Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Miscellenea (Part 1)

Christmas Shopping

My half-hearted efforts to support local businesses in my Christmas shopping this year largely failed. I am not used to the kind of personal interaction that involves bantering with salespeople, and especially thinking of them as authorities on their various lines of goods to whose expertise I should appeal in making purchasing decisions. This is doubtless emblematic of wider cultural decline, but such habits of sociability need to be cultivated, and if a long grown person has never been forced to practice them, he isn't going to have them. Then of course the gradations of most products above a certain level of obvious cheapness are of little interest to me. I am usually more than content with a good of middling quality. Then other of these small business-people are shockingly bad salesmen. I went into an independent hobby store on Main Street which had not been open long determined to buy my 8-year old son an old-fashioned kind of model ship that you build yourself. I was the only person in the store, which immediately made me a sitting duck for the proprieter, who looked to be of that school of people who spent most of the time between age 14 and 22 playing Dungeons and Dragons or some such thing. I was poking around among the modest selection of model kits on display and he yelled from behind the counter "Can I help you?" I replied no and continued poking around, apparently unconvincingly, because thirty seconds later he demanded to know the age of the person for whom I was shopping. I reluctlantly answered this question. "I don't really have anything here for eight-year olds." Well, I guess that was that, wasn't it? The brown-haired girl working the cash register at Michael's craft store did not interrogate me about my purchases (though I might not have minded so much if she had) when I was driven there to get the thing I wanted.

I have similar difficulties shopping at my local independent bookstore, though it is pleasant and has an adequate selection. The owner however is just a bit smug for my liking. His literary taste as far as I can discern runs towards displays of cleverness, the more extreme and inaccessible the better, and antagonism to almost anything that might have a chance of genuinely appealing to any mind that could easily be tarred by the label 'conventional'. He is one of those tiresome individuals who seems to genuinely believe he has managed to escape mind-enslavement by the mass media and the ruling establishment (I should add that he went to Harvard, so he probably considers himself part of the ruling establishment even though he runs a small bookstore cafe in New Hampshire as opposed to a New York investment brokerage or whatever they are called) while everyone else has not. Buying a volume of Camus or, God forbid, one of the old New Yorker writers from this guy gets a smirk that struggles to contain itself from bursting into laughter. Weightier, or at least cleverer and less utterly cliched stuff, Gogol, say, or Mann or Thomas Pynchon, merits more of a raised eyebrow and a looking over, presumably to gauge one's capability of seriously taking on such a work. People who buy The Da Vinci Code? Given that his expectations of the local customer base appear to be pretty low, I assume he must have reached a comfort level with this class of patron. And besides, he has to pay his bills, right?

My wife, who apparently presents herself to educated people as one of their own kind in a way that seems to be beyond my ability to project, I should note gets along much better with this gentleman. He even cracks knowing jokes to her. One Christmas, while buying an installment of a popular children's series for one of our nephews, he quipped to her in a tired monotone, "Another victim of Lemony Snicket. Truly a series of unfortunate events." One wonders how long he had been waiting to break out that line...

Mid-Atlantic Excursion

I went down to Pennsylvania for a couple of days over the Christmas holiday. I don't stay long, because my family gets on my nerves--I probably would not go at all except that my wife, with her exquisitely attuned sense of propriety, thinks it is important--but I enjoy the trip at least. The way down, although 3 days had passed since the not-especially-big snowstorm which somehow managed to cripple that part of the country for several days, took 11 and half hours--that would be 4 hours from Concord to around Milford, CT, which is normal, and 7 1/2 more from there to Philadelphia, which is excessive. The roads in the New York area were essentially immobilized. After inching along for more than an hour to get over the bridge into New Jersey my children claimed to be dying of the need to use the bathroom, so I got off the highway in that jungle that is Ridgefield/Passaic and could not get back out of that local traffic for another hour after that. I usually have a pretty good tolerance for highway traffic, but getting stuck on local roads is a soul-sapper. "This part of the country has become unliveable" I declared. My children wanted pancakes, so we had dinner at the IHOP in Watchung. My own dinner was terrible, but everybody else--even the wife!--enjoyed their food a great deal, so I was satisfied. Also the decor of the restaurant struck me as being very New Jersey somehow, which pleased me. It had these forlorn yet half-festive cardboard and crepe-paper Christmas decorations hung up, which reminded me of something my grandmother would have had, and the likes of which I never see, or least never notice, in New England. Also the place was huge, open, and nearly empty except for a handful of scraggly families, which gave it a further poignancy.

The fiasco which the snow produced in that region however does not bode well for the ongoing functionality of this society. This was not a major snowstorm by any stretch of the imagination, and 3 and 4 days later, with the sun out and the temperature rising to nearly 40 degrees, I passed by an incredible number of still unplowed sidestreets. Even worse, I had the opportunity to pass or drive behind a number of plows and salt trucks, and whoever was driving them frequently gave the impression that they had received faulty training in how to use the devices on their vehicles. One salt truck I got behind in New York on the way home--by which day the need for any more salt on the highway was long past, anyway--was conducting itself in an especially odd manner, shooting its supply of salt upwards so that it came raining down on the hoods and windshields of the cars around it, which I have never seen a truck do in New England to quite so extreme an extent, though I have lived there for many years at this point.

I have reached the age where whenever I go back to the old neighborhood--neighborhood in this instance incorporating an area 20 or 30 square miles in size--I wonder how many more times I will ever be back. Lately I have still been going down 3-4 times a year, though many of those occasions are a stopover on the way to somewhere else. However, my mother is likely moving within the year out of her house that has been in the family since 1957 (ed--as of June 2011, this has been put off to at least of couple of years further into the future), and while she won't totally leave the region (one hopes), there is talk of moving 10 or 20 or 30 miles out of Philadelphia--she is about 2 blocks out of it now--and those places do not have the same associations obviously as the Cheltenham/Abington neighborhood does. My relatives will probably live a great many years yet, but perhaps I will cease to have so much cause or desire to visit them. I took care to go to a hoagie restaurant that dates back to my childhood--such places (that date back so far) now are grown rare--and had a cheesesteak with a side order of cheese fries, that horrible delight of old times, the number of which such meals I have remaining to me surely dwindling to a low number now. Indeed, like Dick Clark I feel it incumbent now to stay up until midnight on New Year's Eve, as I sense that any year could be the last one, and, despite the essential absurdity of the holiday and the letdown when everyone abandons the party and goes to bed at 12:15 or so-- is the excitement of any other event so rapidly exhausted?--I still enjoy the day in a kind of morose way.

I have more miscellaneous subjects but I think I will save those for another post.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Penultimate Calendar Year Post

Dear Loyal Readership,

I am going to start another one after I publish this which will be dated 2010, but it is unlikely I will finish that before a week is out, especially as I will be away from a computer, or at least will not be near one in any capacity of composition, for the next few days.

I need not tell you that 2010 was not a banner year for either my writing or thinking abilities. My skill in each of these areas continues to deteriorate, as in the former, or grow more confused, as in the latter at an ever more precipitous pace. A great part of it, I know, is the incessant demands and toll which work, lack of sleep, endless domestic tasks and the multitude of people who now live with me make and have taken upon my concentration--even now I have someone jabbering at me as I try to dash off this note. A few hours of quiet with a rested and calm mind... these last few years, too, my mind is always as if hopped up, anxious, unable to see or arrange its thoughts quite clearly--I never foresaw this happening to me either.

I have kept up to the extent I have here because--like many of my countrymen, I should add--I am sick with the idea of being a certain kind of person that I increasingly have no claim on being, and it has proven very difficult for me to let that go entirely, though rationally I am all but resigned to this truth.

I thus look for 2011--what, as I will be 41, the historical record indicates should be the year I attain the pinnacle of my powers as a writer--to be an even slower and less lucid year at Bourgeois Surrender than any we have had yet. I thank you for your support and hope you have found and will continue to find such mild amusement and diversion in these pages as you seek and as most of us need from time to time.

Yours sincerely,

The Editor

Monday, December 20, 2010

Annual Holiday (Bad) Music Post: Old Girl Singer Special

I received my college alumni magazine in the mail today, a quarterly reminder of my neverending failure to live up to the college ideal, with regard to seriousness of any kind especially, but also in the total failure to absorb any of the life skills you are evidently supposed to learn there, which all of the successful alumni put to work in the realms of high-level business, scholarship and international relations every day. I had already started this frivolous post when this low-gloss rebuke (black and white photography only) arrived, so I anticipate I will continue on in a chastened tone.

I won't be able to set a new posting record this year, nor even get to 100 posts. Perhaps the blog is beginning to gradually wind down, and within two to three years might be expected even to finally die altogether. When you study the lives of successful people in arts and letters one of the most striking patterns in many instances is how quickly they move on not merely from particular projects and organs but from entire major phases of their careers in order to be constantly tackling new ground. No blog should last longer than 18 months probably, let alone five years.

I am only in love with about half the singers featured here. It was the atmosphere--of slightly melancholy or slightly embittered sweetness--that I sought.

The Poni-Tails "Born Too Late".

