children’s stories.  The only time I know of when a dragon shows up in an adult story (and by “an adult story” I mean a story for grown-ups, I don’t mean a pornographic story - though to judge by the tastes of Game of Thrones fans dragon-porn would be right up their alley*) is in Richard Wagner’s operas Das Rheingold and Siegfried.  And even there the dragon doesn’t do much.  Mostly he sits on a pile of gold and waits for the hero to come along and kill him.  And traditionally that’s all dragons ever do - sit on piles of gold and wait for death.  Now, I ask you, what kind of a life is that?  They don't go out.  They don’t have any friends.  They don't buy anything.  They live in a cave.  They’re pathetic.  No wonder they have anger and rage issues.  In fact, if a dragon had cable TV and a bag of chips, he would probably be binge-watching Games of Thrones right now.

*  But, of course, only if one of the dragons was tortured and killed in the process.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Political Faults

It is a part of the British constitution that black is white or white black, when official purposes require that they should be so; and indeed it is a necessary part of the constitution, for without it no government would be for us practicable.  It would hardly be possible that our public work should be carried on, in all its details, without any fault, with perfect freedom from blundering.  One would say that it is anything but possible.  Faults will occur; but as no faults may be forgiven, no faults must be admitted.  A minister who would once own that either he or any of us had done wrong would soon go to the wall.  Faults there must be, but they must be made to look like fresh virtues.
- Anthony Trollope, The Three Clerks

Monday, October 23, 2017

Warner Bros

Finished Warner Bros: The Making of an American Studio by David Thomson this weekend.  I loved it. Thomson is such a good writer - smart, engaging, opinionated - that I’ll read anything he writes.  He could publish a book called A Book and I’ll buy it.  He once wrote a book called the The Whole Equation (about movies, of course, not math) in which we never find out what the “equation” in the title actually is.  But it doesn't matter - it’s Rosebud, a McGuffin, the metaphorical rug that ties the room together. 

This lively volume, though, focuses on the Warner brothers.  There were four of them: Albert, Sam, Harry, and Jack.  Albert had no interest in the movie business and spent his life in Florida; Sam died from pneumonia and overwork at the birth of the sound era; and Harry and Jack battled it out to the death for the remaining years, with the latter emerging as the shvantz supreme.  Thomson does an admirable job telling their story, but despite all the success and the fratricidal hate, it’s a tale that never really grips the reader.  They’re bores.

Thankfully, Thomson soon gravitates to the movies and movie stars on the Warners lot during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.  Names and dishy anecdotes abound: Daryl Zanuck, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Joan Blondell, Joan Blondell’s tits (Jack Warner: “For Lord’s sake, don’t let those bulbs stick out!”), Michael Curtiz, and others.  Even Julie Andrews and Warren Beatty make an appearance.  When Beatty told Jack Warner that Bonnie and Clyde was “an homage to Warners gangster films” Jack replied “What the hell is an homage?”  

This book is packed full of fascinating details.  I discovered, for instance, that when Little Caesar opened it was so popular that “Warners had to run it twenty-four hours a day with mounted police controlling the line.”  I learned that the darkness into which Paul Muni flees at the end of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (“I steal”) was caused by a sudden power outage on the set, not by directorial or producer genius.  And I found out that Lena Horne was briefly considered for the part of Sam in Casablanca before being passed over for Dooley Wilson.  The mind reels at the prospect of what impact such a prominent role for an African-American woman could have had in 1942 Hollywood - and America.

I also learned about Jack Warner’s sexual harassment m.o., which was not just de rigeur, it was part of his daily schedule - literally.  4PM.  In his office.  Everyday a pretty young starlet would be shown in for diddling and oral sex (on him, of course).  No furtive befouling of potted plants for Jack Warner, thank you very much.  I wonder if Turner Classic Movies is now planning a new special series “Casting Couch: A week-long showcase of wholesome classic films produced by Tinseltown’s leading Golden Age serial sexual harassers!”  Somehow I think not.  Though it would have been entertaining to see the late Robert Osborne try to glide over those ugly facts.

But I digress.

