Monday, May 17, 2021

1931-2017 (Jim Bunning Memorial Movie Post)

 The Words (2012)

When I watched this (way back on January 2nd), I paused it midway through to tweet out "This movie radiates evil. There are (admittedly, French) films about incest that are at least beautiful and more beguiling." It's awful. I guess I hate movies about writers anyway, especially straight white male writers. If all people know about them is from watching movies, it's not surprising that they hate them. It's very negative all around. There's a young guy with neither talent nor any other point of entry into the field, as a published professional, anyway, who is wasting his life in his delusions, until he finds an old manuscript in a briefcase in an antique store that happens to be a masterpiece, which he published as his own, winning hollow accolades. The character who actually wrote the masterpiece but left his briefcase on a train in Paris and lost it turned out to be still alive, bitter and unfulfilled. Though too old I guess to covet the literary glory that should have been his in the prime of life, he least emerges to privately torment the fraudulent author. These two gentlemen were actually themselves the fictional creations of the type of obnoxious successful writer who appeals to Hollywood screenwriters, and who has a luxurious (and oddly under-furnished) apartment in New York City with a plate glass window view of the skyline, holds such a dominant position over critics and readers that he can sneer at and insult them with impunity, and routinely has beautiful and ambitious younger women coming onto him. This movie manages to make even this guy's life seem kind of gross and unappealing. The theme of the grasping mediocrity finding success by appropriating to himself other peoples' obviously superior work is echoed in the movie Yesterday, which is about a struggling musician who after some kind of cosmic event finds himself apparently the only person in the world who can remember the Beatles. Evidently this imposter syndrome is especially rampant in our current environment. Also notable to me about this film is the seeming absence of any kind of organic literary culture or society even for the writers who have some talent. All of these people are working as it were on their own islands and don't appear to know anyone else even the slightest bit like themselves, let alone at a comparable level of development or status or age or in their artistic sympathies or anything. It is so uninspiring and depressing.  

Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

Film version of the popular-in-its-time novel which I read last summer. Directed by the prolific but usually disappointing Otto Preminger and starring David Niven, Jean Seberg, and Deborah Kerr, who was seemingly in everything in the late 50s. I would rather this had been a French movie--it isn't as if that country was hampered by a deficiency of moviemaking talent at the time. I didn't do a ton of research on it beforehand (obviously) and I had the idea that it was in French, with a French cast and so on, so I was surprised and disappointed when this turned out not to be the case. It looks at least like it was filmed in part in the Riviera, though I am not 100% sure of that either. It is passable, and some of the locales and clothes and colors and those sorts of things are pleasant enough to look at but for the most part it is flat and lacking in pizazz. Like Deborah Kerr, David Niven was a big name and pretty ubiquitous at this time, and not unlikeable, though whenever I see him I always feel that he was either miscast or that he played his role in a way that must have been appealing at the time but that comes over now as rather treacly. He was by all accounts quite debonair in his civilian life, but at least in the mainstream movies I've seen him in he always seems to be trying to come across as more of an everyman, and it always seems a little off. Although the subject of the movie (and the book) is the ennui and aimlessness of the postwar upper middle classes, the background against which all this happens, the casinos and cafes and restaurants full of well-dressed, reasonably intelligent people dancing to live music and so on, empty though I suppose it is, looks like it should be a lot of fun even in pretty large doses. The well-developed human spirit seeks more though.

Arrowsmith (1931)

Another near contemporary adaptation of a book I've read in the past few years. Directed by John Ford and starring Ronald Colman, Helen Hayes and a very young Myrna Loy, this is an extremely polished film by the standard of 1931, with an unusually sophisticated script, beautiful sets (particularly the McGurk medical research institute in New York City) and a much more modern sensibility than is found in most movies from this period. As a narrative it's decent enough, however it leaves out large sections of the book, which obviously is necessary in such instances, but in the more successful adaptations this is done in a way that manages to distill something of the essence of the best parts, which did not happen here, as what were to me many of the most interesting parts of what I thought was an excellent (and presently somewhat undervalued) novel, such as Arrowsmith's entire childhood and college career, his time living with the Pickerbaughs as a public health official in Iowa, and so on, are passed over entirely. So I did not find the movie as altogether satisfying as I might have.

Insidious (2010)

This is the kind of movie that turns up on my list from time to time and I feel obligated to give it a try. It's about a family that moves into an old house that is inhabited by demons, one of whom manages to entirely drain one of the children of his soul, or animating spirit, or whatever you want to call it, for its own use. I don't really get too into these types of plots. In fact after watching about 27 minutes I stopped it and said OK, that's enough. However--the mother of this family is a character (30ish, college educated, moderately cultured middle class mom who likes restoring old houses) that is just my type, played by an actress, whose name is Rose Byrne, who is also evidently just my type, so the next evening, when I sat down to watch my little bit of a movie before bedtime, I confessed that I wanted to see a little more of Rose Byrne, so I ended up watching the rest of the movie, and it was kind of worth it. This was no fluke either--I'd only seen her one other time, as Briseis in Troy (2004), which I did not realize until after I finished this movie, but when I wrote my blog review of that movie in May 2014 I made note of her as well, writing that "the actors are very good-looking, have incredible bodies (assuming they are real), to the point that it would be ridiculous if they did not have sex with each other all the time, which they do." After going on a bit about Diane Kruger, who played Helen, I noted that there was a "similarly smoldering Briseis, who holds a knife to Achilles, played by a supernaturally buff Brad Pitt. Needless to say he does not panic, but smiles devilishly and begins to massage her sensitive areas, and pretty quickly the knife falls harmlessly to the floor. After all this sex, in marked contrast to modern life, the women are wiped out and look as if they won't be able to rise from the bed in any kind of functional state for several days, while the men are up at the break of dawn as fresh as newly laid eggs ready for a full day of ancient warfare in open arid terrain in 90 degree heat..", etc. So anyway, the takeaway here is that I really like Rose Byrne. She's 41 now. She's originally from Australia. She doesn't seem to be on Twitter. 