I heard this on the radio about two weeks ago pulling away from the drive through window at Dunkin' Donuts and thought it had a poignancy on several levels that transcended its simple message and orchestration. Clearly I was influenced by the uninspired nature of the setting. I couldn't find any movie footage of the girls. I put in the video of the record cover because they all look relatively adorable, especially the one on the bottom, who I think qualifies as dreamy.

Contrary to what appearances may suggest, I do not wish that the 50s had continued on forever. That would have been intolerable even to me, though I probably would have been willing to cling to it a little longer than most others. I do believe a lot of things would have been more enjoyable to do in that era that perhaps they are now--playing organized sports and living in Paris are two that come immediately to mind--and that many of the new directions that society chose to go in were obviously not great improvements on what had been before--but I do not wish that time had stopped, rather that its changes had been managed and implemented in a different and perhaps less wholly destructive and more deeply vivifying spirit .

Shelley Fabares--"Johnny Angel".

Glancing over the comment sections of Youtube music videos one cannot help noticing the varying characters of the commenting bodies which congregate around different artists. Opera and jazz are especially fertile ground for the snobs, many of whom I find enviable in their ferocity and contempt. Notable performers and interpreters of others' works, or in the case of many rock guitar legends, their own largely obscure catalogues, naturally provoke heated arguments about technique. International pop superstars inspire thousands of inane comments, largely from people in countries where English is not widely understood. A few groups like The Who seem to have hit the sweet spot of fandom; their commenters are funny, positive, apparently freed from the burden of snobbery. Smiths/Morrissey commenters try to take after this school, but most are unfortunately incapable of keeping the pitiful memories of their lonely, unloved youths to themselves.

Shelley Fabares is a figure not of artistic interest so much as romantic projection. All the males want to marry her, and a significant number of the females sound as if they would like to see her eyes clawed out. This indicates that she possesses some quality that touches a tender spot in the general masculine breast, and a sore one in its feminine counterpart. One may observe in these fora that is acceptable for men to declare the perfection of other feminine celebrities such Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn, presumably as any ordinary man is unlikely to have much contact with anyone remotely like them, let alone marry such a person. They are harmless in that instance, and besides embody many qualities that contemporary women either see themselves as either already possessing to some extent or that are at least acceptable to aspire to. None of this applies to Shelley Fabares, a sweet-natured cutie pie teenager who is the kind of girlfriend the average long term virginal middle class boy dreams of having from age 15 until he achieves some sense of full initiation as a sexual being, which in some instances can last forever, and whose type, presumably, continues to symbolize an active and real as opposed to theoretical ideal in the unenlightened male mind. This must be criticized and exposed to shame and approbation, and the disapproval of it expressed, I suppose, though it will do no good.

I occasionally used to watch the reruns of the Donna Reed show myself for a short period when I was in 8th/ 9th/10th grade, during some idle period between sports seasons or during the summer, wasting time that could have been employed to many better purposes. I was exceedingly weak emotionally however and had, if not an insatiable, a least a need every day or two, for a dose of romance, meaning at that time a vision of pretty girls. Sometimes television would be the only way to get it.

Lesley Gore--"You Don't Own Me"

The onetime "Cutie-Pie From Tenafly"--not too surprising really when you look at this video--came out as a lesbian in 2005. This is nothing to the point, other than to note that if I gone to school with somebody like this, kind of sad and not glamorously pretty, though not aggressively unfeminine either, I would have assumed the cause was her inability to get the kind of boyfriend she wanted. This is how I interpreted the world at that time. I suppose I know better now, if only tangentially. I like the naturalism of this clip. Is it me, or do people in documentary footage from the 1960s and 70s look more like actual human beings than people ever seem to now?

Brenda Lee--"I Want to Be Wanted"

"Little Miss Dynamite". Maybe they haven't stopped giving singers catchy nicknames. Maybe I'm just not keeping up.

This is one of my favorite songs of the 60s.

Dianne Lennon--"What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?"

In which the equal parts lovely and quietly severe Dianne gets stood up by her date for the big night only to be rescued from a night wallowing in self-pity at home by the smartly-uniformed Western Union boy. The thought that this might ever have been even a remotely plausible fantasy demonstrates how dramatically social life has changed in the last 40 years or so.

I never had much fun on New Year's Eve. It's a badly conceived evening, in that its focus is around a point of time which seems to distract everyone from the usual progression of a festive evening. I wonder if there oughn't to be a new tradition, make it a night to go on a date, preferably with someone you've never been on a date with before but always wanted to go out with. That would be a lot more fun for most people than what happens now anyway. Maybe they could bring back old-fashioned dances too. The cultural shift from well-organized dances with dance cards and at least somewhat less worry that all the girls you like are in danger of being carried off by some studly rival for a session of ravishing at any time to the current scene where dancing with a girl means having to gyrate around in her general area and hope that she doesn't immediately leave the floor, while perhaps more efficient, was especially brutal for people like me in their formative years.

Madonna--"True Blue"

Best Madonna song ever.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Movies 1968-1972: The Godfather and If...

As these are both iconic movies of a popular era in the cinema, I am going to assume that everyone already knows everything about them, and only give my own impressions as a potential means of sharing in the lively communal experience which popular art sometimes inspires.

I am not sure if I had ever actually sat down and watched the original Godfather straight through from beginning to end, but if I had, it was a long time ago, when my attention would have been directed primarily on the violence and not on the kinds of things I pay attention to now. Of course all of the famous scenes and lines and Lucca Brazzi and Moe Green references I recognized and anticipated, these having become ubiquitous in the culture during the ensuing 38 years, and I knew the basic structure of the narrative, but the movie otherwise had not made much of an impression on me because I was not able to get beyond all the murders which struck me in my tender naivete as pointless and callously portrayed. In my more developed maturity I realize that underworld murders are anything but pointless, that in fact they are more significant actions and assertions of humanity than anything that ever happens in bourgeois life, and, more specific to the movie, that the murders themselves in any kind of moral sense are not its focal point anyway, the stylization of them is. The murder scenes are thrillingly and to a certain extent even beautifully conceived, but there is nothing very real about them. Effective stylization in movies however is almost always more interesting than realistic depictions of life seem to be, and has always constituted their main appeal, whether in the mindless-popular-entertainment or challenging-the-complacent-intellect model.

The script and plot construction are Hollywood golden age (i.e. the 30s and 40s) classical. It coheres, each scene builds relentlessly upon those that have come before it towards its climaxes (the various murder scenes), the pace never flags or meanders, and the story is executed in a manner that at times both exquisite and grandiose. This all looks obvious and simple to do up on the screen, but you rarely come across it in recent movies as pleasingly smooth as here--I often wonder if people are too sophisticated and over-conscious to even do simple but affecting artistic work anymore. Of course I am humoring myself when I do this, as there are doubtless plenty of great artists at work in our own time; I seem to be incapable of taking pleasure in almost all of them however, so I am dissatisfied with the direction of the "culture".

Though the movie doesn't always feel like it takes place in the 1940s, it does in places a decent job of evoking that era emotionally. I especially like the shots of the department stores with the Christmas music playing in the background, and the murder scenes in the Italian restaurant, the Jones Beach toll booths, and the department store revolving door confirm to a great extent the feelings of love and comfort with which we have often associated these places but have never quite known how to express. I almost believe that if people could be assured that their murder would take place in a picturesque setting, with them presenting well in fine clothes or an elegant car, that they would be much less fearful of the potential crime.

It is difficult for me to comprehend how highly this movie is regarded by people for whom the film business and life are not disparate entities. I knew it had crept into the top 10 of the prestigious Sight and Sound poll of top critics and directors that is taken exactly every ten years (the last was in 2002), which is probably the most highly regarded such ranking due to the people involved in it. I hadn't realized that it had bolted nearly all the way to the top. The Godfather (together with Part II) ranked 4th in the critics poll, behind only Citizen Kane, Vertigo, and The Rules of the Game, and was the most recent film to crack the list, which like most such lists favors the real (old) classics. In the directors' poll it came in second, behind only Citizen Kane. (Note--in 1992 it made its first appearance in the directors' poll, at #6, and did not appear at all on the critics' poll, which at that time still filled half of its top ten with films from 1941 or earlier). I agree that it is a classic but I'm not sure it's that classic. There is still something about it which strikes me as fundamentally too shallow to merit that high of a rank. Obviously the generation that was young and most impressionable in 1972 has completely ascended to the chair of authority. I suspect it will score high again in the 2012 poll but begin to drop again by 2022, if anybody still cares about movies by then, which they probably will. Of course one can only shudder to imagine what kinds of movies the authorities of my generation will be voting for...

Among the film's more notable achievements is making the viewer feel at selected moments that Diane Keaton might actually be kind of pretty as well as a sympathetic person (I hadn't caught before that her character is supposed to be from New Hampshire, by the way--Ha!), which no filmmaker I am aware of has succeeded in doing since.

