Sunday February 11, 2024
The Great Astonishments
“In the public mind and in the consciousness of many of its students the motion picture seems a magic thing, born yesterday and of full growth this morning. But magic and miracles always fade in the light of information. It is the vastness of what we do not know that creates the great astonishments.”
-- Terry Ramsaye, “A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture Through 1925,” p. xxxvii
Saturday January 06, 2024
All Terminal Cases
For the rest of my life I'll probably find stuff—quotes, wisdom—that I wish I could've included in my brother's eulogy. Example: I began re-reading John Irving's “The World According to Garp,” a copy of which had been on my brother's bedside table, when I returned from Minneapolis on Dec. 1. But I didn't finish it until earlier this week. I found something there.
My nephew Casey, my brother's son, who wound up with my brother's copy of the book, included a passage from “Garp” in his eulogy, so it would've been nice to piggyback on that. The passage I'm thinking of comes from the last page of the novel. It's part of the comparison between medicine and art, between Garp's mom, Jenny Fields, a nurse who divided WWII-era patients into Externals, Vital Organs, Absentees and Goners, and Garp, the novelist, and it leads to the book's famous last line: “But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” In the world according to Irving, too. He lets us know how all the characters in the novel die. No one gets off.
The passage is a parenthetical. Maybe it was mentioned earlier? It's something Garp tells a young admirer named Whitcomb, who becomes Garp's biographer. He's telling him what a novelist's job is:
... trying to keep everyone alive, forever. Even the ones who must die in the end. They're the most important to keep alive.
That's what we were trying to do with our eulogies and remembrances on Dec. 27. That we were doomed to fail makes the effort all the more necessary.
Monday January 01, 2024
Rich American Names like Minneapolis
While in Minneapolis I read Scott Eyman's latest, “Charlie Chaplin vs. America,” and recommend it. It's biography, but centered around the effort, led by a few figures in U.S. politics and journalism (Hedda Hopper, J. Edgar Hoover and Truman's AG James McGranery), to kick Chaplin out of the country and keep him out. How did they do this? By conflating his sexual peccadilloes with left-wing politics, even though, with the latter, there was no evidence, zero, that Chaplin was or had ever been a member of the communist party. As for the former, he lost a paternity suit in 1943 even though a blood test proved he wasn't the father—but blood tests weren't conclusive “proof” in those years. That would come later.
I'll have more. I do like this bit, this European sense of the wonder of early America:
When he spoke of America in these years [of exile], he tended to speak of the country he had found in his youth, not the clenched fist the country became after World War II—“The days when I was touring America with Fred Karno's vaudeville troupe. Then I was having experiences that made the marvelous country come alive for me. ”I was just a kid out from England, with all sorts of fancies about the West and the frontier. So when we hit towns such as Denver, Tacoma, Minneapolis—places with rich American names—I felt I was right in the middle of a new and wonderful thing."
Fun reading that in Minneapolis.
Sunday December 17, 2023
The World According to GOP
“'The New Hampshire gubernatorial race is taking all our time,' Roberta Muldoon wrote. ...
”There was, apparently, some feminist issue at stake, and some generally illiberal nonsense and crimes the incumbent governor was actually proud of. The administration boasted that a raped fourteen-year-old had been denied an abortion, thus stemming the tide of nationwide degeneracy.“
-- The World According to Garp by John Irving, p. 477 in my edition. I read that today and, well, you can imagine. The novel was satire (and not) when it came out in the late 1970s, and now it's not. I used to re-read it every few years but this is the first time in about 20. It's still great. It still reads like a breeze. The most dated thing is the black woman in John Wolf's office—the one who keeps saying ”Lawd." Otherwise, it's as up-to-date as today's tawdry news. It's as if the world has caught up to John Irving's imagination and become the X-rated soap opera he (and Garp) imagined it to be. I'm re-reading it now because it was the book on my brother's nightstand when he was murdered the night before Thanksgiving while waiting with a bag of groceries at an Edina, Minn. busstop.
