Books postsWednesday July 13, 2016
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 “Ŕ 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 “Ŕ 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.
The Banality of Goodness: 'Beautiful Souls' by Eyal Press
I came to Eyal Press' “Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times” not because of its title (although the subtitle helps) but because I'd read the author's recent New Yorker piece on corruption in the Dade Correctional Institution in Florida: guards torturing prisoners in the mental-health ward and intimidating the psychiatric workers whose job it is to help the prisoners—in some cases, simply by removing themselves from the premises, leaving the worker unprotected.
It's a harrowing piece, and the book, per its subtitle, is part of the same theme. In it, Press examines four people who resisted unethical/immoral times:
- Paul Grüninger, a Swiss police commander who backdated visas allowing Jewish refugees fleeing the 1938 Anschluss with Nazi Germany to stay in Switzerland, which had recently passed laws against their entry.
- Aleksander Jevtić, a Bosnian Serb, who saved dozens of Croats in a detention facility in 1991 simply by pretending they were Serbs.
- Avner Wishnitzer, a member of Sayeret Matkal, an elite unit of the Israeli Defense Forces, who became a refusenik: officially declaring his opposition to serving in the occupied Palestinian territories.
- Leyla Wydler, a financial advisor, who suspected and blew the whistle on her company, Stanford Group, for engaging in a Ponzi scheme in the early 2000s.
What connects them? How did they do what few could? Were they extraordinarily courageous? Iconoclasts? Natural rebels? Press thinks the opposite:
In every society, there are rebels and iconoclasts who don't share the moral code to which most of their fellow citizens subscribe—who delight in thumbing their noses at whatever authority figure will pay them mind. The resisters featured in these pages are not among them. Their problem was not that they airily dismissed the values and ideals of the societies they lived in or the organizations they belonged to, but that they regarded them as inviolable.
So Grüninger believed in Switzerland as a place that welcomed refugees, Wishnitzer believed in the IDF as “the most moral army in the world,” Wydler believed in the U.S. financial system as an honest industry that looked out for its clients. They were true believers. If Eichmann represented the banality of evil, these courageous people, in a sense, represent the banality of goodness.
Press doesn't let us off the hook:
It's easy enough to judge soldiers at Abu Ghraib or bystanders during World War II who failed to find their courage when unconscionable things were happening before their eyes. It's a lot harder to acknowledge or even realize how often we avoid making uncomfortable choices in the course of our daily lives by attributing the small injustices that momentarily grate at our consciences to the system, or the circumstances, or our superiors. Or how rarely we bother to ask what role our own passivity and acquiescence may play in enabling unconscionable things to be done in our name.
I'm surprised Wydler's story hasn't been made into a movie; I suspect it might. Grüninger's has. In 1938, he lost his job, his reputation; his daughter had to drop out of college to support the family, and even she had trouble finding work because of what her father had done: his inconceivable betrayal of Switzerland. And his ostracism didn't end when the war ended; it continued into the 1980s. Then, finally, redemption. In the '90s, his story was made into a documentary, “Gruningers Fall,” and it's now a Swiss-Austrian feature-length film, which, from the trailer, looks slightly sentimentalized. I would've preferred something like Press' cool, matter-of-fact tone.