Monday, April 28, 2008

A Few More Observations on Cinema Criticism

The list of individual movies designated as of the highest quality by some major serious publication that I have been accumulating has now gotten large enough to reveal some distinct trends that I find surprising enough to think worth comment:

1. 50s-60s Japanese Samurai pictures receive the critics' top ratings in especially high proportions. This I have noted before, but it hardly hurts to reiterate. While I do recognize that these movies are usually remarkable productions, I confess I find the general drift, tone, what have you of a lot of them to be rather similar. The circumstance that they receive such uniformly stellar praise and ratings makes me wonder how much even the top Western critics are getting into these films either. There is also I find a somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere about many of the films of this genre that makes it hard to fall in love with them. The Samurai trilogy, which is my favorite movie of the type, is a notable exception to this sense of being stifled. My feeling about Kurosawa is similar to the feeling I have for a lot of things at my particular age of life. One knows he is in the presence of Greatness of some kind--and I hold that there are many varieties of kinds of it, it is necessary that there should be--but such a Greatness as is obviously informing someone else's perception of life rather than one's own.

As a side note, I don't really "get" most celebrated Hollywood westerns either. The mythic overtones, the essential qualities of violence and the American character that are revealed, and so on, yes, yes, I know; it is more that I am underwhelmed with the results of most of them as artistic productions. This is especially curious as this is one of the main genres of American art that is taken seriously by foreign intellectuals. Germans who hold almost all American artistic efforts, even jazz (perhaps especially jazz) in contempt have been known to declare certain Western movies works of real genius. My impression is that the appeal lies in the stripped-down, primitive display of human character, emotion, strength, weakness, etc, that the form allows, which I suppose is difficult for people living in highly culturally complex societies to tap into in their own art; it having been however the great achievement of civilization, I thought, where it has been achieved to some degree, to have moved beyond this, I think I would like to feel a stronger sense of connection with this progression than I get from most Western movies. The other day I saw Unforgiven, the much-acclaimed 1992 Clint Eastwood movie that swept the awards the year it came out, was named one of the AFI's top 100 movies of all time, seems to been generally accepted as a masterpiece, etc, for the first time. While it was competently made, and diverting enough that I wanted to see what happened at the end and so forth, I didn't think its statements, if that is what to call them, be them on violence or authority or manhood, or whatever, were particularly forceful. I was not feeling the purpose or urgency that propelled the effort, and carried so many others along with it. Since the movie has been so widely praised, I even tried listening to the commentary on the DVD (which I never do except on Indie films where the commentary mainly serves to give one the illusion he is hanging out with a cool Generation X person--sometimes people--bursting with attitude, pop culture references, and complicated sexual histories, which is kind of a fantasy for me) for some insight from a noted critic, but it was weak. The only good movie commentary I have come across on a DVD so far by the way, where I actually learned a lot about the movie that was well worth knowing, was for Les Enfants du Paradis.