This is the first of the big 70s Hollywood movies I have seen, or re-seen, since I read the big sex drugs and rock and roll history of the era last year. Of course there are hundreds and thousands of books and essays on the subject, but I had never actually read any of them, so I really do find myself looking at it in a new way. Coppola came across as being the most natural as well as largest talent of that group, at least from 1968-75 or so, after which his career, according to accepted opinion, never approached these early heights again, to the point where by the 90s he was doing John Grisham adaptations for hire. I haven't seen these later films, so I don't how true this is, though it seems odd to me that even if his writing ability lost some of its edge, that the artistic sensibility and instinct so evident here would have abandoned him so completely. As far as the material being inferior, lots of great movies from the 40s and 50s, including pretty much the entire film noir genre, were adaptations of crummy pulp novels and magazine stories, so there is no reason to believe a good director couldn't make an interesting film out of a Grisham story. The Godfather itself is considered as a book to be not of the best quality (although numerous of the unlettered among my youthful acquaintance asserted that the book was far superior to the film, which would really call into question the ultimate profundity of any movie experience in comparison to the traditional high arts). Of course he has gone on to make millions more dollars on the side selling fine wines and cigars. I've tried some of his wine. The word that comes foremost to mind is clean--no residue, and a kind of oddly streamlined, uniform taste. The Pinot Grigio Bianco is the best of his line that I have had. It is very good.

Coppola's ego grew even more insufferable than it already had been for the several years between the success of the Godfather movies and the debacle into which the multiple-years-and-several-hundred-million-dollar-production of Apocalypse Now degenerated.

My favorite Coppola story is that while filming Apocalypse Now on location in the Phillipines some elaborate sets costing millions of dollars were in the process of being constructed near the beach when some lower level employee on the production blurted out the question "Why are we doing this? Monsoon season is starting in a month." To which Coppola replied, "What are you, a fucking weatherman?" You can guess what happened next.

I am no great technical critic of actors, and everybody and his grandmother has already felt compelled to offer the world their opinions on this, but it just further emphasizes that the surrealism-tinged awesomeness of Marlon Brando in this movie can hardly be overstated.

An old friend of mine who was gifted in the ability to entice women to sleep with him used to be very generous with advice and other wisdom regarding such matters towards me and other of his especially hopeless acquaintance, doubtless knowing it would never be put to use in such a manner as to constitute a threat to his own supply of pleasure. "Timing, (Surrender), timing is everything" was one of his favorite mantras. We frequently see this to be the case as well in other sensually-oriented fields, such as the arts are, and rarely has a movie been more fortuitous in the timing of its release than If.... was in appearing upon the scene in 1968. As engaging and even remarkable of a movie as it often is, it is impossible to envision it, or even a modified version of it, being a big hit--which it seems to have been, in England, anyway--at any other time than when it happened to appear. In recent years it has often come to be referred to, even by some of its admirers, as the original school shooting movie, due to its notorious final scene, though in context it is pretty clearly intended to be an expression of the spirit of the 60s, over the top undoubtedly, and probably a little more zealously imagined than we would find appropriate nowadays, but it should be noted that the targets of the barrage at the end are not hapless middle class bystanders, but literal representatives of the British establishment, generals, bishops, headmasters and the like, who, it should also be observed, begin firing back once they realize what is going on, as much of the right wing commentariat declaims that they would readily do under similar circumstances if only they were ever present at them.

I first saw this movie at a screening of the college film society, rather early in my time there (even as recently as the early 90s this entailed getting a print on a traditional reel in a traditional can and running it through an actual traditional movie projector. I'm guessing these traditions have finally died out however by now). I'm pretty sure I had no idea what was going on in it at that time. This is a real art movie, meaning that the greater part of its charm is in the small details and instants of fleeting beauty that it is able to notice, set off against the darker overlying story. Evidently my younger self could neither appreciate the fineness of these details nor really grasp the general drift of the plot. This is kind of funny because there are a number of occasions where the school in the movie looks quite similar to my school at the time, the dormitories and the gym especially. At the time I probably imagined everybody's school had more or less of a similar character.

I want to emphasize again that this is a very beautiful film, made by people who, whatever their issues with British society, were not oblivious to a sense of the grandeur that still pervaded not only its countryside, but also its hidebound and increasingly outdated social institutions. When you flip around the TV channels now or watch film previews, a lot of the newer stuff out of Britain depicts as a rather horrid, almost dystopian place, full of gloomy, nightmarish cityscapes, ugly, crass people speaking in horrid accents, surveillance, impersonal computerized barriers and signs everywhere, crime. There is very little suggesting any connection to pre-1997 English culture or history, which even anti-establishment 80s rock bands like the Clash and the Smiths were fond of referencing when the opportunity presented itself.

Malcolm McDowell did a portion of the commentary on the Criterion DVD, which I found worth listening to. He has considerable charm, as well as a healthily modulated amount of jerkishness, and his anecdotes about the film, Lindsay Anderson, the 60s, Britain, the other actors, and so on, are a lot more interesting than the usual film commentary pablum. There were a number of themes introduced which had the effect of making me question where I had gone so horribly wrong in my life--Lindsay Anderson's intellect, which was apparently formidable as well as deeply though as if casually learned, was brought up several times by both commentators (the other was a British film historian), and McDowell mentioned going to I believe the art director's spread in Sussex or somewhere and being floored by the absolute perfection of development of this individual's taste, which reminded me that even today the world swarms with thousands of these perfect brilliant people who understand everything and know how to do anything and get paid handsomely for it while the other 99.9% of the population of the western world slides ever deeper into a state more degraded that of mere traditional barbarism or serfdom. But other than that I mostly found the commentary enjoyable.

Lindsay Anderson (the director of this movie, by the way) had something of an enigmatic career, never quite being part of the film establishment but never exactly being completely cut off from it either. I hadn't realized he had made 1987's The Whales of August, which featured a number of legendary performers who had not been seen in a while, including 1910s silent goddess Lillian Gish, then well into her 90s, in what I am pretty certain was her last film. I never saw this, but I remember my 11th and 12th grade French teacher's being excited about it, (Les Baleines d'Aout, he called it) and Lillian Gish's comeback. Of course no one in the class, including me, was able to share in his enthusiasm. He was an odd little man, probably retired now, as he seemed to me at the time to be older than father, in his mid-40s or so. Like a lot of the teachers at our school, he did make a good show of engaging with the life of the mind in a pre-new age sense, traveling, keeping up with the arts, seeking 'cultured' experiences of a vaguely European refinement. He had never been married, and doubtless people speculated about his preferences in sensual matters, though he did once bring a female date to the well-known restaurant (this was in Maine) where I worked as a dishwasher and occasional busboy. This lady was his age, and of a rather dumpy build, though she had dyed her hair a rather startling orange color and had all kinds of oversized bangles and necklaces and one of those massive bohemian dresses. Whatever their relationship was, I would be curious to know more about it now.

Contemporary Bonus: I saw Greenberg, inspired by this link from the Virtual Memories website, where it is described as the tale of a 40-year old man who finds himself totally at sea in the world of 2010, which the writer/critic indicated could easily describe himself. As it could certainly describe me as well as anyone I am aware of, the curiosity which the man who considers no one to be in sympathy with him feels at the suggestion that someone with a prominent bully pulpit overcame me, and I decided to see the movie.

Sadly, as with many movies made by or about people who are of my generation, my main reaction was one that I almost never have when watching movies from 1925 or even ones where Europeans at elegant dinner parties suddenly open fire on each other for no obvious reason, that of "Are people really like this?" I have always felt this where my age cohort was concerned. To the entertainments of 1978 my reaction was "Are other children really like this?" I had the same questions regarding the cinematic teenagers of 1985, as well as the casts of the entire oeuvre of Winona Ryder from 1989 to 1994. Part of the problem is that even when the characters are supposed to be losers (professionally, that is, or through an inability to kick substance abuse habits or maintain stable relationships, as opposed to simply being uncool) they invariably still have more friends, more sex and display cooler taste in music in the course of a 100 minute movie about the lowest period of their life than I was able to generate in the entirety of mine. Another issue for me is that with a few exceptions--I'll have to try to generate a list of these for a future post--nobody in a generation x movie ever displays any evidence via their actual speech of having anything even symptomatic of an aspiration for any kind of real education, let alone the possession, or partial possession of one--even when the characters are supposed to be geniuses! Maybe this is realistic, and obviously my mind is only vaguely informed by familiarity or awareness of any kind of deep learning or contemplation but still--vaguely is a lot more than nothing, enough that nothing no longer resonates as a possible foundation for any person with whom one might have anything in common.

This movie did remind me of something I had forgotten, which is that I never managed to make it to a party where cocaine was being actively imbibed (needless to say I also have managed never to take cocaine). Not that I ever really wanted to do cocaine, but I certainly wanted to be able to go to the kind of parties where people were doing it, because of course I imagined that you had to go to those kinds of parties just to see beautiful girls--it was a portal to the world where one could perhaps then begin to have a glimmer of hope of ever getting any of them.

Sorry about the sloppy ending. I have to end this post now or I may never get out of it.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Dylan Thomas--"Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" (1952)

This seems like one that might draw in the seeking-help-with-homework crowd, so I'm giving myself the assignment of giving it my best imitation of an academic treatment.