Tuesday November 14, 2023
Nah, Doesn't Remind Me of Anyone
“... without Adolf Hitler, who was possessed of a demonic personality, a granite will, uncanny instincts, a cold ruthlessness, a remarkable intellect, a soaring imagination and—until toward the end, when, drunk with power and success, he overreached himself—an amazing capacity to size up people and situations, there almost certainly would never have been a Third Reich. 'It is one of the great examples,' as Friedrich Meinecke, the eminent German historian, said, 'of the singular and incalculable power of personality in historical life.'
To some Germans and, no doubt, to most foreigners it appeared that a charlatan had come to power in Berlin. To the majority of Germans Hitler had—or would shortly assume—the aura of a truly charismatic leader. They were to follow him blindly, as if he possessed a divine judgment, for the next twelve tempestuous years.”
-- William L. Shirer, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” published Oct. 1960. Remove “remarkable intellect” and it's pretty much Trump. John Oliver called Trump's scandals “Stupid Watergate.” You could call Trump “Stupid Hitler.”
Friday November 03, 2023
Rubbernecking in Chinatown, 1909
I didn't mention it in my review, but when I was watching “Chinatown Nights,” the 1929 William Welman-helmed gangster flick starring Wallace Beery, I wondered about that opening scene where our leading lady gets away from a handsy date by hopping a tour bus going through Chinatown, with the guide talking up such details as “sacred joss houses” and “ancient secret orders of the great Tong.”
Was this a thing? I wondered. Tour buses of Chinatown?
Send a question out into the universe and I guess eventually you'll get an answer. Reading Yunte Huang's “Daughter of the Dragon: Anna May Wong's Rendezvous with American History,” I came across this:
Chinatown's emergence into America's national consciousness coincided with the early growth of the film industry. In the waning days of the nineteenth century, “slumming” trips to Chinatown became a fad. Aided by magazines that began to feature essays on the ethnic enclave, describing exotic menus in restaurants, offerings in curio shops, and the heathen ways of life there, Chinatown became a destination for burgeoning tourism. As one historian writes, “By 1909, so-called rubberneck automobiles, accompanied by a 'megaphone man,' who provided a commentary on the urban landscape, would take the curious spectator on a tour through Chinatown, which included visits to a joss house [shrine], a theater, and a restaurant.” Indeed, the touring automobile, with its ascending rows of seats, looked a bit like a mobile theater. Costing one to two dollars per person, these trips attracted mostly the more affluent who had money to spare, while the masses would have to satisfy their curiosity and cravings simply by going to the movies.
The history is interesting, the writing so-so.
Sunday September 10, 2023
Joe Posnanski's Mea Culpa
Got my copy of “Why We Love Baseball: A History in 50 Moments,” by Joe Posnanski, via Rainy Day Books in Kansas, last week. And true to his word, he signed it with the mea culpa I asked for:
Posnanski did write up bios of “10 Who Missed” the Baseball 100, including Killebrew, but I'm glad he finally came clean.
Monday August 28, 2023
Casting the Shame of Culpability
“Feeling guilty or not feeling guilty—I think that's the whole issue. Life is a struggle of all against all. It's a known fact. But how does that struggle work in a society that's more or less civilized? People can't just attack each other the minute they see them. So instead they try to cast the shame of culpability on the other. The one who manages to make the other one guilty will win. The one who confesses his crime will lose. You're walking along the street, lost in thought. Along comes a girl, walking straight ahead as if she were the only person in the world, looking neither left nor right. You jostle one another. And there it is, the moment of truth: Who's going to bawl out the other person, and who's going to apologize? It's a classic situation: Actually, each of them is both the jostled and the jostler. And yet some people always—immediately, spontaneously—consider themselves the jostlers, thus in the wrong. And others always—immediately, spontaneously—consider themselves the jostled ones, therefore in the right, quick to accuse the other and get him punished.”
-- Milan Kundera, “The Festival of Insignificance: A Novel,” 2015
The novel, such as it is, is bare-bones late Kundera, but he's still talking about stuff that matters. I love the above because I've thought about it, too. In a way the people who get ahead aren't those (like me) who buy into the etiquette but those who are always looking for an edge and using it. Except now, in the social media age, the etiquette is condemning those who found an edge and used it. I'd be in favor of this if I felt it were making us better people, but it's not. The edge is now condemning those who have used outdated edges, despicable edges, and how dare they. It's too much “The Lottery.” And we're all gathering stones along the edges of the crowd.
