Friday, March 28, 2014

Lennon Sisters Magazine Covers

auteur mouths war lovers again son squier

I do take note of the important events of the day, to an extent. I find it hard to get very overheated about them, when so many other people have already taken it upon themselves to be so.

This question answers itself.

Ukraine-- it is and has been since its independence an unusually weak and unstable state, large, almost unbelievably poor, its population in free fall; in short, it seems to have very little going for it. I did think, for a fleeting moment or two, in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union broke up that Ukraine and Belarus especially becoming and remaining independent countries for any substantial length of time seemed odd. As a child I had little sense of Ukrainians having a national identity separate from Russians, because as in the case of Serbs and Croatians, or Czechs and Slovaks, I don't think the differences were emphasized as being particularly important in those days, if the people I grew up around were even aware of them.

In late 1966 and early 1967, the theme of the Lennon sisters having a lot to teach President Johnson's daughters about romance achieved popularity in this type of media.

I am now aware that Ukraine has had, going back to the 1800s at least, active nationalist leaders and inclinations, though the effectiveness of these does not seem to have ever been very strong. That is to say, there has never been much of a sense afoot in the world that the Ukrainians were a coming people. They certainly do not give that impression now. My whole point is, that Ukraine strikes me as an unusually vulnerable state to begin with (though for that matter, so does Russia, at least as regards its sparsely populated far eastern territories bordering China).

I probably did give some passing thought, while watching The Battleship Potemkin or reading some reference to Chekhov's dacha in Yalta, that the Crimea, and most of the Black Sea coast, for that matter, not being part of Russia any longer and that nation's acceding to this seemed odd, but I probably assumed that the two countries must have a relation similar to that of the United States and Canada, in which I tend to assume that Canadian ports and water are essentially 'open' to American commerce and military needs, especially in the event of emergency. Perhaps this is not the case either, and I can look forward to some abuse from offended Canadians, but I note my idea as an instance of how the uninformed mind tends to fill in the blanks of its knowledge. I am a little surprised that our intelligence agencies and governmental leaders do not appear as if they had a plan of response in place in anticipation of Russia moving into the Crimea or other parts of Ukraine, which surely must have seemed a possibility or even a likelihood by experts in these matters. Of course I am sure there must have been something of the kind; our reactions to most of these international crises in the last twenty years do unfold as though we had never made any contingency for them however.

The supposed excessive fertility of the Lennon sisters was an endless object of fascination for television magazines in the 1960s, an era in which I thought the average family consisted of 3-4 children across the population. While Peggy did have 6 children, I am pretty sure the other three only had around five more between them, which does not seem extreme. I guess one or another, and sometimes two, of the sisters were pregnant continually for a few years there, and it was kind of part of their personae, so the impression stuck.

Lots of celebrities in the 1950s and 60s had a fairly large number of children (though normal for the time). Elizabeth Taylor for example I believe had four children, though no one ever thinks of her as especially fertile or maternal, for that matter.

I make note of the lack of contingency for the Ukraine situation because I note that a lot of important people in America seem rather angry about the development, saying that it affects business and trade, etc, and is basically irresponsible. So I am surprised that they don't have a devastating plan of some kind that they can coldly implement and send a forceful message to Putin to control himself going forward. But of course they probably do.

I would actually be interested to know the contents of this discussion.

Why the fascination with plane crashes? Does it have to do with the fact that upper middle class and
even higher people fly a great deal as passengers, and that that period when the plane is off the ground is one of the few times in their lives when they cannot feel that they are the absolute masters of their situations and that this in itself causes them anxiety. Or is the idea to continue to cultivate the seeds of fear in the duller middle orders, as has been done so expertly in the cases of school and workplace shootings, and compel them to submit to ever increasing security measures and so forth.