A Cure For Wellness (2017)

This got mixed reviews. Visually, it is pretty spectacular, albeit in a frigid way, but the point of it is unclear and the story fails to be moving. It takes place in an opulent, exquisitely styled sanitarium in Switzerland catering to the Western .01% class which no one, having arrived, ever leaves. It is inspired in part by The Magic Mountain, which I have actually never read (most of the really famous early 20th European novels of this type I feel like I have read through at least at this point). Maybe I would have more feeling for it if I had. It has a weird and kind of inscrutable ethos. At times I felt like this was a missive from some kind of Anglo-Germanic-Celtic blue-eyed overclass, if such a conglomeration even exists, that has detached itself with its billions from everyone else, letting us know spiritually where they are, a dark and sinister but fantastically stylized place where the masses can't join them. However I will tie myself up in knots trying to explain what I imagine this movie is about, and I didn't really like or think it worth spending a lot of time on. 

Vincent and Theo (1990)

I hadn't seen this before, though it is right from my prime era of indie movie theatergoing (ca. 1989-95).  I don't know what I would have thought of it then, but my sensibility, such as it is, was formed during this time, so I think of this as what art movies are supposed to be like. I felt a little like I had come home, especially after The Cure For Wellness, which not only didn't feel like a continuation of the same art form, but whose human characters and society didn't feel much like a continuation of those that inhabited the world I grew up in either. I wondered if it wasn't undervalued for being one of the lesser, or at least less celebrated, works of a famous director (Robert Altman). To me it compares favorably with what is being made today but was more typical perhaps of this era, especially the European movies. Though directed by Altman, this was a European production, originally planned for television, and there is a 200 minute version of this made for television, though I saw the shorter movie version, which is the one that got released in America. 

One is struck in watching this by how leisurely and unfrenetic the pace is. Scenes are allowed to play out at length, the viewer has time to take note of some of the artistic touches. Altman is famous for his attentiveness to sound, of course, and there is one scene where some characters are sitting in the front parlor of a gallery in Paris and you can hear the clopping of horses and other sounds emanating from the street, which is never shown, an effect that is usually neglected in period films. At least I haven't noticed it before. Also when Theo's wife is about to go into labor they show her on her hands and knees fanatically scrubbing the kitchen floor, which is very typical behavior--my wife was doing such things at the last minute with all of our children, and it would have counterproductive to try to persuade her not to--but again I have rarely seen it depicted so authentically and kind of matter-of-factly on film. Of course as in all biographical films, even good ones, I don't suppose that the historical figures being depicted were anything like their movie versions. As my wife, who did not watch this with me though I am going to try to get her to, as I think she would like it, once said of another movie--whether it was Amadeus or Ivan the Terrible I can't remember right off hand--"If these guys could see the movies that were made about them." 

I was twenty years old in 1990, and the three years from 1989-91, I assume because I was very alert and perceptive to impressions during those, always seem to me now when I see them in movies to have a definite "look"--the color and texture of the sky, the trees, the situation of dust and mud puddles on the ground, the progression and quality of rust on fences--all seems very specific to that time, and those things do not look exactly the same way now. I'm not sure whether this can be true, or if it is merely an effect of the type of film that was commonly used at the time and that is actually what I am remembering, but I do have this impression a lot when I see movies from that time.  

Thursday, April 15, 2021

1936-1985 (Rodolfo Nieto Commemorative Movie Post)

There were a lot of old ones in this group, so it should have been a good set for me, but it was just kind of so-so. 

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Well-regarded, noir-ish picture directed by Michael Curtiz, also notable for being one of the better known roles--she won an Oscar for it--of the legendary star Joan Crawford, who remains an object of some fascination in our time seemingly as much for her reputation for being a colossal pain in the ass as for her acting career, as her heyday as a star--and she truly was huge in her time--was the early 1930s, and other than Grand Hotel, most of her big starring vehicles are not widely known today. I was a little disappointed by this on the first viewing. Being right in my favorite era of Hollywood movies as well as knowing the regard a lot of film buffs had for it, I was expecting it to make more of an impression, but I don't remember much about it, and I didn't think much about it even after I had just seen it. Mildred Pierce is a single mother who becomes a tough and very successful restaurant owner. Her daughter is resentful of her social origins and is one of the most villains of the noir period. Has some different themes. Maybe I'll see again another time in a more receptive mood.  

Julius Caesar (1953)

All-star black and white production of the Shakespeare play directed by Joseph Mankewicz and featuring Marlon Brando as Mark Antony, James Mason as Brutus, and John Gielgud (in his pre-Sir days, I believe) as Cassius. The whole presentation is very much in keeping with the earnest Great Books/mass college/theater as a fine art aesthetic of that postwar period, which is the background I come out of, so to me this is very much how I imagine the play should look and be acted according to my understanding of that time. According to Wikipedia MGM wanted to make the movie in color but the filmmakers (Mankewicz and the producer, John Houseman, who, yes, is also the famous actor) didn't want to make a spectacle, and also wanted audiences to infer a parallel with the recent Fascist movements, in particular the newsreels. As usual it was a good decision, especially in light of the ever shrinking provenance of the black and white era in the history of cinema. As often seems to be the case, there was a lot of fighting among the stars (in contrast to today of course, where everyone is always claiming to get along swimmingly and to love their fellow cast members). I never know how much I should care about those things or whether they are particularly relevant when watching a movie. This is as good of a mainstream version of one of the more watchable and accessible Shakespeare plays I think you are going to get.     

Gotcha! (1985)

Mid-80s young person comedy with a Cold War twist featuring the same director (Jeff Kanew) and one of the stars (Anthony Edwards) that had given the world Revenge of the Nerds the previous year. I don't remember this coming out, though I went to the movies often at this time, as well as heard about all the movies other people went to see that I missed. I was hoping that at the very least it would provide some unlooked-for morsels of 80s nostalgia, but it really didn't have anything I liked. It is unbelievable now that East Berlin and the rest of the Iron Curtain countries were closed off until after I was out of high school. The (very) little taste we get of Communist East Germany is the most interesting part of the movie to me, though this is the kind of film that can only depict the world behind the Wall (and most of that on our side of it, to be honest) in completely cartoonish terms. As in many Hollywood efforts of that era, there is a "Czechoslovakian" spy whose presumed nationality itself is taken to be a source of hilarity, and the character is given a Russian name that no Czech person actually has. This happened frequently enough that I almost want to assume it was done on purpose. A pretty lame movie all around. Even the mid-80s soundtrack was a miss, at least as far as original songs went. 

