erik lundegaard

Books posts

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.

Posted at 01:48 PM on Sunday September 10, 2023 in category Books   |   Permalink  

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 The edge is now condemning those who have used outdated edges, despicable edges, and how dare they.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.

Posted at 09:51 AM on Monday August 28, 2023 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Wednesday June 07, 2023

Chinatown IV

“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” 

Posted at 11:10 AM on Wednesday June 07, 2023 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Tuesday June 06, 2023

Chinatown III

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. 

Posted at 07:28 AM on Tuesday June 06, 2023 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Monday May 01, 2023

Chinatown II

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. 

Posted at 09:19 PM on Monday May 01, 2023 in category Books   |   Permalink  

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.

Posted at 08:27 AM on Tuesday March 14, 2023 in category Books   |   Permalink  

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.

Posted at 11:24 AM on Thursday February 09, 2023 in category Books   |   Permalink  

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.

Posted at 12:00 PM on Tuesday November 29, 2022 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Tuesday October 25, 2022

Elia, Zero

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.

Posted at 08:18 AM on Tuesday October 25, 2022 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Thursday August 11, 2022

June 12, 2017

I'm reading Mark Leibovich's “Thank You for Your Servitude: Donald Trump's Washington and the Price of Submission,” and all of it is still infuriating. But unlike other “What assholes these Republicans be” books (cf., “Dark Money,” which I want to try again), I'm able to get through it. One of the joys is learning how painful this was to most traditional Republicans: the Reince Priebuses and Paul Ryans of the world. Even if they worked with Trump, as Preibus did, they hated him. That was the trade-off. That was all of their trade-offs. And some drank the Kool-Aid. 

So many awful things happened so fast, they tend to blur in the memory. Leibovich, for example, goes pretty deep into the first full cabinet meeting of the Trump administration, June 12, 2017, whose point, it seemed, was not to do the people's work, or even the GOP's work, but to kiss Trumpian ass. I'd forgotten it but remembered seeing it and being mostly disgusted, slightly amused, and a bit amazed that they would grovel so quickly: 

  • “It's just the greatest privilege of my life to serve as the vice president,” Mike Pence said after Trump gave him the honor—and greatest privilege—to open the testimonials. Not just any vice president, Pence said, but one serving “the president who's keeping his word to the American people and assembling a team that's bringing real change, real prosperity, real strength back to our nation.” ... No one did complete submission the way Pence did: the hushed voice, the bowed head, and the quivering reverence for “my president,” “this extraordinary man.” He was constantly referencing Trump's “broad shoulders” ... 
  • “Mr. President, it's been a great honor to work with you,” gushed Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson.
  • “I am privileged to be here, deeply honored,” said Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta. “I can't thank you enough for the privileges you've given me and the leadership that you've shown,” added Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price.
  • “Thank you for the honor to serve the country,” said Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO who was enduring a particularly unhappy tenure as secretary of state. This came shortly after Tillerson had privately derided his boss as “a moron,” according to NBC News. 

It's both creepy and comic. It's like an authoritarian regime but the sitcom version. The fear isn't that the Great Leader will chop off your head but will tweet nasty things about you. Then you'll lose the support of assholes (the base) and won't be able to keep doing the thing that you hate doing. Or maybe you won't be able to imagine that perfect future for you: Speaker of the House, Veep, Prez. Right. 

The one cabinet officer who kept his dignity, according to Leibovich, is the man Trump chose because his nickname was “Mad Dog”:

The outlier to the praise parade was Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who was seated directly to Trump's right and spent much of the session staring down at his hands. When it was his turn to speak, Mattis pointedly did not mention the president and could barely manage to look at him. “Mr. President, it's an honor to represent the men and women of the Department of Defense,” Mattis said. Trump turned away, not pleased. After a few seconds, Trump shifted back and leaned in close to Mattis's face in an attempted LBJ-style intimidation move.

“We are grateful for the sacrifices our people are making,” said Mattis, staring straight back. He spoke in a determined monotone, then raised his voice slightly as if to accentuate his nonparticipation in this debasement.