2. British movies are represented far out of proportion both to those of other major filmmaking nations and their standard reputation. This surprised me the most, since I had never gotten the sense that Britain was considered to have achieved any great level of genius in the cinema. It is true that a large proportion of the works credited to her on my list are literary adaptations: Olivier's Shakespeare films, Lean's Dickens pictures, etc, the adaptations of Shaw starring Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard, A Man For All Seasons, etc. The early Hitchcock movies count as British, and then you throw in some of Noel Coward's films, especially the WWII classics, and a few Kitchen Sink favorites, and all of a sudden you have a pretty formidable U.K. presence on the list. Except for Hitchcock, and perhaps some aspects of the kitchen sink films, most of these movies don't seem to be regarded as crucially innovative or as belonging to important movements a la the nouvelle vague or Italian neo-realism, which if nothing else illustrates that a superior work of literature, competently interpreted, is difficult to find much fault with. Also I suspect that, as I am mostly going from American critics, that there is a very significant though largely unconscious bias which exalts British acting, the British manner of direction, indeed the whole (to us) very formidable British theater tradition, which is as far as I can see the primary component being brought to most of these films.
3. Hollywood films of the 1945-65 period are frequently rated higher than one would expect. I say this because, at least in my experience, I feel the standard narrative is that the 1950s and 1960s, up to the release of things like The Graduate and Easy Rider, constituted a dark period of mediocrity and stagnation in the American cinema, the loss of cultural centrality (and audiences) to television, a preference for insipid musicals and overwrought epics and melodramas, and so on. While it is true that the bad and stupid movies of this era have a very distinct, complacent and uninteresting sort of badness and stupidity, which combination happened to be particularly offensive to the generation of '68 which has had such a large say in all areas of Western public opinion since that time, at the level of the classic individual film there are acknowledged to be far more from this era than any other one. This is partly of course because it covers the period of most current critics' impressionable youth; and also as such, and because it is perceived to be an era of excessive personal conformity and conservatism, it provides the kinds of societal standards and norms against which just about everything is measured, positively or negatively. The ten year period with the most classic movies, according to my research so far (actually nine-year period; there was a three-way tie among various ten year periods, so within these I checked out nine-year rates) was from 1946-1954, with half of the films listed being American. It is again curious how many of these designated movies are adaptations from drama or literature, though unlike in Britain it was almost all contemporary: The Killers (Hemingway), A Streetcar Named Desire, The Caine Mutiny (somewhat forgotten now, but considered a major book in its day), Long Day's Journey Into Night, To Kill a Mockingbird, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? This period, like all periods, had its peculiar energies, energies that seem to us, who have not the same energies, something different again, and perhaps more satsfying, or more appalling, from what those living at the time perceived. I think generally there is a tendency among us to find a lot of the energies of the '46-'54 period pleasing because we desire to have a great many of them again--usually not consciously, I will add--but seem to feel we have lost the sense of them altogether.

4. The Great Euro-Auteurs of the same period, particularly the French and Italians, seem to be underrepresented among the very top scores. I consider the postwar European cinema up to about 1970 to be one of the highest states that the form has achieved, along with the remarkable French movies of the 30s, and some of the greatest of the silent films, so it is interesting that the critics seem to have a higher criteria when rating individual movies out of this pool. The New York Times runs an adoring story on some uncompromising, difficult, brilliant European director past or present just about every week who makes the typical American intellectual, let alone filmmaker, look like a plodding philistine; I think the critics take the bait and knock half a star off just to demonstrate to old Jean Luc and Franz that they indeed understood their movie, but thought the vision could perhaps have been a little tighter.

5. Disney movies are uniformly overrated. I have children so I have seen a lot of Disney movies over the last couple of years, most of which are rated the full four or five stars in just about every movie guide. The only Disney movie I would even consider giving 5 stars to is Pinocchio; it has good songs, some parts that are legitimately disturbing in a semi-serious way, and some very good and ingenious stuff done with the animation. Snow White is prettily drawn but the story is actually rather boring. When I was seven or eight I saw The Song of the South in the theater and I remember liking it (I had a crush on the little blond girl in it) but the depiction of Uncle Remus is apparently so offensive that it has never been released on VCR or DVD. Everything after 1990, Aladdin and The Lion King all of that, are flat-out horrible. I remember reading once about a deeply depressed man who sat alone in his rented hotel room night after night and watched the Lion King while he wept. I just want it on the record, I am not as bad off as that guy. Of course the plot of every Disney movie is exactly the same: my four year can break it down for you. We meet the hero in his natural setting; suddenly the villian intrudes upon this setting, throwing down the big challenge to the hero; we are feeling down so the hero's biggest helper, who is girl movies is a fairy and in boy movies doubles as comic relief, comes to reassure us; there is a second confrontation with the villian where he gets the better of the hero and it looks like the game is up; at this point his trusty friends, though they can't perform his task, do bear him up. Perhaps it is time for the big musical number, followed by some soul-searching and self-realization for the hero, who is now ready for the Big Fight at the End as the children call it. This is then repeated with all variations of nationalities and animal kingdoms.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Notes of a Native Son--Part 3
I have been out of town for a week; and before I was out of town I couldn't seem to write anything. Re the essay "Many Thousands Gone":