Night of the Hunter (1955)

Hailed by many critics as one of the very greatest films (as in top 50) of all time, I don't like it that much. It is artistic, and it is unsettling, and it is unique for its era, and I can kind of see what hardcore movie people love about it, and maybe if it hadn't been hyped so much its quality might have taken me by surprise. But I have to say, there was nothing about it that I particularly enjoyed, and since it ended I have not been overcome by any great desire to see any part of it again. It is famed for being the only directorial effort of the beloved Charles Laughton, a truly great actor and formidable all around artistic presence in his lifetime. He is the kind of towering figure from the past whose presence is, I sense, perhaps most strikingly missed in the present cultural environment. Anyway, he is lavishly praised for this movie.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

I have no background in "horror" movies. I had no interest in them as an adolescent. I don't have any interest in them as a genre now, and even if some of them can be said to have genuine artistic quality or entertainment value, my true feelings would be to wish that the talent involved could have been deployed in a different kind of movie. That being said, I went into this cult classic with no pre-existing idea whatsoever of what it was going to be like, expecting to suffer dutifully through a half hour or so of gratuitous gore before giving it up, but to my surprise it had a lot to hold my interest. I still don't care for the overall premise too much, but the storytelling isn't bad, and a late 60s, black and white low budget indie film shot in Western Pennsylvania without special effects or other high-tech tricks where all of the clothes, cars, appliances, furniture, and so on are immediately recognizable to me from my earliest childhood is pretty captivating. At one point in the commentary when the victims are frantically boarding up the windows of the farmhouse (which looks a lot like the house I live in now) one of the speakers jokingly asked "Who has this many boards lying around their house?" But I actually do have that many. I thought the set-up of this movie was better than the resolution. They were probably running seriously low on money by the end of filming. 

The Milky Way (1936)

These last two movies were contained on the same DVD. By the time it arrived I had forgotten which was the one I was supposed to watch so I watched them both, especially seeing as neither one was much longer than an hour. They are very loosely connected in that both involve boxing, or at least have a plot that leads up to a boxing match. The Milky Way is supposed to be the better film, I think--it features Harold Lloyd in one of his more successful talking roles--but its particular humor, pretty much all of it, in fact, and this is the case with a lot of 30s movies, was lost on me. I did like Harold Lloyd's silent classic The Freshman from 1925, which has a ton of style and pointedly mocks some of the stereotypes and absurdities of college life, though with a romantic underpinning which makes it a lot of fun. The focus in this one is not as sharp, and the dynamics of boxing and street brawling and shady underworld characters are perhaps not as inherently amusing to us as they seem to have been to audiences in the 1930s, the films of which era frequently feature mild-mannered characters who find themselves in dilemmas where violence is not merely an option but the dominant way of life, so to speak, the social currency. Oh yeah, Adolphe Menjou is in this too.   

Kid Dynamite (1943)  

This was even more of a throwaway movie, the equivalent of a TV show really. Nonetheless I really liked it, because it's about teenagers set in 1940s New York City, and I have always loved those kinds of movies. This was part of an unbelievably long series of movies (around 78 in total) featuring much of the same core of actors about a gang of kids, and presumably, as the series went on, young men, that ran under various incarnations, such as the Dead End Kids, the East End Kids, and the Bowery Boys, from the mid-30s until 1958 (!). Kid Dynamite was made during the East End Kids period, which ran from 1940 to 1945. The main character and leader of the gang, Muggs McGinnis (played by Leo Gorcey through almost the entirety of the series), is supposed, I think, to be a lovable Irish rogue type, but in truth he's really a pretty violent thug. Some of the other characters have a modicum of manners and are a little more endearing. I like the parts where the guys hang around the clubhouse and shoot pool and the girls dance to records. There's also a nice scene at a community dance hall. The girls are very pretty and sweet, even the ones who are supposed to be (mildly) "bad". At the end of the movie, it being wartime, three of the older boys, including Muggs, enlist in the Navy, and appear in uniform in the final scene. This part is heavy-handed and crudely jingoistic on a level that the classics of this era which people are mostly familiar with today, which are often considered jingoistic enough themselves, do not begin to approach. This class of film is definitely not going to be for everybody, but perhaps since they were not heretofore part of my consciousness combined with my general love for almost everything from this era, I kind of got a kick out of it, and was glad I saw it.

I was going to write here about my recent sluggishness and lack of interest in anything, including writing, including reading, including movies, including anything else, and wondering what I was supposed to do to revive interest in my life. But I feel better today so maybe I will put that essay off for now.  

Monday, February 15, 2021

State of My Mind Post

Friday--I have reached that part of the winter where I have suddenly many things to do, and little motivation for doing them; where it is unpleasantly cold, not merely outside but inside the house--our house is heated by gas, but it is old and not well-insulated, so when the temperature does go down to the single digits at night for a week or two straight and never rises above freezing during the day one feels it; where I have had two dead car batteries in a single week; where these same older cars still need repairs done before they can get an updated inspection sticker (we do have one nice new stress-free new car, but my wife usually drives that, as she should); where I took my 17 year old to take his driving test and found out he needs glasses; when I have to apply for financial aid for college which still may or may not be opening, an online process requiring multiple passwords from me and my kid which I find rather difficult to navigate; when I have to get labs taken and visit my heart doctor to see if I am improving at all; when I have to schedule dentists appointment for eight people after not having been for a year. Normally at the end of next week I would be going to Florida, but that has been cancelled this year. I still have a vacation, and I really need one since I haven't been off at all since last July though I didn't go anywhere other than the beach in Maine (which is nice, but it's only about an hour from where I live; I could go down there for breakfast and be back before lunch tomorrow if I wanted to) but I don't know what I can do. I had visions of maybe going down to New York City for a day or two and visiting the MoMa, which I have never been to, but between the never-ending concessions to the pandemic that must be made and the logistical and behavioral problems posed by the size of my family, I have a feeling I am not going to be able to pull this off either. I would be great to just go there with my wife even overnight and leave the children at home but we don't really do that. We never have (since we had children; obviously before that we did). We'll still be able to go to our house in Vermont, though it is a rather small space for all of us to be confined during the long evening and nights of winter. Perhaps we can take the children skiing one day in lieu of the New York trip, as their school skiing program was cancelled this year, though I myself do not ski. Maybe I can find a smaller art museum that is open somewhere in Western New England--there are a number of quite good ones fitting this description--or go to Boston, though my impression is that they are still doing the social distancing thing rather seriously there, and a group the size of ours might disconcert people. So I don't know what I will do. 

