Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Is Blogging Over?

I remember reading something to this effect recently, that whatever dynamism was being infused into cultural life by bloggers has moved on to newer, more timely formats and modes of expression, that blogging had been mainstreamed, adopted and taken over (on the Google Search Rankings anyway) by the organized, professional media. It makes sense. I certainly have to come to grips with the realization that the historical moment has passed this blog by. When I started I had taken for one of my models the old Spectator papers of 1711-12 which took both contemporary England and the course of English literary history by storm. This page has now been going considerably longer than the original Spectator did (it lasted about 16 months, I think), and, so far as I can tell, its impact on society and history to this point has not been comparably pronounced. So do I do the wise, the pro-active, the vital thing, and shut the blog down and anticipate, even have a hand in creating, the next wave of literary-inflected communication, be for once at the forefront of a movement instead of straggling in amidst a motley mass long after all the choicest vantages have been claimed? No, because I am incapable of imagining that anything new will be the thing needed, let alone any good or not, before I am clubbed over the head with evidence of it, but changes will be coming, the tone and atmosphere of the page will be made less overbearing, and hopefully a stage will be reached where I can rationally determine if there is a purpose for the blog to continue, and if so to let it attain that purpose in a manner indicative of some degree of amiable humanity, and if not to recognize the fact and let it be snuffed out.

Cold Climates and Poverty. Having recently been reading some (in my current opinion greatly exaggerated) estimations of the hardships and deprivations about to sweep the American populace due to the collapse of the economy concurrently with a recent traveler's account--Paul Theroux's new book actually where he retraces the trip across Asia he took in 1973--of the incredible level of poverty that still exists in India, all of which was juxtaposed with a solid thirty day stretch where the temperature never got above 20 degrees, I became convinced that such sqalid conditions--the incredible numbers of people sleeping on the streets, in train stations, in tin and cardboard shacks, defecating and washing clothes in the rivers, battling with rats over scraps of food, etc, that are frequently remarked about life in third world countries--would be impossible to duplicate in any northern latitude on any but the tiniest scale due to the climate. People would freeze or starve to death, or have to leave, very quickly if conditions reached that desperate state. For some reason the idea of 100,000 people in Vermont freezing to death (only about 400,000 live there, and the majority wouldn't ordinarily die even under extreme dire circumstances) is less disturbing to me than its being crammed with 20 million living at an Indian level of poverty; I hope this is because I don't think it (the mass death by freezing) is ever really going to happen. That the climate of India allows for the survival of tens of millions of people effectively without housing or any participation in the greater economy through apparently endless generations I thought was its peculiar curse, though this is certainly not the proper way to look at the matter from any spiritual point of view; India being of course famously one of the most spiritually developed places on the planet, while the snow belt of North America historically has been conspicuously neglected by the palpable presence of any vital gods whatsoever. Indeed, the presence of gods, or at least interesting ones, appears to correlate highly with a confluence of sunshine, heat and a large, materially deprived population, all of which is short supply in most of the world's cooler regions.

There are however a few anomalies which threaten to confuse my theory, the main ones at the moment being Russia, and Detroit, though it is probably not a coincidence that these are currently two of the most rapidly depopulating areas on the planet. The survival, not to mention the continuous growth and relative increase in strength of Russia over the last 800 years seems to me one of the more improbable episodes of history given the incredibly harsh conditions of life as a poor person--always the vast majority of the population--and seemingly inconsistent patterns of industry and social organization that have often held sway there. Now that they can however more people than previously do appear to be deciding that it is not worth while carrying on there anymore. Detroit meanwhile seems simply to have ceased to function at a level necessary to sustain, or even to offer any reasonable hope of ever attaining again, most of the basic requirements for human beings to thrive in a rather dismal climate. I would say that it has really no choice but to die or become even more grotesque, but it is curious that Windsor, Ontario, which is right next door, as well as other nearby cities in Ontario seem to be prosperous and at least somewhat alive. They function anyway, and have attained some mastery over poverty, which the consensus seems to be are triumphs beyond the grasp of any collective will Detroit as presently constituted can hope to muster.