To commence with some pedagogy that everyone at all familiar with the tradition, including doubtless the young lady in the photograph above, already knows: Dylan Thomas is considered by many literature experts to be the most "natural" poet of any quality who wrote in English during the whole of the 20th century. By natural it is meant, or at least I take it so, that his verses give the impression of arising very nearly out of the form and language of thought with which he ordinarily processed his perceptions of existence, similiar to the sense one detects in Burns or Blake or any number of Elizabethan poets. Personally I am not as confident in attributing this level of bard-hood to Dylan Thomas, though I have known or been exposed to several people, almost all a generation or two older than, whose understandings I consider worthy of regard, who were very enthusiastic about his gifts and achievements; so I do not discount that some aspect(s) of his particular world-view may not strike certain contemporary readers as being terribly profound or ingenious, which is a phase the fortunes of many renowned authors pass through 50-100 years or so after their heydays, as I have written about before.

Dylan Thomas is especially famous for the care with which he constructs his poems, so one should always be attentive to that in writing about him. "Do Not Go Gentle, etc..." has a basic simplicity that is reminiscent of Wordsworth both in sentiment and construction, so I am going to approach the way I would a Wordsworth poem.

There are six stanzas, the first five of which have three lines, and the last effectively the same, only with one final line that has already appeared three times in the poem (the "rage, rage" line) added for extra emphasis. The first and third lines in each stanza rhyme both with each other and with their correspondents in each of the other stanzas, and the middle line in each stanza rhymes the middle line in all of the other stanzas. In short, the entire poem operates on two rhyme-sounds, words that rhyme with "night" or words that rhyme with "day", the "day" rhymes being half the number of the "night" rhymes and bound in by them within each stanza. Of the 19 lines which constitute the poem, "Do not go gentle into that good night" is repeated four times, and "Rage, rage against the dying of the light is repeated the same number. Both lines appear in the first and last stanzas, and they alternate as the closing line in each of the middle four. Clearly they are the pillars of the poem, the other lines serving to play off or complement them, and while they appear to be saying largely the same thing they are in fact in opposition, which I will explain further below.

As for other constructive elements, the pattern and setup of the six stanzas, as in many celebrated poems, is extraordinarily simple, rooted in an understanding of poetry as a primarily oral form that is intended to be memorized (and memorable). The first stanza gives the two main lines of the poem, as noted earlier, bracketing a succinct summation of its dominant theme. The middle four stanzas each introduce a category of men--wise, good, wild, grave--who are presented in various images of light and darkness ("dark is right", "crying how bright", "the sun in flight", "with blinding sight", etc), with the last lines alternating in repetition of the "gentle" and "rage" lines, all of which again assists greatly in memorization and the consequent internalization of the language and sense of the poem. All this is also very characteristic of many of Wordsworth's poems, which are well worth studying for their simplicity and economy in communicating an idea that is more wholly realized than at first appears He begins the last stanza by addressing "my father, there on the sad height,/Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray" before closing the poem with the repetition of the two lines that have contended with each through the whole of the poem. Knowing nothing of the biographical background of the poem, my impression would be that he is not referring exactly to his literal flesh and blood father here, but to a universal idea of, I would even call it a craving for, a father, an older, more experienced, wise, knowledgeable, etc, male human who serves as a model or guide that exists in the collective imagination of men even if they do not have fathers or fatherlike figures who are direct influences in their own lives.

With regard to the two main contending lines my inclination is to suspect that the suggestion is that "night" is apparently so overbearing and inevitable through most of the poem, but that the "light" which keeps insinuating and asserting itself up to the very last can and will be triumphant over it. Of course the reader must make of all this what he will.

As to my personal opinion of the poem, I am impressed with the construction of it--if people hold any positive views of poetry at all anymore, they probably think of it in terms of something that is above all memorable, and therefore fairly simple in its execution. A piece this concise, that also has a distinct narrative structure to it and a dramatic and insistent underlying sentiment that commands one's attention, is a significant achievement. It is at the moment probably what I find most interesting in Dylan Thomas. Separated from questions of poetic technique and sensibility I don't think that his particular ideas or thoughts on anything are very provocative or likely to change anyone's mind. But I'm falling asleep at the computer. I've got to move on.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Sports Old-Fogeyism, Part II

My God it takes me a long time to write even a single little post on nothing.

The 1977 NFC Divisional Playoffs. Minnesota Vikings vs. the Los Angeles Rams at the L.A. Coliseum. Rain and mud. The underdog Vikings, being in a state of general decline from their mid-70s peak, and playing without Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton, who had broken his leg a few weeks earlier, won 14-7. I remember watching this game live. I was seven years old, about a week shy of eight. It was the Saturday between Christmas and New Year's. My grandparents were having a cocktail party which in my memory was quite well attended, at least 15 people or so. Even if one had that many friends nowadays, he would be hard-pressed to get such a turnout on that weekend. The guests were almost all old full-blooded ethnic Lithuanians, and such they were not particularly riotous, though they all drank and smoked at least. An old great-uncle who had palled around with Babe Ruth in a former life was there, though he was on his last legs at that party, and was hooked up to an oxygen tank; I'm sure it was the last time I ever saw him. The game was on in the background--sporting events were always on in the background at such functions in my youth. I was excited because I was rarely allowed to watch the 4pm game at home. At age seven, I regarded this as something cool people who lived in more laid-back households got to do, even if I would not have been able to express it in this precise terminology.

Rewatching some of this game 33 years later, along with some other vintage footage that is up on Youtube, I cannot but say that I miss these old days of football, especially the media coverage of it--doubtless if I could remember 1961 or 1950 I would lament them even more, but '77 has become, in relation to the present, quaint enough to be lamented too. Yes, the players are inferior, extremely so in certain notable instances, but the atmosphere surrounding the '77 game looks a lot more fun. Though complained about at the time too, everything--the tickets, the stadiums, the salaries, the groundskeeping, the television contracts, the joie de vivre of the fans--has only become ever more expensive, more extravagant, more contrived and more deadly serious with the passing of time. In 1977 the players' bodies, the hype, the luxury, even the personality of the fans, were still somewhat in line with the scale of what I would regard as normal life. But I have written about all of this before...

The abysmal quality of the field in this game is unbelievable. It goes without saying that nobody involved with even serious high school football would submit to playing in this kind of muck nowadays--maybe some Class C schools in Maine wouldn't be able to see any other solution and just deal with it. Otherwise all the good coaches and players would be indignant, and the wannabes would feign it, hapless lower-level employees responsible for the upkeep of the field would be publicly berated or even fired. For a while there were still a few old-timer broadcasters still around--even John Madden to a certain extent made one of this group--who would have downplayed the complaints about playing on a muddy field with poor footing, but adherents of this attitude are almost all gone now.

The quarterback play in this game is atrocious by current standards. The Vikings backup QB, Bob Lee, who mercifully only had to throw about ten passes the entire game, literally does not look like he has a skill set much broader than mine when he tries to run around and throw the ball more than five yards downfield. The Rams QB, Pat Haden, who was a Rhodes Scholar and college standout at USC, was supposed to be better, a rising star even, but he stunk the joint out in this game too. Mentally soft, as legend has it, he would go on the next year to choke in an even more humiliating fashion in a 28-0 loss to the Cowboys in the NFC championship game in the southern California sunshine which effectively ended his career. While the field conditions made passing perhaps especially difficult in this game, watching footage from other games of the same period played in decent weather is to be no less struck by how amateurish the passing game is vis-a-vis today. In some ways it makes for a more exciting game, as the risk of an interception is considerably higher than it is now, and a successful long pass play takes on the character of something of a minor miracle.

The commentators on this broadcast are the legendary Vin Scully and some guy who sounds like he broke into the business on Hee Haw and whom I have no memory of ever hearing again after this game. I must confess that for most of my life I detested Vin Scully, though he is practically sainted nowadays as one of the two or three most intelligent and greatest sportscasters of all time. My youthful animosity towards him came about mainly due to his association with and clear favoritism for the Dodgers, who I hated, and, like many people on the east coast at that time, I loathed and feared everything that was too blatantly and proudly from California generally, the Golden State then being perceived to be the ascendant, dynamic place, while we, who had formerly been the center of American life, were in terminal decline. (I realize that many people of a certain age now regard New York in the 70s to have been culturally in a golden age as well, though as I was under the influence in those days of people who had partied there during the Gatsby era and not spent any significant time there at all since the 50s, my impression was that the age of Studio 54 and the burned out Bronx represented a significant comedown from that city's former grandeur). My opinion of Scully is coming around, mainly as the result of much thoughtful and heartfelt writing extolling him that I have read in the last few years, his marvelous poetic powers of description, the classical smoothness and fluency of his American English speech that elevates the experience of the game, his nightly providing the Los Angeles metropolitan area with not merely the binding quality of a shared experience, but something almost resembling a soul, which latter would be a most impressive accomplishment indeed. Also he is in his 80s now, the Dodgers have been a mediocre and insignificant team for the last 20 years, I have become something of an adult; all of which has tempered my erstwhile visceral dislike of the him, though I don't think I will ever become one of his more fervent admirers.