I broke down today on account of all of these annoying issues, which are not that big of a deal except that in this weather I really just want to sleep and sit beside my space heater and read my old books all day, and I went to Buffalo Wild Wings for lunch since I was out running all over town anyway. My waitress was a petite girl with blonde dreadlocks and one completely tattooed arm. It was kind of worth it.   

Monday--The radiator in my 2007 van had gone and needed to be replaced. I had it replaced. I keep my cars as long as they are running and the cost of repairing them is cheaper than trying to replace them. We had a party on Valentine's Day with a hot pot and very salty Chinese style food. I ate it and enjoyed it but I going to have to gnaw on whole grain bread and unsalted nuts more or less exclusively for the next few days to make up for it. Writing a personal essay now is to expose the facts of your life to the scrutiny of insurance companies, banks, collection agencies and other miners of data who are increasingly the only entities interested in you, but not as a participant in the literary life of the nation or any such thing as that. I am quite at a dead end as to what to do with myself, I clearly won't stop trying to post writings from time to time though my efforts may grow somewhat more infrequent. I haven't got any other real hobbies or outlets. I think other people don't either, which is why they take to political argument with such stridency but I have never been able to see what they get out of it. I think they are looking for camaraderie in the struggle maybe--that's what I would be looking for--but I don't know for most people whether it is really there. It's why I can't ever put my heart into it.

Tuesday looks like it is going to be a snow day, maybe even an ice day. Everyone home and confined in the house. Three days until vacation. Don't know what we're doing. I am working on a list as always but most of it not practicable among 8 people. Separating into smaller groups inevitably causes resentment. Work still needed on the old cars. Doctor visit on Wednesday. I reformed my life about halfway, probably not good enough. Haven't been able to give up mashed potatoes, eat salad as a main course. I could use a haircut. Want to get another movie review post done before the end of the week and vacation...

Wednesday, January 27, 2021


I need to catch up on a little on my movie posts. As I went through a period where I was watching several extended TV series, I am not that behind (about 18 entries to do)

Bleak House (TV-1985)

Standard 1980s BBC literary adaptation, 8 hour long episodes. This one features the late Diana Rigg as Lady Dedlock and the warhorse English character actor Denholm Elliott as Mr. Jarndyce. It's pleasant enough to watch in the evening if one is too tired to read, especially the parts when they go out to the countryside. This one especially though you should just read the book. There is not much humor in this production at all, while much of the book is a veritable laugh riot, though of a kind that I guess is especially dependent on the author's delivery, which can be difficult to translate to the screen. I was disappointed that the Caddy Jellyby character, one of my favorites in the story, was cut out of this version entirely.

I was struck here, as happens sometimes in pre-1990s films or TV shows with entirely English casts, by how much all of the people on the screen broadly resemble each other in mien, as though the whole country prior to recent times was somewhat closely inbred, as perhaps it was. The strongest sense of this I ever had was when I visited the cathedral town of Lichfield in Staffordshire in 2001, and the faces of practically every person walking through the streets of the town bore a family resemblance to everyone else to an extent which I have never experienced in the United States apart from perhaps a few very isolated towns in the northern parts of Maine or Vermont. Anyway, I felt something of that in watching this movie. Nowadays of course it is fashionable to have diverse casts even in period pieces that are perhaps somewhat traditionally identified with a specific ethnicity. I understand the purpose in doing this, especially in the current climate where a lot of people without long roots in England feel excluded from much in the traditional culture, while the higher points at least of that culture are as yet too significant to just entirely chuck away, though I haven't as yet seen anything in this line that has struck the true tone, in the way that something like the Hamilton play seems to have in this country.

Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary (2002)

Documentary, really just a series of interviews with an old woman who was, indeed, Hitler's secretary during the last couple of years in the war and was even in the bunker with Hitler and Eva Braun and Goebbels and the whole gang. At first I really did not like this, the subject was an ordinary, not especially brilliant or interesting old lady telling anecdotes about taking dictation from and having lunch with Hitler, and it didn't seem worth doing. It is an Austrian production so I trust their motivation for making it being perhaps more serious than if some adventurous or provocative American or Brit had undertaken the project, though the subject is not that exciting. Some of the recollections of the final days in the bunker when the end was truly at hand do admittedly hold a certain fascination. The secretary (whose name was Gertraud Junge, which I mention because I feel like my comment, while short, is too long now not to) was arrested and held briefly for questioning by both the Soviets and the Americans after the war but was let go to live out her life. She does not appear to have ever married or had children. Unless you have an especial interest in the mundane details of life in Hitler's inner circle, I think this can be skipped. 

The Village (2004)

I did like the aesthetic of this. It is set in a retro Amish-like village in Pennsylvania surrounded by woods, everyone dresses like it's 1850, and the pretty girls in it are all of the pale, blue-eyed, reddish blonde type that I am not going to pretend I don't like. It's an M. Night Shyamalan movie, which means it has a rather stodgy plot with a twist ending that seems like it maybe could have had more of an emotional punch to it but is missing something. I do like that he sets most of his movies in the Philadelphia area, being from that part of the world myself, and I remember thinking at the time--it's been a while since I've seen it--that this film had a very appealing and in some ways gentle atmosphere, though there is also a decent amount of blood and violence in it, and I neglected to write down any specific examples and now I can't remember any. So I kind of liked it, and this even though William Hurt (again!), who is something of a bete noire of mine, was in it, though he is not quite as annoying as an older actor (he was around 53 when this was made) as he was when he was in his 30s and 40s. 

Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

High period Fellini movie, his first in color if I remember correctly. When I watched this (on August 26th!) I paused it in the middle to tweet out "So I am watching Juliet of the Spirits tonight. It is of course end to end weird Fellini stuff, which I like. I've gotten to the point in recent years where I'll be watching one of these movies and I will suddenly be struck with some idea of what it is actually about, but I am 90 minutes into this one, and I am still drawing a complete blank." (this tweet received 66 impressions, whatever that means). I have to admit that the moment of deeper revelation never came, but still, by the mid-60s we're in the heroic era of the postwar European cinema, and the whole effect from the clothes and the camera work and the artistry (there is a flashback to a school play in which the young Giuletta gets burned at the stake by an amazing fire made out of bed sheets blown by fans or something of that sort) is kind of an awesome spectacle in itself. It took me three viewings to get anything out of 8 1/2. I do remember liking the later Amarcord, which must be a little more  straightforward, on a first viewing, as well as La Dolce Vita, though my impression is that the latter film is mostly liked by people who have no first hand experience of partying with beautiful people in Rome or anywhere else and imagine it is artistically meaningful in itself. The 50s films, La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, were less extravagant and had something of the emotional appeal of the neo-realist movies, I think. I should revisit them. Some years back, when my wife used to watch movies with me (she still does once in a while, though none of these, which is unfortunate, because she has a lot of sharp insights),  we started to watch Fellini Satyricon, in which multiple disgusting things happened within the first five minutes, after which she was like "no way", and I was feeling rather sheepish myself, so I don't know whether I have the stomach for that one even if it comes up on my list again.