Picture: I am pretty sure this is Detroit. If it isn't, it should be. Jobs They Never Told Us About in School, Part 1

The children in the picture below are not merely playing with paints, as the naive reader might suppose, they are engaging in Art Therapy. Art Therapy is a profession requiring considerable training (and certification) in both Art and Therapy in which patients are enabled to heal psychologically through engagement with the fine arts, which sounds akin to the long tradition of depressives seeking consolation through philosophy, religion, poetry, music, etc, that have been coming down to us since antiquity, only now with the assistance of a professional Art Therapist, the likes of which would have been only to Boethius or Mill. It is not an especially lucrative profession--the median income is $45,000, with a master's degree, though administrators or Phds in private practice can sometimes make up to $100,000. Still, their self-esteem and belief that their work is important seems to be fairly high, which is no small consideration. There are 4 of them employed where I work (all women), and they are not in the least abashed to proclaim what they do before the greatest neurosurgeons and millionaire benefactors of the organization.

The Caine Mutiny (the movie)

I saw this a couple of weeks ago now, and thought at the time there were a few matters of interest in it to write about. Hopefully I can remember what they were. This is one of those old Hollywood movies where you often find yourself for long stretches being impressed by how smoothly good it is, only to wince five minutes later. I guess it is mainly this I guess that I had wanted to write about.

The plot construction, pacing, dialogue and suchlike storytelling mechanisms of this, as well as many other classic movies, has an ease and naturalness in its execution that almost everything put out in the last 40 years does not begin to approach. Old movies are comparatively almost all dialogue, unless there is a fight scene of some kind--no 5 minute interludes showing characters getting themselves in shape or working or walking all around the city's landmarks or writhing in bed as music plays--and the dialogue is always in the service of moving the plot in a definite direction, a writing skill which became undervalued in the experimental fervor of the 1960s and 70s and which consequently few modern screenwriters, even talented ones, employ with the same control as their predecessors. There are no two scenes in The Caine Mutiny (apart from those involving the love story, which I will get to farther on) which do not bear a clear relation to each other, do not recognizably follow directly from what has come before, and lead to what is coming next. This sounds perhaps like an unimaginative, by-the-book way of presenting a story, but it is does with an admirable degree of skill. Organizing a plot thus neatly, so that the film, which is slightly over two hours long, moves and never really drags, even in the ridiculous romantic parts, and so that the climactic scenes, especially the trial at the end, seem almost rushed and underemphasized compared to the modern method of plot construction, which would involve a half-hour of soul-searching and philosophizing and time-killing before presenting the trial as a spectacle, is not easy to do, and is a refreshing approach if it is not one you have seen for a while.

We are alerted that we are in San Francisco by a three second shot of the ship steaming under the Golden Gate bridge against a backdrop of very busy docks and a mid-century skyline. Then it's right back to dialogue and moving the story. The real purpose of this observation however is that it has been a long time since I've seen anything filmed in San Francisco in which the impression conveyed, either intentionally or unintentionally, was "industrial might" (The film was made in 1954).

At the same time that I praise the construction and pacing, the imagination and intellectual heft of the writing at the end of the movie (and presumably the book) I thought had some weaknesses. Popularized 50s ideas about psychology are woefully dated and look absurd when you see them being treated as serious now. Also the emphasis on the captain's obsession with the missing can of strawberries in playing such a leading part in his downfall struck me as a very trivial device on which to hinge a story about a mutiny in a U.S. Navy ship during wartime. Both the book and the film however were very popular in their time, when this era was fresh in the collective memory, and the annoying trivial minutiae of military life was a popular subject in books that came out about the war so I have to assume the incident was symbolic of an attitude widely-held at the time.

