Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Mid-Atlantic Trip

I drove to Washington/Annapolis--and back--last weekend (now 2 weekends ago) for my fifteen year school reunion. I enjoyed it maybe more than I expected to--I had been open to the possibility of being depressed afterwards, though a depression interladen with meaningful assocations at least, which is better than the purely anomistic, low-intensity one with which I am ordinarily afflicted. There was not a big turnout for the reunion--most people my age are very busy living their proper lives even they want to come--but for all that the collection of people seemed to be good. At this point anyone who is still coming to school has an affection for it that I suppose is largely incurable, whatever form their subsequent lives have taken, which contributes to a pleasant, even if somewhat gentle atmosphere, as was the case here. It poured rain all afternoon and night on Saturday, which contributed to the mood of nostalgic melancholy I was feeling most of the time.

But I am not going to dwell on the reunion, which was certainly not without some real problems (running out of or shutting off the beer at 11:30 at the official Friday night function--unacceptable!). I also have a theory of people who go to reunions which does not cast them in a flattering light, though I find I am unable to adopt my own principals in these matters. My trip had other aspects to it that I want to write on.

On the long drive down the East Coast, I got a good sampling of the major sports talk radio stations in each area, these being WEEI in Boston, WFAN in New York, and WIP in Philadelphia. There were stations in Washington and Baltimore too, but they were atrocious. Most callers and hosts on talk radio are obnoxious, unfunny, vapid in the most unimaginative way, and devoid of any kind of distinguishing personality to some degree, but in the Baltimore/Washington corridor all of these qualities were seemingly combined in every person who made it onto the air. I couldn't endure them for five minutes. Washington is a weird area in that with the exception of the black population there aren't many people with deep generational roots there, and the social competition is brutal with no sort of alternative identity or community for people to fall back on so that many people who grow up or live there have even more than ordinarily crimped and damaged souls, as well no affection for the area whatsoever in a way that isn't common in New York or even the oft-maligned Philadelphia. But Baltimore used, anyway, to have a more colorful blue-collar fan base for sports, which is the lifeblood of these kinds of shows, back in the 1950s and 60s, but they have either left or suburbanization has totally lobotomized them. But here are a few observations on the different views of the current sports scene in the other cities:

Phillies: People in Philadelphia, doubtless impressed by the unexpected ease with which the Phillies cruised to the championship last year, are very bullish on the team's chances of repeating. This would be astounding to anyone who regularly listened to sportstalk in Boston, where you might have the impression that no such team as the Phillies even exists. Indeed, the entire National League scarcely exists in WEEI-land, unless former Red Sox players, usually pitchers who failed in Boston but become miraculously above average upon moving to the weaker league, are being referenced. The Phillies are talked about a little more in New York, though mainly in reference to their being the current main competitors of the Mets. Otherwise they are not highly interesting to people their either.

A-Rod: One of my favorite summer rituals in recent years is tuning into WFAN for a half hour on my way down to Philadelphia to get a good helping of vicious A-Rod bashing from the New York fans. This year however they have backed off from this--Yankee fans in general seem to be taking a cautious, wait-and-see attitude where this current team is concerned. In Boston meanwhile the hosts and fans alike have been talking for weeks about the chills A-Rod must be getting at seeing the calendar march inexorably towards October 1. They fully expect him to choke.

Patriots: The Patriots receive a lot of attention/fascination, both in New York, where of course they have been pounding on the Jets for the last decade, and, surprisingly, in Philadelphia, mostly in the form of the duo of Reid/McNabb being compared unfavorably to that of Belichick/Brady.

Eagles: Except in 2004 when they had T.O. and started the year 13-1 and were killing most of their opponents, the Philly fans are in a constant state of angst about the Eagles, even though in other cities they are considered one of the better organizations in the league. The fans are bitter about the team's failure to ever win a Super Bowl (or any championship since 1960), a bitterness now accentuated by the rival Giants sort of sneaking in for an unlikely title in 2007 after the Eagles had dominated the division for the entire decade. The pro-Giants people in New York seem to think of the Eagles as having the upper hand on their team in recent years and talk as if they are worried about them, despite their having won a title recently while the Eagles haven't.

Eli Manning: He gets absolutely no respect in Philadelphia, and is considered a total chump. This is in the tradition of Troygirl Aikman and Phil Simms, other Super Bowl winning QBs from division rivals considered horribly overrated and effeminate by Eagles fans.

With the exception of the reliably nasty Howard Eskin in Philadelphia, the Boston radio hosts tend to be the most surly and aggressive towards callers who disagree with them, or are meek or confused in their point. Surprisingly the New York guys struck me as going the easiest on people, or at least they saved their combativeness for callers who could take it and come back quickly with another point.

I hate to admit it, but New York callers were the most intelligent and interesting. Even the guys who were obviously not very educated knew how to talk, and express a coherent series of thoughts as they related to the world as they experienced it, which is something of a lost art out in the provinces.

Philadelphia had by far the most black callers on their station. I realize they have a bigger black population, but still, I think I heard one black caller in New York, and none in Boston. The Philly station is still overwhelmingly white-oriented, in a knucklehead kind of way, sponsoring buffalo wing eating contests at Bennigan's in Bensalem and that sort of thing. Most of the callers in Philadelphia don't seem to have traveled much beyond the boundaries of Eagles nation, which runs roughly from Lancaster in the West to the Lehigh Valley/Poconos in the North, East in New Jersey to the shore (south of Atlantic City) and south into Delaware about as far as the line which I-95 cuts across the state. Sometimes you will get somebody calling into who actually attended Penn State, which is seen as being really far away. Almost nobody has ever been to Harrisburg, let alone Pittsburgh.

