Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Christmas Report

I ended up having a pleasant, if extremely low-key Christmas holiday.

The week before Christmas is the darkest of the year, plus I had the stomach flu, plus everyone was still in school and had a million parties and end of year activities to organize, and the combination of all this probably wore me down more than it would have even a few years ago.

I didn't eat while I had the stomach flu for four days and lost nine pounds, which put me down to 216, which is the lightest I had been in many years. Since I recovered of course I have been eating a little more regularly and am back up to 220. However I have been having smaller portions, not having seconds, not eating late at night, so hopefully I will be able to keep this up and be able to hold at this weight or even work myself down a little more. Of course the big test is when I become depressed again, which will probably be within a few weeks.

New Year's Eve is still to come, and I am looking forward to it, as I always do, as the last gasp of Christmas. It has become fashionable to dislike this day, and I suppose it has some structural flaws, but in recent years I have tried to embrace it, have a little party at home, play some games. I suppose it appears more attractive once you have resigned yourself to a modest life in which nothing spectacular or scintillating will never happen, and can sense the approach of your own death. That clinging to Christmas for another four or five hours every year comes to have some appeal.

I am ridiculous in my adaptation of technology. I got an MP3 player as my gift this year. I have finally decided to give up on playing CDs in the car because almost all the songs skip after about five plays, and I am hoping this will work better. Also I am hoping I can download some podcasts from the internet and listen to them (I think you can do this) because this is something I simply do not have time to do at home.

We went to Odiorne Point State Park near Portsmouth on Sunday. We walked along the rocks by the sea for about an hour but then it started to pour rain (if you saw highlights of the Patriots-Buffalo football game last weekend you have an idea of the weather). They have a little science center there where we we able to take refuge. It is the sort of small scale museum I like, cheap (around $20 for all seven of us to get in), simple displays, not too much to take in. I think they had six fish tanks for example. They had two blue lobsters, which are exceedingly rare, one in 500,000 I think. They are the same species as regular lobsters, just a few have this coloring, which I had not known. I also learned that there used to be vacation homes all over the point where the park is, but the Navy seized them during World War II and built fortifications to protect the nearby Naval Yard. I'm not sure why the land was not returned to the former owners after the war but it wasn't. Evidently nobody very important had a place there. After this we went to Pizza Hut in the dark, with the rain pouring down, all of which took me back to my high school days in Maine. My wife commented that the same music was playing the last time she was in Pizza Hut--in 1989.

With all of our children if we do go out we usually have to go to pizza places because you can order in bulk (the pizza) and have them share it rather than everyone having to order his own meal. This works at Chinese restaurants too, though some of the children will only eat chicken fingers.

We have snow, currently about four inches with a top coating of slush from last night's rain/snow mix that is now frozen into a crust with the drop in temperatures--currently 8 degrees, going down to -1. We had a white Christmas, which we have here 90% of the time, though last year we did not.

My writing is really in a (distraction--completely forgot the adjective I was going to put in here) state. I am muddling, muddling, muddling through. Got to go for tonight. Happy New Year!

Friday, December 27, 2013

Golden Age of Hollywood 1939-1942

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

I had seen this ten or fifteen years ago. It did not seem as good to me as I had remembered. It is very talky, and not in the way that moves the story along. It is also darker (as in shadowy), quieter--there is no music in large parts of it, if there is any at all-- and more claustrophobic than I had remembered. Also the circumstance that the film ends abruptly in the middle of the story, given that it does have a story, and that the story is not incidental to its execution, is a problem that I cannot seem to wave off as easily as I must have before. It still might have been one of the all time greats if it had been completed, though it would have been awfully long and ponderous. I am not as high on it as I used to be however.

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Celebrated John Ford tearjerker that won the Best Picture Oscar over Citizen Kane but was so great in its own right that cinephiles do not complain much about this decision. I had never seen it before. I like it, it's very good, and several times it came close to causing the swell in my bosom and welling up in my eye that I had feared. As I often find to be the case with John Ford however, perhaps because the expectations for his films have been raised so high, I found myself thinking that as good and well laid out as the movie was, that it could have been still better, or at least could have gone for the full pathos or sentimental effect, and did not. The opening scene, for example, I felt would have made more of an impact incorporated into the ending. At other times he went for humor instead of pathos, which humor hasn't really aged well. This is my take as someone who was especially looking forward to seeing this and eager to like it. I do like it, but not as much as other people do.

It has been noted by most astute commentators that even though the characters are nominally Welsh, Ford essentially depicts them as if they are Irish, which he was by ancestry, and his parents by birth. The repressed love between Maureen O'Hara and the priest even when she was being courted by the son of the factory owner was a pleasing example of the Irish romantic sensibility. Marrying for wealth, or the potential of wealth, does not seem to be as developed an instinct among Irish girls, even pretty ones, as it is among women of other nationalities. The immortal quote "I'd rather cry in the back of a Mercedes than laugh on the back of a bicycle" that appeared in the New York Times report on the dating situation in China a few years back is not a sentiment that seems to be as widely held among Irish women. Even after marrying the wealthy man she did not love and moving into the mansion and having a taste of life with servants and other luxuries the beautiful Angharad (Maureen) is still pining for the priest, who is a good man, but is not exactly a fiery take-charge type, unless prompted heavily. Not to mention that he lives in the dingy rooms appropriate to his station. But for all that I didn't think it was an unrealistic portrayal.

How Green Was My Valley, like a lot of classic films from this time, was based upon a book that was a huge bestseller in its day that has been forgotten. This one even won the (U.S.) National Book Award in 1940. The author was Richard Llewellyn, whom I had never heard of before this. I suspect the book is not half bad, and probably better than the movie in some ways.

The Letter (1940)

William Wyler directed movie starring Bette Davis based on a story by Somerset Maugham and set in colonial era Singapore. These are all points in its favor. It's the most smoothly classical of the classic Hollywood films in this group, or at least it has the most sophisticated veneer. Murder, adultery, expat Brits, cynical, plotting natives, fairly crisp, literary dialogue, The plot is nothing spectacular but the Maughamian atmosphere is conveyed well enough to hold one's interest, the acting and direction are first-rate, and Bette Davis, who is still young here (she would have been 31 or 32) does have a kind of mesmerizing quality, especially when considering that she is playing a stone-cold murderess in this movie. She looks to have been rather small, as actresses. I had not known either that she was a New Englander (Massachusetts). She described herself as her first screen test, when fifteen men had to lie on top of her and give her a passionate kiss, as the 'most yankee-est, most modest virgin who ever walked the earth" (Wikipedia). It sounds like she was able to overcome this Yankee prudery as her career progressed however.

Take Me Back to Oklahoma (1940)

This is what I would assume is a B-movie, Saturday afternoon matinee, what have you. The production values are a shock after seeing the three above films. It is like being dragged back to the early silent period. I wanted to get into the spirit of this, which features the singing cowboy Tex Ritter, his sidekick Arkansas Slim, a singing group called the Texas Playboys who are not unversed in the use of firearms either, and some non-musical bad guys who want to take over, preferably by violent means, the only on the level coach line left in the west. It was just a little too goofy and raw for me however. It is only 60 minutes long.

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Another odd western, starring Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, who is the current old star that is all of the sudden turning up all over the place on my list. It's got some entertaining parts to it, and I thought it was mildly interesting for a while, but it kind of lost me towards the end. I think I was tired, and maybe I should have tried to watch the ending a second time. Marlene Dietrich's character, I have to confess, was more trashy than I really have a taste for, especially at this point of my life, and while I like the idea of Jimmy Stewart as an even-keeled, law-revering, use the guns only as a last resort sheriff in the midst of a world wholly composed of morally corrosive hotheads, it doesn't strike me as very plausible. The lawlessness of the town at the beginning of the movie was one of the most extreme examples of what that would mean that I have seen in a film. That was one superlative thing about it.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Post of December 23. Exercise of Ploughing Through, Frustration With Machine

I recently obtained several bags of discarded books from a school library where I live. I would be tempted not to accept these castoffs of a bygone time and way of approaching knowledge if it were at all clear to me that the new methods are in any way identical, if not superior. However, as my wife actually picked out these books, the haul was pretty good, a lot of high school classics and middle-aged novels that I have heard of but that aren't as famous as they once were. So we kept them, except for one book by the apparently disgraced Greg Mortenson that we have for the time being donated to the camp in Vermont. It is a good-looking hardcover, beautiful jacket, etc, and the idea that it is in some part a fabrication and a scam somehow makes it more interesting to me than when I thought it was about another energetic and determined overachiever accomplishing incredible things and single-handedly bringing light to places where none had penetrated for ages, which naysayers like me did not believe could be done.