"Gossip Girl" (Season 1-2007)

When this came up in my game by which I pick which movies I am going to watch, I was not quite sure how to proceed, since the entire 6-season run of the TV show seemed to be specified, which could easily have taken up a year or more of my life to no obvious purpose. As it was, I decided that I would just watch the first season, and that in itself took up a ridiculous amount of time that I really don't have. I don't know now why I didn't just stop watching it. Part of it is that the kinds of things I like and am inclined to watch fall within a pretty narrow category and I feel like I have to endure other things both to be more aware of the world around me and in order to "deserve" an occasional treat of something I like, or think I like, usually for some nostalgic or sentimental reason. I also just have a hard time breaking off watching shows once I have started them unless they make me physically uncomfortable or I get completely lost trying to follow them, which was at least not the case with this. I also kept hanging in I suspect because there is a ton of hauteur with regard to money and education (not that anyone exactly seems that superiorly educated) and the characters carry themselves under the assumption that they own New York City, all of which is calculated to appeal to me. The show is well-cast, I guess. The characters entirely lack physical flaws and empathy for other people, so that it is pretty much impossible for a regular person to imagine himself being friends or have a romantic interest with any of them, which I think might be the point of the show. As if any more proof of the failure of my education were needed, I often imagined in the course of the program that it would be nice if, when I died, rather than going straight to the presence of God to contemplate His Holy Presence forever (as a result of my good behavior), I could be permitted to experience a couple of years of life in the manner of Chuck Bass, the dissolute, amoral, cruel scion of a billionaire who lives in the penthouse of his father's hotel and regularly enjoys threesomes with the property's female employees. I did tweak my system after this to try to address the problem of too many long seasons of TV shows getting onto my list. 

To think that there were 5 more seasons after this.

I am cutting my "Gossip Girl" review short but if anyone wants to have a more in-depth exchange about this program please don't hesitate to reach out. 

The Night of (2016)

One of those modern limited TV series that everyone binge watches nowadays (this was an HBO production) this also takes place in New York, though a completely alternative vision of it from that depicted in "Gossip Girl" and perhaps in some ways just as sensational. This was written by the fairly well known novelist Richard Price, once memorably (to me) described in one of the book reviews as "self-consciously hard" which image has always stuck with me. For the first couple of episodes I actually had confused Richard Price with the Pynchonesque highbrow writer Richard Powers, and was thinking, this is kind of a departure for him, isn't it? but eventually I realized that it was actually this other guy. This is psychologically unpleasant to watch much of the time, as most of it takes place in police precincts and in prison, but it is extremely well made and has a ton of detail. I actually started taking notes on it on my phone while I was watching it, but then I stopped, I don't remember why. Sometimes I am suddenly struck by the urge to do this, and then I am not. Here are a few thoughts that floated through my normally airy brain while I was watching this:

There is a tremendous amount of effort put into these relentlessly distressing, joyless modern TV shows. Traditional literature not like this (ed--I should say that it doesn't feel like this. And even in Greek or Shakespearean tragedy the idea is that the unpleasant events are necessary for the fulfillment of divine or universal justice, and to open up the possibility at the end of cleansing or rebirth, right?) There are interludes (in traditional literature) of humor, joy, and other emotions. Do modern artists feel more oppressed and suffocated than their predecessors?

Show excels in gritty realism. But how realistic is the crime itself?

There are no white people in this version of Riker's prison (though my wife was watching a show some time after I finished this where Hugh Grant of all people was incarcerated there--they must have used some of the same sets, including the one for the waiting room, it looked just like it did in this movie). The intended effect on your college-educated white audience, which I assume is the primary consumer of this particular type of program, I would imagine is to remind them, or at least those that are mildly interested in such things, that there are entire worlds and ecosystems right under their noses, of which they know nothing, more brutal and elemental and dynamic than anything they have or ever will have a part in.  

Some of the characters in "Gossip Girl" were supposed to be facing jail time themselves, but they of course were able to meet bail or flee the country via private plane.

Judge to a black convict complaining about the much lighter sentence meted out to a Jewish businessman who had committed some white collar offense: "You want Jew time? Do a Jew crime." Great line. Would they really say this?

Is this what we want our police to be? It's too much. (referring to the unbelievably thorough gathering of evidence and information via surveillance, acquisition of phone/GPS/financial records, DNA testing of everything, etc.)

The fact that none of the crimes, including murder, that take place in prison are very aggressively pursued, contrasts with the total surveillance state of the outside "free" society.  

I wonder if Richard Price came across the Tavon White story--he was the inmate who took over a prison in Baltimore, got four of his nominal guards pregnant, and orchestrated a steady stream of lobster, steaks, drugs, phones, and all kinds of other goodies to flow into the jail--and used it as inspiration for the ruler of the prison in this. It was a fascinating story, though maybe a common one to people who know more about the world of prisons. It was the first thing that came to my mind however.

I want to wrap this up now. There are a lot of things about this I do like. It would be great to see a New York based series about this same gritty world of immigrants and small time lawyers and hole in the wall businesses and all of these kind of urban non-bourgeois characters without the murder and prison and police, or at least without so much of it, with this same sensibility. I'm not going to have time to say what I wanted about the ending, or about what this show is trying to say about prisons, which is less a question of their being good or bad as that it is a fact with an immense influence on the kind of society we have--but I have to stop now, I am imposing a deadline on this posting. 