I couldn't get a room in Annapolis for less per night than what I paid in monthly rent when I lived there, so my hotel was in Washington. It was near the Museum of American Art and the National Portrait Gallery, which I had never been to, so I got up pretty early on Saturday and looked around for a couple of hours. I only saw the first floor, after which I began to get tired anyway, but it was a good museum, although in the portrait section I found I was frequently distracted by the biographical information on the subject rather than looking at the painting itself. There was a special exhibition on art commissioned by the NRA during the Depression which I thought was outstanding. These were mostly realist, very Hopperesque paintings of industrial subjects, highways, bridges, factories, main streets, scenes from city apartments, baseball games. I was disappointed that there were no postcards of the paintings available, and I even considered buying the companion book for $34, but I was the only person in the shop and the salespeople were eyeing me in a way I didn't like so I put it down. But I kind of wish I had bought it now. Here is the page for the exhibit.

I ate at quite a few diners on my trip, since there aren't a lot around where I live. There is one that is pretty good about 20 miles away, but it's right off the highway and is very popular with tourists, so there is almost always a wait for a table except in the dead of winter. So I'm going to review them.

Mamaroneck Diner, NY. On Route 1. Got to this place around 10pm. Open 24 hours. Not crowded. Very sleek, silvery shiny type diner, super clean. Staff immigrants of indeterminate origin--somewhere in the Eastern Mediterrenean/Black Sea area--casually dressed but very professional and perfunctory in carrying out their duties. Sparse crowd very diverse. There was what looked like an East Asian gang in one corner--hoodies, odd gloves, scowling, etc--as well as a pair of Italian or Hispanic babes out with boyfriends, all of whom diddled on their cell phones the whole time. Got the corn beef sandwich with cole slaw on the side and a bottle of Samuel Adams. Outstanding.

Aberdeen, Md. Diner. Unfortunately I can't remember the name, and there are several diners there very close to each other on the old Pulaski Highway (Route 40). This one was a classic boxcar type diner with jukeboxes in the booths. Nice view of the road, which is the main drag in this town. Ate here around 2-3pm. Not many people there, all local, all white. There was a group behind me from some business where a very Maryland-looking guy with a bad mustache and haircut was haranguing his hapless companions (presumably co-workers about marketing strategies). Waitress looked older than me but probably wasn't, acted kind of youngish and peppy (though she did call me hon), also her name was Jennifer, which is a name of my generation. I had the Philly Cheesesteak with Fries. Pretty good. Bathroom was great, looked as if it hadn't been updated since the late 60s.

El Riconcito, Cafe, Washington, DC. Not a diner, but an El Salvadorean restaurant that was near my hotel. El Salvadorean cuisine appears to be fairly similar to Mexican. Very small restaurant, full when I was there, people standing at the counter. Except for one other table of hipsters, and me, everyone else in the place speaking Spanish. A gangsterish looking guy and his heavy-cleavage revealing girlfriend came in and sat right in front of me, cleavage right in my direct line of vision. I had a beef nacho plate, which was heavy but very good. Waitress was pleasant, although she laughed at my Spanish pronunication and taunted my failure to eat my halapenos, I think she rather liked me.

248 Diner, Easton, Pa. More a restaurant than a proper diner. Upstate Pennsylvania means old-fashioned patriotic white Americans, many old, many fat, many with really bad clothes, but still, in many ways they are my people, so I do kind of have affection for them. I had the lasagna special with dinner rolls and a green bean and mushroom dish for my vegetable. The meal was so-so. What this place really had going for it was three or four quite beautiful and genuinely personable and chatty waitresses. Upstate Pennsylvania is very hit or miss in this regard. You can go one place and it's full of totally crass and hideous-looking people, and then go down the road and see some of the dreamiest Hopperesque American girls you've ever seen in your life. If I could have had the waitresses in this restaurant as my harem I would have had to give serious consideration to staying in town for several years. Kind of like Odysseus on the island of Calypso, really, and of course everybody (except my wife) thinks he's great now.
George Crabbe--"The Village" (1783)

George Crabbe, who lived 1754-1832, is sometimes considered to be the last of the true 18th-century, pre-romantic poets. The idea of being the last of a kind has always appealed to me, perhaps because I always seem to be undertaking projects just before cataclysmic changes in the way the things I am doing need to be approached take place, which of course I never see coming, because I was usually already quite a few decades behind current trends even before the really big shift occurs. "The Village" is famous for being a rare unsentimental account of the hardships and inconveniences of the frequently romanticized traditional rural life, which itself was soon to be thrown into upheaval by the continual progression and pressures of the Industrial Revolution. Part I appears in many anthologies, very frequently as the last poem in the book if it is an 18th-century compendium, the literary 18th-century being generally considered to have ended either with Johnson's death in 1784 or perhaps the publication of Boswell's Life in 1791.I thought the poem was an interesting specimen of the national history. It apparently 'led me to ponder the nature of truth', my reasoning being that in taking a poetic form one's ideas always thus deviate from strict truth right off the bat. Yet I also thought there were very few, if any obliquities in the poem, that the idea being set forth was done in a straightforward manner; I evidently had some doubts about its veracity, or at any rate its greater, ultimate veracity.