The main point of interest about this set of books however is three of them came attached with warning labels that seem mildly ludicrous if one has never seen such a thing before.

On Humans and Animals, a 1980 anthology of magazine articles belonging to a series called The Reference Shelf (contributors included Sir Kenneth Clark and Richard Adams, as well as James Fallows and Nicholas Wade, whom I had not realized were so old, the reader is advised that:

"This book contains information that is between 10 and 20 years old. However it still has value, especially if it is used for comparative purposes."

There is no indication however on what exactly may be outdated, and who is making the determination that the book still has value, and on what grounds.

The next book that required a disclaimer was Franklin D Roosevelt and the Age of Action--ed. Alfred B Rollins, Jr (1960):

"This document contains dated and possibly incorrect information. However it is considered to be an important work in this field. Please use it with care."

This one is a masterpiece. "Possibly" strikes me as the vital word, but "dated" is good too. And the heartfelt urgency of the final admonishment seems almost out of place in this age. Glancing over the book it looks like pretty much a general survey of the period referenced, in the old style, by and about people who had in fact lived through the entire era. The question I guess is, can information be dated but at the same time correct?

My favorite warning was that for Colin M. Turnbull's Man In Africa: From Cairo to the Cape of Good Hope (1976):

"This is considered to be an important, seminal work within the subject area. However, you must (italics not mine) review current literature in order to have an accurate understanding of the issues."

I guess these statements are not wholly contradictory, though they would seem to indicate that Colin M. Turnbull, who was a pretty famous anthropologist, did not possess the accurate understanding of the issues that awaits the high school student who keeps up with the current research. I cannot find much information about what might be wrong with this particular book online, apart from the author's apparent belief in a power unity that binds all African cultures, 'one that may link them to Black Americans'. Turnbull was white (English-born), as well as flamboyantly gay, especially by the standards of his generation, taking part in a marriage ceremony with his partner in the 1950s. I don't know what this has to do with anything, but it is noted in most accounts of him on the internet. My guess is, his books combined a lot of interesting and important observations in the field, along with some theories that are a little too far out, or even mildly kooky by today's standards, to gain a wide acceptance.

Pretty persuasive essay about the decline of college here. The more stuff like this I read, the more I have to concede that maybe it really isn't worth getting that excited about anymore, if you aren't one of the 1,000 or so genuinely brilliant students in the country (I've seen other claims that there are less than 100 high school seniors in any given year in the entire country who are regarded as having meaningful intellectual talent by the colleges, who are of course well aware of who these students are, but even I am a little skeptical of this) or your parents don't have nine-figure net worth. I'm sure all of my children will still go to whatever version of it exists in 10-15 years, and most of them will probably finish and probably a few of them will even acquire professions or skills of some kind. I have an idea of college, and education generally, slowly being disabused, that is stuck in the 1950s or 1960s, with a few concessions to the realities of the 1980s perhaps, to which very few schools that most people attend now bear any resemblance. This includes the way that it is financed.

Now that I have a free hour to try to finish this post which should have taken twenty minutes to begin with, my machine is working slowly, my words appearing at a remove of some seconds after I have typed them.

The same author who wrote the college article above also recently wrote another article, which I cannot now find, in which he chastises supposed progressives for, primarily, not being angrier and bringing some heat to bear in the current national economic debate, or non-debate, as this writer, Frank, sees it. He referred in the piece to generational theory, which he called false, and accused many who longed for a juster order of taking a phony solace in the belief that the passage of time, rather than aggressive opposition to the powerful now, will miraculously produce solutions to our current problems. I suppose it could be said that I belong to the group that puts some stock in the generational theory, mainly because it is obvious that trends which are in some sense subject to volatility, good or bad, cannot go on forever, and especially if such a trend is the cause of widespread dissatisfaction through a society, it seems very likely that only so many years can pass before the matter is brought to some kind of head. This is not to say that a lot of hardship and terrible things will not occur when this happens, or that there is any guarantee that the end result, when the fury of the crisis will have exhausted itself, will not be even greater domination by the financial-cognitive elite and de facto serfdom for everyone else. It is, however, an opportunity for the kinds of corrections and major changes of policy that many desire to be enacted which should come if the desire for it is what it is said to be. I do agree, however, that the intellectual/rhetorical force on behalf of the common man has not been as committed or strong as that of capital, and that it will need to become so if anything is to change...

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Music Videos, Depression, Christmas in the 1960s and Even Some Pat Boone!

I never thought I would become that cranky middle-aged man who dreaded the approach of Christmas as too burdensome in its expense and other obligations to be enjoyable anymore. For about three days, including most of this past weekend, I seemed to have become that person however. I was not excited about Christmas, or much else in what remained of life for that matter. I was even getting agitated at the thought that my children would likely wake up at 5:30 on Christmas day and I would not be able to go back to bed the whole long morning because that would not be in the 'spirit' of the holiday. Even this morning when I woke up I was still depressed and unenthusiastic about anything with regard to my situation or anything that loomed in the day ahead. The weather did not look any too promising for relieving ennui either, though it was the sort of day I had liked when I was younger--approximately 28 degrees and overcast with occasional snow showers, the earth covered with about a inch of snow from the previous day--however as the day went on I found I felt a little better. I read a chapter of the 19th century warhorse classic novel that I am re-reading, which always cheers me, and then I went outside and shoveled the walk and built three rows of an igloo, which was not my first choice of activities but it seemed to have a good effect on my general mood. The day was calm, and no great costs arose or had to be immediately addressed in the course of it, which I probably needed as well.

I am almost ready to play some Christmas videos.

"Silent Night"--(Deanna Durbin) 

From Lady On a Train. The attitude of the camerawork and the circumstance of her lolling on a luxurious bed singing this particular song were mildly scandalous in 1945.

"Christmas Waltz" (1968) "Silver Bells" (1959)

I haven't put up any Lennon Sisters videos since February. But I have been saving these. The above clip is from (I believe) a Bing Crosby Christmas Special. You see what could happen when they were able to get away from Lawrence Welk and work with some real Hollywood hairstylists, makeup artists and fashion experts. I think it can be admitted that they are a little ravissantes here. I've spent much of my life in places (New England; St John's) where the women are considered by the greater world to be, on average, uglier than in other places. There is a joke in New England about trying to describe your own or somebody else's girlfriend's looks in a favorable light by saying, "She's a Vermont ten, a New Hampshire nine, and a Maine three hundred". That said, there are of course plenty of women even in these places who are plenty attractive, but it is true that in most instances these do not maximize their potential for strikingness of look with regards to wardrobe, makeup, and so on not merely on a daily basis, but much more than a handful of times in their entire lives. I of course find this kind of endearing, as I can hardly identify with the kinds of people who are to some extent glammed up all the time, but I also take a certain pleasure in someone I consider to be coming from where I'm coming from in this regard to show that they can look more conventionally or glamorously beautiful.

I had wanted to put a version of this up several years ago, but it was taken down, and seems to have returned only recently. This is another non-Lawrence Welk appearance (the Welk show at this time was not in color) but still being young and in the 50s, the girls remain in character. When Dianne gives the gift-bearing man a kiss on the cheek at the end of the second song, i thought, if that were me I probably would have had a heart attack. Like other mid-20th century, secular Christmas Songs ("Christmas Waltz", "Marshmallow World"), that the Lennons do especially endearing versions of, this is one of my favorite Christmas songs, probably in part because I feel like it is not played to death, and never has been.

"Sleigh Ride" (1963)

There is another group of older songs that I don't recall ever hearing on the radio in the 70s and 80s that since sometime in the 90s have become extremely popular and are in danger of being played to death. This is one; "Santa Baby" and "Baby, It's Cold Outside" are two others of this class that come immediately to mind. When I was at college, there was a guy on my floor who had the Phil Spector Christmas Album and played it regularly during the revelrous few weeks of the season when you are still at school (we didn't have exams at our school, so the opportunity for parties, dinners, egg nog tastings, etc, of a universal nature was considerably expanded). Never having heard any of the songs, I declared to somebody, whether the owner of the record or someone else I don't remember, "this is great", and the other person replied, "Yes. Everybody loves the Wall of Sound". But now everybody knows this record and this year especially I sense that "Sleigh Ride" is being overplayed, which ultimately kills the pleasing effect of the song.

