Thursday, March 04, 2010

People Must Love a Good Blog

But as with everything else, producing one even halfway good is not as easy as it ought to be. What a truly odd exercise this whole business of existence is.

Political Update. My understanding of the current crisis in the economic situation, if not the crisis itself, is very slow-developing and perhaps obvious, but I don't like the drift of things. Among anybody who still has anything, their entire focus seems to be on preserving what they've got at all costs, without much thought for the millions who are facing impoverishment and ruin, which I don't think can be a sustainable approach. I am disappointed by the lack of wisdom and leadership being displayed on this issue by the most able classes, those who perhaps alone still have a relatively strong future to anticipate. The near 20% real unemployment rate, with bankrupt governments and no recovery of real jobs to live on any kind of mass scale anywhere on the horizon, is a problem that somebody is going to have to own, and come up with some kind of better vision for its resolution than widespread homelessness, squalor and general societal breakdown. Is nobody on the side of the increasing large portion of the populace without any real promising prospects?

Literary Update. On a positive note, somebody bought one of my books. This marks a real milestone for me, as it is the first time anybody has paid for a piece of my writing. I hope to God whoever it was bought the download for $5.95 rather than the $45+ book. I have been meaning to organize and make available a paperback version, which would be cheaper. In any event I am very moved at having sold a book, though...oh, I will let it go at that. I do really need to write another one though, before I lose whatever knack I have for it altogether.

Literary Update II. For about the last six months I have been occupied with reading really long, earnest, hyperrealistic and exhaustingly overstuffed Edwardian novels. First there was H.G. Wells's Tono-Bungay (460 pages), then Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale (640 pages), and, last but decidedly not least, Dorothy Richardson's 13 volume monument to extreme navel-gazing, Pilgrimage (2,110 pages, of which I am approximately on page 1,752). The first two of these books weren't bad, though of Bennett I preferred the thinner Anna of the Five Towns, which I read sometime back around 2003, and there is a really good 250-300 page novel that could be hammered out of the Richardson, I think. Over the course of the winter I could feel this endless reading combined with other tiresome aspects of day to day existence wearing me down. So I decided not to take Pilgrimage to Florida with me, opting instead for the somewhat famous account of 1970s Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, (or How the Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll Generation Saved Hollywood). Hollywood books are an odd genre to come upon after you've been devoting yourself to self-consciously serious literature, history, etc, for a number of years. For one thing there is more speculation and conjecture than there is even in Plutarch ("it was observed by several people that her mother spent an unusually long time in the casting director's office the day she got her big break"), and anonymous sources are relied upon liberally. That said, I was rather burned out on high seriousness and the relentless Sturm und Drang of contemporary politics and economics, so I enjoyed much of the book, especially the parts set in the late 60s and early 70s before the era started to play itself out.

I have never considered myself an especially big fan of the movies of the 70s, though I realize that that is in part because I haven't seen that many of them. Most of the ones I've seen that they talk about in the book I guess I do like, though none of them are favorites, nor did I ever especially like most of the famous stars or directors featured in the book, though I did find myself interested in all the sex and power games, all which was more or less rawly expressed and experienced. One might wonder why I have become interested lately in the culture of (old) Hollywood rather than that of the army, or the biotechnology world, or Wall Street, or politics, or even art and music, which I seem to have written about more a couple of years ago. Maybe the sense that America, at least as I knew it, is collapsing, is making me nostalgic for a time when ordinary red-blooded middle-class Americans--which is the background from which most of the figures in this book emerged--were interested in things like sex and art as participants and not merely as theorists or consumers, and who actually managed to make some things happen in those directions. Though it is a little late for me to be studying this, I am always interested in how people manage to become successful in the arts. Having bought into the notion as a young man that being an artist is a good calling for morose and senstive people, I underestimated the amounts of energy and hustle that are desirable both to animate your work, but also to establish the relationships you need to get yourself into a position where people are willing to pay you. Even Warren Beatty, who seems to have more of both of these qualities than almost anyone who ever lived, in addition to other advantages, needed to employ them pretty much relentlessly to ensure himself of a career. At the same time filmmaking, as it is presented in this book, seems in comparison with playing in an orchestra, or opera singing, or ballet, or even acting in high level live theater, not to require an especially extraordinary amount of education or training to be successful. Steven Spielberg's background before getting hired by a studio for TV work at age 21 seems to have consisted of watching a lot of television and largely teaching himself how to use a movie camera, which wouldn't get you a sniff of the stage at Beyreuth. The process of filmmaking also appears to be far more messy and unpredictable than would be possible in most of the traditional high arts. The final form of most films that end up being regarded as classic often seem to be wholly unanticipated even by the filmmakers themselves until they are very deep into the process.