"What form the real picture of the poor/Demand a song--the Muse can give no more" (Book I ll. 5-6) lays out the unconventional attitude the poem is going to take in a completely conventional-seeming style, which is a technique I admire in all the arts. From there we get an ironic catalogue of the errors the other poets have fallen into, such as "No shepherds now, in smooth alternate verse/Their country's beauty or their nymphs rehearse" (ll. 9-10), "From Truth and Nature shall we widely stray/Where Virgil, not where Fancy, leads the way" (19-20), and "Can poets soothe you, when you pine for bread/By winding myrtles round your ruined shed?" (59-60). After asking where the usual country heroes of pastoral poetry are to be found in the present day, he offers a reality check almost straight out of a rap song (101-108):

"Where now are these?-Beneath yon cliff they stand,
To show the freighted pinnance where to land;
To load the ready steed with guilty haste;
To fly in terror o'er the pathless waste;
Or, when detected in their straggling course,
To foil their foes by cunning or by force;
Or, yielding part (which equal knaves demand),
To gain a lawless passport through the land."

This passage is supposed to refer to smuggling, Crabbe having been born in Aldeburgh in Suffolk, which is located on the sea. The house where he was born was washed away by the sea a long time ago ("Who still remain to hear the ocean roar/Whose greedy waves devour the lessenign shore" [125-6], which prompted my wife to ask if we should have to be photographed out in the water if we ever make a pilgrimage there. As I am generally afraid of water, I said no, the shore will make a nice enough occasion for commemorating old Crabbe.

ll. 172-3: "Ye gentle souls, whom dream of rural ease/Whom the smooth stream and smoother sonnet please..." I think I am being paged here.

ll. 238-9: I like the description of the local populace: "The lame, the blind, and, far the happiest they!/The moping idiot and the madman gay."

306-13: A pleasant existence for the parson anyway, which profession I am pretty sure Crabbe, who published nothing between age 31 and 53, undertook himself:

"A jovial youth, who thinks his Sunday's task
As much as God or man can fairly ask;
The rest he gives to loves and labors light,
To fields the morning, and to feasts the night;
None better skilled the noisy pack to guide,
To urge their chase, to cheer them or to chide;
A sportsman keen, he shoots through half the day,
And, skilled at whist, devotes the night to play."

The much shorter and far inferior Book II is usually excluded from the anthologies. I read it because I like to be thorough, but it really doesn't add anything to the first part that I can see.

Ezra Pound, whose criticism I confess to find interesting, seems to have liked Crabbe a little, and wrote a four-page article about him. This is noteworthy because Pound doesn't like much, and is especially brutal towards the English. Indeed, most of the essay is devoted to bashing people like Tennyson and Wordsworth and the part of the reading public that admires them as intellects. Here of some of his observations on Crabbe, writing in 1917:

"'Since the death of Laurence Sterne or thereabouts (ca. 1768), there has been neither in England or America any sufficient sense of the value of realism in literature, of the value of writing words that conform precisely with fact'...I had forgotten, when I wrote this, the Rev. Crabbe, L.L.B."

"Think of the slobber Wordsworth would have made over the illegitimate infant whom Crabbe dismisses with: 'There smiles your bride, there sprawls your new-born son.'"

"The worst that should be said of him is that he still clings to a few of Pope's tricks, and that he is not utterly free of the habit of moralizing."

"Crabbe is never absolute slush, nonesense or bombast. That admission should satisfy the multitudinous reader, but it will not."

"If the nineteenth century had built itself on Crabbe? Ah, if! But no; they wanted confections."

"Crabbe has no variety of metric, but he shows no inconsiderable skill in the use of his one habitual metre, to save the same from monotony."

"He does not bore you, he does not disgust you, he does not bring on that feeling of nausea which we have when we realize that we are listening to an idiot who occasionally makes beautiful (or ornamental) verses."

"Browning at his best went on with Crabbe's method."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Classic Movies That Are Not Readily Available in this Country #2.5

Oh Mr Porter! (Britain-1937) This one has actually been uploaded in full on the internet in five parts on a site called, so I was able to see it, though the picture quality on the computer isn't all that great. Here is part 1. The clip below is a short characteristic scene.

The star of this movie is Will Hay, whom I had never heard of, but who is apparently still a famous comedian of this period in Britain. His two sidekicks in this movie, the bumbling half-senial old guy and the fat, oblivious-looking younger guy acted with him regularly in other films as well. This is yet another train-themed movie, a genre which seems to be particularly popular in the U.K., though many countries and systems have produced classic films centering on some aspect of the railroading life, the elements of which appear to be especially suitable for and suggestive to the cinematic imagination. I should probably watch this one again a little more closely--the speech in this comes pretty rapidly in a 1930s British colloquial style and over 80 minutes of trying to follow it against an often watery computer screen picture my concentration had moments where it lapsed; however I can see why it would be considered to have classic qualities. Much of it was filmed along abandoned rail lines in the actual English countryside (standing in for Northern Ireland), and reveals a kind of naturalistic rawness of what the country must have looked like in that general time period that I don't know that I have seen before, and which is quite fascinating in itself. I cannot say that the jokes had me rolling around on the floor, but the manner of speaking, the rapid give and take and quick-wittedness both of tongue and spirit that is written into all the characters in these kinds of films I find very interesting. There were some decent sight gags, thinking here of the multiple-telephone scene and the windmill scene.

Among the running gags at this rural station was the presence of various life farm animals, usually stolen by the fat kid, hanging around the tracks, offices, idle train cars, etc, often resulting in a scene where a farmer comes to claim the pigs he had left or was expecting to pick up at the station and cannot find just as the oblivious Will Hay is lifting a forkful of bacon up to his mouth. I am working on a longer essay about vegetarianism and current attitudes towards food in general among the enlightened classes, and I will probably have cause to refer to these scenes at some point.