As you can probably tell, my idea of Christmas is, and probably always will be, rooted in the ever receding 1960s, even though I wasn't alive in that time. But most of the Christmases of my childhood, being spent mostly at my grandparents' houses, were stylistically reprisals of Christmas as it had been in 1965 with only slight changes that did not begin to become noticeable at all until the late 80s; the same artificial tree, the same ornaments, the same door decorations, the same music, the same candy dishes, etc and etc. Neither of my grandparents' households contained much in the way of books, so my idle time was passed looking endlessly through the old photo albums that were deposited in the cabinets of all the endtables, which were heavily weighted towards the legendary Christmases of the years immediately predating my birth, before the old neighborhood broke up and various of the riotous neighbors had moved away and Wild Uncle Bill had had his unfortunate coronary at age 46, and the witty, endlessly entertaining family friend who looked just like James Joyce had had his embarrassing embezzlement scandal and ceased to come around anymore. These larger than life characters had been replaced by me, a neurotic eight year old with thick glasses, and my mother, who in 1970s party people terms was kind of like Karen Carpenter without any singing or entertainment component at all. As you can imagine, things were not what they had been. But I still like to think I was able to absorb something of the flavor of the time, at second hand.   

"Love Letters in the Sand" (Pat Boone)

So we're getting away from the Christmas theme a little bit. I am not a Pat Boone fan, although I do like this song. When I was young of course, Pat Boone was widely regarded as the most awful person in the history of music, primarily because he was a soulless white guy who made millions of dollars by ripping off black geniuses, who never got to make the money that was rightfully theirs (This is an aside, but whenever I read some lament about genius musicians who are living in poverty while Pat Boone and various oleaginous record producers are the lords of financial empires looted from the work of these impoverished geniuses, I always wonder why the National Endowment of the Arts or some similar body cannot at least provide some kind of pension to these contributors to the cultural life of the nation similar to that which Samuel Johnson received from the Crown. The obvious answer is that King of England could decide arbitrarily to give one guy a pension and not another, and that was the final word on the matter, while in our system the fighting over who deserved the money and who didn't, and how much was just and so on wold be neverending. But it seems like somebody could have set up a private foundation at some point to try to address this issue that everyone indignantly complains about but are apparently impotent to resolve). Anyway, I've always been mildly fascinated with Pat Boone, for the hatred he inspires among a certain type of person for being more or less like me and 90% of the people I know. He is goofier and more discomfiting than the people I know because he is comparatively unselfconsciousness about who he is and what he represents and how repulsive that is to basically everyone who is cool, but I recognize the instinct.

One of the comments on this video--Pat Boone videos draw a lot of heated commentary, because of what he symbolizes and the emotions this produces--began "I am a 57 year old black man, and I love Pat Boone." It could be trolling, but I actually think it is real, because the guy went on to talk about being a Christian and so on. It is just funny, because it is the sort of thing the Official Narrative had always led me to believe could never happen. 

Friday, December 06, 2013

Vivien Grey II

1. Stock character of (Euro?) literature--the impish dwarf/(unintelligible word) feather ruffler. Where is this type now?

2. Loveliness of Ems noted. I like to record these things.

3. p.157. "Her features were like those conceptions of Grecian sculptors which, in moments of despondency, we sometimes believe to be ideal."

4. Not much differentiation between characters, flow (flaw?) to (unintelligible word).

5. p. 174. Raptures on outing to Nassau Castle.

6. p. 203. Grey gets off from gambling trap(?) too easily. Not convincing.

7. p. 213. This is a picnic at the end of a long hike. No wonder so many servants were necessary.

8. p.217. White Anglo-Saxons dancing in the woods. Divine.

This picture came up in a search for "white anglo saxons dancing in the woods".

9. p. 227. This book starts to get weird--in a good way--at the castle where the Duke of Johannisberger breaks out the bottle of his namesake liquor. "'And now', continued the Grand Duke, 'having introduced you to all present, sir, we will begin drinking'".

10. Whenever I am reading one of these books and lament that I haven't acted in a situation as a 19th-century German aristocrat would, my wife explains with admirable rationality why we don't need to.

11. Is this a satire on aristocratic custom generally or just Germans? (Germans a popular subject of humor at this time).

12. p. 257. "...at your age, if, in fact, we study at all, we are fond of fancying ourselves moral philosophers, and our study is mankind. Trust me, my dear sir, it is a branch of research soon exhausted; and in a few years you will be very glad, for want of something else to do, to meditate upon stones." He goes on to encourage him to take up geology. "...for the geologist is the most satisfactory of antiquarians, the most interesting of philosophers, and the most inspired of prophets; demonstrating that which has passed by discovery, that which is occurring by observation, and that which is to come by induction." I used to wonder if geology were not one of my lost careers (i.e., something requiring some intelligence that I might have been able to do competently). It seemed like something I could have done when I was young, though everything is so complex and requires so much innovative and restless thinking to be able to contribute to it now that if I had gone into it I probably would not have been able to keep pace with ongoing developments and been obsolete by this point anyway.

13. p.264. I like Beckendorff's periodic sweeps of all 'philosophers' from the royal presence.

14. Sciolist: One who exhibits a pretentious attitude of scholarliness, superficial knowledgeability. I identified with the idea of this word.

15. p. 280. Beckendorff's Italy tip: "Well, then, when either of you go, you will, of course, not miss the Lago Maggiore. Gaze on Isola Bella at sunset, and you will not view so fair a scene as this!"

I have to confess, I don't have a lot to say with regard to the passing of Mandela, whom most thinking people have felt moved to pay their respects to over the past few days. I am not being a contrarian in this instance, I simply have not followed or studied his struggles and the progression of his life enough to have the strength of feeling for him such as other people seem to have. I am certainly persuaded by the general narrative and other superficial impressions that he was a superior and historically important man. I'm suspicious of the depth of sincerity and understanding of many most of his white upper class American admirers with regard to the type of man he was, since they do not seem to me to partake any too strongly, if at all, of the great qualities of which he is supposedly representative, beginning with humility, which admittedly does not come naturally to most people who have gotten anywhere in this society; but I could very well be wrong in this, and besides it has nothing to do with Mandela himself. And I will leave it at this.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Three Brothers (1980)

Do you like this movie? Yes.

What Do You Like About It? It has the expansive, deliberate, unfrenetic, realist, novelistic style that reached its zenith in the 1970s, particularly in Europe. This depiction of consciousness, character, etc, was akin to how I used to experience life myself until I was around twenty-seven or so.

What Do You Dislike About It? Nothing stands out. It is a little unusual in that it sets out a group of characters with very serious problems or crises happening in their lives and kind of leaves it at that, as if to say, these are the pertinent facts of life, and there is no resolution for them, until you grow old and die (or are killed). But when you think about it you realize how foolish you are, not so much to want, but to expect a resolution such that a character will never be troubled by his great problem ever again.

What Do You Love About it? Nothing to that extreme. I like seeing something of the Europe of my childhood and youth that I could still get a little sense of in 1990, but as one of the themes is about how soul-crushing the modern urban lifestyle and economy were even at that time, I was not indulging in the nostalgia too much.

Who is the director? Francesco Rosi. This is the first of his films I have seen. I would say that on the whole he definitely belongs to the old camp (he was born in 1922, and began directing on his own in the 50s) that reached a kind of maturity by the late 60s and 70s. The films of this school are extremely well-made, both technically and in terms the overall coherence of story or theme. They know what they mean to say and want to show, and how they want to say and show it.

What is important about this movie? This movie is interesting because it comes near the end of an era that, unlike similar transitional periods, I don't think as many people on the creative side of the field realized was the end of an era. Or even if they had some sense of this, I don't think they grasped how different even intelligent people's attitudes towards art and artworks, and the manner by which they consumed and related to them would become. For it seems to me in this regard we are a long way from 1980. In Italian film no less than the other major national cinemas the period beginning around 1980 was a watershed time, as the older masters (Fellini, De Sica, Visconti, etc) retired, and the generation that only knew the postwar world rose to prominence. Rosi does address the theme, so prominent especially in this more recent generation, of the native but poor village one has had to leave behind to contribute economically and socially in the modern world, feeble as that contribution is. He does not fully romanticize it, and it is clear that for the most part it is hopeless for any young person to try to make a life there in 1980, but it is also clear that something serious has been lost with this breaking from tradition.

Anything Else. The sophisticated Euro-sex is kept pretty much to a minimum. There is only one of the brothers who is a threat to get it on with anybody. He does, mysteriously to me, have sex with his rather cold ex-wife (though I thought her attractive enough) after a conversation in which I could not detect any hint that she felt anything towards him other than contempt and security in her total superiority. I don't get how we are supposed to know that she still wanted it, or at least was willing to have it. And the beauty of it is, I never will. But you know why, superior reader. You have been there. And you will never forget it.