The best parts of this book are Thomson’s insights and opinions about movies.  Here he is writing about The Public Enemy:
The Public Enemy is an anarchist exultation in which “law and order” is a forlorn concession to what we are supposed to think.  Here we are, in 1931, at a time of devastated economy and diminishing hope, with an inspiring celebration of outlawry.  Warner Bros is often thanked for its liberal sentiments and social concerns.  But that is hogwash if you really inhabit Cagney’s energy in The Public Enemy.  We are witnessing, and enjoying, a force of unhindered danger.  That people demanded to see it was a sign of how the movies had uncovered our violence and despair.
Gangster films seem to bring out Thomson's best.  That's not surprising.  The gangster genre has turned out to the sturdiest from that era. Westerns and musicals have diminished or largely disappeared.  Melodrama, horror, and comedy have changed until they're unrecognizable to their predecessors.  But the gangster story has a vitality that just doesn't stop.  Even when it goes bad, it just gets better.  Thomson turns to 1949’s White Heat and notices that after a decade and a half the heroic quality of the gangster is now gone: Cody Jarrett is merely a psychopath with mommy issue.  The liberating anarchism of Public Enemy seems to have hit a wall.  Maybe Warners Bros
…was trying to avoid the truth, that it had defined and released a dangerous energy…, only to discover that the dream can hit a dead end.  Decades later, we would have to learn how far Michael Corleone, Tony Soprano, and Walter White spoke to the unease and anger at being free yet imprisoned in a world of ruined dreams.
I would add Stringer Bell from The Wire to that list, too.  In fact, Imprisoned in a World of Ruined Dreams would be an apt alternate title for The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, or The Wire, as well as White Heat, Key Largo, and any number of film noir gems.  Another fitting name for our modern gangster epics would have been Dead End.  But, alas, that title is already taken.  It’s a gangster movie from 1937.  And the studio?  Warner Bros.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Children and Reading

There must be writers whose parents owned no books...but I have never met one.  My daughter is seven, and some of the other second-grade parents complain that their children don’t read for pleasure.  When I visit their homes, the children’s rooms are crammed with expensive books, but the parents’ rooms are empty.  Those children do not see their parents reading, as I did every day of my childhood.  By contrast, when I walk into an apartment with books on the shelves, books on the bedside tables, books on the floor, and books on the toilet tank, then I know what I would see if I opened the door that says PRIVATE-GROWNUPS KEEP OUT: a child sprawled on the bed, reading.
 - Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

Monday, October 16, 2017

Random Thoughts on Wes Anderson

* Here’s the key to Wes Anderson’s aesthetics.  According to the commentary track on the Moonrise Kingdom DVD all the items on the table in the shot below are CGI.


But the tree house in the image below is real (although its supporting cables have been CGIed out).


So, what looks real is fake and what looks fake is real.

* Anderson’s visual sense is extremely sharp.  All great film-makers are at heart silent film makers.  And I imagine that Anderson would have done very well in the silent era.  I don’t think you could say that about other contemporary directors.  It might take a film or two for Scorsese, Spielberg, Cuaron, etc. to get their footing.  But I imagine that Anderson would glide effortlessly into a cinema of Lang, Murnau, Stroheim, and Dreyer.

Conversely, if movies and their allied arts (TV and comic books) suddenly disappeared I imagine Anderson would find an equally rewarding career as a playwright or novelist.  Once again, I don’t think that could be said of most of his contemporaries (although one imagines Alexander Payne or Paul Thomas Anderson might make good novelists).  

* Wes loves the theater.  Like Ingmar Bergman, he views it as a magical place.  Most of the recent movies set in the world of theater - Black Swan or Birdman - have a much more prosaic view of that environment.  In fact, in Birdman the main character’s magical powers turn out to be nothing but his own madness.

* Wes has a thing about animals.  A dog is killed in both The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom.  A cat is killed in The Grand Budapest Hotel.  Yet he makes outstanding children’s movies featuring animals, such as Fantastic Mr. Fox.  I don't know that this ambivalence actually means anything, I just couldn't help but notice it.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Philosophy of Ransom K. Fern

Fern read two books a day.  It has been said that Aristotle was the last man to be familiar with the whole of his own culture.  Ransom K. Fern had made an impressive attempt to equal Aristotle’s achievement.  He had been somewhat less successful than Aristotle in perceiving patterns in what he knew.
The intellectual mountain had labored to produce a philosophical mouse - and Fern was the first to admit that it was a mouse, and a mangy mouse at that.  As Fern expressed the philosophy conversationally, in its simplest terms:
“You go up to a man, and you say, ‘How are things going, Joe?’  And he says, ‘Oh, fine, fine - couldn’t be better.’  And you look into his eyes, and you see things really couldn’t be much worse.  When you get right down to it, everybody’s having a perfectly lousy time of it, and I mean everybody.  And the hell of it is, nothing seems to help much.” 
  - Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan

Monday, October 09, 2017

Nordic Drear

Finished A Philosophy of Loneliness by Lars Svendsen yesterday.  It was pretty bad.  To begin with, there’s not really a philosophy in it at all.  Svendsen tells us what philosophers and writers have said about loneliness but never puts forward a philosophy of his own.  Nor does he delve into any one thinker on this topic to a satisfying length.  