This makes for a lot of tired old movie and book-rehashing posts right in a row, which is not in the main what I really want to do. I am going to come up with a few essays this fall. I have been quite busy the last couple of weeks; at any rate the readership seems to have fallen away entirely, so there is no reason not to take my time and write a few things approximating real articles.

The movie takes its title after this famous song, which I'm sure somebody will enjoy, as the internet brings the once-lost world of the British music hall into potientially every home.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Movie Music Video of the Week

This week's classic film was the 1938 Hitchcock (British period) effort "The Lady Vanishes". I hadn't seen it before. Surprisingly I had never seen any Hitchcock movies until I undertook this educational program within the last couple of years. Their reputation, such as it was, for being good, but not in the ways bourgeois audiences thought they were good, I suspect psyched me out when I was younger. I had no interest in seeing them.

I still haven't seen that many to this point. Psycho seems to me to be overrated. Strangers on a Train was a very cool and good-looking movie to watch but I didn't think the plot was particularly brilliant in that either. I liked this one. The plot is pretty silly of course but the wit and humor throughout more than redeem this. I thought the climactic scene with all the jokes as the British vacationers have a shootout with the demented Germanic contigent was brilliant. I hadn't seen Margaret Lockwood, the de rigeuer Hitchcock "girl" of this movie, before, and I like her a lot. She looks really intelligent; the 1930s British form that intelligence took of course detracts nothing from the effect upon the imagination.. I don't know if it is that I like this generation of women better than the 50s and 60s generation, or Hitchcock had better taste as a younger man, but the type of girls he casts in these earlier films are much more interesting to me than those who came later. Five years after this movie we got the much-celebrated (on this blog anyway) Teresa Wright, who was also intelligent after the manner I like, in Shadow of a Doubt, which has a similar overriding theme, that is to buck up the prettiest girls and the boys who love them for a big fight in which Western Civilization itself hangs in the forest. I suppose you can't really go wrong with Grace Kelly, but Janet Leigh and people of that ilk didn't bring much to the entertainments that couldn't have been much more than a simple line of dialogue, a single movement, to begin with.

I'm falling asleep. Enjoy the song.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Henry Carey--"Sally in Our Alley" (1725)

I thought that this poem's claim on immortality was pretty slight when I read it as a poem, though I thought it might be a parody or a fun favorite of schoolboys though the generations. I see that I also thought it might be a song, which is in fact what it is. Henry Carey was, as it turns out, the Paul McCartney, or Andrew Lloyd Webber, of the 1720s and 30s, the most popular songwriter of the time. "Sally in Our Alley" has enjoyed a long fame, and was known to be one of George Washington's favorite songs. Carey is also among the suspects for the authorship of "God Save the King", which is evidently undocumented, having been present at the first recorded occasion of its having been sung. He was also the author of the satirical poem "Namby-Pamby", which was pointedly directed at Ambrose Philips, whose own poem I was recently writing about.

Carey hanged himself when he was 56, the reason for which is in dispute, the main contenders being financial difficulties and despondency over the death of his son. As I noted in an earlier post, suicides among prominent British artistic figures seem quite rare compared with those of other Western nationalities, including the United States. Here is the best sounding English version of the song I could find. I guess it's...nice...I have neglected the development of any real emotional connection to this sort of music, which I think I could have.

Here is a German version, which sounds to me to be the best musically.

This 60s version , while having slightly updated lyrics, is obviously playing off the original. The story is pretty fundamental.

Favorite lines?: "Her father he makes cabbage-nets,
And thro' the street does cry 'em;
Her mother she sells laces long
To such as please to buy 'em..."

I've tried to analyze these lyrics to wring some insight from them, but I think there isn't much to say other than that this is the 18th century version of a kitchen sink drama or skiffle love song. We're British, we're living the squalid urban working class life, Sally is one of us, she's hot, and I want her in spite of all the evidence before me that working class British marriages are wretched, miserable affairs. That's called culture, baby.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Bennington Visit II

These pictures are really not necessary, but on the other hand, it isn't as if they are going to damage the quality of the blog all that much either at this point. The windows are helpfully labelled with the general idea of the view out of them. I thought the mountains looked especially attractive in this one.

So You Can Have a Better Idea of the Battle. The detail when you enlarge these pictures is pretty good, so I am actually curious to examine this diorama at leisure myself once my post is done.

The Significance of this Kettle will be revealed in the next photo.
I Promised You It Would Be Worth It.
Another Shot That Figures to Be Greatly Enhanced By Being Blown Up. Lots of good souvenirs and collectors' items from days of yore.
Rough-Hewn Stone (Sandy Hill Dolomite, Supposedly) and Antiquated Wiring. Two of the more endearing features to be found in New England's many dank old structures.
Education With the Illusion of Visual Stimulus. I wish I had more to say, but I don't. I am trying to crank up some quasi-big idea posts in the near future though. Assuming I am capable of it in any mentally meaningful way--and in spite of the multitude of evidence to the contrary, I still probably am--I have to be more accountable for the way I live my life and my choice in sentiments, amusements, stances or non-stances on essential issues, beliefs about and emotions towards other people, than I have allowed myself to become.
More Summer Pictures. Visit to Bennington I

