Books postsThursday July 14, 2016
The Bravery of the Staircase
Lillian Hellman stood up to HUAC better than most, and risked a lot (and lost a lot) in doing so. But in her 1976 memoir “Scoundrel Time” she felt she didn't risk/do enough. This is what she wished she'd said to HUAC committee members:
There is no Communist menace in this country and you know it. You have made cowards into liars, an ugly business, and you made me write a letter in which I acknowledged your power. I should have gone into your Committee room, given my name and address, and walked out.
Many people have said they liked what I did, but I don't much, and if I hadn't worried about rats in jail, and such. ... Ah, the bravery you tell yourself was possible when it's all over, the bravery of the staircase.
Lillian Hellman Sells the Farm
Recently read Lillian Hellman's 1976 memoir, “Scoundrel Time,” about her days being blacklisted and testifying before HUAC as an unfriendly witness. It's good but apparently not good enough to get its own Wikipedia page.
Blacklisted, and with her lover, Dashiell Hammett, also blacklisted, Hellman must sell her farm and move on:
I am angry that corrupt and unjust men made me sell the only place that was ever right for me, but that doesn't have much to do with anything anymore, because there have been other places and they do fine. If I had stayed on the farm I would have grown old faster in its service. There are not many places or periods or scenes that you can think back upon with no rip in the pleasure. The people who worked for us must feel the same way, because each Christmas we still send each other gifts, but we do not meet because all of us fear, I think, the sad talk of a good past. Benson, my farmer, is dead, but his wife lived to raise a good son, and whenever I talk to her I remember the picture of her fat, cheerful little boy sitting on the terrace steps with Hammett, a bitter ex-Catholic, who was taking the boy through his catechism and explaining with sympathy the meaning of the ceremony.
A moment of grace in a graceless time.
René Clair on Chaplin, Twice
Here are two excerpts from the book “Film Crazy: Interviews with Hollywood Legends” by Patrick McGilligan. Both quote French filmmaker René Clair, both are about Charlie Chaplin.
In the first, McGilligan asks Clair, in the mid-1970s, if films affect him, or audiences in general, the way they did when they first premiered:
No, never. Even among the great masters ... Chaplin, for example ... I'm old enough to have seen “The Gold Rush” at its premiere in Paris ... well, people were literally dying of laughter. I know, that, for myself, I couldn't look at the screen. I was sick with laughter! Since then, thirty or so years later, I have seen a very good reissue of “The Gold Rush,” and people were again laughing but it was not the same. Do you see? It was not the same.
Not sure about that “literally dying of laughter.” Is Clair saying “The Gold Rush” killed people? But the rest is interesting. Question: Do some films improve with age?
The other quote is about the similarities between Clair's “A Nous la Liberté” (1931) and Chaplin's “Modern Times” (1936):
If you could see the two films at the same time, at one sitting, well, you would be struck by the comparison. And the truth is that, of course, Chaplin never admitted it. The company for which I made “À Nous la Liberté” sued United Artists, which had made “Modern Times,” for plagiarism. And, of course, I was asked to take part in the suit and I always refused. I said I know that Chaplin has seen “À Nous la Liberté.” It is enough to look at his film.
I seem to recall this thought when I first saw “A Nous...” a few years back: Had Chaplin seen it? Now I need to see it again.
Leaving Your Brad Pitt-ness Unprotected
“One of the true surprises for me during the making of Fight Club was Brad Pitt. He never showed any evidence of an actor who was out there trying to protect his 'Brad Pitt–ness.' Usually when this happens to a young actor, the first instinct is hang on and play it safe. He doesn't want to fuck things up. And for sure, his manager, agent, and lawyer don't want to fuck things up. An awful lot of money is at stake. The result is that actors tend to repeat the same performances and the same kind of roles that created the most success. Without a shred of false vanity or the use of old tricks to win over an audience, Pitt proved to be a formidable actor of enormous talent. Can anyone imagine, thirty years ago, Robert Redford or Warren Beatty shaving his head or working without caps on his teeth or exposing himself so raw and ruthless as Brad had done and just let the chips fall?”
-- Producer Art Linson in his book, “What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line.” His take on how stunned the execs were when they screened “Fight Club” is great, but not as great as the battle over Alec Baldwin's beard.
As for Pitt, agreed. Cf., this piece from 2005.
In the Future, We Will Know Nothing as Well as We Know Every Action on a Baseball Diamond
From The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller:
Lead length [by a baserunner contemplating stealing] is one of many new measurements made possible by Statcast, a system installed in every major league park for the first time in 2015. Statcast combines a Doppler radar array that takes two thousand readings per second with a network of high-definition cameras that capture images thirty times per second, producing a three-dimensional record of every action on the field: every player's position at every instant, as well as the speed, spin, and trajectory of every thrown and batted ball.
The book is about two stats heads (the authors) who run a semipro baseball team in Northern California for a season, and try to remake it according to SABERmetrician logic. It's about where they're right, and wrong, and what happens when statistical probabilities collide with reality. Well-written by both, who alternate chapters, although I did keep losing track of which player was which.
I'm a baseball fan, but the above makes me wonder whether we're spending too much time on the national pastime. If we're going for a three-dimensional record of every action on a particular field, the floor of Congress might be a better place to start.