Who is the sexiest? We all know that I love Dianne, but objectively, the sexiest, or the one who most had it in her to be an animal in bed in general, was probably Kathy. As far as who was most likely to be an animal in bed with me, that is a different story, and the most likely answer is no one, though if I had to pick, I would say Janet. But that's only because I like her the least of the four (though still enough) and that seems to inspire excitement in women. The smartest? Dianne fer sherr, though Kathy may be the shrewdest in terms of cold business sense. Peggy is undeniably the sweetest, and I think she was also quite smart. She looks so to me, and I consider myself to be a good judge in this matter, at least in cases where it is not an absolutely dominant or obvious feature (I find these types of women the most lovable, when I can find them). Her husbands, a musician and a doctor, were presumably intelligent, which is in most instances a good advertisement for being so oneself.

I want to make a few comments on Roger Angell's story in the New Yorker about being 93.

I was taken aback in this story by how much emphasis there was on the desire for sex and trolling for romantic partners even among the extremely aged. I always thought, maybe even hoped, that if I should make it to that age that I would not be oppressed by those kinds of thoughts anymore. They seem increasingly ridiculous now, at age forty-four. That I should still be grasping at them deep into old age, when they can only ever more and more come to nothing, seems almost unbearable.

Roger Angell was my age in 1965. There are not many people left who were my age now before I was born.

Yes, cut it out with the babies already.

Roger Angell is famous for his baseball writing. I have of course read some of it over the years, and thought it was generally good, in a New Yorkerish way certainly, but the pieces usually captured something about the way baseball connected to and fit in with other aspects of life. This is a staple of New York and New England-based baseball writing that is often ridiculed by less self-consciously cerebral and more jockish types, but the genre developed for a reason, because one has the sensation in New York City and most of the better places in New England that there are a lot of interesting things going on, of which flow baseball, and the baseball season, are a part, at times a bigger part than others, but never in the kind of relative mental isolation in which it seems possible for even sensitive writer types to experience sports seasons in other places. I remember in the famous book Moneyball a passage about organized baseball's acceptance and even celebration of these pastoral, elegiac chroniclers of the sport, who posed no threat to its powers, which has come in the last generation with the statistical revolution spearheaded by Bill James (a writer for whom I actually have a great deal of esteem) and the more recent crop of completely hard-headed and rather pitiless analysts of data, of which Nate Silver, who has been in the news recently, is representative. I don't really like these new books very much either, and I will try to explain why, aside from the complaint that I must be too stupid to understand the math and the objective realities that they reveal, because I think at times there really is more to the matter than that, or at least I certainly hope there is.

Now we're talking. I will take odds that none of the Lennon sisters ever asked their husbands the question this magazine claims they asked them every night, however.

Yes, so the problem with the Nate Silver school of baseball writers even leaving them in the realm of pure statistical analysis is a tendency to 1) overstate their case, both in its conclusions and its ultimate importance, which is a problem across the contemporary intellectual spectrum; 2) write as if the primary, maybe even the only interest in baseball is in demonstrating one is smarter than everyone else at interpreting statistics. The atmosphere of these books is depressingly airless. This obviously speaks to the nature of elite education nowadays, that data somehow speaks for itself, and is not merely the support of thought, but in most instances serves as thought...

I am sure I will post on this again, if more thoughts on this subject occur to me. I am out of time for the week and I still have no computer at home. Maybe this weekend I will get one.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Not About Catholics and the Global Economy, Nor My Masculinity

As you can see I am not writing much anymore. I am hoping to get a new computer soon, that will 1) not be slow, and 2) not crash every ten minutes. Both of these situations cause me to write in a more anxious mood than I would like. So perhaps this will happen and I will write more often soon.

The real problem of course is that I don't have much to say about anything anymore.