In this the author speaks of collective national guilt, primarily white of course, which Baldwin considers to be an absolutely real burden that has been "reinvested in the black face" in which "time has made some changes" whenever an attempt is made to wash it of the past (as whites have done, rendering their faces "blank"). As to the guilt, while it is certainly a pervasive feature of one strand of the national character, and a fairly significant and influential one, it doesn't seem to me to be at present a defining element of most non-black people's psychological makeup. Real historical guilt I would think could only truly be felt through deep suffering and humiliation that the guilty party is convinced he somehow deserves. Cataclysms such as this have been frequently predicted for the American populace, but they never seem to come off quite all the way.

A few pages later he makes the claim, which is often made, that blacks know whites better than whites know blacks, and even better than whites know themselves. Perhaps this is true as far as attitudes, matters of justice, indignity, etc, specific to race relations are concerned, but of course this does not constitute the whole of any man's knowledge, or thought, or being, or at least not any man who would be a subject of general interest. I know that this is not exactly what is meant by such assertions, but that is what is always suggested to me by the words, that a man's knowledge of life is wholly contained within the limits of his racial attitudes.

The conversion of the American slaves to the Christian religion, and the seemingly enthusiastic acceptance of the same by many black Americans down to the present time, is, as Baldwin remarks upon somewhat in passing here, really a very odd phenomenon, however black of an identity is given to Jesus and the church. It does, I think, demonstrate one of the central characteristics of Christianity, which is that it appeals most strongly wherever people despair of getting anywhere desirable in this life but at the same time feel they cannot really ever abandon, or escape, their hopeless course. I have read a lot of commentary over the years, most of it not I believe consciously Marxist in its intent, which opines that the black church is not generally good for black people, that too many ambitious black men take up preaching instead of more demonstrably empowering professions, and so on.

The critique of Native Son in this essay is good, though I still do like that other book as a piece of literature. Clearly there is something in it that appeals to very white people such as myself, and has since it came out; one doesn't exactly care for Bigger Thomas too much, not enough to feel than anything much could ever have been done for him, but the hopelessness of his whole situation, the sense of the forces that are arrayed against him, is conveyed as starkly as anything else I have read. The world presented is half our utterly familiar American urban world of newspapers, police, movies, cars, sloe gin fizzes, etc, and half something inaccessible buried within that, which is very fascinating (Baldwin by contrast maintains some psychological link to the whiter world at nearly all times). Here are some Baldwin quotes regarding the book:

"Bigger has no discernible relationship to himself, to his own life, to his own people, nor to any other people--in this respect, perhaps, he is most American--"

"...that depth of involvement and unspoken recognition of shared experience which creates a way of life."

"it is not his love for them or for himself which causes him to die, but his hatred and his self-hatred; he does not redeem the pains of a despised people, but reveals, on the contrary, nothing more than his own fierce bitterness at having been born one of them."

The next essay is a critique of the 1955 film Carmen Jones, a version of Carmen directed by Otto Preminger using an all-black cast and set in a much-sanitized interpretation of a contemporary Chicago ghetto. It starred Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte and Pearl Bailey and apparently was a complete artistic disaster. I didn't expect it would be in print anymore but of course two days after I read the essay I noticed my local quasi-bohemian independent video store had a brand new copy on DVD. I have not been tempted to get it however.

My only notes on this chapter were: Has consuming passion declined because people have more options? (not betas), and Oh, to have sexuality! which I was relieved to find was not entirely a commentary on myself, but referred to the quotation "What is distressing is the conjecture this movie leaves one with as to what Americans take sex to be."