Wednesday June 07, 2023
“In December 1941, in a cab home from the Polo Grounds, [a young Robert Evans and his family] heard that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. That night a family meeting was called at Uncle Abe's luxurious eighteen-room apartment overlooking Central Park. Riding the elevator with his father, Evans could tell that the old man, mysteriously ashamed, felt a sorrow older than the coming war. Archie, his head low, whispered a lesson his son would never forget: ”The wealthy will get wealthier and the young will die."
-- from Sam Wasson's “The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood”
Tuesday June 06, 2023
Another excerpt from Sam Wasson's “The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood,” which I read earlier this year and recommend. It's the early 1970s. Director Roman Polanski is visiting his father in Gstaad, Switzerland:
Under a soft light, his father was sitting on the edge of the bed, his eyes on the floor. He was crying. “Why are you crying?” “No, no,” his father insisted. “It's just the music.” Beside his bed, a radio. A German song. “O Mein Papa.” Oh, my Papa, to me he was so wonderful, Oh, my Papa, to me he was so good. Polanski sat beside him. No one could be so gentle and so lovable, Oh, my Papa, he always understood.
“After you ran from the ghetto,” his father began, “and just before the final liquidation of the ghetto, they took all the people.” Oh, my Papa, so funny, so adorable, Always the clown so funny in his way. “They called all Jews ... we were standing there ... suddenly trucks arrived and they started loading children on those trucks. As this was happening, most were parents of those children, they started swaying and waving and moaning and screaming and crying and falling on the ground and tearing the mud from the ground ... and the Germans were playing this song.”
Oh, my Papa, to me he was so wonderful
Deep in my heart I miss him so today
Gone are the days when he would take me on his knee
And with a smile he'd change my tears to laughter
Polanski would try to console him. “This can never happen again.” “Wait fifty years. You'll see.”
Fifty years. Pretty much on the nose.
Monday May 01, 2023
Here's an excerpt from Sam Wasson's “The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood.” The scene takes place late summer, 1969, Los Angeles, after the Manson killings. The killers haven't been caught, or even IDed, people are freaking, Robert Towne and his wife Julie Payne live nearby. Julie wants a gun, Towne looks into security, and they consult former cop Tony Silas:
In due time, Tony Silas paid a visit to Hutton Drive and instantly understood why Payne wanted that gun. Their house, up on a hill at the end of a curled driveway, was like the house atop Cielo Drive, distressingly isolated. Should anything happen, there would be no escaping. “Get her the gun,” Silas told Towne. “If anybody came up this driveway,” Silas continued, “forget it. Women shoot to kill.”
Towne got the message. “Where do you work?” he asked the vice cop. “Right now we're working in Chinatown.” “What do you do there?” “Nothing.” “What do you mean, nothing?” “Well, that's pretty much what we're told to do in Chinatown, is nothing. Because with the different tongs, the language and everything else, we can't tell whether we're helping somebody commit a crime or prevent one. So, we just ... we do nothing.”
As little as possible. It's right there. And the circularilty of it is mind-bending. Because of security moves in the aftermath of the Manson killings, Towne gets the germ of what would become “Chinatown” ... which will be directed by the man whose wife and unborn child were killed by the Mansons. It's all taking place in Hollywood, but if this was in a Hollywood movie I wouldn't believe it.
Tuesday March 14, 2023
Be Like Spielberg
Over the weekend, in “Hollywood: An Oral History,” I read the following about Steven Spielberg:
KATHLEEN KENNEDY: Steven has this ability to bring about an idea and then really open it up for discussion. It doesn't matter who's involved in the process. If they have a good idea, he's going to listen to it and he's going to add on it. When people are in an environment, a creative environment like that, and they realize that that isn't closed off to them, then I think people begin to get very creative and they begin to get very alive in terms of ideas. And he's very good at creating an atmosphere like that, and I think, consequently, it shows in his films.