A few days ago I was going to do a post on "Catholics" (meaning people, whether religious or not, who grew up in households and communities where a certain mindset and approach to the world characteristic of that where Catholicism was the dominant cultural influence) and the global economy, my theory being that people who grew up in these kinds of communities did not have the understanding of and attitude towards money that one really needs to have to thrive in the current world. I was going to use as illustration the entire French and Italian nations, which, at least according to news reports, appear to be suffering in various degrees collective nervous breakdowns at the necessity of having to compete for their livelihoods twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week with people from foreign cultures, most of them vulgar or otherwise unbearable. But this article would have seemed to be another negative lamentation from me about a world I cannot thrive in, about a group I am identifying with which would not allow that I ever had anything to do with them, and without persuasive references or numbers. So I shelved that and tried to think of something positive and interesting to write.

I couldn't do this.

I had to listen the other day to a woman who was not very interesting go on at some length about the health benefits of eating a vegan diet. I am not especially unhealthy, I don't really care about animals, and cutting into a steak or a piece of a pork chop every couple of days are among the few real pleasures I am consistently able to enjoy in my current life now that my enthusiasm and capacity for reading and learning seem to have dried up completely, but I listened politely and didn't say this, though I probably should have. I said something rather stupid about having a lot of boys and that I considered boys especially to need protein to develop physically in a way that I would could consider desirable and so on--I was only half alert to the subject, and my thoughts reverted vaguely to books I had read about people who were starving in World War II and that sort of thing who were desperate to find any kind of live animal at all (including, in some cases, humans) that by eating it they might have a temporary sensation/restoration of strength and energy. The response to this of course was "So where's all the masculinity then?" referring to me. I walked into that, I admit. I forget that that is the image I probably project to most people. I feel masculine enough most of the time, but of course I am not pressed very hard most days. I know in the back of my mind that something bad, some kind of outright humiliation or degradation might happen someday, or perhaps I will really be placed in some kind of moral dilemma that I will be unable to avoid where it will be inconvenient or fatal for me to do what I will sense to be the right action, though my judgement of what the right action will be almost wholly determined by my attitude as regards the justness and goodness of the individual parties pressing the case on me. This almost certainly means my conscience will think it proper that I aid and defend the put upon, less powerful side in the dispute.

People keep waiting for the social revolution to start, in opposition to the general degradation of economic and civil life that has overcome the country in the last ten to twelve years. I think something along these lines will happen within this decade; at the moment I sense that no one really wants to be in that first big group (or first few groups) that gets mown down by the swat team, even if they sense that such a disaster might be necessary to restore some sense of equilibrium in society. Everybody wants to be around to enjoy the good times, and possibly have a hand in dictating the parameters of the new society that they anticipate coming into being once the threats of poverty, personal obsolescence, sinister surveillance, Christian theocracy, socialism, etc, have been overcome. They are anticipating perhaps that some other angry group unrelated to them will strike the first blow to set things in motion--a band of armed Tea Partiers storming an IRS office, or some fanatical Christians or gay rights activists having a pitched battle with firearms in a major city somewhere--and get involved once everyone is society is more or less aware that it's 'on'. People today are too self aware to be content to give up their lives in a fruitless massacre that resulted in nothing. They will at least need to feel  they are in a real struggle, with dire consequences for losing.

I was also going to predict in my post on Catholics and the global economy that at least one major western European country--France seems to be the most obvious candidate, with Italy a close second--will reject the modern economy more aggressively than it has done already and try to return to its more "traditional" (as in circa 1945-1975) national life. The economists more or less claim that this is impossible, and it is impossible in the sense of growing the economy, attracting and retaining top human talent, and so on. Countries sometimes come to a point where they no longer care very much about this, for a time anyway. I don't expect this to be permanent, but I could see a period of a generation or so where it is the case.

With twenty-one pages to go in The Woman in the Dunes, I have realized that the book is essentially a metaphor about marriage, and the general resignation of men to their fate as they age in their 30s  and beyond. The plot of the book concerns a man, who is around 32, who goes to a beach for the weekend in order to collect insect samples who is unwittingly captured and placed in a hole in the sand which contains a house and a woman from which, he eventually discovers, escape is impossible. It should be said that he does develop a certain fondness for the woman and the rather pointless routine of their lives, which involves shoveling away enough sand each day to keep it from collapsing the house, but it is pretty depressing.