As a survey it’s rather paltry.  And monotonously formulaic.  Here’s how it goes:  Quote Aristotle about loneliness.  Provide brief paragraph or two of undergrad-level analysis about Aristotle.  Quote Heidegger about loneliness.  Provide brief paragraph or two of undergrad-level analysis about Heidegger.  Quote Tolstoy.  Provide brief paragraph….and so on and so on for 138 pages. 

On the plus side, he reviews the empirical studies about loneliness and concludes that, for the most part, they aren’t reliable or consistent.  Is loneliness increasing or decreasing?  One study say yes.  But a different one says no.  You can select the study to prove what you want.  The media, predictably, usually latches onto the more depressing studies.

But I have a bigger objection to this book. 

I try very hard to avoid thinking in stereotypes.  But Lars isn’t making it easy for me.  When I read that he was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Bergen in Norway it was hard not to picture some dour, bearded, sweater-wearing fellow trudging at twilight through the snow-dappled fjords to his solitary cabin, silently eating his lutefisk and warm beer dinner, then settling in for the night to scribble away at his shitty little book on loneliness. 

Now, according to Lars the empirical studies show that people in Nordic countries are less lonely than people in Spain or Greece or Italy.  Perhaps.  But if this book is any indicator they are as chock full of Nordic gloom and douchebaggery as ever.  

When Svendsen ventures to put forward an opinion of his own it is overwhelmingly dreary, mean, and judgmental.  He is particularly fond of blaming people who feel lonely (in other words, the people most likely to buy his book*).  His attitude goes something like this:  You should learn to appreciate your solitude.  But solitude is bad.  If you're lonely you must be doing something wrong.  It’s probably your fault.

He hammers away at this theme relentlessly and by the end of this book Svendsen’s descended into little better than Scandinavian self-parody.  Here he is a mere three pages before the book’s blessed end:
The fact that you are lonely does not necessarily mean that others have failed you or that they have fallen short.  It can be that it is you who have fallen short in your evaluation of the attachment you actually have to them.  Your loneliness, furthermore, does not mean you can expect others to remedy that loneliness.  No one has a right to a life without loneliness, just as no one has a right to be happy.
On the next page Mr. Cheerful tells us: “Death is lonely.”  He then follows that up with - and I shit you not - quotes from “The Death Song” by Jens Bjorneboe:

         Now the day has arrived and the hour has arrived.
         And you are placed against the wall to bleed.
         And the ones who hold you dear
         Soon fade away from you.
         That's when you will see: it is lonesome to die.

At this point even the loneliest reader should be doubled up with laughter at what a cultural cliche our author has turned out to be.

Finally, at one of the few non-dreary parts of this book, if not the only one, Lars writes:  “It is difficult to avoid describing Rousseau as an arsehole…”  

He's not the only one, Lars, he’s not the only one.

*  I didn't buy this book.  I got if from the library so that I could write a blog post - which, now that I think about it, is probably the loneliest and saddest thing in the world...

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Prepositions

A preposition, I may remark in passing, is about the best thing in the world to end a sentence with.
 - G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, February 17, 1906

Monday, October 02, 2017

Seventeen?

We often hear that it is the "consensus of seventeen different intelligence agencies” that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election.  For the moment let’s ignore whether or not that claim is true and focus on a different issue it raises.

Namely, why are there seventeen different intelligence agencies?  That seems like a lot.  I can understand that you would have three of them.  One for the military, one for the FBI, and a final one for everything else (and maybe a fourth one to surveil the other three).  But seventeen…?  That doesn’t inspire confidence at all.  In fact, rather the opposite.  If there are so many, maybe it’s because none of them is getting it right on a consistent basis.  

If you were at a hotel and you asked the concierge “Do you have any restaurants in this hotel?” and he replied “My good sir, we have seventeen restaurant in this hotel!” you might think something was amiss and eat elsewhere.  Suppose you were looking for a math tutor and asked a friend of yours “Do you have a math tutor for your son?”  If he replied “My good sir [hmm..seems to be the same guy], my son has seventeen different math tutors!” you probably wouldn’t hire any of them.  And if you asked a woman “Do you have a fiancĂ©?" and she responded, “I have seventeen fiancĂ©s” you might want to clarify that you meant people and not cats.