Monday, April 14, 2008

Florida Pictures III

These are more pictures from Busch Gardens. Apparently we didn't take too many more after that day, and those that we did didn't come out too good. In the first picture the baby is in a hippo's mouth. Needless to say, the Busch Gardens vision of Africa is pretty old-school, as in colonial-era, white and more Teutonic than Anglo-Saxon in flavor at that. This jeep stimulated distrubing feelings of Francis Macomber-identification in me that I had not realized I had. African-set Euro-American literature is a pretty good, but brutal genre; where there is usually a sense in books set on the home turf that inferior men have to be tolerated somewhat in the name of humanity, once set down in the rawness of Africa all decorum is thrown out the window and people manage or are dealt with as their quality merits, which cannot help but present an unsettling picture to weaklings, though a delicious one to the naturally strong, who are so often constrained beyond patience in overcivilized societies.
It is worth noting that they still give out free samples of beer (Anheuser-Busch products, but if you are really above that level, you won't be going to amusement parks in the first place) in the canteen near the exotic bird area. There is supposed to be a limit of two drinks per person, but unless you really overdo it no one seems to be paying attention.
Another day we went to Myakka River State Park, which was a more natural Florida experience, though the park being very well-organized and maintained it was a managed naturalness, which is the kind I like best. The place was supposedly full of alligators, but we didn't see any. While I am not terrified of these primitive-appearing breasts, I can't say that my heart was broken at not encountering any of them on the hiking trail either.

I had actually, at the risk of completely forfeiting any current or future readership I might have, tried to put up a picture of myself with this group, but it didn't take for some reason (and I tried it twice). I will take this as an omen that the time is not right for such a revelation. It was taken in a restaurant that had some aspirations that I went to one night, which sorts of places I don't frequent much any more. The energetic, well put together waiter had great sport with me, the lumbering, uncultivated, harried husband/father/tourist, at every step of the presentation, the recitation of the specials, the serving of the wine, etc, which performances were clearly beyond my capacity for appreciation. In recent years whenever I go somewhere where it is obvious that everyone expects me to be stupid or otherwise uncouth I have, if not exactly taken to playing along, given up trying to protest that my nature is quite otherwise; in the most important articles, first of all, it is not anyway, and in the others therefore no one cares.

At the end of the trip we went to Miami for a couple of days, as my sister-in-law, who is on the faculty at the University there, lives in that town. I had never been there before, and to be honest, I did not see much of it on this occasion. I had expected the atmosphere to be overwhelmingly Latin, but at least in the areas where we were, mostly Coral Gables and Palmetto Bay (or Palmetto Springs; I can't remember) this was not the case. We took a tour of the University, which was actually full of regular looking, harmless college students--the rampaging football players, supermodel lookalikes and Lamberghini-driving frat boys I had imagined as constituting the student body at this college apparently hang out elsewhere than on the campus. I have never consciously set out to visit every college campus in America, but when I started to make a mental list of ones I have visited, I was surprised at how many there were. Miami makes 3 that I have now been to in the ACC (Boston College and Virginia being the other 2; I have also driven past the University of Maryland on several occasions, though I never stopped in there), a conference whose schools for the most part lie well out of my way. I've been to all the Ivy League schools except Cornell and Brown. I've done half the America East Conference (Maine, New Hampshire, Boston University, Northeastern). There are at least thirty more too--Notre Dame, Florida, Navy, Indiana, West Virginia, the Big 5 in Philadelphia--and that isn't even counting the sub-division I schools. I suppose most people would have been to as many schools--it just seems like a lot when you never considered it before.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Teresa Wright
Viz. the conclusion of the last post, and the sentiments this aroused in me. My blog will certainly not be a less happy place (to me at least) than it was before. I love this lady.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Notes of A Native Son--Part 2
Page 4 (Autobiographical Notes)--"Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent...On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important."