That's enough for today. I hope that new computer is coming soon. Putting up a blog post has begun to border on a minor ordeal. All I want to do is be able to write just a little. I ask for nothing compared to what I used to ask for, and the fates respond by giving me ever less. I must have terrible equipment. I had a much easier time getting on the internet and getting anything accomplished ten years ago.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Don't Call It a Comeback

As often happens around this time of year, I had a period of a couple of weeks where I could not get any kind of essay going. One day I was going to take up the subject of the particular types of monsters that are currently ascendant in our society and how there are things about them, in spite of their unopposable greatness and superiority, that still really are troubling, and another day I scribbled down an idea that I cannot remember or make out what it was now (it looks like "long camp" or "one camp" which signifies nothing to me). Then I was driving and in Florida for about ten days, and when I tried to log onto the site it would not let me because I was in an unusual location--evidently now you have to check in with Google when go on vacation, at least if you don't bring your own computer with you. And then while I was away a frozen pipe burst in the office requiring that room to be cleaned out. The carefully typed out manuscripts of my old attempts at writing that had been moldering there for years bundled in special gold paper clips, were finally destroyed at least.  I thought maybe I would even be permanently blocked from logging onto this site but now that I am home it is letting me in again.

It is still not my intention that the site become exclusively a record of movies I have watched. I do want to keep that record however and I have said before this is a convenient place to keep it.

That said, we are back to the 1930s now, which means I am pretty much going to like everything no matter what it is. I was not particularly amped beforehand to see any of these four I am reviewing today, yet I thought there were fine things about all of them.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

This is a real classic, for what it is--and that seems to me nothing inconsiderable--it is perfect in just about every way. I do not think it would be possible to make a movie (or write a book, or a song) like this, in this kind of spirit, now even if one wanted to, which in spite of all the powerful arguments in favor of progressivism in the culture due to technology and the increasing dominance of fact and information in every facet of human endeavor, seems to me to be a real shame.

I suppose I should try to explain why I would say this. The movie pleases a part of the brain which is not usually stimulated in such a fashion in modern life. To begin with, it has one of the best casts of all time. Having been raised in the modern era, the presence of particular stars or actors rarely has struck me as being all that important to the interest of the movie, even when they are good (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman was one exception to this that I can think of offhand). But it is unusual that I see a performance and feel that this one actor has made the role or the part really special. Claude Rains (who plays the wicked Prince John here) almost always has this effect, and by himself is usually enough to make any movie he is in a matter of cinematic interest. Basil Rathbone is also an oddly compelling actor to watch perform. This is my first time seeing Errol Flynn, who plays  Robin Hood. He holds his own among this highly distinguished company, but my overall impression is still somewhat undefined. He was a major star at this time, though today his most characteristic movies (Captain Blood, et al) do not seem to me to be well-known today. The adjective most commonly used to describe his film persona is 'swashbuckling'. Swashbuckling carries with it an implication of roguish (but adult) fun, and the successful combating with people who on paper at least are as strong as one's self, all without apparent stress or worry regarding the outcome on the part of the swashbuckler. Olivia de Havilland, another of my favorite stars of this time, is one hand as Maid Marion. She is not required to do a lot other than look good (in a 1930s idea of 12th century dress), be cold to Guy of Gisborne, and provide encouragement and a reward to Robin Hood for continuous heroic deeds, but as almost the only female character in the movie, she does this well enough. (As an aside, Olivia de Havilland is still alive, aged 97. She was 22 when Robin Hood came out).