I did other things during the summer, and maybe I'll put some pictures of those up sometime too if I get the chance. I liked the trip to the Bennington monument, hence the overkill on the pictures. It was a beautiful day, and a simple, quaint kind of attraction, in spite of which the children seemed to like it, at least for an hour or so. They are pretty good about not getting constantly bored, though one doesn't want to develop too strong a tolerance of non-excitement, which I recognize now has really held me back in life. General John Stark. I'm not sure if he is here saying "Live Free or Die" or "They are ours, or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow", which are his two most famous quotes. People are surprised when they meet me by how much sexier I am in person than I appear in photographs.
This is the Gift Shop. The gift shop was pleasant and relaxing, actually. The monument costs $2 to go up in, $1 for children 6-12, so it isn't like it's being run by people who are highly skilled in manipulating visitors to part with their money.
This is the marker in front of the gift shop. For such readers as are interested in more details than I have given. I actually know very little about this particular battle, other than that it wasn't actually fought in Bennington or even in Vermont, but was 10 miles away across the border in New York, and was a prelude to the crucial victory at Saratoga, which is not far from Bennington (though I haven't been there), about a month later.
The Grounds Around the Monument. The surrounding neighborhood is very pretty, and includes among other highlights the picturesque Old First Church, in the yard of which Robert Frost is buried, and the Bennington Museum, which I believe has the largest collection of original Grandma Moses paintings in one place in the world, though I am not certain on that one.
This Was Their Idea. I would never force anyone to pose beside a plywood cutout of a man if his will and aesthetic sense rebelled against it. They seem to like these kinds of things. As yet they don't appear to have the same sense, which I already had when I was 5, of life as a continual series of traps your social competitors have laid to make you ridiculous and weaken you for the day when you have to take them on face to face.
View of Old Bennington and in the distance Mt Wheelock or Greylock and the Berkshires in Massachusetts. I visited the town for the first time and came to see Robert Frost's grave on New Year's Eve in 1998, not knowing that the gravestone lay flat on the ground and would be buried under several inches of solid ice. That was around the height of the micro-brewpub craze, in Vermont anyway, which I liked, and I had a very good sausage and sauerkraut dinner that night at one of these places in Bennington. I don't remember the name of the place. I didn't notice whether it was still there or not.

Up in the Tower Amidst the Stonework. That round boiler-like installation behind me I believe is actually the staircase, which you aren't allowed to use anymore.

I'm not done. I'm following this post right up with a whole 2nd set of photos.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

One Argument at Least For Why Going to an Overpriced Liberal Arts College Isn't Always a Bad Idea.

If I had gone to Teeming Real World State U instead of the much smaller place that I did go there's a good chance I would have ended up just like poor "Dick" in the story here (and here, and here, and here). At least he has 500 Facebook friends, including apparently all of the hot girls he lusted after in college who would never dream of letting him touch them in any way suggestive of an erotic manner. I couldn't pull that off.

Double Indemnity

It's been a while since I've written about a movie, and this one offers so many things which are natural topics for me to write about at this particular juncture of my life that I am not going to resist taking it up.

The last few months, remarkably, have seen my first modest encounters with the celebrated genre of 1940s film noir. The remarkableness of this is not because they are cool, or even great, but because I generally eat up everything artistic from the 1940s. However, I think the enthusiasm of the genre's fans for its darkness, edginess, subversiveness, what have you, compared with the hokey and earnest offerings of Hollywood in the same period--which I also like--in combination with the circumstance that the people saying these things seemed to be suspiciously undisturbed in their own minds by this particular variety of dark subversive edginess, made me inclined to avoid them. The ones I have seen so far, namely this one directed by the--I am strongly tempted to call him great; yes, I think he is great--Billy Wilder, and Robert Siodmak's The Killers, are hampered in their attempts to be really dark by having rather fantastic and implausible plots. Some people consider The Third Man to have noirish qualities as well, though if it does it is in a highly Euro-stylized manner; its despair and pathologies are of a different kind than that of the Hollywood noirs. They are cool though, because the dialogue, the buildings, the cities and towns, the diners and bars, the women's hairstyles and the train stations, the wallpaper and furniture, and of course, the cigarettes and bourbon of the 1940s are cool. The movie is most convincing as a kind of statement on the false but seductive desires of the modern condition. There are no really good people in them. Innocent people yes, but these are either children or insipid. One cannot be good without an intimate understanding of the alternatives, and no one can be intimate with the alternatives and remain good. At best one can reject/resist acting out the lowest sorts of depravity.

The femmes fatales in these movies are much more evil to the core than I had realized. I feel that in our time the definition of a femme fatale has been whittled down to mean someone who is a little out of your league who teases you, leads you on, distracts you from your manly business and makes mincemeat of your heart. The Alida Valli character in The Third Man is somewhat more after this model except that she doesn't really even lead on the naive character. The Ava Gardner/Barbara Stanwyck model of femme fatale knowingly enlists you to murder, steal and betray your friends for them, and they don't even like you at all. They always say American girls are at bottom the cruelest of all women, or at least the quickest to have your throat cut if your existence is no longer serving their needs. Maybe it's true.

More on the 1940s: Where have those nightclubs gone? You know the ones from a million movies, they have a big wide open room where every table is full with well-dressed and good-looking men and women every night of the week even in cities like Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, there is a live Ricky Ricardo-style orchestra playing, and the booze and the cigarettes flow endlessly, and such attitude as you get was earned rather than bought or applied before going out. That's still my idea of a good time.