Leibovich has a good conversation about the book, and the awfulness, with Al Franken on Franken's podcast.  

Posted at 07:23 AM on Thursday August 11, 2022 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Friday December 24, 2021

Joan Didion (1936-2021)

The other night, reading Amor Towles' “A Gentleman in Moscow” on my Kindle, I looked up the word desultory the way you do on an e-reader—highlighting the word, and if you're connected to wi-fi, getting the answer from whatever dictionary has an agreement with Amazon. Yesterday, after hearing of the death of Joan Didion at the age of 87, I was looking through the books of hers that I owned, and in “Salvador,” which I'd read in the mid-90s, I found I'd underlined the word desultory and wrote its meaning in the margins. Lesson? Tech may change the way we read but I learn nothing. 

A lot of encomia for Didion in the usual places—The New York Times, social media, fans and fans and fans—but she's never been an author who blew me away with her insights. I remember reading “Salvador” and thinking, “Where's the oomph?” Norman Mailer roared in, demanded, made a fool of himself, then wrote about it. He was, in a word he liked to overuse, engagé. Didion wasn't. At all. She held the world at an ironic distance, and maybe I had too much of that in myself to admire it in others. She went to places and interviewed people but it all seemed a little distasteful to her. Apparently she didn't like interviewing people. She assumed they would lie, or miss the point, or self-mythologize. She wasn't wrong. 

She made a name for herself with her “Slouching Towards Bethlehelm” piece in The Saturday Evening Post, when you could say she was part of the media missing the mark or manufacturing the story (apparently the cover was designed before she turned the piece in); then she spent much of the rest of her career writing about the media missing the mark or manufacturing the story. I think those are some of her best pieces: “Insider Baseball,” for example, about the way the press covered the 1988 presidential campaign, and “Sentimental Journeys,” about the Central Park Jogger case. She was one of the first in the press to imply that the Central Park Five received nothing like a fair trial. The press and the politicians made a symbol out of the jogger, and another type of symbol out of the Five, and for the city to survive the negative symbol had to be punished and put away and forgotten. We still do this, by the way. We've actually gotten worse at it. We're all the press now and we make symbols of everything. 

I think she got Obama's 2008 election wrong, or she took the easy way out and mocked those who were way too exuberant in its aftermath; but at least she was less wrong than some, like Daryl Pickney, with whom her thoughts were partnered in The New York Review of Books. He wrote: “The election of Senator Obama to the presidency signals our return to a nation whose government respects law and order.” He wrote: “President Obama will certainly save the Supreme Court and therefore the US Constitution. The integrity of our institutions has been guaranteed, restored.” Ouch and ouch.

In my trip through my decades-old margin scribblings in her books, I didn't come across much worth repeating, save one thing in “Salvador.” It was about the crash of a helicopter that killed a colonel whom she was trying to meet, and subsequent reports were so vague as to be nonexistent. She writes; “In the absence of information (and the presence, often, of disinformation) even the most apparently straightforward event takes on, in El Salvador, elusive shadows, like a fragment of retrieved legend.” You can remove “in El Salvador” from that sentence now; that's all of us now. Then she went to interview Alvaro Magana, president of El Salvador during this time, but his hold was tenuous, as he knew above all. Her questions to him were answered with indefinites: “I read that,” and “I have that impression,” and finally, when she asks simply where the crash took place, he says “I didn't ask him.” The him is a general. Didion gives Magana a look, he shrugs and says:

I have a problem there. I'm supposed to be the commander-in-chief, so if I ask him he should tell me. But he might say he's not going to tell me, then I would have to arrest him. So I don't ask.

That feels like the GOP with Trump now. They're the officials, they should hold the power, but the power is elsewhere. It's with someone who lost in a way it's never been with someone who lost. Did she ever write about Trump? I'll have to search that out. (Apparently not.) I'll also have to get “Where I Was From,” whose subject, Menand says, is “American self-deception,” and good god that topic. That never ends.