A Confession. When I was in college I would get a letter every year, or at least twice I got one, from the financial aid office or admissions office or alumni office or some other office informing me that my aid that year was in some part made possible by a very generous gift to the College from a Mr Whitebread Mayonnaise or other from the class of 1929, who was at the time still living in Baltimore, and that it would be appreciated if I would write him a letter of thanks and say something about my studies and my plans for the future and so on. Needless to say I never got around to writing any of these letters. At the time I no doubt forgot about them within fifteen minutes of leaving the mailbox, and I had thought about it once in all of the years since then, until a few weeks ago, when I remembered that I had been asked to do this one polite little thing in return for ten of thousands of money I was being given, and I had completely ignored it, as if it were beneath my contempt even to acknowledge it all. It's something I should have done, and emblematic of all the reasons why my life relative to the greater world amounted to so little as it did.

My wife has a blog now. She is a natural. Her site is for her Greek and Latin classes (substantial and purposeful) and is wholly devoid of narcissism. I can only marvel at the seriousness and restraint, two qualities I have always longed for and never come close to attaining.

No picture with tonight's posting because my computer situation is still a joke. I have two in the room, one of which is crashing every time I log onto the site, the other of which is loading pictures at 1998 speed. I will probably edit one in in a few days, when I can get something working again.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Very Long Movie Post Because It Concerns My Favorite Years (1945-46)

During my survey of the history of movies, I have identified a few especially favorite years, 1962 being one, and 1951, perhaps unexpectedly, has proven to be a year with a lot of things that I like. There are other years, such as 1949, 1966, 1971, that occasionally pop up and seem possibilities, with a couple of more hits, to join this exalted group. I think however that my all time favorite year in cinema history is 1945, with 1946 just behind it. The first year especially does not seen to usually be considered by experts as one of the all time great ones. As I have noted in other posts, the films from that year, particularly from Hollywood, have a somber, gentle, unfrenetic aspect about them that likely does not appeal to people who like their life and art to be as edgy and exciting as possible, but clearly I love them. There was a rather academic-sounding book written about these two years in film which makes an argument for them indeed being the best of all time. Here is a review of it. There are two sentences from the review that resonate for me, the first a quote from the actual book, the second a follow-up comment with regard to the quote:

"For many moviegoers the time coincided with their own 'best years'; for others who came later, the movies of this period mirror an extraordinary chapter in the nation's saga they regret having missed."

"Alluding to the nostalgia associated with the immediate postwar period, the Affrons colorfully suggest that generational memories of 1945-46 have sunk deeply into the U.S. subconscious, so much so that those of us born after the fact feel compelled to relive the best years vicariously through the film camera's misty-eyed lens."

There is certainly something in this that applies to me, even if I would not describe the effect these movies have on me in exactly these terms. I would also say that the people for whom the generational memory of 1945 has sunk deeply into their subconscious constitute a decided minority, even among the sensitive. Most people seem to be able to resist the nostalgia without too much of a struggle.

La Belle et La Bete (1946)

It is often referred to by its French title, not only because that title is so great, but also in later years to distinguish it from the Disney movie. Like Les Enfants du Paradis, this was made at the very end of World War II and remains beloved in France to this day. There were numerous special features that came with the film, many interviews or short documentaries taken from French television, in which an aged actor or makeup artist or cinematographer would be presented and a resume full of said person's involvement in classic movies by iconic directors would be recited; but always at the very end the announcer would say some variation of "but so-and-so will always be most remembered for his work in Cocteau's La Belle et La Bete." This period at the end of the war was probably the most emotional time in recent memory, in every country that was involved in it. This emotion was not of the hysterical, irrational quality that the word seems to have come to mean in recent years, but, when applied to the classic films of the era, that in which people express, in a controlled and even subdued, but very direct way, those things which they most deeply love and desire and feel.

Apart obviously from Germany and Japan (and Austria), no one receives less sympathy in this country for what they endured during World War II than the people of France. The Italians, despite actively being on the other side during the most tenuous part of the conflict, my sense is are thought of, if they are thought of at all in relation to that period, as having been poor and wretched and suffered considerably, while with the French the emphasis is forever on collaborators, defeatists, women who consorted with the Nazis, and a general sense that the mainstream population was comparatively living it up while everyone else on the continent was starving and being subjected to torture on a routine basis. I don't know how important the films which emerged from these two countries in the immediate aftermath of the war were in confirming these impressions, but I suspect they had some influence; the Italians of course producing the neo-realists, who in the beginning at least had a somewhat underground quality about them, and movies like The Bicycle Thief and Open City (the former of which at least I do think is still one of the greatest of all time, for the record) in which, however one wants to color it, the predominant attitude is "We are desperate. We are on our knees. May some fate or power or something have mercy on us."--while the French in contrast brought out numerous titans of their pre-war artistic establishment and produced a couple of films, also among the very greatest of all time, in which the message being conveyed, to themselves, the rest of the nation, and that portion of the greater world that cared about such things, was "Our self-esteem has been shaken, but we are still who and what we always have been, and we are still great." This is an example too of what I was referring to earlier by the depth of emotion that these movies carry, and which gives them a power that is doubtless hard to duplicate in ordinary instances. The insistent pride which undergirds them, in spite of the more complicated and interesting emotions which move the work, nonetheless will always I fear tend to work against a real understanding and feel for what these movies are about in some instances.

I have had the Georges Auric musical soundtrack for years, though I had not seen the movie before. I got it back in the 90s when I was a member of the Columbia Record Club. It was one of their monthly selections that you got sent if you forgot to mail in the card saying that you didn't want it. Of course you were supposed to pay for the CD or send it back, but...I used to listen to it fairly often for a time. All-instrumental movie soundtracks are probably an underappreciated genre, especially as background music. I don't like to move about in a silent house (of course this was more of an issue before I had a lot of children), especially if I am not writing, but opera and some of the more intense classical composers can be a bit much first thing in the morning, with one's eggs and toast....

My general thoughts about this movie, about which entire books have been written--I think it does what it sets out to do, which is roughly to connect a modern avant-garde sensibility with a specifically French classical story (this was something of a specialty of Cocteau's, who frequently used ancient stories and themes in all his arts); it uses what it has--its material, and the emotions and allusions suggested by this material--expertly. It feels classical, in the sense that the story feels elementally spare yet expansive and significant in all of its parts. The actors, as they always are in French movies of this time, are excellent, fully inhabit their roles, seem as if they completely understand what the movie is about, and so on...

The Lost Weekend (1945)

A 1945 movie directed by Billy Wilder that is about drinking would probably be impossible for me not to like. And I had never seen it before. I have known about it for a while, of course, but I was waiting for it to come up in my system, as something to look forward to. It does contain pretty much everything I like in movies. I suppose one could pick apart the script and the acting and find numerous flaws, but I found it moving and disturbing enough in about equal measure that the flaws don't concern me that much.

I like what Jane Wyman does here as the girlfriend--I suppose this is in keeping with my general love of women in movies in this era. People don't like the character because she won't drop the drunken loser, but it's good for the movie's emotional thrust that the protagonist has this normal, likable and yes, sad and deluded woman who loves him and feels such devotion to him. It may not matter to the alcoholic, but the idea of that degree of loyalty and affection in a woman even when one has hit bottom appeals strongly to the imagination of the audience. And it is not as if women don't love alcoholics, or at least enough of them do. They may not love the alcoholism itself, exactly, but there is in many instances some characteristic which is indicative of tendencies in that direction that appeals to them that is absent from the makeup of the computer genius. Though she will never admit it, I'm quite sure my wife liked me better when I drank more than she does now. I was more work, and more unpredictable, and much more interesting, and there was some drama, or the possibility of it, because I had more delusions about being alive and a real person than I do now, and women do like that, even if they don't always realize it.

I note a number of people in online reviews saying the ending was too Hollywood. I did not see it as being too Hollywood at all. If anything I thought it was ambiguous, and quite well played. There is absolutely nothing in the ending that indicates he won't be back at the bar begging for more rye by four o'clock that same afternoon. Sure, he puts the gun down and his girlfriend who looks pretty from being out in the rain hugs him in tears and he says he is going to stop and begin writing again...I go through this routine about three times a week, it means absolutely nothing. The ending is fine, I think it is quite good, actually.

I love the old 40s and 50s style alcoholics' bars, better even than the old nightclubs. The kind that are always uncrowded and a little melancholy, plenty of room at the bar, booths, wood or veneer-paneled walls. They're all just about gone now. I don't know of any still in operation that fit the type. When I was young there were still a few up in the Northeast Philadelphia area. My grandfather used to take me to them for lunch. The Little Campus in Annapolis was another, now gone. There is still a bar there, under a different name, but a recent travel book I have describes it as "the epitome of a power-broker bar". I'm pretty sure there was no power broking going on at the Little Campus.