It is a truth that I was a long time actually in realizing, but the women's hairstyles of the 1940s were just great. The young actress in this who played the innocent daughter (though still with a non-parentally approved, tough-guy boyfriend) of the murdered victim, Jean Heather, has absolutely perfect 1944 hair. I replayed several of the scenes with her in them numerous times just to look at her hair and sigh contentedly. In truth she isn't that pretty, but she has a really satisfying look. The only other hit movie she was in was the Bing Crosby film Going My Way, which I believe also came out in 1944. That was her year. Apparently somebody loves her in Germany, since the only Wikipedia entry for her I could find was in German. The commentary on the movie stated that she retired from acting after the war in order to get married, which apparently was not uncommon in that generation. One can think of a few recent television and movie actresses whose place in the sentimental memory would have benefited from a similar retreat from the spotlight at age 24 or so (all people with real acting talent excepted of course).

Here is old Jean Heather. This is the only picture of her in Double Indemnity I could find.

As I have detailed elsewhere, my system for determining which movies to see is much less rigid than that I have for reading. Still it is interesting how in certain years even under a random system one will somehow fall upon a certain theme or star or director several times in the course of a short period. Several years back I went through a phase where I was constantly seeing movies with Toshiro Mifune and Marcello Mastroianni in them. This last year the guys I have found myself running into on multiple occasions are Fred MacMurray and Burt Lancaster. The Burt Lancaster movies cover the period from 1946-1980, The Killers, The Train, and the last, Atlantic City, when he was getting into old age. I had never seen anything with him before, and didn't even know who he was. Atlantic City seems to me to be overrated. The other two I liked stylistically, though in The Train Lancaster is supposed to be a French resistance leader, and I at least was not able to think of him as actually being French for a minute. The MacMurray movies span from 1944-1960, being this film, The Caine Mutiny, and The Apartment. The DVD commentary noted that of the 100 or so films MacMurray was in, these are the only three that were any good. That is a shame, because I thought he was quite good in all three of these movies, and I would have liked to have seen more of him. Apparently before this movie he was known for being a star of romantic comedies.
Speaking of stars, this was my first time seeing Edward G Robinson, who was a big figure in 1930s gangster films, another genre with which I have to confess myself wholly unfamiliar. He strikes the modern viewer as a unlikely movie star, though he was good in his role. He looks like he wasn't much above 5'3" 110.
Raymond Chandler wrote the screenplay. The dialogue was good, and like a lot of old movies, the scenes moved and followed smoothly from one to the other. The film is probably so well loved today not so much for its plot as for its evocation of 1940s Los Angeles, which is supposedly one of the great charms of Chandler, and the glimpes of which had the film historian commentators on the DVD practically in agonies at having missed the splendors of. Interestingly, a lot of the real buildings shown in the movie still exist, but, rather remarkably, they don't have an air of being old at all in contemporary photographs.
I feel invigorated and more like a real person after seeing one of these films in part I think because my own house looks and feels more like a 1930s-40s house than a more modern one. Besides being built in 1895 and having the old style windows, alcoves, etc, in the rooms, I have a lot of my grandparents' old furniture, the bedroom set in particular, which dates nearly from that time. I remember seeing a Laurel and Hardy film from 1933 where they get trapped in a attic, and it looks exactly like my attic. It doesn't sound like that would be all that exciting, but it surprisingly is.

I thought it interesting that the poor husband who gets offed in this movie was dispatched of while on his way to his Stanford reunion, the idea that he would go to which I think was supposed to be a tip-off that he was a pretty lame guy, even though he was rich and successful. It was the memory of his college days playing football and hanging out with his frat brothers that made him happy, and that is inexcusable in the ethos of film noir.
I am not a great fan of Disney movies, but even with them, the 1940s was by far the strongest decade. Pinocchio, Bambi, The Wind in the Willows and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow are probably my four favorite Disney movies. There is a nice touch of darkness in them, not pervasive, not that it overwhelms the story, but tempers it nicely, in a way that is needed in later productions but isn't there. And I had forgotten, or never noticed, what a great song this is.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Robert Burns--"Tam-o'-Shanter" (1790)
This is a more gargantuan picture of Robert Burns than I was bargaining for.