Friday, January 01, 2021

The Golden Boy Passes/Baseball History News/End-Of-Year Review

A seemingly greater number than usual of famous athletes died this year, and while I obviously let all of them pass without notice, when Paul Hornung, the "Golden Boy" of late 1950s-early 1960s college and pro football, who had become my favorite old-time football player in recent years, died earlier this month at the age of 84 I said that I would write something about it, though most other of the other notable football and baseball players who have died within the past couple of years were probably better than he was, at least by the numbers. Though Hornung hung around the NFL for nine seasons, with one year off in the middle while serving a suspension for gambling, apart from a few isolated games in between injuries later in his career, his time as a dynamic, star player was rather fleeting, lasting about three seasons from 1959-1961, a period when professional football was in the midst of its transition from a relatively niche sport to the much less intimate, much more professional, and perhaps overly serious national spectacle that it has been for most of my life. Hornung was somewhat of a holdover from the old era in that he had a lively all around offensive game, including kicking, which if I had played in high school, which I kind of regret not having done now, I would have wanted to model my own play after. While I am not one hundred percent confident that he was not overrated, football has changed enough since 1960 that relying entirely on modern style statistical analysis to assess a player's worth from that era is not foolproof, and in the days of 36 (or so) man rosters, without specialized full time kickers and other more narrowly but highly skilled position players, a guy who could make all of his extra points, 60% of his field goals, was an outstanding blocker and could also give you 800 yards and double digit touchdowns from scrimmage was quite a valuable player; and if his "combine talents"--especially speed, bench press, etc, were a joke by today's standards, which is one of the more common accusations leveled at him as a player, one can only say "Well? In the years when he was in his prime, he was one of the most dynamic and elusive players on the field, and he was lucky that the more evolved super athletes of today were not being painstakingly cultivated in his time as they are in ours." Most of the people who graduated from Ivy League schools in that era would supposedly not be considered Ivy material today, yet they don't appear to have gone through life thinking themselves any less wonderful on that account. The same can be said with regard to many other fields. Many of Hornung's vaunted teammates with the Green Bay Packers as well as his legendary coach insisted that he was the best player on the team during the early part of their epic dynasty, and while he was a "man's man" in that 1950s sense of boozing and womanizing and being a man about town that we kind of tsk-tsk at today, he was extremely popular with men and women in own day, inspired an exceptionally high amount of confidence in the people he played for and with, and in general when he was at the top of his game injected some extra glamor into the atmosphere by his participation in it. These reasons, and the very brief period of excellence he enjoyed as a player which nonetheless was enough to give an aura to the rather prosaic long remainder of his life, are why I suspect I am especially drawn to him.

The other day (about a month ago now) was the announcement by Major League Baseball, Inc. that henceforth various of the Negro Leagues that operated from 1920-1948 would be officially recognized as Major baseball leagues, and the statistics from those leagues to be included in the official records, added to the career totals of any players who played in the National and American Leagues, and so on. Though the news cycle already seems to have moved on from this story, on the day it was greeted with the expected amount of moral posturing, as if this were something people had been impatiently waiting for for a long time (yes, perhaps they have been, but somehow I was not aware of it).  I saw several exhortations by fans who gave the impression that their indignation on this matter had long reached its limit, to declare Negro League legend Josh Gibson, generally regarded as one of the greatest hitters all time, of whom it is often recounted that he hit around 800 home runs as a professional baseball player, the all-time home run king, with some commentators adding the aspersion of "cowards" to their demand. 

Since the corporate leadership of MLB, Inc. has not in recent years demonstrated an especially deft touch in its dealings even with its lifelong fanbase, let alone the younger, more diverse, and more tech and modern media-savvy generations it is so desperate to appeal to, I wondered whether they had had any anticipation of these kinds of reactions at all, or had expected only positive publicity--or maybe they don't care about the rabble on Twitter, but that is mostly what I see nowadays, official and respectable channels being pretty much undigestible at this point. I don't understand, however, the use of "cowards" here. It would not surprise me if the powers that run baseball might actually welcome the opportunity to name Josh Gibson the record holder for home runs if there was any plausible way for them to do it. It would, if not solve their current Barry Bonds problem, provide an alternative narrative that hardcore stat nerds would probably not accept but would seemingly be welcomed by the people who consider everything having to do with baseball history at least prior to 1947 to be hopelessly tainted by racism. One's motives for publicly questioning the veracity of the record in some circles anyway would be subject to uncomfortable scrutiny. The oft-quoted figure of 800 home runs that Gibson is said to have hit has been around for a while. It is even written on his Hall of Fame plaque, which was erected in 1972 (almost 800, it says there). There does not appear to be an overwhelming amount of hard evidence for a number of actual home runs close enough to this to justify establishing it as a new all time record, especially in a sport that has a statistical record of every single game played in its (originally) white leagues going back to the 1800s, where in recent years extensive research has been undertaken to determine that Ty Cobb likely only had 4,190 hits rather than the 4,191 he was thought to have for most of the last century, that Hack Wilson had 191 RBIs in 1930 rather than 190, and so on. The 800 figure, it seems obvious to me, was picked as the number at the time because it was more than Babe Ruth, who was the biggest sports star of his day, hit, and therefore would be guaranteed to grab the attention and make one think about how awesome this Gibson guy must be in a way that a mere 638 or whatever would not quite do. And every account of him that exists indicates that he was quite awesome, and this was well known throughout the broader baseball world at the time among everyone who didn't have their head completely in the sand. But the calls to credit him in the list of all time records with several hundred home runs that no one has much of an idea whether he ever actually hit doesn't make any sense. 

Yes, I would write more about these things, but I think too slowly in the small amount of time that I have to do anything.

So--the end of the year review. 47 posts this year between the two blogs. All of the most visited posts were on the other blog, and these were mostly my monthly updates. My five most popular posts of the year were:

1. "Alaska" 181 views.

2. "February 2020" 170

3. "April 2020" 160

4. "Jacinto Benavente y Martinez--The Bonds of Interest" 158

5. "July 2020" 154

The most viewed post on this blog was the perennial champion, my 2009 report on the Louis MacNiece poem, "The British Museum Reading Room", which must for some reason still turn up when people search for this poem. No one ever leaves a comment to say what they think of it though. That got 105 views. My most-viewed post from this year was my neurotic election post from September, which got all of 47 views. 

As for searches, the Blogger stats only record 4 searches leading to the sites this year, two related to Louis MacNiece and the British Museum, 1 for "Erin Fehlau pokies", referring to the New Hampshire news anchorwoman I wrote about a few years ago as a kind of minor love interest of mine, and 1 for "Hitler bourgeois" which sounds about like the kind of search that would find me. I guess that will wrap it up for the 2020 review. I am still too jittering now and constrained for time when I write to really do anything I would like to do. 