This is one of those movies (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is another--I haven't seen The Days of Wine and Roses, which I guess is the third part of the trinity of drinking movies) where you have to stop the film somewhere in the middle, go and get a bottle of some real stuff--I always drink beer when I watch movies, but that doesn't cut it in these instances--and drink along with it. Like Don Birnum also, I was carfeul to hide my bottle and shotglass from my wife, who was floating around the house doing work, having opted out of seeing the movie due to the grim subject matter (and perhaps the subject matter hit too close to home?) I do identify too strongly with alcoholics. I once thought maybe I would become one--if you had told me twenty years ago what my life would be like now, I would have assumed I must become one to preserve any sense of self I might have--but as in most things, I didn't have it in to be that extreme, and upset and disturb people. But I do feel like I understand characters like this and their lives and why they have no great desire to change better than I do most other types of people.

I do worry that the world, or at least America, is being taken over more and more by people for whom the mentality on display would not even begin to make any sense. That is perhaps good for America but it is bad for me, who always found society and the environment all around me alien enough as it was. But it only seems to be getting worse.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

I thought this might finally be the 1945 movie I wasn't going to like. Described as "slick trash" even by people writing favorably about it, it is a technicolor melodrama with a lot of stilted acting and dialogue set in the kind of bland, sterile, expensive rooms that one forgets were fashionable around this time (indeed, my grandparents were still betraying signs of this influence into the 80s). Yet there was enough to interest me and keep me going. These points briefly were:

1. Jeanne Crain! I love Jeanne Crain. I wrote a little about her in Letter to Three Wives here. I will comment more on her in this movie below.

2. Though filmed entirely on sets and around the Lake Tahoe area and not having anything in particular that really reminds one of anything about Maine, most of the movie is set at Deer Lake or Bar Harbor. The glow of having gone to Bar Harbor for the first time this past summer is still fresh with me, and I found the thought of wandering around the village there and coming upon Jeanne Crain hoeing in the garden rather captured my fancy.

3.Vincent Price. In a supporting role, as Gene Tierney's jilted fiance. I had never seen him in a movie before. He is only really in two scenes, though the second one is long and crucial to the movie. He's an interesting figure. He seems to have been well-liked, and was widely regarded as a cultivated man. He had majored in art history at Yale. He famously lent his name and expertise to the Sears Roebuck company's line of fine art for home furnishings in the 60s, which apparently was a serious enterprise, and included work by people like Picasso and Salvador Dali. He came at his career from many different angles, and was at least adequate in all of them. He also was noted for his cooking and gourmet taste in food back when this was a less widespread interest than it is now, and he wrote several cookbooks.

4. The script must be better than it seems on a first impression, because somehow the thing held my interest, though apart from the courtroom scene where Price plays a rather manic lawyer, nothing in it much stands out.

5. Gene Tierney is the star. She is extremely beautiful. I don't think she is more beautiful than Jeanne Crain, but then I like the more wholesome types. Gene Tierney plays a psychopath who lures a cripple into the middle of the lake and looks on detachedly while he drowns because he is too weak to swim anymore, throws herself down a flight of stairs to self-induce an abortion, and arranges her own suicide in such a manner as to implicate her innocent half-sister (Crain) as having murdered her. According to the commentary she was not much more emotionally responsive in real life.

About that commentary...it was weak. I endured it because I wanted to go through the movie again. The commentators were the veteran film critic Richard Schickel and the former child actor who had played the cripple who drowned. This is the third movie I've gotten where Richard Schickel has been the commentator. Along with the woman who did Lola Montes, his commentaries are the most useless I have come across. The first two I gave up after ten minutes, but as I said, I wanted to go through this one again and try to figure out what it was about it that worked. Schickel started off on the wrong foot for me when he quickly dismissed Jeanne Crain as a subject of any interest, observing that she was a beauty queen with limited acting abilities who 'lacked fire'. However true this ultimately may or may not be, I have to admit my immediate response at this instant was "is this guy gay?" I couldn't find a definite answer to my question, but my guess is "probably". If Richard Schickel's general knowledge and capacity for thought, his aesthetic sensibility, his sense of humor, were interesting and worthy of my admiration and emulation, I don't think the question of his possible gayness would have pressed itself upon me so crudely. However, since I already did not like his commentaries, or any of the directions where his perceptions lead him, and presumably would, or should, lead us, and he begins speaking flippantly of my favorite 1940s actresses, a situation arose where I reached a sort of breaking point. 

Speaking of all which, The Lost Weekend didn't have a commentary. I'll do one for it if no one else wants to, though I would have to get paid for it.

Other interesting Wikipedia tidbits about Jeanne Crain:

She achieved notoriety as an teenager for her ice skating.

She had seven children.

She was nicknamed "Hollywood's number one party girl" in the late 40s and early 50s, though this appears to refer to her rate of attendance rather than wildness of behavior.

She was married to her husband for 57 years, though they appeared to live apart for most of that time and they nearly divorced in the 50s, with each party claiming the other had been unfaithful. The details on this are not very satisfactory.

She was an active advocate for conservative Republican causes during the 1960s. Again, details are not forthcoming as to which causes she was especially fervent for. Another site notes merely that 'unlike the humanistic, progressive-thinking Margie (reference to one of her roles), Crain was a conservative Republican who supported Richard Nixon". Horrors! This page fills us in further that Crain's husband beat her brutally, that she never divorced him because she was Catholic, that she became a severe alcoholic, and two of her children predeceased her due to alcohol and drugs. Maybe I shouldn't do any more research...

Lady on a Train (1945)

In many ways a perfect 1945 movie--inveterately scruffy, pace very deliberate, at times scarcely discernable, plot simple and not especially the point of the movie in any case, good-spirited in a somber, muted way, has some wry humor mixed in with more telegraphed humor, a distillation, I think, of the national mood and general character at that particular time. It stars a very likeable Deanna Durbin who is fun, fun, fun and decidedly livens up what could otherwise be a dreary wartime atmosphere. Deanna Durbin was a four or five tool star: good-looking, could sing, was intelligent, was very funny in her own perky way. Not everybody liked her of course. She probably was not considered to have a lot of fire either, which quality seems to be especially treasured in women by my father's (early baby boomer) generation regardless of their sexual orientation. Earlier in her career she was famous for playing the Ideal Daughter (as that role was perceived at the time) in a series of teenybopper movies. I haven't seen any of these ideal daughter films (Three Smart Girls seems to be regarded as the most vital one of the group). Personally I think the ideal daughter is an aspirational ideal that society could embrace more widely that it does at present without overly sinister results, but perhaps I am showing my naivete again.

Deanna Durbin for some reason is always described as Canadian. It is true that she was born in Winnipeg but her parents moved to Los Angeles when she was a year old (that would be age 1). Even all of her singing instruction appears to have been done in this country. I don't mind the Canadians claiming her, but if, as we are often told, people who move here as full adults, especially if they have a work ethic and entrepreneurial or other high level career skills, are more fundamentally American that most of the people who happen to be here by mere accident of birth, then I am not sure why Deanna Durbin would not automatically be considered an American first.

Lady On a Train spoofs, albiet gently, a number of tropes of 1940s film--noir, Orson Welles, the outlandish kinds of nightclubs that are ubiquitous in movies of this era (and which I have often extolled myself in these pages), the entire murder-mystery genre of novels and movies, which was obviously flourishing at the time.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

My Life in Bridges

marietta violacea wind surface omitted bees

Honorable Mention: Pulaski Skyway, Route 1-9, Newark, New Jersey

I've only been on this once (though you can see it from the Turnpike). It's a big black 1930s iron bridge near the Newark airport. I thought it was pretty nifty the one time I was on it. I must be due for another trip.

12. The Triboro, New York

Historically important, and makes you feel like you are in the heart of one of the real New Yorks. I don't think I was on it until I was around 30.

11. Verrazano-Narrows, New York

Similar to above. I usually only take this going north, to avoid the $13 toll. Anything that reminds me of the old days, before I was born.

10. The Hamilton Fish Bridge over the Hudson River, I-84 in New York.

I only go on this road every other year or so--maybe less than that now--as a change from routine. There is nothing special about this bridge except that it is very gloomy, especially in the dark, in winter, and during a snowstorm. I only ever feel impelled to go this way in winter, the whole length of which in New York is quite gloomy, and some of the gloominess even continues into Connecticut as far as Hartford. I find much of upstate New York--and this is not even very far upstate--to be gloomy compared with most of New England. Even at night.

I couldn't find any pictures of this bridge in the winter.