A second strength of this is that it has a great uncomplicated understanding of what is most broadly appealing in the source material and it goes with that above any other consideration, such that nearly every scene is its own satisfaction and hits the viewer's romantic susceptibility head on. The story flows almost effortlessly from the romantic setting of the forest to the early dramatic peaks of the confrontation in the castle and the archery tournament and back and forth all the way to the anticipated climax. But getting to the end or anywhere in the future is less the point in this movie than almost anything I have ever seen.

While today this would be considered a children's project, and any attempt at an adult interpretation would have to be sexed up considerably, this 1938 version seems to be directed at an amorphous general filmgoer who is composed of childlike and adult elements at the same time. Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone approach the material in the full adult personas of Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone. They aren't hamming it up for the kids or mailing it in and sneering at the earnest middlebrow American public. Even though their parts are funny and over the top and are to a certain extent meant to be, they took the execution of them most seriously.

This came with many bonus features, most of which I enjoyed, though this entailed spending a week or more considering this one movie. There was the regular commentary, which was by a film scholar named Rudy Behlmer, who had a congenial manner of talking and some sense of humor, which I liked, there was an hour long documentary on the history of technicolor which I found enjoyable (Robin Hood was not the first major technicolor movie--it was around the ninth or tenth--but it may have been the first really memorable one), there were some shorts from the 1940s, including one of Errol Flynn taking a yacht trip along the coast of Mexico and Jamaica (by way of the Panama Canal, though filming was forbidden there) with his scientist father, one of his many wives, and numerous of his colorful friends, including the archery expert who had consulted on Robin Hood. There was a (too brief) look at some scenes from the 1922 silent version of Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks, which looks like a pretty good, as well as hilarious, movie in its own right. There was a blooper reel of 1938 Warner Brothers productions that was an staple at the studio's annual employee banquet. In short, quite a lot of good stuff of the sort that I have not seen before.

Apparently in the scenes where people are shot in the chest with arrows they really were shot with arrows. Of course they had on thick padding underneath, cork and other types of reinforcement, though it still seems rather dangerous to me (what if the archer was off a couple of feet and got you in the eye?) It was noted that the extras who took these arrow shots got paid an extra $50.

There were two directors credited on the film, William Keighley and Michael Curtiz, the latter of whom directed a number of famous movies, including Casablanca.

Captains Courageous (1937)

Another movie that was much more emotionally engaging than I had anticipated, and also featured a cast full of big names. Spencer Tracy appears yet again, though in a much younger incarnation than we have seen him yet, and is, as film performances go, more or less spectacular. I suspect this is the best role of his increasingly impressive career. Old Hollywood legend Lionel Barrymore is in the house as the captain of the fishing boat. Though by today's standards his management style is a series of negligence and wrongful death lawsuits waiting to be filed, we are supposed, I think, to recognize him as a serious and noble man at the end of the movie. Freddie Bartholomew, who played the kid, is genuinely obnoxious in the beginning but becomes quite affecting by the end. Mickey Rooney is also in it, though I don't think his presence adds much. But then I've never been able to like that guy.

This was directed by Victor Fleming, who is most famous for directing both The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind in 1939. He was obviously an able director of studio films.

The home base of the fisherman in this movie is Gloucester, Massachusetts, another place pretty close to where I live (probably 90 minutes) which I am reminded I have never been to. I have put on my list for the upcoming spring and summer. Whatever else there is to do, we can check out the famous fisherman monument (which is in the movie) and probably there are some atmospheric places to get seafood, even if the fishing industry is effectively dead there compared to what it had been well into my lifetime. I suspect there must be a few old ship captain's houses around, too. Those kinds of kinds of towns usually have enough interest to fill a day.

The story is from a Rudyard Kipling book. I believe Kipling wrote it during the time when he was living in Brattleboro. I also believe it is his only book that has an American setting. I have not read it, though it is on at least one of my lists, so I probably will someday.