Monday, November 02, 2020

Pre-Election Jottings

(Written a Month Ago)

I am at the stage in my blogging career where sometimes I just have to sit and wait for a few days for a topic to suggest itself to me. I may take a little trip over to Maine this weekend, with the foliage thrown in and all, and if nothing comes to me perhaps I will wait and write a travelogue of that escapade, but I would like to get something out this week. I know the politics have been insane. I don't have anything that I need to say about that right now. My political commentary tends to build up over a period of a few months at least, and I just wrote something about it recently. I suppose if the President dies I will want to record my thoughts on the occasion. 

Yesterday I was very worked up about a guy on Twitter with higher status than I have who considers himself to be very very smart indeed. I know I should not go on Twitter but I don't have any social community even to observe in real life or otherwise online that holds much interest for me. This thread started with his remarking that he found Moby Dick excruciating and that it bored him to tears, which I don't agree with, but people with adroit minds often look at things in different ways, and this could perhaps be an interesting opinion with a little more elaboration and some speculation as to why so many other people who have some demonstrable intelligence (I will recuse myself from this group) may have come to an opposite conclusion. However he did not do this but asserted somewhat arrogantly, as if it were something that was both a) widely known to be true and b) relevant to the greatness of the book as literature, that Melville had made up a lot of the stuff about the whales. This is the sort of thing that has always upset me, it's something clever people always throw at you when they don't want to have a discussion with you in good faith, but just want to shut you out, and I have never been able to effectively respond to it. What does it even mean, made up a lot of the stuff about the whales? What is it referring to? To what extent is it important? Why hasn't it bothered anyone else that I am aware of until now, including legions of important teachers and cultural figures? Is our traditional understanding of literature too compromised by the overwhelmingly fictional nature of its subject matter in a data driven age? Needless to say I don't take this view of the matter but people who do seem to increasingly dominate the public space and discourse, and I am nowhere.

(Written October 16)

I said I wasn't going to write any more about the election, but I probably will at some point, though not tonight. I may recuse myself from voting, because I don't think I understand what is going on. I am completely defeated, if not directly by the propaganda coming from both sides, then by the force of that propaganda on everyone around me. I feel obligated to vote for the Democrats, but I take little pleasure in the prospect of their winning, I have no belief that they have any workable policies that are going to improve the country in any way that I really care about, and while I get the dread of Trump and the other Republicans, I don't understand what other people see in them (the Ds) to be excited about. They are at best less terrible, and maybe they aren't even that.

Social media, despite the best efforts of earnest people to police it, being the degenerate arena that the mass of humanity would dictate it must be, has been full of discussion regarding the hotness, comparative and otherwise, of the various middle-aged women at the center of our present political drama. Is Kamala Harris hot? Melania Trump? Amy Coney Barrett? Michelle Obama? All have their champions and their detractors in this department, neatly drawn of course for the most part along partisan lines. Even to me it seems rather unseemly to be aware of the looks of any of these people, let alone make judgments upon them as if they bore any relevance to their roles and achievements; but even the most progressive quarters have felt the need at times to expound upon the elegance and beauty of Michelle Obama, as if the thought of it helps bear them up through the dark times they are enduring now...

(November 2)

It's now the night before the election. I should be studying the candidates for local office, because I'll get there and won't know who any of them are, and sometimes they don't list what party the people belong to. I am not excited about voting. I don't think I like politics. I'm very sour on the Democrats. The wife of one of my best friends from high school is the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in a very hotly contested race in another state, and while I know these people to be very intelligent and very funny and I will be pleased and even somewhat reassured if she does win, politically she is a completely conventional, almost vanilla 2020 Democratic candidate who says all of the things people of her class are supposed to say, and think, all of the time. Obviously that bothers me a little even in people I know and generally have faith in, and generally agree with, and I don't know why. But I am out of time and I have to post this before it's too late and I miss the election. Last time I didn't post for several months afterwards because everything was just too serious and dire for me to chime, so I guess we'll see what happens after tomorrow. 

Friday, September 25, 2020

The Mike Trout Era

Often around this time of year I do a baseball post, in which, as obsolete old men have done since the players began wearing gloves, I more or less lament how the sport is being ever more ruined every year (and I was someone who was already lamenting the at that point still recently lost glory of the game when I was ten. Of course I hadn't seen anything yet). I do this because like all old people I genuinely miss the things that have gone away, like pennant races, a shorter but more intense playoff season, separate leagues, fewer teams, Wrigley Field not having lights, pitchers batting (pitchers pitching, for that matter, for more than 1/2 or 1/3 of the game at most), which make it hard for me to get very enthused about present day baseball. Even the advanced statistical analysis, which I took an interest in when it first emerged in the 80s and 90s, and seems now to constitute the major area of focus among both baseball executives and the sports' remaining fans, has long moved beyond me and seems, in its increasingly oppressive influence on the game as it is played on the field and is organized at the lower professional levels, to be draining much of the life out of it. As I have written elsewhere, I probably would have given up following the sport altogether except that two of my sons (aged 18 and 11) are quite dedicated fans, to the extent that they are 2 of the fifty or so people under age 75 who are still watching the Red Sox games in the last week of the season.** I do find that touching, so I try to watch the games with them when I can, because we won't all be together like this forever. But I don't much enjoy the way the games, or the seasons, play out now at all.   

This is a rather roundabout way of getting to the main subject of this year's gripe-post. Mike Trout has been almost unanimously acknowledged by the experts to be the best baseball player in the world since his emergence on the scene as a 20 year old in 2012, and it is not uncommon to see him rated already as one of the top ten, or even top five players of all time, with a strong likelihood of laying claim to being the greatest ever to play the sport if he continues to perform over the second half of his career as he has up to now. In his eight full seasons to date, he has been voted the American League MVP 3 times, been runner-up four times, and finished 4th once, in which latter season he missed 48 games due to injury and his team had a losing record and finished 21 games out of first place. Many knowledgeable observers consider that he was robbed of the award in several of the runner up seasons. He has famously never come close as of yet to playing in the World Series, and has only appeared once in the watered down modern playoffs, on which occasion his team was swept in the first round. In spite of this lofty status, both in contemporary and historical terms, in what is still probably the second most popular professional sport in the United States (and being a white, native born American superstar to boot), he is not much of a celebrity in the world outside baseball, nor has he really established, to my mind at least, the kind of iconic visual image or character of himself actually playing baseball that immediately comes to mind with almost every other legend one can think of, including players like Ty Cobb or Honus Wagner whose careers largely predate the era of film, and for whose images we are reliant on photographs and hundred year old anecdotes. Trout's colossal stature is built primarily on his statistics, in particular those such as WAR, On-Base percentage, OPS+ and the like that have become so widely embraced within the last decade especially. His traditional statistics are consistently outstanding across a wide range of measurements* but, in the 20th century, probably would not have identified him at this stage in his career as being already an obvious Hall of Famer nor, I dare say, netted him seven top-2 finishes in the MVP voting.    