9. The Bridge to the Outer Banks (Rte 12?), North Carolina. 

My old family--not only my parents but my grandmother and my father's five younger siblings and various of their cousins and other friends--vacationed here for a week every August from 1976-1979, and again in 1981. I have not been back since. I think this area has been considerably altered and built up during the interval. This bridge carried one from the ramshackle rural North Carolina mainland instantly into the magical world of sand dunes and waving cattails and seashells and mini-golf courses and motorcourts and swimming pools and the potential for, if not adventures, at least drama or memorable stories. I still get this feeling once in a while in famous vacation spots--I felt it at Bar Harbor, which similarly features a bridge from a comparatively dreary mainland onto an island where everyone seems to be happier and better looking and has more purpose than than the run of people you find in life. One year we arrived at the island to ominous, albeit very striking and dramatic, dark skies and learned that a hurricane was on the way--apparently we did not have a working car radio at the time. It was right at the beginning of the trip. My parents fled to the dreary mainland in the pouring rain, backed up for hours along the bridge and the one road leading out. The rest of our group, being either young and adventurous or old and cantankerous, stayed behind to ride out the hurricane. Though there was a great fear on the part of some that the bridge would be taken out, apart from a couple of days of heavy rain the storm did little damage, and we had to slink back in once the danger was out of the way in mild disgrace at not having braved the storm, though being seven or eight years of age it is not as if I had had any say in the matter. But the cool people had all chosen to stay and party, and even at that young age I knew they would be all right.

8. George Washington Bridge, New York.

This is the New York bridge I've been over the most. I also walked across it once when I was depressed and failing, though obviously I kind of enjoyed it. I can't believe failing in New York, while a more decisive and public humiliation, is more fundamentally depressing than failing in some nothing place. I don't go over this bridge much anymore because there is always too much traffic, but if you come down the Palisades, at night especially, you see it in all its glory, and it signifies "New York" to the children.

7. Delaware River Bridge Between PA & NJ turnpikes

The bridge by which I usually enter my home state these days with all of the nostalgia and regret and bitter feelings that comes with that. The bridge itself is a pretty run of the mill green arched truss bridge. The ones further down the river that go directly into Philadelphia are more distinguished, but I never went on them much. My father, for reasons that were never fully explained to me, hated the Jersey shore and for that matter the entire state of New Jersey so much that we practically never went there. I went a couple of times to Wildwood or Sea Isle City with my grandparents, but on the whole I don't think I have been to the ocean in New Jersey more than five or six times in my life.

6. Piscataqua River Bridge, I-95 Maine-New Hampshire Border

Due to my largely positive associations with both of these states, this is a bridge where I feel pretty good going in either direction. With most of these there is at least one side where I feel a little deflated upon descending from the bridge, because I am leaving a place that holds excitement or meaning for me and coming into one that holds neither. But I feel pretty comfortable and familiar almost everywhere in both of these states.

5 & 4 Bay Bridge & Rte 450 Bridge, Annapolis

These rate where they are because when I was actually in school I never drove back and forth from Annapolis to anywhere else. I only started to use these bridges after my time there. Still, they have a drama and a poignancy about them. The Bay Bridge is one of those bridges that puts a psychological distance between you and the town when you go over it. Once you are in the flat farmland of the Eastern Shore, you know St John's College and its idiosyncracies and colonial mouldings and all those Greek books have vanished again into the mists they probably came from. The Severn Bridge, with the romantic view of the water and the city of Annapolis with its domes and cupolas and spires (the Naval Academy mainly) on the approach to it, I did go over on the day I first came to Annapolis to begin school. It was years before I came that way again though so I have never developed a consistent emotional response upon arriving this way.

I have read that the Bay Bridge is considered by many to be one of the scariest bridges in the world to drive across, and someone did drive over the side of it earlier this year (though she survived, swimming to one of the piers and hanging on there). I suppose it is a little scary, though I have gotten used to it. I took the Bay-Bridge Tunnel in Virginia for the first time last year, which is much longer, and found that a little anxiety-inducing due to that length, though the bridge itself is not as high up, or at least does not seem so. As I have written before, I have a greater, and probably irrational, faith in tunnels, bridges, etc, built in the 1930s, 40s and 50s compared to more recent constructions, especially if they are in some way 'marvels' or otherwise spectacular engineering feats. This is because my mind cannot comprehend new developments and advancements as having any relation or proportion to it. These new environments do not belong to me or have much to do with me, so therefore my instinct is that they are likely to kill me sooner rather than later.

3. George C Platt Bridge, Rte 291, South Philadelphia

I-95 and the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76) don't have a direct interchange. Coming from the south, you get off 95, take this bridge over the Schuykill, are greeted on the other side by oil refineries on your left as far as you can see and a giant car demolition/scrap metal lot on the right. Welcome to Philadelphia! (although I must admit the pollution and air of menace in this little section is much less striking today than it was in say 1979). There used to be a forlorn little newsstand/hog dog cart on the corner where you turn for the Schuylkill, as well as guys walking up and down the median selling flowers and soft pretzels, but I haven't seen any of this in years. It is a very fitting scene for entering/leaving the city. Particularly on the trip to Annapolis when you go the Eastern shore route, which is only two and a half hours, but you pass through 5 or 6 very sharp geographical and cultural gradations during that drive. This little stretch obviously is one of the major gateways you pass through.

2. Route 9 Bridge over the Connecticut River, Brattleboro, Vermont

This is is the major bridge in my children's life, since this is the one we pass over when we go to our camp, which is about 2 miles beyond it, and thus means we are essentially there. This is an hour and a half trip mostly through (beautiful) woods and alongside rivers and lakes. The bridge is a significant landmark. This trip passes through about five subtly distinct geographical and social regions as well, once you get to know it. The new bridge was built about ten years ago, so I remember when the old bridge, which is rusting but has been kept up as a foot/bicycle bridge, was used by cars. Some of the twee, healthy-eating, marathon training, technologically adept, visibly educated (I say this to distinguish them from myself, as I appear to be invisibly educated, for social purposes) Brattleboro crowd has hung up a handmade banner which reads "Welcome to Our Bridge" on this old bridge, which annoys me, since A) I don't consider myself to be part of them, so I cannot collectively share anything with them, and B) I also consider it to be my bridge. Do any of them really think it can mean more to them than it does to me?

1. I-295 Bridge into Portland, Maine (South End)

This bridge has no distinguishing features--no trusses or arches of any kind--but at the time it represented a border between the romantic hopes and images I had about my life, and emptiness and despair. I should explain: when I went to high school in Portland I did not actually live in the city--I was able to go to school there because my father was a teacher and they let me attend, which sort of thing they don't do anymore because the taxpayer vigilantes are more alert to it. So having to go out of the borders of the city, where my life, or my best hope for my life was, was a kind of emotional death at the end of every day, and my return again in the morning a kind of rebirth. I don't deny looking back that it was very strange, but that was how I felt. I don't have quite the same response anymore going over this bridge, because almost everything from that time is gone now, and my connection to it, for whatever reason, does not seem to have been very deep. Also even the exit that I used to get off at and that descent from the road into the city, the buildings I saw every day, etc, has been altered, and is almost futuristic now, bears no resemblance to the old days. Still, I like to stop in if I am passing through the area. Sometimes it is possible to get something of the old feeling, if one is lucky.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Favorite Women of Art #16

attention solitary

The Misses Vickers--Sargent (1884)

We are different people at different times, even the dullest of us. This week, or maybe just today, or maybe just this morning, hours before I was able to get at a computer, I did not merely desire that life should be like this for me, but even believed that it was. A few hours after I first wake up is my most vivacious time of the day. I often think that I recognize other people, women included, and that I am not so terribly different from them, indeed am quite like them. By the evening everyone is a stranger with whom one realizes he has nothing in common and is completely ignorant of the real nature of, as they are likewise of him. Everybody--one's family, co-workers, authors, artists and their characters, one's teachers. Thoughts about the images of film stars and anonymous naked bodies and ranks of numbers acquire more of reality than any idea of individual soul or intellect one could attempt to conceive of, including one's own. This is why it takes a very great amount of mental refinement to be able to converse,and seduce, and read and appreciate any fine beauty or work for what it is,the product of an elevated mind and spirit. This is not how most people ever experience life.

None of which is to take away from the dream of feminine beauty, however unreal or insubstantial it may be determined to be, captured, or asserted, in this painting of the Misses Vickers. I imagine my old female schoolmates, or more likely some airy substitutes for them, to be have been arrayed in some such manner in their rooms during off hours when we could not see them (those were the days before webcams). The details are not important, only the ability to imagine them. All of the three here look like liberal arts majors, and worthy and significant ones, that a properly educated man ought to be able to talk to, and hopefully command the interest and respect of one of the three, for each is of a distinct type, and while there is disagreement on how many types of beautiful and interesting women there are, most experts place the upper limit at somewhere between fifty and three hundred...