That should be taught in Management 101 classes. It's the answer to so much. A moment later, we get this recollection from Spielberg's longtime collaborator:
JOHN WILLIAMS: I met Steven Spielberg at Universal Studios when he was a very young man. I think he was about, maybe, twenty-three years old, twenty-four years old. One of the executives there, Jennings Lang, said, “I want you to meet a young director who has a film called Sugarland Express. Would you like to have lunch with him?” I'd never heard of Steven Spielberg. Okay, so Mr. Lang's office arranged a lunch at a very fancy restaurant in Beverly Hills, and I was five minutes or so late to the restaurant. And I went over to the table, and here was this kid, he looked like he was seventeen years old. He stood up, and he said, “I'm Steven Spielberg.” And I felt like an elder, more or less immediately. “Oh!” And he was dressed like a very young person might. And the wine list came over. He looked at it, and I could see—I don't think he'd ever held a wine list in his hand before. And we had lunch and spoke about his film. I had no idea what he had done before, some television, I think. But I discovered five minutes into the conversation that this young gentleman knew as much or more than I did about film music. He started singing the themes of films that I'd written, subthemes, you know, that I'd forgotten about, and everything of Max Steiner or anyone else you wanna pick. He was really quite a scholar, an erudite, almost, in this area. Much more than I. And I loved that about him, of course, instantly. And we could sit and dish about film music, ones that I'd played for, the ones I liked, didn't like: “Well, why didn't you like it?” “Why do you like this?” An insatiable capacity to learn. A glistening intellect, obviously, in the first meeting with this kid.
What's the lesson? Learn as much as you can. Learn so much that when you meet a master he's impressed by how much you know. Hell, in some ways you know more than he does about his own stuff. And then keep going. Don't stop. Keep asking questions. You don't know enough. There's always more.
Thursday February 09, 2023
...And I Will Give You the Man
A few days after seeing my first George Arliss movie, in which Arliss greatly impressed me, I read the following in “Hollywood: The Oral History,” by Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson, which is a compendium of American Film Institute interviews with Hollywood artists and artisans.
GORE VIDAL: You tell me somebody's favorite actor when they were 10 years old, and I'll tell you who they are. Could Norman Mailer have existed without John Garfield? He's been playing Garfield ever since. And he doesn't really know it, but it's part of him. I've been doing George Arliss ever since. You know, you get hung up with an image. Now, it's interesting that your generation has come along and you've been brought up on ninety-second TV commercials. Now, what kind of images are going to come out of that I don't know. I can suddenly see 20 years from now some girl breaking down and really discovering that she's a Salem commercial at heart. Or a detergent.
One, I can totally see Vidal as Arliss. Two, it sounds like he raised the Mailer-Garfield connection to Mailer and Mailer dismissed it, but who knows. Three, it might no longer play—if it ever did—for the TV generation. In Vidal's day, James Cagney would make 4-6 movies a year, so you'd constantly see him on the screen, and in similar roles. That was no longer the case by the 1970s when, say, Robert Redford would make 1-3 movies a year. By then, this had been translated to episodic television. And who was my favorite TV actor when I was 10? Maybe Lee Majors in “The Six Million Dollar Man”? And I don't think that says anything about me.
So probably better to focus on “you get hung up with an image.” What would that be or me as I grew up? Whose image did I try to emulate? Groucho? Hawkeye? Michael Jackson? Fonzie? Maybe the closest in the identification category was Gary Burghoff's Radar O'Reilly.
I think for my generation you'd have to wait until adolescence to find this type of figure. And even then I don't know who it'd be for me. Vidal's feels like wish fulfillment while I keep leaning toward identification.
Tuesday November 29, 2022
The Task of an American Writer
“The task of an American writer is not to describe the misgivings of a woman taken in adultery as she looks out of a window at the rain but to describe 400 people under the lights reaching for a foul ball . . . [or] the faint thunder as 10,000 people, at the bottom of the eighth, head for the exits. The sense of moral judgments embodied in a migratory vastness.”
-- John Cheever, in his journals, as quoted in David Remnick's 1997 article “Exile on Main Street: Don DeLillo's Undisclosed Underworld,” which The New Yorker recently re-promoted online. It's astonishing to me that “Underworld” came out as recently as 1997. The period in which it was published, a period when literature felt like it mattered, seems so old now, like it's part of a long-dead-and-buried culture.