I think of Robert Burns as a poet who lived poetry more perhaps than anyone else in the tradition. It is not a question of profundity so much as his general perception of life and language. There is no evident separation between poetry and regular life, regular thought, regular speech in him. He inhabits the world of his poems as if completely unconscious of them as something he has had to wrench into existence. Therein is fun, banter towards and with all the subjects, a sensibility of the whole poem as something existing in a recognizable and easily understood form independent of the exertions of the intellect that he has managed to record. I don't know whether this sensibility is a product of environment or a gift--probably a combination of both--but it is a quality that seems to grow rarer and rarer the more intellectually sophisticated a society becomes. I have spent a little time around the edges of the creative writing scene, and known some people who aspired to be poets and read a contemporary or modern poem once in a while, and I have never come across anyone who strikes me as having any kind of psychic access to this kind of attitude. Even a great modern poet, Wallace Stevens say, is not inhabiting a psychic or linguistic space in his poems that is shared by any other mind apart from his; he has to create the likeness of the singular mental environment he inhabits that his poems can be, rather like a closely monitored incubator for a hatched chick compared to Burn's crowded, half-sanitary but wholly organic barn. These modern poets must read the old guys, like Burns and Blake, Shakespeare of course, whose verses seem to have poured straight and unvarnished from the furnaces of their souls, and they must know that something in their efforts is not coming out anything like these old poets. I don't know that there is anything one can do about it, to experience life as poetry more naturally and instinctively once that spirit has atrophied in you.
Alloway Kirk--The inspiration for the poem.
Quoting favorite passages from this poem is a little problematic, because of all the words which call for a glossary, but I'll try a few.
37-46: It is a simple scene-setting, but natural, with enough pointed detail and humor to raise it from banality to something that has the promise of being interesting:
"But to our tale: Ae market night,
Tam had got planted unco right,
Fast by an ingle (fireplace), bleezing (blazing) finely,
Wi' reaming swats (foaming new ale), that drank divinely;
And at his elbow, Souter (cobbler) Johnny,
His ancient, trusty, drouthy (thirsty) crony;
Tam lo'ed him like a very brither;
They had been fou for weeks thegither.
The night drave on wi' sangs and clatter,
And ay the ale was growing better..."
68-70: I like the imagery of the arch:
"The hour approaches Tam maun (must) ride;
That hour, o'night's black arch the keystane,
That dreary hour, he mounts his beast in..."
83-4: A funny couplet:
"Whiles holding fast his gude blue bonnet;
Whiles crooning o'er some auld Scots sonnet..."
201-2: "Ah, Tam! ah, Tam! thou'll get thy fairin'! (deserts)
In hell they'll roast thee like a herrin'!"
222-4: I learned in this poem that a "cutty sark" refers to a short skirt.
"Whene'er to drink you are inclined,
Or cutty-sarks rin in your mind,
Think! ye may buy to joys o'er dear..."
Burns's biography has some similarities with that of the 20th century poet who I suppose resembles him in style as much as it is probable any poet of the 20th century could, Dylan Thomas. Besides the obvious Celtic origins, both died young--Burns was 37, Thomas 38 or 39--both were seen in their eras as the most natural poets, least reliant on artifice and intellectual devices to produce a memorable effect, etc, going. Both were considered brilliant conversationalists, were from relatively humble backgrounds, often lived hand to mouth even after becoming successful. I thought I read somewhere once that Burns suffered from depression and drank a great deal, as Thomas did, which contributed to his early death. They seem to be of a type.
Burns ranks high on the list of writers who have left behind popular pilgrimage sites for modern day tourists. There are at least 8 houses, museums, monuments and so on that I have counted, as well an entire Robert Burns trail in the Dumfries/Ayrshire region of Scotland. I haven't been up there. One imagines it would be pleasant to hike or bicycle around the area for a few weeks, check out the sites, go to pubs, etc, though I also tend to imagine it as still being an open countryside connected by villages and market towns, when in reality there are probably shopping centers and highways and housing developments covering most of it just like everywhere else.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Music Appreciation For Philistines--No. 1

It has for some months been a secret ambition of mine to launch a separate high-toned music blog under a different, and much suaver identity; however, as I had to confess to myself that a) I know almost nothing about music, and b) I could not expect to post on this other blog more than once every month or so, and c) I cannot convincingly pull off an identity superior to the one it is my fate to bear, that I might as well keep such of these productions as I produce here, where they will anyway be consistent with the character of the rest of the writing.

Having nearly reached middle age without any professional level knowledge or abilities in anything that is of interest to other people, I find myself pretty much excluded from all serious and intelligent conversation with adults. I am not talking even of participating in such conversations--I was never able to do that even when I might have had the opportunity--but just of listening in on them. Professionals however I have noticed prefer increasingly to limit all discourse on their areas of expertise to their fellows of the same fraternity, and this across all fields. It is not merely doctors and lawyers who truck no patience with the eavesdropping of laymen these days, but geologists, actors, English professors and musical people as well have largely adopted this policy. Of this group, however, I have determined, perhaps counter-intuitively given the skill level required to be considered moderately proficient in this area, that the musical people would be the easiest group to infiltrate socially. They seem to be more open to intellectual friendship with people at a more basic level of knowledge in their field of expertise than most the other professions. These can tell right away by your demeanor and general manner of speech whether you are one of them or not, and give unsubtle hints and looks to you that you need to seek other company, but with musicians I find I am usually not exposed until the talk gets technical and someone solicits my opinion on the merits of so-and-so's third movement versus such-and-such's fifth, at this point, it is true, someone will frequently express exasperation. I was at a lunch once at the house of a musical acquaintance of mine one of whose had come all the way from New York with the intent of discussing questions about the fingering on the piano in the Emperor Symphony who found my ignorant presence, however silent, to be frustrating his ability to pursue the subject with the intensity he wanted. Seeing the way things lay--that I was neither going to be able to win him over by any personal charm, nor coax him to relax his tenacity on the subject, I soon excused myself from the room. Still, the camaraderie which these genuine musical people evinced was of a much warmer and pleasanter nature than that which I found among other expert castes, and wanting to be better able to someday imagine myself partaking in similiar high-spirited scenes, I set myself a task to at least write about music once in a while; for writing, like music, is an alternative, and sometimes better, form of raw reality.

As I have not developed the faculty to adequately express myself in purely musical terms however, and do not foresee that I ever will, this will have to be done with me in compositional prose, which is the nearest approximation to music at my disposal. I am going to start on very simple grounds, by taking a single compilation recording--I have chosen The Very Best of Maria Callas, because it is the only music album on my list of recommendations from (selected because I had purchased The Anatomy of Melancholy), and it features a number of the greatest moments and most important composers in the history of opera, as well as one of the most famous singers of the last century--and trying to get at what any of this could possibly ever mean or have to say to someone in my condition, which I still believe should be something. Looking at the reviews and commentary on this single album by real music lovers is to be reminded that I am not even inhabiting the same mental planet as such people. There is evidently no common ground between me and them. It is my modest goal in the course of this project to try to come upon some.