On the other hand, this game also features my all-time favorite football coach, and maybe my favorite coach in any sport, Bud Grant. There hasn't been anybody remotely as cool as this guy in football in decades. In a playoff game, on the road in a monsoon with an undermanned team, an ulcer-inducing scenario for the typical coach, Bud Grant is not yelling, pacing, scowling, stalking, looking worried, looking confused or otherwise making a spectacle of himself. With only the hood of his windbreaker being pulled up acknowledging the downpour he is standing in, his expression and body language convey both intelligence and unflappability, the sense being, 'I know what I'm doing and I very well may win this game; if I do lose this particular game however, the overall quality of my life, with which I am genuinely at peace (and within which I have developed certain important mental faculties to a degree sufficient to make an informed determination), will not be significantly affected'. Unlike say, Phil Jackson, who states all this more or less directly and therefore convinces one it is actually insincere, Bud Grant never expressed his philosophy, or much of anything else, directly. I am projecting based upon what I detect.

Another odd thing about watching game footage from the 70s is that the gap in 'athleticism' between black and white players appears smaller than in any other era--that is to say, the white players generally look like they belong on the field, and many of the clearly better players even on defense are white, and no one seems to consider this unusual yet. In the 60s, there were often only two or three black players on the field at any given time who, usually being elite talents, really stood out athletically (think Jim Brown or Gale Sayers running on the nearly all-white defenses of their era). In recent years the reverse has become true, especially on defense, where white players stand out noticeably, and are frequently perceived as doing so in a negative sense with regard to speed, strength, etc, even when this is not necessarily the case. But in the 70s there was almost a kind of equilibrium reached, where many white non-quarterbacks were athletically competitive with the top black players. This was also true, albeit to a lesser extent, in basketball.

I had wanted to do even more stuff but this post has to go to press. Ridiculous.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Food is Culture, Part MCCXXII

This is a topical post, in response to the recent Newsweek cover story (* & **) about the increasing class divide as it plays out in the diets of various sets of people loosely identifiable by their incomes and the types of education and jobs that they have. I 'eat up' these kinds of stories because, as in many areas of life, I superficially have some of the characteristics of the most desirable group--here those who put the most thought and effort into putting the best possible food, ethics-wise, health-wise, and taste-wise, into their bodies, on every occasion--but am ever aware that I am lacking some vital quality, which, even if I tried much harder than I do to imitate and make one of the select, will never enable me to do so.

Of all the markers which have sprung up like so many single family housing developments over the last few decades to enable the various tribes of the middle and formerly middle classes to distinguish themselves ever more finely from the sorts of people they don't want to be identified with, food militancy is perhaps the one I was least prepared for, and it has always struck me as one of the cruelest as a basis for social rejection, though I know most people would vehemently deny that they consider the matter in this light at all. Do not imagine that I do not like many developments of the food consciousness revolution. It is one of the modest thrills of my existence to go to Brattleboro or Portsmouth or Cambridge or one of the other oases of enlightenment in my general neighborhood and partake of fresh and palatable versions of familiar foods amongst the kinds of people I do not necessarily want to be identified with but still crave acceptance by. I also still like greasy pizza parlors and diners however (though I accept that others do not), and find most of the people who go to them decent enough as well. It is the evident revulsion the foodies harbor not only towards the food itself that they don't like but the actual people who eat it that saddens me. To me there are enough issues in personal relations that making another barrier out of others' diets, assuming these to be within bounds that would traditionally be considered reasonable, strikes me as ungenerous at the very least.

When I was at college there were a lot of people--especially people from New York--who devoted a great deal of energy to bitching about the poor quality of the food, not only at the school itself, but of that available in the town generally. This always bothered me, not because I was madly in love with the food myself, though I found it perfectly acceptable, but because I came out of an environment, I guess, where the idea of an 18 year old complaining about the food available to him would have been regarded as an ungrateful snot who needed to have some age-appropriate humility knocked into him. No one seems to think this way anymore however. This is an area where my pitiful socialist tendencies really come out strongly too. Because I saw these students, many of whom were highly intelligent, interesting and attractive people whose company I should have liked to have partaken of more often, as abandoning the common table out of exalted notions of diet, I frequently fantasized about a return to rationing or other compulsory controls on extravagance of taste to force them back nearer my orbit, though happily of course no one rational would ever advocate imposing such measures on our better classes of people, and even I deep down would not want them to, for then they should just be very angry and resentful, and not take the thing at all in the spirit intended.

Unlike the generations that will follow me (most likely), I at least had the good fortune in my mid-20s to be able to spend an idyll in a land where people still experienced food the way Americans did circa 1958--heavy, meaty and largely devoid of alternatives even in the imaginations of cool and extremely good-looking people. To culinary sophisticates from the global elite it was a misfortune, a horror even. Some poor souls were reduced so far as to literally weep after a few weeks of deprivation from what they regarded as decent meals. For me--although even I at times grew tired of the limitations of the Bohemian diet, there only being about 5 regular dishes, and 3 or 4 sides--it was practically nirvana. To attend parties and go on excursions where plates heaped with sausages and potatoes are routinely dished out and distributed to everyone, even the prettiest girls, and no one complains or expects anything different, but simply eats and goes on talking about music or communist theory or how to learn languages or whatever that is far more interesting than hearing about their private food fetishes--this was a quite wonderful arrangement. Needless to say I am sure in the 13 intervening years it has completely broken down and the people's diets readjusted to their places in the social hierarchy.

*There is a photo gallery which accompanies the online presentation of this article. I am more than a little dismayed however that of the various contents-of-refrigerator shots shown in this gallery the one that most resembles mine is that of the black single mother whose situation and family the reader is invited to feel the deepest concern about the likely unpleasant future of in the article. I even eat real butter and not Country Crock, which I believe officially makes mine worse, although my wife, who is going to live to be 95 years old at least, is adamant that anything real must be better for you than anything artificial that is trying to imitate it, and I believe her.

**The husband of the locavore-committed Park Slope family is evidently hitting Wendy's on the sly, because he looks to be in even worse shape than I am. When my first thought on seeing your picture is, Christ, I could take out that guy with one hand tied behind my back, you are not a good advertisement for anything. My wife and children look better and more robust than that family's too (Goddammit!)

Some say that nothing good can come of allowing your wife to watch Mad Men (i.e., don't expect her to thank you for being comparatively enlightened--the credit lies elsewhere than with you personally) but mine became inspired to make rib-eye in a pan with butter after one of the episodes, so there is some hope there

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Few Milton--Relevant Pictures

Milton is not much commemorated by public memorials compared to other English poets of comparable fame, to say nothing of lesser stature. There are a number of obvious circumstances that this post should illustrate which will explain this dearth; nonetheless the almost complete absence of any physical reminders of Milton, as well as of the many other great authors of his age and the one preceding it, when their writings remain so grand and vivid and central to the imagination of anyone who has read them to any extent, is still a notable omission to such a visitor upon arriving in modern London especially.

Milton was born on Bread Street in Cheapside, in the old City of London, in 1608. Though only a block long, Bread Street had a distinguished literary history. John Donne was also born on the street in 1572, and the legendary Mermaid Tavern, one of the main hangouts of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ben Jonson and other luminaries of the rollicking Elizabethan period, was situated on the corner at the bottom of the street. All remnants of this neighborhood of course are long, long gone, having been destroyed in the famous London fire of 1666, within Milton's own lifetime. Whatever was built to replace this seems to have been summarily bombed out during the 2nd World War, and while a Bread Street continues to exist today, it is little more than an alley, non-residential, and such modern office and institutional buildings as do line it showing their backs and sides to the pedestrian, the various ways into them being found on other streets. I walked up and down this ugly and depressing, though mercifully short block three or four times, figuring surely there must be some memorial to the great writers born there on it. However I found nothing, and wanted up to the larger avenue known as "Cheapside" and took a right, headed I forget where. The old church of St Mary-le-Bow--that is the one which one must have been born within hearing distance of its bells if he wanted to claim himself a true Cockney--was right around this corner, so we took a little walk around the outside of it, it being around 6 o'clock in the evening so all of its doors were locked, and we came upon this:

We never did come across any commemoration for poor old John Donne however, though he does at least have a prominent tomb in St Paul's Cathedral, where he was for many years the rector (at the old one which was destroyed in the fire of course).

Milton was buried at the minor church of St Giles Cripplegate at the east end of the old city. Due to his active participation in the Cromwell government--he was its official Latin secretary--and general antagonism to the Stuart monarchy he was decidedly out of favor with the authorities of the Restoration at the time of his death and was thus not a candidate for burial in any of the glamour churches, which position has been more or less upheld to the present day, there not being still I believe any commemoration for him in Poet's Corner, which other once-rejected authors, notably the libertine Romantic poets, though still buried elsewhere, have since been given.