p.5 "...I suppose, the most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality." Which reality, or at least the conditions which it entailed, it is indicated he often experienced as something that felt unnatural.

pp.6-7 "...I was forced to recognize that I was a kind of a bastard of the West...I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use...I hated and feared white people. This did not mean that I loved black people; on the contrary, I despised them, possibly because they failed to produce Rembrandt." I don't quite know what to say about this. It reminds me, to be honest, of the sort of thing I would write myself, or at least feel myself, obviously without the overwhelming significance of color or ethnicity influencing those feelings. He made at one point in this paragraph a sort of off-the-cuff list of iconic Western achievements that he felt did not contain his history (but which apparently he would have considered to have contained mine, though certainly plenty of people would be eager to dispute this as well); these included Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, the stones of Paris, Chartres Cathedral and the Empire State Building (which would have barely 20 years old at the time this book was written; its elevation to iconic status in Western culture seems to have been recognized almost immediately). I would have been curious to know what positive qualities he perceived in each of these things that were supposed to be accessible to white people in a way that they were not to blacks or other races, which qualities no one respectable would consider to attribute to them now; perhaps he saw their value merely as symbols of power and greatness spanning long eras in which blacks in the 1950s had no hope of sharing, though I don't think this was all he meant.

p. 14 (Everybody's Protest Novel) "...the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty." The first part of this sentence rings true at the level of individual men, the second more of peoples--Northern Europeans of course especially come to mind, few of whom I think consciously experience personally this characteristic inhumanity that everyone else immediately detects in them, though many, if pushed, will concede that something of the sort appears to exist in the aggregate.

The section just referred to is about Uncle Tom's Cabin, and its authoress, about which he observes that "the description of brutality--unmotivated, senseless--" leaves "unanswered and unnoticed the only important question: what was it, after all, that moved her people to such deeds." I am not sure that any more convincing or satisfactory answer to this question than the many which have already been put forth is likely to be found. The capacity for such deeds is clearly a major component of human nature, and from the biological point of view can probably be demonstrated to even be an advantageous quality. Ethics, and what we think of as humanistic impulses generally, seem to be far weaker and less innate, and require constant development and reinforcement to attain a state where they can contend with brutality on even terms. The churches are almost certainly correct when they posit that it is man who must contend with evil, and not vice versa; man in his natural state is nothing to evil. I know that this is not the question here, but the particular, circumstantial hatred and brutality of white people in the United States towards black people in the United States, and the need, or at least the perceived need, for some ultimate expiation of that sin for the nation to be able to achieve its proper fulfillment. This, if it is going to be found, I am pretty sure will have to be found in symbols, as indeed in part it already has; history as experienced literally does not really work in this way, and it is surprising to me that Americans especially often seem to expect it to.

pp.16-17 His analyses of the black characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin naturally are quite funny. Speaking of a group of three characters, "two of them may be dismissed immediately, since we have only the author's word that they are Negro and they are, in all other respects, as white as she can make them....a wholly adorable child--whose quaintness, incidentally, and whose charm, rather put one in mind of a darky bootblack doing a buck and wing to the clatter of condescending coins...Eliza is a beautiful, pious hybrid, light enough to pass...George is darker, but makes up for it by being a mechanical genius" "Uncle jet-black, wooly-haired, illiterate...His triumph is metaphysical, unearthly; since he is black, born without the light, it is only through humility, the incessant mortification of the flesh, that he can enter into communion with God or man." This last is written in a tone of heavy sarcasm.