Friday, September 04, 2009

I Should Go to France Again

It's been ten years. Even on that occasion I was only there for four days, and just a single night in Paris. I suspect it has changed even more since then than it had since I had previously been there in 1990, which at the time had seemed to me considerably. Become less distinctly itself, as I understood it; more chains, more mass-produced food and imported clothing, more English everywhere, more sleek computerized machines, fast trains, less cafe lounging and 2 hour lunches. Of course, I am sure one can still find a spot here and there where whatever particular quality one thinks of as embodying something of the "real France/Paris" yet exists. I remember with great vividness my last meal there in '99. Certainly it was nothing special culinary-wise--a automat-looking type of restaurant on the Boulevard Montparnasse with plate glass walls, and I had the generic tourist meal of steak-frites, haricots verts (string beans), a carafe or two of house wine and a creme brulee and a coffee, which I never drink at home, for dessert. All of this food was excellent despite the inauspicious setting. It was late afternoon. I was catching an overnight bus to Germany around 8 or 9. While I don't like arriving in cities at 6 or 8 in the morning after riding overnight, I do like leaving places in the evening after a hurried and slightly melancholy final meal--earlier in the same trip before taking the boat to France I had had an outstanding boiled feast right out of Dickens or Samuel Johnson in a well-appointed but fairly tired-looking and empty old pub in Portsmouth, England. The afternoon was overcast, very gray, and as I was sitting by the window on a platform raised slightly above the level of the street I had an excellent view of the traffic, all of which happened to fit my mood perfectly at the moment. And that was the last hour I was there, growing now on many years ago.

I was reminded of this recently because my public library was having one of those book sales where they discard their old books that no one checks out anymore and that are clogging up their storage area for 50 cents or a dollar. There were several that I resisted at the time on the basis that they were too cringingly bourgeois which I regret not taking now--one of Joseph Campbell's books, three volumes of Will Durant, and an anthology of Robert Benchley/New Yorker/Vanity Fair type articles from the 1930s, all in glorious 50 year old hardcover, the value of which would have greatly exceeded the $5 I would have had to pay for them--but anyway, I did splurge on a couple of big photo books, which is a type of book that is underrepresented in my collection, one of Turin, of all places, and one titled France: A Photographic Journey. The pictures are professional, and therefore pleasant enough, and evoke the more traditional, less corporate-managed-looking epoch of European life that Americans especially crave. Initially looking at the French book I guessed that it must be from the 70s, but it was actually published in 1991. 1991 looks like it was an awfully long time ago in these pictures. I had a similar impression when I saw a 1988 Woody Allen movie (Another Woman, if you must know) a few months back, which I think I wrote about on here. I am sure this sense of mild astonishment that I feel is because these particular years don't seem very long ago to me, even in the way that say, 1983 does. I was 18 in 1988 and 21 in 1991, and I do not think of myself as being much different now from what I was then (indeed, judging by my Facebook page, my best friends are all the same people they were then, and I haven't substantially seen most of them since about that time). I lived in that, even in the West, grayer, shabbier, more low-tech world, mostly tangentially, and it certainly was all of those things, yet at the same time it doesn't look or seem real anymore. Did people really sit in those dingy bars with full of smoke with filthy tablecloths full of cigarette burns? I know I did, and I liked them, but the way people seem to act now I can't believe anybody else ever tolerated it. Surely the French wine and cheese industries have been modernized since 1991? It is impossible they still have some sweaty guy in a faded tweed jacket with stray pieces of straw hanging all over it testing the fermenting grapes in some handblown-looking device out in the barn, isn't it? I mean, even if they still do that, I don't think people can pull it off naturally anymore. They're too conscious now of their work being a curiosity. And then of course there is all the evidence of real live cool people, within my adult memory even, being perfectly content and in the moment without cell phones or any other beeping equipment in sight. We will never see their like again.

France is a big country once you get in it. It's the size of Texas practically, except without several thousand square miles of empty prairie you can speed through without losing the effect too badly. It would take years to see any substantial part of it. I've seen scarcely any of it. LeHavre, where I was stranded for the better part of a day until the banks in America opened and I could make a withdrawal (I am sure this system, at least, has improved since then), Rouen, Giverney, and I have dicked around Paris for a few days, usually feeling that I was not really wholly there, except for a couple of isolated moments such as the restaurant and walking around the square where the Madeleine church is at night. This is a 1830s-40s church, which is an era in French history that I find particularly interesting, it is in the style of a Greco-Roman temple, which I also like, it is kind of gloomy, not everyone likes it, and perhaps most importantly, I came upon it unexpectedly, and when I was alone--I was wandering around semi-aimlessly--so it was especially pleasing to me, and for a few minutes, at least, I did feel that something of it was mine. Of course now I am rather old, so it might be unseemly for me to try to recapture these kind of youthful experiences, and places like Paris only have use for such middle-aged people as are past the discovery and romanticism phases of their lives and have something of their own substance to contribute to the life of the great city. There is also, it seems to me a kind of vogue that insinuates that Paris is not challenging, or that one can go there too often and fall into a vapid rut, and that the thing to do for the vital spirit is to go somewhere exotic, and, if one can cut it, chaotic, the more the better. I don't subscribe to this opinion, though I am certainly not against someone's going to Nigeria if they are really feeling that that is where they need to be. Paris is not physically or even morally challenging, perhaps, but it seems to me there is a good deal of accumulated thought, wisdom, art, lore, and so on, that is not so easily mastered, and is well worth mastering. I don't think any sentient person can go there too much.