St Giles Cripplegate has been preserved, though the ground around it has been completely bricked up and serves as the courtyard for a modern office park-like complex. Not being very adept at using a camera and crimped for space by the boundaries imposed upon the open space before the church by the office buildings, I could not figure out how to fit the entire church in a single shot, so you will have to visualize the two halves following combining themselves:

There is a small stone in the floor between the first row of pews which reads "John Milton 1608-1674 Author of 'Paradise Lost'". On the day that I visited the only other person in the church was someone who seemed as if he might be the verger, but he did not talk to me and my impression was that he viewed me with a suspicious eye. In truth I had not been in many churches in my life at that point--this was in '96, Milton being one of the very first people whose sites I tried to hunt down--and I probably did not look as if I knew what I was doing in one. There was an area in the rear of the church that was screened off behind which I could discern something that looked like a bust half-covered in a sheet and what looked like possibly a few sign-posts, also covered. I thought this might be a small memorial to the poet when not under renovation, but I am not certain. Being at that time very concerned with not egregiously violating what I imagined to by the etiquette of cultured society in front of anyone who might be connected to it, I did not take any pictures inside the church, opting instead to buy a couple of postcards, one of the interior and one of the Milton grave-tablet, which I was going to scan and post here as well, but I cannot find them now.

I should note that there is one house associated with Milton still standing and open to the public, if you are interested, the cottage in Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire to which he repaired when London was struck by the plague in the 1660s. I have not been there however.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Rest of the Paradise Lost NotesOld notes--hell, nobody's looking, why not call them pensees?--from May of 1995, when I had an energy for and touching faith in the deep and life-enhancing importance of such efforts. They make for pretty but illusory reading now, typical of all doomed youth.

--Trouble has its origins in the imagination--

--'Pleasant' in Milton normally indicates (something) bad--

--Each of these truths ("pleasing light", "nature's desire", "all things joy, with ravishment") craftily diverts the mind from the holy, whence springs the font of trouble--

--Why can the innocent not recognize evil?--

--It seems and yet not seems man's place. However God's wishes are much clearer to them than to a modern; yet Satan can overpower them. What chance do we have?--

--I am jealous of Satan's sensuality--

--She is highly confused about her passions, which makes a girl impious--

--It is bizarre that man, who can conceive of music, harmony and order, is the only being capable of destroying them--

--Our hero is being so overwhelmed by immortals how can he have confidence in his free will?

--True goodness and happiness could never be exhausted--

--This is quite a preparation: indicative in so many lines of the work required to lead the good life--

--I find this ('Eve undecked') rather titillating, and I sense the author does too--

--Eve will beget something more numerous than God has done? ('shall fill the world more numerous with thy sons/Than with the various fruits the trees of God/Have heaped this table')--

--Eve is too pleasing and her nudity too sensual for an 'innocent' holy portrait--

--They are pressured from the thoughts I and John (Milton) must have--

--This sums up much of Western Civilization in three lines ('though what if earth/Be but the shadow of heav'n, and things therein/Each to each other like, more than on earth is thought?')--

--Is not every day a holy day in heaven?--

--Idea of music connected to the stars; I marvel that no one brings this to our attention any more (I assume I meant that it was not a commonplace way of thinking about the matter; obviously the connection still pops up often enough if one is paying attention)--

--Satan is unable to adapt to change, as immortals would be--

--Jesus and Satan seem like brothers in Milton--

--Omnipotence is hard to describe but (it is here) done subtly and continually ('Innmerable as the satrs of night/Or stars of morning, dewdrops, which the sun/Impearls on every leaf and every flower")--

--The jealous has to imitate the genuine--

--There is a need to preserve free will, if one has it; clearly this is where grace is os important, in the direction and capacity for any contentment in the will--

--There is a question of whether the angels need Christ if He was not there before--

--This, without divine authority, is probably true ('Flatly unjust, to bind with laws the free/And equal over equals to let reign')--

--Why is God not as real to us as to these men?! (I actually did write this--at age 25!--but I might have done so in the spirit of 'how could these geniuses'--and literary genius is a genuine, and perhaps especially rare, genius--'of the past have felt the powers of these stories so intensely?')--

--The pious always do sound like wimps in Christian books--

--Satan does not see Jesus, obviously, as a guy he needs to respect--

--Dogmatic bullying; it makes sense to us but a 17th century man would immediately see the fallacies and shallowness of the argument (re Satan's repudiation of the angel Abdiel's assertion of the familiar creation story, i.e., that God made everything)--

--Satan is Godlike in his knowledge and he does control the Third part of the angels--

--He shall be humble and let God handle this--

--Faithfulness is a quality that is 'found' or 'discovered'--

What really could ever have been done with me? It is becoming increasingly popular to suggest that people like me who are evidently not cut out for serious academic work should be trained, or re-trained, in the honest trades, as mechanics, electricians, plumbers, and the like, the perception being at present that there is a great shortage of these skills (though like everything else this perception is also the result of a decline in the rigor of such training for these professions as still exists compared to fifty years ago; but this is a whole other argument). I can't see myself having ever become the kind of plumber these advocates seem to be looking for either. The talents and potential of vast swathes of male humanity is either in a state of serious decline, or the standards of adequacy have now been raised to a point that is impossible for at least 50% of men to reach even giving the best that is in them to the effort. Neither of these possibilities seems exactly accurate to me, though the disappointment and disgust the able increasingly express with regard to the unable seems genuinely heartfelt and real, almost even to a boiling point. The issue I think is really one of work ethic. If the failing people were perceived to be working extremely hard and expending nearly all their reserves of energy in the service of their employers/teachers/commanders/societal leaders or in self-improvement with an eye towards pleasing the same I suspect their shortcomings of capacity would be more easily forgiven. But they are not perceived as doing this, and in reality most are not doing this.

At several points in my notes I compared Milton's vision of heaven with that of Dante's Paradiso, which I had evidently also read recently at that time, these being the early days of my reading list when I was clearing most of the super-classics out of the way. I felt that Milton had made a mistake by having God adopt any persona, and that here was where the Florentine most clearly mastered him. Of course I was imagining this mastery, because my reading of Dante was in a prose English translation, albeit one that at least had the original, or those accepted as the authentic, lines on the opposite page and encouraged a strong application of the imagination. But he is rapidly becoming another great lost poet (and a really great one at that), because people like me, who could have actually understood religion and art and poetry and love and beauty and evil and sin, are no longer being developed so as to read him properly.

Of course I am kidding. I know that people like me were never vital, nor anything but a hindrance, to cultural life or its progress. I am exercising my fantastical faculties here, for purposes of my own pleasure. And I know that there are thousands of people alive who appreciate and have absorbed the significance of the genius of Dante in a perfectly adequate degree, and live in consequence that much more beautifully and intelligently than I am able to do. I live to pretend to be a person of this kind of class, which is quite sick really. I should not indulge this urge, though I am getting better at it, I think, as I grow older. Obviously the discussion of Milton and Dante together was too much, and aroused the nostalgia of my former pretensions. I put them away now.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Movies 1972-1991

These movie recapitulations may seem a poor use of such little time and energy as I yet retain. However, the Blogger site now offers primitive statistics on visitors to your page, which reveal in my case that the postings which receive the most "views" are by far those about movies and, surprisingly, poems, a lot of people evidently stumbling upon me in the quest for assistance with their English homework (Sorry employers of America. Again). My all-time top 5 most-viewed posts are 1) 10 Best (Movie) Literary Adaptations (reminder to do more top 10 lists); 2) Cleopatra Overview; 3) Planes, Trains & Automobiles; (the ferocious popularity of this movie and nominal Thanksgiving classic never ceases to astound me) 4) A Streetcar Named Desire Part 1 (alas, no one seems to have been induced to examine Part 2) and 5) John Donne, "The Bait". If I had known how many people were cruising the web at all times looking for insights into this poem, I would have...well, I would have done something else with it, though what I am not sure.

Onto the movies, which are being presented in the odd order that their pictures came out in during the setting up of this post.

Sleuth (1972)

Adapted from a play that must have made for an exhausting night at the theater. Great acting--that Larry Olivier fellow is in this--clever, rapid-fire dialogue, a battle of wills and mental gamesmanship that demands some exertion of the intellect on my part anyway, which, not being prepared to do to the extent necessary on the initial viewing, I can't say that I greatly enjoyed the movie, as there does not seem to be much else to it other than this. I don't feel particularly energized to bother watching it again more closely either, at least right now. I'm quite sure it is impossible for every individual person to 'get' every individual clever thing that exists with equal clarity of understanding. This is a problem I have always had with certain critics and scholars about the arts who write as if they are the final authority, or at least the last one most people will ever need, on 90% of the works and artists worthy of anyone's notice. Anybody who declaims with complete assurance in the space of a few pages about the meanings and interior thought processes of say, Dickens, D H Lawrence, Samuel Beckett, Henry James and Emily Dickinson I always consider to be immediately suspicious.

There is a little intermission in the middle of the movie where Laurence Olivier eats a sandwich or something while three or four scratchy Cole Porter tunes play on a record player. I liked that part.