A few observations on the book:

Peter Bogdanovich seems to be the 70s director most like myself both in temperament and approach. He had a good sense of what movies ought to look, and perhaps more significantly, feel like, but was openly derivative and not a great generator of original ideas and material. His two best movies, The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, both of which I like, were atmospheric period pieces he was basically assigned to. He would probably have had a better career in the system of the 30s and 40s which he was obviously perhaps over enamored of. He seems to have been well-matched with his first wife, who appears to have been smart and had some artistic talent as well, doing the set design on his more successful earlier movies, but having been a nerd in his youth he threw her over for a bimbo when the opportunity presented itself, his infatuation with whom is certainly presented in the book as contributing to the premature fizzling out of his talent, which sounds like something I might have stumbled into if I had suddenly made it in Hollywood at age 32 or whatever. There is a story in the book where the very young Victoria Principal came up to the at that time still geeky but rising Spielberg in the Universal cafeteria, thrust her breasts in his face and said "I'd like to get to know you better." I mean, Victoria Principal is the kind of person who doesn't excite me at all at a distance, but I have a feeling six inches away it would have been a somewhat different matter (obviously I mean in 1974, not now). Bogdanovich apparently also became really obnoxious and arrogant during the years when he was at the height of his success, which I could easily see myself becoming if I were ever to attain any status whatsoever anywhere.

The part where a completely drugged out and raving Dennis Hopper was excoriating the audiences that stayed away from his (apparently unwatchable) The Last Movie as not wanting to do a lot of thinking reminded me that the whole book has a kind of early baby boomer mindset wherein one can recount an anecdote such as this as if it were not in fact entirely absurd.

Another instance of this ur-baby boomer mindset are the general low level of regard for the mainstream culture, Hollywood in particular, of the 1940s and 50s. At one point the author (Peter Biskind is his name, by the way), in describing the new generation of cinephiles that emerged in the 60s, singles out as one of their characteristics that "they knew John Ford was better than William Wyler, and why." I have never actually understood why this is obviously so, though almost every reputable film scholar considers the matter to be beyond doubt. I haven't seen a lot of John Ford, but what I have seen (The Quiet Man and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) has not blown me away, while obviously I think highly of many of Wyler's films, including some of the lesser known ones like Counsellor at Law, which I wrote about last fall and which I was really impressed with.

Maybe executives at multi million dollar companies still take tons of drugs at work like Hollywood people did in the 70s but somehow I doubt it.

The sexual hysterics among people in their 30s and even older in this era, married or not, is also like reading something out of science fiction. Maybe I need to be taken out and shown more, but the people of my generation just hit 25 or maybe 30 and basically threw in the towel as far as developing any kind of sensual side of themselves went. I mean, God, the French and other international playboy types are just getting started at that age, and the Americans are packing it in with 40, 50 years to live.

Margot Kidder slept with almost everybody who came to her party house, yet I still came out of the book with a mild crush on her. As with my Victoria Prinicpal repsonse, this is not a good instinct on my part, given my personality and so on.

My opinions on some of the films in the book:

Harold and Maude: I wrote about this in one my old Faerie Queene posts about 2 years ago. Call me conventional and unimaginative, but I didn't get the appeal.

Being There: This didn't excite me either. It's been a long time since I saw it though.

The Last Picture Show: I liked it. It's my kind of thing.

Paper Moon: Also liked it. The 30s were a popular setting for films at the time, being the childhood of many of the directors I suppose. I like the music, the attitudes, the aesthetics, etc of that time period myself.

The Godfathers: They are what they are. I haven't seen them in years.

The Conversation: I should see it again, I suppose. I remember it was well-written.

Apocalypse Now: I have the same problems with it as everyone else (too long, last third is a mess, etc)

American Graffiti: Who doesn't like this? Whatever becomes of America, they can't take our moment in the sun away from us now.

Star Wars: Just saw it with my sons for the first time. I was actually surprised at how not good it was. They loved it of course.

Taxi Driver: I'm glad it was made, because I remember how nasty everything looked in the late 70s and how gross so many of the people were and nobody would believe it if it wasn't on film, and it is in that sense an iconic movie, but let's face it, it's a pretty depressing portrait of humanity.

Raging Bull: Very good. Love the evocation of 40s New York too, though I know that wasn't the point.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: I have to admit I kind of like this.

Bonnie and Clyde: Definitely worthy of its praise. Another 30s movie. But is the feel really a 30s feel, or is it the 30s movie feel, because all the good 30s movies made long after the 30s have pretty much the same feel.

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