On page 19 he rips the film The Best Years of Our Lives, which visitors to my profile page will observe I have listed as one of my favorite movies, as a example of the kind of fantasy, "connecting nowhere with reality, sentimental" that is akin to the protest novels. All edgy, New York-oriented, serious intellectual people detest this movie, and my inability to bridge this divide and join them in their contempt--and I promise you, I have tried--I consider to be among the most symbolic of my myriad failures at becoming the kind of person I have always dreamed of being. What can I say? It is as Tolstoy said when asked why he chose to write a 1,500 novel about the Napoleonic Wars; he liked the spirit of the people at the time. I also like the actress Teresa Wright a great deal, who besides being lovely was apparently a uplifting person to talk to even into her 80s. This did not prevent her from getting a rather condescending write-up in the New York Times when she died a couple of years ago, which noted that her prime years of stardom came during the war era, 1941-46, after which America no longer needed her reassuring, good-girl presence and turned their affections on the likes of Marilyn Monroe; obviously once the war was over everybody felt like they were married to Teresa Wright and that hanging out with Marilyn Monroe would be loads more exciting, but I don't think this was a great step forward in American culture as everyone seems to think.

All right, the baby is awake and I probably won't get to come back on the computer until Sunday night so I am going to post now, even though the post is shorter than I like. James Baldwin gives me a lot of stuff I can work with, so we're probably looking at 5 posts on him, minimum.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Key To The Pennsylvania Primary

Yes, the New Hampshire primary is long gone, but Pennsylvania, my native state, has been getting a lot of media coverage as a result of the long interlude leading up to its contest. The other day I heard or read someone opine that the battle really came down to the division between the Starbucks Democrats, who represent the Barack Obama wing of the party, and the Dunkin' Donuts Democrats, whose champion is Hillary Clinton. But surely the political experts must know that the most influential and important voting bloc in Pennsylvania are the Wawa Democrats; about the courting of whom, however, I have read very little to date.

I believe I have written in here before about my efforts, during this period of my life when I generally have to live at a great remove from any scene or event that has anything to do with art or cosmopolitanism, to watch at least a couple of bona fide, universally agreed upon five-star-rated movies a month. This week's selection was Kurosawa's 2 hour, 40 minute 1980 epic set in 16th-century Japan, Kagemusha, or The Shadow Warrior. Despite the film's obvious beauty, provocative philosophical conundrums and masterful directory--and I mean this seriously--it took me three nights to get all the way through it, because, after a long day of the endless tedious tasks of ordinary life, I couldn't concentrate, or in some instances, stay awake, for longer than an hour on images and questions of the greatest interest to my soul. The idiosyncracies of my system of choosing films having led in recent weeks to a very heavy selection, including a movie version of an opera (Zefferelli's Otello), as well as several movies of the German New Wave of the 1970s (The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Fitzcarraldo), I am starting to think that even this is a task that needs to be undertaken in earnest when one is younger, preferably in school. Serious movies, especially long ones from countries where people have complicated thoughts that they accustomed to tracing out both the origins and possible consequences of in great detail, are exhausting to watch. If one is going to take in a two-and-a-half hour Kurosawa or Werner Herzog film, it probably needs to be the main activity of the day, or at least of the day up to the point when one sees it (these movies especially were made to be seen on a big screen in a theater as well, but I am not going to be able to swing anything like that for years to come); one really needs to be rested, fresh, alert and undistracted I think to get much out of them.
For one thing, unlike in Bergman or highly stylized French movies that arise out of the set confinements of the theatrical tradition, the amount of purely mechanical and technical work that is visible on the screen in these films, in terms of the sets, the costumes, the vehicles, the massing of extras, etc, becomes exhausting to contemplate in itself. Herzog especially is fond of showing in meticulous detail how a rusted ship is rehabilitated to sail once more (and then decay again) or how a building or mechanism is constructed from scratch, from the cutting and clearing of the land, the making of the tools and the digging of the earth to the actual completion and functioning of the projects. Similarly when it's time to prepare a meal we often find that the pigs have not even been secured yet, let alone butchered and frozen, nor the grain for the day's bread harvested, all of which then proceeds to be shown. Human beings sweat and strain and become covered in dirt. These give a definite texture to the movies, but it is hard for me at least to maintain my concentration. Fitzcarraldo, for example, is a two and a half hour movie about a man whose dream is to build an opera house in the middle of Amazon jungle. This seems to me to be a desire only a German could even conceive of having (as well, perhaps, as the desire to then make an extravagant film on the subject), and why he does have it, and persists so doggedly in trying to bring it about instead of returning to the civilization whence this much-loved art form sprung and where it most thrives, I never really could get a firm sense of. In the end, after he fails to build the opera house, he has a full orchestra and company of singers in full evening dress and Puritan costumes transported in barges down to his ship for a sailing performance of I Puritani, which is actually is an opera about the Puritans, which I had not previously realized. Clearly there are a great many statements in this monumental undertaking about human industry, art, desire, appetite, relation to the earth, but they are presented in such an ambiguous manner that one really needs to be undistracted during the film and have some time to ruminate after the film for it all to sink in, which makes the style not a good match for our current era, when the most successful and important people don't really have any time at all to give to ruminating, nor seem to see much point in it if one doesn't intend to accomplish something concrete thereby.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