The movie romanticizes and extols the humble life devoted to hard work and simple, honest pleasures, and contrasts it with the kinds of grotesque and empty excesses of a life too much cushioned by wealth. These fishermen are rough characters, sure, but they are at bottom good men who instinctively as it were knew exactly what the boy needed to flesh out his character. I was quite taken aback at the end when the fisherman donned ties and jackets upon arriving back on land and also by the highly civilized and almost genteel  personality of the captain's household. The modern day New England fishermen don't really seem to clean up like this, not that I know that many.

Follow the Fleet (1936)

Another 30s movie carried by the presence of brilliant superstars, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in this case. It is probably my least favorite of this set; however it has some pretty good songs in it and it seems, compared to other 30s musicals I have seen, to be more full and more like a real movie all around. That is to say that the plot, such as it is, tries to resemble the form of a plot,  and develop an identifiable structural framework. The plausibility of Fred Astaire's having joined the navy to get over the breakup of his partnership/nightclub act with Ginger, of his running dancing classes on board a battleship, and of his organizing and starring in a civilian stage show during his shore leave to pay for the restoration of the sailing sloop that had belonged to the father of Ginger and her sisters, are not important.

The decline of the song and dance man (and woman) as a major component of the movie and television entertainment scene over the last 40-50 years is really one of the more astounding developments in the history of these media.

The woman in the photo above is Harriet Hilliard, who played Ginger Roger's sister. She would become best known for marrying Ozzie Nelson, fathering Ricky, and playing herself on the iconic 1950s TV show starring the family.

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)

Charles Laughton is the star of this, and of course we know all about him (as an actor). He apparently had the kind of sex life, heavy on the gay side and full of breathtakingly casual and borderline respectable encounters, that shocks the living daylights out of people like me who have never touched another person's body in any kind of risky or illicit or even mildly socially disapproved manner. That is to say, I am aware that he had this kind of side to him, and was not the distinguished and respectable European gentleman he often portrays in films 24 hours a day. It is important that I note this because this sensual and artistic life with its seemingly (at the highest levels) carefree and casual creativity and wit and fun is so foreign to me that I forget that it is a serious world that is very different from that known to me. Anyway, in these four movies we have definitely seen five of the better movie actors/performances of all time (Rains, Rathbone, Tracy, Astaire, and Laughton), five big names who may or may not be at that level in other films (Flynn, de Havilland, Barrymore, Rogers, Melvyn Douglas), besides much excellent work by the supporting players.

Ruggles of Red Gap is based on a novel by Harry Leon Wilson, which I had not known beforehand. I had actually read one of Harry Leon Wilson's books, Merton of the Movies, probably 20 years ago, and I have always thought it one of those good-natured, cleverly written books that is undervalued. Besides the similarity of the alliterative title, of which the author was apparently fond, Ruggles and Merton are similar kinds of stories. In both instances a young, or at least youngish, man migrates to the American west in the early 20th century--Merton to Hollywood to try to break into the movies, Ruggles as an English butler whose lord loses him in a poker game in Paris to the uncouth scion of a mining operation (who looks and dresses rather like Mark Twain) based in Red Gap, Washington. Some fish out of water hilarity ensues as the greenhorn adapts to his new surroundings, but eventually both Merton and Ruggles find their level, embrace the freedom of men in command of their own destiny that early 20th-century America, and especially the western parts of it, offers, and get the girl (even though we know enough now to suppose that Charles Laughton probably doesn't want the girl). There is some corn in it--the scene where Ruggles recites the Gettysburg Address to a teary-eyed audience in the saloon is a bit much even for me--but on the whole it is a satisfying, feel good kind of picture. It's also not available on Netflix, so I sprang for a $1.79 VHS copy.

My wife observed during one of the early scenes in Paris where two Americans spot each other in the road in front of a cafe and being whooping and hollering and snorting like cows and riding on each others' backs, to the extreme horror of the cafe patrons, that "unfortunately only the Australians act like this now."