Decoration Day (1991)

The picture is of Edna St Vincent Millay and is not from the movie. I couldn't find any pictures I liked from that.

Decoration Day was a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV presentation starring James Garner and a young Lawrence Fishburne, among others. It was recommended with the highest rating by the video guidebook I tend to like the most, that which was formerly written by Mick Martin, who is apparently some kind of well-regarded indie rock musician, and Marsha Porter, but unfortunately was discontinued after the 2006 edition because, according to the publisher, all of the information in it is widely available on the internet. Unlike similar books, which stick mainly to theatrically released feature films, this book reviewed TV programs, music video and short film compilations, moderately obscure documentaries, and the like, and though I haven't found most of the TV stuff they recommend to be any good, I agree with their movie evaluations enough to be willing to give them a try.

I can't believe they liked this. It's a pretty standard fare TV movie, set in the south and centered on the attempt to belatedly award the Congressional Medal of Honor to a highly dignified black World War II veteran who would prefer to be left alone. James Garner is a retired successful judge whose even more imposing father entrusted him and his brother as pre-adolescents and teenagers to the tutelage of the slightly older black future war hero to teach them how to be men--hunting, fishing, repairing things, being as resourceful and forthright and honorable and uncowardly as white boys can reasonably be expected to be--only to establish, in keeping with their times, a chilly distance from his former mentor and friend upon reaching age eighteen or so. There were some tepid subplots centering around various white people who had cancer. I'm not sure whether this was intended to be symbolic of anything or not.

The movie tries very hard both to be and to show itself as respectful towards black people. It's a little too self-conscious and hokey to pull it off convincingly. James Garner's judge character, who is still the main focus of the plot, I suppose begs a comparison with the now widely detested Atticus Finch. There are some surface similarities, though Finch was depicted in his movie (which despite its many flawed and to us offensive presumptions, I cannot bring myself to wholly dislike as a work of cinema) practically as the second coming of Abraham Lincoln, while the Garner character is more of a sharp, crafty old pro at both the legal and social games than any kind of moral symbol.

I don't care about this movie enough to spend any more time on it.

These last two I actually liked.

Let Him Have It (1991)

This was based on a notorious criminal case in 1950s London in which a 16 year old shot and killed a policemen, and the epileptic and the developmentally delayed--and unarmed--19 year old who accompanied him was sentenced to death by hanging, one of the last people to receive the death penalty in Britain. The violent crime rate in Britain was so low during most of the 20th century that cases that would have been fairly pedestrian in the United States became major episodes in the national life there (this one was also the inspiration for the Elvis Costello song "Let Him Dangle", as well as numerous books). The Manson family this crowd is not. Some people are of the opinion that the movie is manipulative and distorts the case too sympathetically on the side of the doomed young man. I can see where that might be plausible, and even likely, though I would excuse it on artistic grounds because that sympathetic identification and conviction of the injustice of the sentence is where the movie's force comes from, and that is presented very effectively.

While not a great era for movies, the early 90s is starting to look better and better to me compared to most of what has come since. This may be because it is the period of my own youth, but the films set in this period seem less artificial, i.e., the imaginative world in which they are set seems more real to my mind/sensibility that that in which most recent films take place. This one of course was set 40 years in the past--in a period for which I have a lot of interest, and some (probably misplaced) fondness, I might add--and while all of it does not feel equally authentic, many of the more focused smaller scenes, especially indoor family ones, are very believable and evoke something of life.

The sister of the condemned man, who was a consultant on the film and consequently one suspects was portrayed in an especially favorable light, was played by an actress named Clare Holman who is possessed, at least in this movie, of a distinctly English variation of the quality which the French call, and celebrate, by the appellation jolie laide. Further research reveals her to be the typical icy, highbrow English theater actress, but I was taken by her circa 1951 smart working class hair and clothes in this picture. Especially the canary yellow slacks she appears in in her entrance on the screen.

Here's a video of scenes from the movie set to the Elvis Costello song.
Das Boot (1981)
Famous World War II submarine movie. I'm not sure what I expected--something drier and more utterly nihilistic, I think. It was a lot better than that, though. It was made with too much care, and had too much care for its main subjects, if not for anything else.

I assume this movie counts as part of the 'German New Wave' of roughly the 1973-82 period. It is very much of the sensibility of that school of filmmaking, paying great attention to the technical and practical details of its environment and allowing its dominant characters to emerge through the activity and forcefulness of their finely developed intellects so as to give the story a particular rather than a general sense of truth. The German New Wave may be the last great wave, that I am familiar with anyway, that I like a lot*. The more I see of these movies and begin to get a sense of their patterns and the mindsets and concerns that animate them, the more I am impressed by their thoroughness, their coherence and their truth. Also to see these movies is to be impressed by how affected all of the arts have been by the internet and the other distracting technology of the last two decades. There is a degree of concentration in all the aspects of successful filmmaking--the control of pace, emotional pitch, distinctive episodes which cohere to the rest of the plot, consistency of character without predictability or irrelevance--in the execution of this movie from beginning to end which I increasingly notice contemporary filmamkers having a hard time managing. One could make the case that I using as my example of the superiority of the past some of the most meticulous movies ever made. This is fair enough--the contrast really stands out in these instances--but even many inane movies from the past, such as my beloved soda fountain and bobby soxer romances from the 1940s, achieve a certain internal consistency with regard to pace and plot development, the purpose of introducing specific characters and skills, dilemmas, etc, that people seem to have a hard time with now. I really believe people's capacity for the sustained concentration necessary to produce art of a certain fulfilling quality has become strained (Note this paragraph as an example of that).

If one is not on the ball, one can at moments find oneself in a certain degree of sympathy with characters who are, after all, in the service of the Nazi regime--at the least one does not care to watch them in the act of suffocating or drowning on the ocean's floor, which situations threaten them at various points in the film. None of the major characters expresses any enthusiasm for Hitler, or the war. This is perhaps too convenient, but was doubtless a necessary device in 1981 and probably would still be now. The film does not glorify the war, and goes out of its way to emphasize this in fact, but it does decidedly appreciate the ingenious grandeur and beauty of the submarine; it is this as much as anything else which makes the movie so compelling.

Sometime in the 90s the theme music from Das Boot got a techno remix; it was not a bad job. here it is with scenes from the movie.

*There was a wave of Chinese movies in the 90s with something of these same qualities of intense concentration, classical density and structure, transcendent humanity; I haven't been able yet to ferret out the relations in their patterns, themes, beliefs about the world, and so on, so as to be able to organize them in my mind as representing a distinct movement that means anything to me. But I think they probably were one.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Weary Appreciation of Paradise Lost

I've read over some parts of this again within the past couple of years, and, seeing as I might not have occasion or motivation to record any of my feelings about it at any later date, I am going to do something of the sort now.

The perception of Milton among even generally well-read or educated people is one of the oddest of any legitimately great poet in any language that I am aware of. He is appreciated and revered by scholars, but outside of that profession, hardly anyone seems to believe it possible that a well-adjusted person could genuinely enjoy reading him. This state of affairs is perhaps of no great moment, other than to demonstrate that Milton is a figure of private rather than communal interest more than almost any other literary figure of his stature that I can think of. His writing has been found by many confident intellects over the years to be boring, sour, pompous, dismissive of women entirely and of all but a few score of men in the entirety of history. He never condescends to approach the typical reader on his accustomed level either intellectually or morally. The famous observation of Samuel Johnson (who, having compiled an English dictionary, one presumes had an unusually high tolerance for tedium), that no one ever wished Paradise Lost a word longer than it was, is often quoted approvingly. Compared to his fellow epic and epic-quality poets, his characters and language do not, without a good deal of preparation in literary reading, it seems, inspire a powerful emotional response. That said, failing to attain the state of realizing how great Milton really is, and coming to some perception of what it is that makes him so, is to be denied a substantial pleasure, if one is susceptible to such things, of such a sort as life offers on but a handful of occasions during its duration.

I think I tried to start Paradise Lost once when I was in high school, mainly because it is always prominent and available (and books, as I have noted previously, often took the place in my early years that women fill in the lives of life's protaganists), but I could get nothing out of it since I understood nothing about either language or thought, and, as noted earlier, the poem does not appeal strongly to sentiment and emotion, which was the entire range of my mind at the time. By the time I read it in college, I knew enough of Christian history and the history of Western poetry and philosophy to be able to get some modest thrills out of the experience. Since then I have read it once more in full and parts of it on various other occasions, and it is one of the few works, and Milton one of the few writers, to consistently impress me as what is said of all great books, that it appears greater, and in a substantial way, on every new reading. I am convinced at this point that he reads more clearly and easily than Pope, to name a recent example, and indeed, most poets, and that the poem is a wondrous work of man. How does it work?