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Judgment at Nuremberg & Odd Man Out

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

I was not too excited at the prospect of another courtroom drama, more than three hours long, directed by Stanley Kramer, Hollywood's most earnest and socially committed liberal of the early 60s (whose films have been turning up in my program at a prodigious rate over the last year), and featuring a cast loaded with superstars signed up for a film which already promised to be more self-consciously important than most people raised in this cynical generation can stomach. In spite of a lot of what one would instinctively dread about this movie being in fact true--it does take itself very seriously, it is grandiose (it opens with a five minute "overture" during which Nazi music plays over a black screen with the word "Overture" spelled out in white), some of the big name stars are a bit too big for the roles they are asked to play, and overdo them--its sincerity and confidence in its importance, and maybe the importance of human existence, are genuine enough, and strong enough, to relegate these potential flaws to a rather minor status.

Stanley Kramer is not a master of subtlety or the small but telling detail, but he seems to have been one of the more sincere directors, and strongest in his beliefs, who ever worked in this country. This is no doubt his magnum opus. Inherit the Wind, which came out the previous year and which I found myself grudgingly admiring in many of its aspects, was a good warmup for this, as there are obvious similarities between the two. Nuremberg has more plotlines and characters and covers quite a lot of ground. One of the most important, and, relating to Kramer, characteristic parts of the movie is the ten minute interlude near the middle where he simply shows the actual documentary footage from the concentration camps, which evidently in 1961 had never been seen by the general public before, at least in the United States. I appreciate the way that it was done. It is not thrust or flung out at the audience demanding that it take in and acknowledge at once all the pertinent facts of the case, and feel viscerally a certain response that the artist or historian thinks you ought to feel but has not adequately prepared you to feel. Kramer is very strong on this preparation, and did not break out the footage until a critical moment arrives in the trial, when its impact will have some weight behind it, and not immediately invoke a purely shocking or emotional response. The effect is more "Can you believe this happened?" rather than "You didn't know this thing I have shown you was going on, well, now you can't plead ignorance anymore, so what do you intend to do, or at least emote, about it? Also feel free to squirm under my moral superiority," which is how I often experience the presentation of atrocities or injustices in films and other public forums.

Burt Lancaster is one of the many big names in this. There was a time, especially in the early 60s, when you could not keep him out of a classic film. I think this is the fifth time I have seen him, with 3 being in the '61-'64 period (the other two being The Leopard and The Train). I didn't recognize him until the movie was practically over, so believable was he as a dignified German. I guess that means he did a good job. Marlene Dietrich was back again,and gave the picture something it wouldn't have had otherwise. Maximilian Schell won the Oscar--he is notable to me as Maria Schell's brother anyway. They were Austrian. Austrians, as actors, directors, composers, etc., I probably don't need to tell you, were prominent, and very able, at all levels of Hollywood in the middle of the last century. The Austrians who came of age in the years just before World War I were one of the more artistically accomplished cohorts in the history of the world. And now they are extinct.

I am falling asleep--but I must finish this post tonight.

Judy Garland was in this, at age 39. She is not terrible in it, as some have written, but they really could have gotten someone else to play the part--they didn't need Judy Garland for it. I also think they may have given her an Oscar for this, which was ridiculous. I feel similarly about Montgomery Clift's appearance to what I do about Judy Garland's. He's not giving you anything you would not have gotten from a relative unknown. Spencer Tracy is the star, which I had not realized beforehand. I won't say that he was miscast, but that his persona seems strange in this setting. He plays his usual upstanding adult middle American role here, fundamentally decent, incorruptible, adhering to common sense and measured, all of which is good and well, but we're trying Nazis here, very brilliant and in many cases intimidatingly accomplished ones. Were amiable provincial judges like Spencer Tracy really who we sent to deal with these guys?

For all this, the movie does work. I think it is because it doesn't just care that the Nazis killed millions of people and got (sort of) punished for it, but it cares about the way that they were able to do it, by perverting the laws and all of the other institutions of society that might have been able to oppose it. And yes, we all sort of know this, but we probably don't spend as much time thinking coherently about it as we should, and the point that Stanley Kramer would make is that if we have any part of a working brain, we are responsible, even if we consider ourselves to be powerless nobodies without proper credentials for critique, for the perversion of these institutions and bulwarks of civilization in our own society; and I actually still believe this to be true, which probably accounts for why I am unable to be happy about anything going on in contemporary life.

Odd Man Out (1947)

This is a good movie, but I am on the clock, so my review is going to be choppy, and brief.

Postwar Britain--set in Northern Ireland, but I assume it was filmed in one of the London studios. Directed by Carol Reed, in one of his warmups for The Third Man, which came out two years afterwards. That time, for me, has in general an atmosphere that I find strongly appealing, at least for the purpose of watching movies, but the atmosphere in this--the relentlessly dreary weather, the darkness, the cold, the dingy houses and apartments and pubs--is really what makes the film. The plot is improbable, but it does not strike me as particularly important. Politics also,surprisingly, don't seem important. The main character, who is played by James Mason, is an IRA type, and the viewer, as well as many of the minor characters whom he encounters in the film, are sympathetic to him, and the police are undoubtedly the villians, but I certainly did not feel that the movie contained any kind of blatant pro-IRA message, nor can I believe any suggestion of one would have been permitted in 1947, the censors in Britain at that time being even more severe than they were in America. The IRA aspect provides a subject and a framework for the director and his assistants to undertake an artistic exercise. Later in life, James Mason apparently said that this was favorite among the films he had been in. I wonder why, given that in most of the movie he doesn't say or do much, drifting in and out of consciousness due to having been shot in the arm and at his most vigorous dragging himself from one hiding spot to another, usually wordless. That is what he felt however.

I watched this on VHS, though the place I ordered it from sent me a burned DVD of the movie as well. I enjoyed viewing it on tape. I cannot remember why. It does fill up the whole screen, or more of it, than most DVDs do.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Mariano Rivera's Retirement, Eras in New York Sports History, Sandy Koufax and Pitch Counts: World Series Special Edition

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I wanted to make a few remarks on the recent retirement of Mariano Rivera. I have been planning to do this all season, not because he was an iconic and unusually beloved player whose departure undoubtedly marks the close of a significant era in New York City sports history, which various eras parallel those in the city's social history with surprising closeness, but because he was the last remaining active player in any of the three big professional team sports who was older than I am. I have not gotten around yet to watching the dramatic scene from his final game when he broke down in tears after facing his last batter, probably because I heard and read too much about it in the days after it happened from people with whom I don't feel any bond. Still, it is a milestone that my generation has now passed from the competitive professional sporting scene entirely. Even if Brett Favre wants to come back again, I don't think they will let him at this point. Rivera had become an exceptionally piquant player in recent years due to the circumstance that his mere presence on the field, and even around town in some instances, had become comforting and even uplifting to New York fans, many of whom of course are legitimately sophisticated people. When he made his first appearance in a game at the beginning of this season after having missed most of last year due to tearing up his knee, numerous of my 40-something New York area friends expressed a mild but palpable excitement and joy that is rarely felt by people our age. Even though he is a link to when we were younger, and the city, while already in transition to its present state, still had a different personality and feel about than it has now, this was not, I think, all about nostalgia and the lost Eden, for many of my contemporaries adapted well to the new world and the new New York--indeed, they may be said, by their agility in and embrace of these, to have grown up along with them and contributed in no insignificant way to their development. Still, while the responses of middle-aged fans to Rivera's last year were tributes to an ongoing sense of excellence and stability and sense of self that he projected, it is hard not to feel that an era is coming to an end, and not merely in baseball.

Eras in New York sports history track pretty squarely with the prevailing cultural and socio-economic zeitgeist. Obviously one could make the same argument with regard to Broadway shows, or restaurants, or toy stores, or anything else. Sports come at things from a somewhat different angle, and it is not always obvious how the era of sweatshops and teeming tenements and Tin Pan Alley connects with the career of Christy Mathewson, other than that the life trajectories of these disparate careers and phenomena coincide rather wonderfully.

1840s--Invention of baseball, or at least the first widespread evidence of its being a popular recreation. Working men would ferry from the city to Brooklyn and Hoboken, much of both of which cities at that time was still farmland.

I'm skipping ahead a few decades, as I don't have any sense of the New York sports scene from 1850-1880.

1883-1892--The Buck Ewing era. The early New York Giants had an outstanding team in this era, with multiple Hall of Famers, culminating in back-to-back pennants in 1888 & '89. The team relocated from Troy (N.Y.) to the original Polo Grounds in 1883. Ewing continued to receive votes in media polls for the greatest player of all time into the 1940s, after which presumably everyone who had any memory of him had passed on. This was the era when fighting, drinking, gambling, throwing bottles at the umpires, etc, reached its zenith, and a lady would no sooner go to a ballgame than she would to a cockfight. It sounds reminiscent of the 1970s.