Most commenters on this movie cannot resist pointing out how ridiculous the love story is (it even tries to work in a Freudian angle involving the male character's mother issues), though I did like the sojourn the lovers took to Yosemite--the lodge looked like a fun place to stay, and the expected level of physical exertion and respect for the environment for a proper visit contained within limits I can handle. The Fifties was not a good decade for romance, though few have been, especially since the end of World War II. The Forties I always thought was very good, one of the best, because there was some real intensity and yearning in that era, directed at reasonable objects of desire (i.e., the boy or girl next door, or at the soda fountain) who bore some resemblance to actual human beings as well as representing symbols. By 1954 evidently people had already had, like Blanche Dubois, enough of realism and were looking for something else. Our WWII hero is smitten with a pneumatic and by our standards very fleshy, red-bustier-wearing nightclub singer. Meow! (The actress, May Wynn, whose career never really took off, is the kind of woman that you want to avoid seeing if you haven't gotten any action for a while--or ever--and you are already six or seven drinks into your evening; the only chance you have that is likely to improve is that of getting arrested.) Back to the 50s though, people really became disillusioned with domesticity; I think either it became too much separated from other currents of interesting adult life (which it still is) or, what is probably more likely, that the definition of interesting adult life got upgraded to something that in actuality very few people actively experience. I am going on at greater length than I wanted to, but the trend in the 50s was decidedly away, in the more interesting movies and literature anyway, from any vision of attaining longterm romantic satisfaction--or growing out of the need for constant new, but not necessarily psyhcically enriching, sexual excitement. Hence the Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, even Audrey Hepburn generation of movie stars.

Again unlike a lot of modern movies, I was struck by the abundance of generally likable male stars in the cast. If they happened to be really bad guys in actual life, I apologize. I have not turned up anything that indicates that to be the case. Humphrey Bogart has always struck me as those of a decent, reasonable sort of person. Fred MacMurray is back playing another morally icky character, as he did in The Apartment; to be honest, I always found him a bit creepy on My Three Sons as well, but he does a good job playing a pretentious character unpretentiously here, which I imagine is hard, and he also displays a better sense of wit here that I thought he had in him. I would have been taken in by his character whole-heartedly. Van Johnson, who I see just died in December at the age of 93, is easy to dismiss as a totally bland, whitebread 50s kind of guy, but I've seen him in several movies now and I rather like him. He plays a similar type of role in all his movies. He's not an alpha male, not a leader or dominating personality, but he is not a loser either, which often seems to be presented as the only two options available nowadays. He is competent--in The Caine Mutiny actually the most competent person on the ship, and as the sidekick in Brigadoon he demonstrated an ability to tapdance, which contrary to popular belief, is usually an indicator of further substantial capabilities--and his abilities and moral decisions often turn out to be as crucial to the success or failure of great enterprises as those of his leaders. This doubtless mirrors a general attitude that was prevalent in the whole society at the time. The Last Time I Saw Paris, another film he was in, is not a great movie, though he does decently portraying an alcoholic failed writer in it (I would know) who marries Elizabeth Taylor and proceeds to get eaten alive (I didn't marry Elizabeth Taylor at least--that would have been really ugly--but I can still relate). Unfortunately however I'm afraid the lesson one takes from the movie is that Paris, literature and bombshell women are no countries for earnest whitebread American boys to mess around in separated from a guided tour, lest they end up broken, quivering shells of human beings.

By the way Herman Wouk, the author of the novel The Caine Mutiny and a plethora of other doorstop bestsellers from the 50s to the 70s, is still alive (he's also 93). He is definitely not regarded as a contender for the Nobel Prize, and I don't think is even considered to belong to the realm of literature anymore, though he did win the Pulitzer way back in 1951.
I have to stop this post now, which means I will have to elaborate on my theory that the 1941 Judy Garland vehicle Babes on Broadway was Hollywood's answer to Triumph of the Will, which I had intended to do in here, at some later time. It is probably for the best given the delicacy of the subject manner, though the parallels of the two films are eerily and unignorably striking to me every time I consider the matter.

Hey, I have a follower! It is probably an error of some kind, but for the moment it is a pretty exciting development.

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