The great force of the poem to me is achieved by a tremendous uniformly accumulating momentum that displays a remarkable array of elasticity in always propelling itself forward. He manages various tiers of plot and character in ways that are appropriate to their circumstances but are clearly delineated in their relations to each other; seeming contradictions of traditional logic or theology (God's power is limited in dealing with the rebellious angels? No!) are calmly and almost immediately addressed ("...since by fate the strength of gods/and this empyreal substance cannot fail..."); even trickier conundrums such as relations of eternal beings in time he handles expertly within the terms of his own poetic world, of which he is the absolute master, this being probably one of the requirements of successful poetry at the highest level. What else is there?...Here is a passage from Book I where he displays a nearly perfect understanding of the materials of life and of words and story, and how to unite them (ll. 423-428):

"...For Spirits when they please
Can either sex assume, or both; so soft
And uncompunded is their essence pure,
Not tied or manacled with joint or limb,
Nor founded on the brittle strength of bones,
Like cumbrous flesh; but in what shape they chose..."

Of the fallen angels he lands upon the simple but ingenious conceit that they can be--and must be--anything our imagination requires to conceive of them as such. I suppose I had better give an example of what I mean (I. 562-7):

"...and now
Advanced in view they stand, a horrid front
Of dreadful length and dazzling arms, in guise (emphasis mine)
Of warriors old with ordered spear and shield,
Awaiting what command their mighty chief
had to impose..."

His renderings of nature are filtered through a thoroughly civilized humanity. The pictures that follow are always refined and dignified and at the same time immediately recognizable, which indicates to me that the high view of our own existence is not necessarily the lie it is sometimes claimed to be, but is crucial to our development as people despite the undeniable ubiquity of unpleasantness and baseness and failure that often demands our unwilling attention. This is a metaphor for the withered glory of the fallen angels as they regroup after the rebellion, and it is strikingly beautiful, and can be clearly seen even though one has likely never seen the precise picture delineated (I. 612-15):

"...as when heaven's fire
Hath scathed the forest oaks, or mountain pines,
With singed top their stately growth though bare
Stands on the blasted heap..."

Given the amount of time and the length of the essay already undertaken, I will stop here and do a short second post later. I am not going to go through the whole book, but there may be a few more points I wanted to make; if not, there will be no second post.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Sports Old-Fogeyism Part I: Is It Time to Retire the Cy Young Award?

The timing of this question is lousy given that the recently concluded playoffs and World Series were dominated by outstanding pitching performances, but the idea for this article occurred to me about a month ago as the regular season was winding down, and I am just getting to it now. It was inspired by the circumstance that Felix Hernandez, with a won-lost record of 13-12, was widely being touted as the best candidate for the award in the American League; and this following upon last years' winners, who had 15 and 16 wins respectively. These victories are the union of the triumph of the revolution in statistical analysis and understanding that has developed over the last 25 years with the changing role of pitchers in the context of an individual game, or a season. It is more the latter than the former that leads me to think that the spirit of the Cy Young Award may have been compromised, though both have contributed to a degree.

By almost any system of statistical comparison you care to use--even the antediluvian pitching categories of the 1969-era Baseball Encyclopedia--Felix Hernandez was the best pitcher in the American League this year by a pretty comfortable margin. This both surprised and impressed me. He led the league in ERA, strikeouts and innings pitched, and was among the leaders in a couple of other basic measurements (complete games, fewest hits and most strikeouts per 9 innings). Despite this, he only managed to be credited with 13 wins. It is well reported that his run support was very poor--indeed his team was the weakest offensive outfit, in terms of runs scored, over a full season since the 1970s (or at least they were on pace for that distinction with a few weeks left in the season; I'm not sure whether they made it or not). He did throw 6 complete games and 249 2/3 innings, which are a lot for anybody in today's game, and especially for a 24-year old--he was given as much of a chance to earn wins as anybody is likely to get in 2010--and even I understand that things like official wins and complete games are not in themselves especially important indicators of current or future value in evaluating pitchers in today's game. So what argument do I have against his selection, especially in the absence of any other standout candidates by either traditional or new age measures?

Major sporting awards and honors, and the manner in which they were won, especially it seems in baseball but also in other sports such as the Heisman Trophy and all-American teams in basketball, and even the winners of major tournaments in golf and tennis, come over time to be emblematic symbols of their particular years, and park of the ensuing mythology which the various games feed on for generations afterwards. There is often a heroic or awesome aspect to the character of the feats honored (in the context of the game) even beyond the de rigueur outstanding statistics. Sandy Koufax won four 1-0 games in one of his Cy Young seasons, and over a three or four year span had a winning record when getting 0, 1, or 2 runs in support(granted, it was something like 14-13, but still). Steve Carlton in 1972, pitching for a terrible team that won 59 games the whole season, went 27-10 with 30 complete games, and won 15 games in a row at one point. Even within my memory Orel Hershiser in 1988 closed out the season with a record 59 consecutive scoreless innings, all complete games except the last, in which he pitched 10 shutout innings to break the old record of 58 2/3. Felix Hernandez's season is perhaps emblematic of where the sport is today, and he is undoubtedly an excellent pitcher, but does he merit being honored as the top pitcher in the league for pitching well but only winning 13 games?

Surely part of having a truly great season as a pitcher is outpitching the guy matched up against you to the point of victory in at least half your starts. While complete games were probably overvalued through most of baseball history, I think they are perhaps undervalued now. The game lasts nine innings, longer if tied. The inability of almost all pitchers to regularly pitch a full game even when the score is close and they are by far the best pitcher on their team is a serious flaw in the modern game. When Three Finger Brown and Christy Mathewson, or Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson, or Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal took the hill against each other, nobody said, give us seven innings and we'll turn it over to our situational relievers to decide the game. The emotional investment and interest in most games is simply not the same once the ball is handed off to a parade of nonentities.

That said, the top starters still do enough work and have enough direct impact on pennant races by historical standards to merit a major award given in their name at the end of the year. There are very few pitchers of this caliber remaining in the two leagues combined however.

Political Commentary

I find contemporary politics to be another in the long line of subjects that I am finding it difficult to become "well-informed" about, though I certainly try to expose myself to many opinions and even the occasional fact with regard to it. Though I never vote for Republicans primarily because I find that which strikes me as rotten about them to be more troublesome and destructive than the myriad things that are rotten about Democrats, I am not an unshakable true believer in either of the predominant sides and it causes me a great deal of concern to find various positions of both sides of the fence that strike me as at least reasonable to be so imperiously denounced as evil, or stupid, or malicious in their intent to destroy society. One feels yet again that something is seriously wrong with him not to comprehend what is evidently clear to myriad people of sound intelligence and the capacity for logical thought. How has this state come about, and what can one possibly do about it?

A lot of people on the "blue" side were apparently shocked by the election results. I was under the impression that it had been obvious for months that this was going to happen, and was actually surprised that the Dems managed to hold 53 senate seats. One thing that caught me off guard was the wipeout the Democrats suffered in my own state, losing both seats in Congress and having their senatorial candidate get slaughtered by 61%-36%. Official unemployment is only around 5.5% here, the state finances are in pretty good shape compared to just about everywhere else, immigration is essentially a non-issue, the schools are usually rated in the top 3 or 4 states in the country--not that they are on the level of the German gymnasiums circa 1910, or actually good at all, but they are evidently not the apocalypse-summoning disasters that the majority of our state school systems are. People in New Hampshire hate taxes, and apparently were convinced by the arguments that the Democrats have a master plan to tax them, and all productive economic activity, out of prosperity forever, though unless I have missed something I don't believe there have been any significant tax increases enacted under the Obama regime.

I admit I do not trust business interests, once given the free rein which they are increasingly demanding, to pursue ends which are broadly and substantially beneficial to the mass of the people. One thing that was harped on repeatedly in this election cycle was that business must be unshackled--from taxes, regulations, health care costs, pension commitments, and so on (dictating by the way that the government itself cannot pick up the slack in any of these areas either)--and that enacting such policies is the only hope for any kind of broad recovery. The business element, and to a lesser extent various other high-status professional elements, constitute a troublesome entitled class of their own, the entitlement being the right to a certain level of income when there is no source of money in the broader society to support those incomes. Real estate, health care, banking obviously, higher education, all are still grossly overpriced comparative to the overall societal ability to maintain them financially, and the people at or near the top of these pyramids--rather incredibly to my mind--seem not to realize this and to take the lead in adjusting their own compensation downward. The approach right now seems to be in the direction of telling 90% of the population that such are the going rates for these services, such will always be the going rates for these services, and that if they aren't prepared to pay up, they will have to forego access to them. This attitude will be political suicide within 10 years--I can't believe it isn't already--and new models, probably much more blatantly socialistic than the right's worst nightmares today, as an increasingly old population on the one hand, and a younger one that has endured a decade or more of steadily increasing impoverishment and limited opportunities for economic self-sufficiency as it set out to make its way in life demands political action in these areas.

That is my loose perception of what is going to happen. The right wing models have no chance of working for the mass of the people--a people that is in preciptitous decline on many fronts as a strong and civilized polity, not merely financially--as long as they are beholden first and foremost to corporate greed and the maintenance and enhancement of the already privileged. And yes, the establishment Democratic party is beholden to many of these same interests, but to me there is at least some hope of eventual disattachment from this position because blind worship of capitalism at any cost is not an absolute a priori requirement for membership in its ranks.