Trout's statistical dominance combined with his strange lack of vividness as a player (I say this as someone who watches, admittedly from an eastern base, a decent amount of American League games, the league in which he has dominated the MVP voting over the past decade, and he has made no impression on me in the games I have watched him other than he has a lot of long boring at bats that end up as walks after your attention has wandered) makes him a most apt face for today's game. Everyone who does talk about him, including me, must always be mindful to emphasize how great he is, but it is always done in a way stripped of any emotional resonance, unless you have evolved to the point where a spectacular WAR can make your eyes well up. Do any fans love him, or for that matter fear, or at least dread him?*** I would imagine some fans who follow his team day in and day out must, but that team (the Los Angeles Angels) does not have a terribly high profile fan base. The reasons for this lack of resonance nationally are I think a combination of factors, many of which derive from the demise of pennant races, which results in a lack of meaningful games outside of the playoffs (which Trout is never in), as well as, if not a complete lack, somewhat more difficulty in establishing rivalries, both on a team and an individual basis. The end of pennant races has also affected the MVP voting, which in the last decade especially has become almost entirely statistics-based (with the increasing sense that it should go almost automatically to the highest ranked player by WAR). This has become so accepted that it is commonplace now to see past selections, such as Willie Stargell in 1979 or Kirk Gibson in 1988, mercilessly ridiculed. At the time however, I don't remember them, and didn't think of them, as being terribly controversial. A 162 game season with a single team in each division making the playoffs really was a lot like following a novel, and as you didn't get a compelling story every year, that made the years you did get one all that much more memorable, and gave a boost to particular players at the center of those drives in the MVP voting that I don't think bothered a lot of fans or people in the game. If Trout has ever had another player as an identifiable rival, it would probably be Miguel Cabrera, who famously was the first triple crown winner in 45 years--an event many fans of my generation thought might never happen again--in 2012, Trout's rookie season, in which he emerged with not only perhaps the greatest rookie season, but one of the greatest seasons, as measured by WAR, of all time by anyone. The modern stat geeks were so carried away with their excitement at the arrival of such a superplayer in the new dispensation that old-fashioned fans who expressed their own excitement at the prospect of a triple crown were savaged as simpletons and know nothings, and all of the professional writers under age 50 or so who wanted to remain relevant, seeing which way the winds were blowing, took up the banner of Trout for MVP, pooh-poohed the triple crown (as well as pitcher wins, and innings pitched, and batting average and unadjusted ERA) as if they were not even worthy of interest, and picked apart Cabrera's game (no speed, negative defensive value) with as much disdain as if they considered him to be about as good as post-2015 Chris Davis. The shock was not so much in the lionizing of Trout but, as always, in the revolutionary zeal with which the old system and its idols were ridiculed and trashed. In 2012 the old guard dominated the MVP voting enough that Cabrera prevailed, getting 22 1st place votes to Trout's 6. The following year, in 2013, Cabrera, though he did not win the triple crown again, actually had slightly better triple crown stats, won the MVP even more handily (23-5 in 1st place votes) despite Trout's again having much higher war and being the subject of another relentless scorched earth campaign in his behalf being carried out by the new guard. After this the old writers were primed and softened up enough that in 2014, with Cabrera declining enough to fall to 9th place in the voting, Trout was elected unanimously...

So this is not the most polished or coherent piece--but it has been two weeks since I've posted, the regular season, which is what I mainly care about now that the playoffs lack legitimacy, is ending this weekend, and I want to move on to edify my readership with my wisdom on other topics...   

*They are legitimately great. While he has only led the American League once in any of the traditional triple crown categories (RBIs in 2014 with the less than jaw dropping total of 111), he has finished in the top five in batting average and home runs 4 times each, with a career high of 45 homers last year, and he has finished in the top 4 in slugging percentage every year he has played, topping .600 in each of the past three seasons (he is at .595 with three games left in this truncated season). However he has not really had a season where any of his traditional numbers by themselves would have blown away a newspaper reader of old checking the league leaders throughout the season--no .360+ average or 140+ RBI campaign, for example. Eventually of course he would begin to accumulate huge career totals in the counting stats, move into the upper reaches of the all time lists and so on and be positively judged in that way, which statistics (apart from perhaps home runs) do not seem to be as obsessively monitored and reported now by writers and announcers (as opposed to computers) as they were formerly. 

**Tonight was the last home game for the Red Sox. In a terrible season, which saw no fans at the park, and the majority of the team consisting of forgettable, transient players. Yet it was still kind of sad. 

***Some players I have dreaded/feared/loathed in the course of my years following baseball include Gary Carter and Steve Garvey (smug, arrogant, abused my team), Dusty Baker (killed my team), Willie Stargell (terrifying, killed my team), Lenny Dykstra, (obnoxiously troublesome, I hated him until he actually got traded to my team, at which point he began immediately became my favorite player), many Yankees of their recent golden age (Jeter, Rivera, Posada, Matsui, Sheffield all inspired various degrees of dread). Barry Bonds, especially in his (presumed) steroid incarnation, was genuinely terrifying, in that you were almost reliant on luck to get him out. My children who are fans find Aaron Judge, who is fortunately for them frequently out of the lineup due to being often injured, to be scary in this regard, that the pathetic Red Sox pitchers are essentially powerless to prevent him from hitting a home run unless he screws it up himself. But they don't feel this way about Mike Trout, they feel that he can be gotten out if properly pitched to, which is not always a given. They used to feel this way about A-Rod as well, who was much less frightening than about five other guys on his Yankees teams, even though overall he was evidently the best player.