Tuesday October 25, 2022
I've been reading Elia Kazan's “A Life” off and on for a few weeks now, and my initial thought was this: Has any memoir more ill-served its author than this one? He's just such a dick in it. Let's begin here:
My “womanizing” saved my life. It kept the juices pumping and saved me from drying up, turning to dust, and blowing away, like some of my friends.
It's not even the calculation, or the quotes around “womanizing,” as if it's not a thing. It's that final, wholly unnecessary dig at “some of my friends.” I guess his friends were steadfast, like saps, so they dried up, turned to dust and blew away. Thanks ... friend.
And he keeps doing this. As he's writing his memoir, Lillian Hellman dies. He named names, she didn't, and she wrote a book about the period called “Scoundrel Time,” which is very good, and I forget if he shows up in it as a scoundrel but if he didn't he should have. But this is what he says about her: “Lillian was a person I did not like, but since this is being written on the occasion of her death, de mortuis nil nisi bonum.” And then he speaks ill of the dead, speculating on her sex life. Later in the book, he implies she all but propositioned him. Later still, she invites him over for dinner, gumbo, and tells him the cook/servant/whatever is away for the night, but no, no, please, he just can't. Poor Lillian. Didn't she know he slept with Marilyn?
And, sure, that's an enemy. But here he is on a friend, or a one-time friend, Arthur Miller, after the success of Death of a Salesman:
Art began to relish the joys of being right. A supposed rebel, he lived the life of an establishment god, and he liked it. There is a danger for an artist of becoming a man who sees his role to be teaching others and pronouncing judgment on one and all.
As Kazan pronounces judgment on this one.
Joseph Mankiewicz was head of the Directors Guild during that scoundrel time, who, with Kazan by his side, fought against a right-wing takeover of the org by the likes of C.B. DeMille and Clarence Brown. A hero! But let's get some digs in anyway:
Joe Mankiewicz, at that time, was a handsome man in that nonmuscular way many women prefer; he enjoyed the gift of his sexuality and an abundant scoffing humor. To scoff in that society was to demonstrate good sense. ... Now, at age seventy-eight, his hair thin above a face plumped by ease, he lives, on money he made long ago, in a handsome home in the elite backcountry of New York's Westchester County, looked after by a gracious and understanding wife and guarded by his four Oscars.
And self-pitying? Read this about his cheating:
As always, there was a price. I led a double life and became a double person. It marked me. This took—as one analyst pointed out to me repeatedly—an enormous amount of my vital energy. But I didn't know and don't now know the solution. Even though my mendacity was confined to one area, it made me a different kind of man than I'd like to have been. It also hurt someone else, which resulted in the guilt I've carried all my days.
I cheated. It sapped my vital energy. And now I carry this guilt. All my days.
But I suppose it's better than memoirs where you talk in superlatives about all of your contemporaries. My father hates those. And it's not poorly written. Plus he's brutal with himself, too. The following vignette is powerful.
My favorite [cast member during the filming of “Panic in the Streets”] was Zero Mostel... I thought him an extraordinary artist and a delightful companion, one of the funniest and most original men I'd ever met; I never knew what he was going to say next. I constantly sought his company. He liked me too—one reason being that he was one of three people whom I rescued from the industry's blacklist, which was already in effect.
For a long time, Zero had not been able to get work in films, but I got him in my film—and so earned increased admiration from “our side.” I was a political hero as well. After the film was done and forgotten, I didn't see Zero again for several years. In the meantime I'd changed my mind about many things, including my feelings about the investigation into communism in this country. To the horror of a few of my best friends, I testified friendly to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. One winter's night, on 72nd Street near Columbus Avenue, I ran into Zero. By that time I'd hardened myself against the disapproval some old friends were giving me and didn't much care what people a good deal closer to me than Zero thought. But for some reason I did care what he thought. He stopped me and put an arm around my neck—a little too tight—and said in one of the most dolorous voices I've ever heard, “Why did you do that? You shouldn't have done that.” He took me into a bar and we had a drink and then another, but he didn't say much and I didn't say much. All he did was look at me once in a while, and his eyes were saying what his lips were not: “Why did you do that?” I never saw him again.
All previous entries