1893-1899--The personality of the remainder of the sporting 1890s in New York is unclear to me. Baltimore and Boston had the most famous teams in this period (though Brooklyn had some good years). When I was a child, the 1890s were still (sort of) dimly remembered as "gay"--images still come to mind of mustachioed men in bowler hats riding unicycles and ladies in white fruffy dresses with matching parasols seated in the carriage of an early motorcar singing "In the Good Old Summer-Time" as they puttered under the elm-tree and picket fence-lined avenue--but in many ways it had a lot of similarities to our own time. Cheating was rampant, not merely in sports but throughout society, enormous fortunes were amassed even though there was a major economic depression in the middle of the decade, immigration was transforming the population, technological and economic forces were rendering millions obsolete and leaving them and their children seemingly behind forever. Yet because the upper middle and wealthy classes lived so charmingly in this period, or came to be seen as having done so, by the 1950s, 60s, 70s, this image of the decade had become the predominant one in the popular memory.

1900-1915--The Christy Mathewson/John McGraw era. The years when the Giants ruled New York--indeed, as Laughing Larry Doyle put it circa 1911, "It's great to be young and a Giant." They were a fascinating team. McGraw was famous for being a short-tempered Irish bully, but he loved the Bucknell -educated and gracious Mathewson like a son and among his players there were as many who could be said to be almost gentlemen, especially when compared with the era of the 1890s when he himself had played--Rube Marquard, whose immigrant parents had wanted him to be a doctor and despaired at his becoming a ballplayer, Chief Meyers, Fred Snodgrass, the eccentric Charles Victory Faust, a non-player who persuaded McGraw that he had had received a prophecy that the Giants would win the pennant if they put him on the team (they did). McGraw would last as the manager until 1932, and even enjoy a run of success with four straight pennants and 2 more championships from 1921-24, but by that time he was a decided second banana in town.

1916-1919--interregnum--like Western civilization, the original Giant dynasty suddenly fell apart in August of 1914. McGraw did manage to lead a fairly nondescript team to a pennant in 1917, where they lost the World Series, but overall this was a dark few years of baseball history, plagued by gambling and ferocious battles over money, as well as the last years of the 'dead-ball' era, which like the last years of any era appears in retrospect to have been tired and waiting for the next big development to come along, even though at the time no one had any sense of this happening.

1920-1934--Babe Ruth era. The Babe was obviously one of the main men of the roaring 20s in any field. His age overlaps into the first half of the Depression, though his departure does coincide more or less with the ascendance of Roosevelt and the New Deal and the more sober mayorality of Laguardia--almost as if nobody could fully realize until the Babe faded that the good old days were really gone and politics and the temperament of the city could move on accordingly

1933-1937--New Deal Interlude, Gehrig/Hubbell/Ott micro-era. Giants briefly resurgent with 3 pennants and 1 championship, Yankees in transition '33-'35.

1936-1951--DiMaggio era, core from 1937-47, covering the World's Fair, consolidation of New Deal. World War II and the flush of the immediate aftermath before the big postwar developments (television/suburbanization) roared into full throttle

1947-1955--Another overlapping period--Jackie Robinson/Boys of Summer/Young Willie Mays/Yogi Berra era. Last notable thrusts, ever diminishing through this crucial period, of the old New York of the 1900-45 period.

1951-1968--Mickey Mantle era, core from 1956-64. Departure of baseball Dodgers & Giants to west coast in 1958 taken by many at time as symbolic of cultural shift to California. Also features the glamorous New York Giant football team in that era, with Frank Gifford, Rosey Grier, Sam Huff, Kyle Rote, Y.A. Tittle, among the first N.F.L. players to achieve widespread crossover fame. After long runs of success the Giants abruptly collapsed in '64 and the Yankees in '65, with neither team to re-emerge as a force for more than a decade. In that same year the city was struck by the famous blackout and the ill-fated Lindsay was elected mayor.

1967-1973--Joe Namath/Tom Seaver/Willis Reed era. The city descends into its infamous epoch of crime, filth & bankruptcy, though in these years it retains a certain charm in sports/movies/popular culture anyway. By the time the Mets drop the World Series in October of '73 even this charm is largely played out.

1974-1975--The Death Wish era.

1976-1981--Bronx Zoo Era. Crime and filth firmly entrenched, believed at time to be permanent and unresolvable. Lots of decadence--disco, cocaine, rampant sex to the extent of, in many cases, physical debilitation and even death. To my unending surprise this era has in recent years become somewhat celebrated (by those in the know) as a great one in the annals of the city, with an intellectual ferment and sexual energy and flavor to daily life that today's sanitized corporate city is lacking. I think once the more self-aggrandizing baby boomer and stridently anti-social generation x-types who are pushing this narrative pass on, it will be difficult for most people to honestly feel this to be the case. This is the city I encountered on my first visit as an 8 year old in 1978, already well immersed from books and so in an image of the city that dated from the pre-1960 period at least. It was still exciting to be there, but my impression was that it was obviously pretty crummy compared to what it used to be and that I had missed the beautiful time.

1982-1990--The Mattingly/Gooden/Mets/Bill Parcells/Chris Mullin era. I'm not sure what the defining characteristic of this period was. Old school rap music? When I see a movie made during these years I think, oh yes, that's New York the way I usually think of it as being, even now.

1991-1994--Another transition period. Patrick Ewing era?

1995-2013--Rivera/Jeter, et al era--coincides with Giuliani/Bloomberg mayorships, crime decline, techno-city and new gilded age. Whatever has been lost in this new age, whenever I go there now I can never get over how clean it is. It seemed impossible in the 1970s and 80s.

My computer is running out of juice, or something, and I want to finish off this post, but as I have been watching the baseball playoffs, and seeing the Detroit Tigers lose several games because they had to take out their star pitcher in the 7th inning due to his pitch count getting to 110, I was reminded of how much I hate pitch counts. I had seen that somebody had put up a link to the full telecast of Game 7 of the 1965 World Series, when Sandy Koufax threw a three hit shutout on two days rest in a 2-0 victory. I have long been curious about what pitch counts were like in the 60s and beyond, when pitchers threw way more innings and complete games than they do today (Koufax in '65 for example pitched 323 and 27 in these categories in the regular series, before making three starts and throwing 2 more shutouts in the World Series). I thought it possible that pitchers might have been able to breeze through games in 110 pitches or less, seeing as lineups in the 60s were loaded with 150-pound middle infielders who hit  .215 with no power, overweight guys with glasses who hit .230 and popped a home run once a week or so, pitchers still batted in both leagues, and consciously trying to build up the opposing pitcher's pitch count to get him out of the game was not employed as a particular strategy, because the pitcher wouldn't be taken out of the game unless he was getting hit harder than his relief would likely be. In short, I decided to track Koufax's pitch count for Game 7. To my surprise it was pretty high, given that he only gave up three hits and three walks and the Twins never came really close to scoring. He threw 132 pitches (on two days rest, remember), 86 for strikes, for the record. He threw 26 in the first inning alone, when he walked two hitters, but after that he was between 10 and 19 for every other inning. Breaking it down further, from innings 1-3 he threw 50 pitches, 39 in innings 4-6, and 43 in innings 7-9. His 100th pitch came with two outs in the 7th. At the end of seven innings he had thrown 103 pitches, at the end of eight 116. There was someone warming in the bullpen in the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 8th innings (shown after pitch 109), which surprised me, though it indicates that there was some slight concern about Koufax's stamina, and manager Alston made a visit to the mound in the fifth. Koufax gave up a single on pitch 124, with one out in the 9th in a 2-0 game. Even in the (doubtful, near miraculous) event that a starter would still be in at that point in today's baseball, it is impossible to imagine a manager daring to leave him in the game at that point, whoever he was. There were also three check swings that were called balls where the batter so blatantly went around that I was embarrassed for the umpires. These were all on what would have been third strikes, and probably added 5-7 pitches to Koufax's total. The Twins sent up a left-handed pinch hitter to face Sandy Koufax trailing 2-0 in the 8th inning of Game 7 of the World Series. I think those are all the notes I took on the game.

Maybe I will do this on some other historic games. I am curious about it. However, it just demonstrates how this insidious number of the pitch count has totally taken over the way people like me experience baseball games. The whole drama and mental focus of the middle innings now is how many outs can the starter get through before he hits his number and has to leave the game. There is no chance of his having to gut out a nine inning--let along extra-inning victory, and will likely be afforded the opportunity to finish nine innings once or twice a year, and then only if he encounters no trouble--literally nothing goes even slightly wrong--over the last two innings. I dislike this. However, I have to end the post now or it could be another week before I finish it...