James Baldwin--Notes of a Native Son (1955) Part 1

When I was a teenager, back in the 80s, and starting to become mildly attentive to the literary climate, my impression, such as it was, of James Baldwin was that he was considered somewhat passe. I determined, in my youthful understanding, that the main reason for this was that he was no longer menacing enough to white people, which seemed to me to be an important consideration at the time. It was not that he wasn't angry, or even angry enough, or that he held back unpleasant truths out of timidity or deference. By the 80s, however, the typical white male intellectual was accustomed to absorbing without too much discomfort such rebukes as Baldwin would be likely to dish out to him, whereas the likes of Playthell Benjamin or Amiri Baraka, either in person or through one of their champions, not only threatened him with a humiliating verbal smackdown in the presence of all the white female English majors, but intimated that a too egregious hint of a smirk or a roll of the eye could lead to a swift literal kicking of one's pasty ass, or (more likely), the forcing of a beggarly public apology to avert this consequence. Baldwin, a gay man who weighed about 120 pounds and whose preference in lovers trended towards arty Europeans, did not carry this same intimidation factor. In addition, perhaps characteristic of his generation, he always self-identified strongly as an American, and acknowledged the influences of white American and European culture, some of which he was obviously drawn to, in his formation, which was not fully in keeping with the more militant elements of the post-6os literary culture either.I have only read two Baldwin books, his first two, this one and Go Tell It On the Mountain, but as they are two of his most famous ones I assume they are representative of his whole oeuvre. He was not a great stylist and one sees him coming up against limits both in his language capacity and general education much more frequently than one does with suaver authors (I have similar problems myself). His strengths were his wittiness, his material obviously, and his sensitivity to beauty, or least the illusion of beauty, though this was often employed when an especial expression of anger was intended. This last effect may have been unintentional--being inclined to think, for example, of New York City in the 1930s and 1940s in a mostly positive way, both with regard to its overall appearance and the functioning of its institutions, the excitement and energy of the streets, etc, compared to most of life, I imagine him feeling something of this same attraction but from the standpoint of an excluded outsider--indeed, a hated one. Perhaps he saw, or intended his reader to see, only the hatred, the oppressiveness, the hopelessness that devoured so many in the great city. However I don't think so; he seems like a pretty soulful man, not a nihilist, a vengeful spirit of darkness from the Jacobean theater. He wanted his anguish to be intelligible to that world which attracted him, and excluded him, even if his conscience would have resisted it. This is of course one of the central veins in American literature, and is at least as frequently maligned as it is admired. It never dies, however.

Notes of a Native Son is a collection of autobiographical pieces, magazine articles, reviews--the title piece is the central essay of the collection and I may have been just supposed to read that according to the dictates of my list, but, the whole collection being short and my having such an interest in and attraction to the time period in which the book was written, I read all of it. I will save my observations and snippets chosen for commentary for some further posts, as there is a lot of material for me to rhapsodize on here.