I do recommend Louis Menand's 2015 review of a biography on her. There's a lot there. I also think she would think that much of the encomia following her passing misses the mark. I think she would have something biting to say about it all.

Posted at 12:21 PM on Friday December 24, 2021 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Wednesday November 24, 2021

Cagney's Old Man

I'd forgotten that James Cagney lost his father to the pandemic 100 years ago. This description of the cemeteries in New York City, taken from his 1974 memoir, reminds me of some of the descriptions of New York City in April 2020:

I was at Columbia [in the Student Army Training Corps] when my dad died. I got a message he was about to leave for the hospital, so I hurried home to accompany him, but he had gone. I took the streetcar, and when I arrived at the hospital I went to the desk nurse and said, “I want to see Mr. James Cagney.” Her face fell. “Oh, I'm sorry,” she said. “He died this morning.” The flu epidemic was then raging, and caskets were piled six or seven high outside the cemeteries, so many people were afflicted. Mom was carrying Jeannie at the time, and Dad was sent to the hospital so that Mom would be safe from infection. So quickly had my sunny, charming old man left us. Old! He was just forty-one.

I wonder if Cagney had to deal with anti-maskers, and, if so, how he did it. Maybe with a “shaddap!” Maybe with a grapefruit.

Posted at 08:44 AM on Wednesday November 24, 2021 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Wednesday August 11, 2021

Oklahoma Red

Cagney's 1925 stage partner Charles Bickford riding tall and aging well with Charlton Heston in 1958's “The Big Country.”

Another story from the Michael Curitz bio:

Curtiz convinced Zanuck that the dual role of Keith and Conniston [in the 1930 movie River's End] needed a rugged new face. Zanuck agreed and arranged to borrow Charles Bickford from MGM. The craggy, red-haired actor had been signed by MGM after a sensational 1925 turn on Broadway in Jim Tully's Outside Looking In. He quickly earned a reputation as “difficult” by constantly quarreling over scripts and film assignments. He was let go by Metro after telling Louis B. Mayer “fuck you” when the mogul insisted that the actor finish his role in The Sea Bat (1930). In addition to being stubborn, Bickford was an intimidating presence. As a kid he shot a trolley conductor in the forehead for running  over his dog and was later rumored to have killed a man he caught in flagrante with his wife. Bickford was sold on River's End, however, and gave an excellent performance. Although pleased with the picture, Bickford loathed Curtiz, who he believed was “burdened by a terrible inferiority which he manifested by screaming gratuitous insults at little people who were in no position to fight back.”

Unmentioned by author Alan K. Rode is Bickford's co-star in the 1925 Tully play. Bickford played a character named Oklahoma Red, who hoboed around with a character named Little Red, who was played by an up-and-comer named James Cagney. It was Cagney's first big break. I like that someone at MGM saw the play, signed Bickford, but let Cagney go. Not exactly Decca Records and the Beatles, but amusing nonetheless.

I've written about “Outside Looking In” before but didn't know much about Bickford. The above helps. He had a long career: 114 credits, including playing the studio chief in the Judy Garland “A Star is Born” and a feuding patriarch in the 1958 Gregory Peck epic “The Big Country.” Bickford acted until his death in 1967. He also wrote a memoir in 1965, “Bulls, Balls, Bicycles & Actors” that might be interesting. If anyone has read it, let me know if he said anything about hanging with Cagney in '25. At the least, his relationship with L. B. Mayer feels like Cagney's with Jack Warner. Just shorter.

Posted at 09:15 AM on Wednesday August 11, 2021 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Wednesday July 07, 2021

What's the Matter with Kansas? Evelyn Nesbit

I spent July 4 weekend rereading E.L. Doctorow's “Ragtime,” as is my patriotic duty, and this passage stuck out for me in a way it hadn't before. It's about Evelyn Nesbit, whom you can consider a through line for sex, movies, even Internet ads. It's also about why working class people vote the way they vote. Doctorow voiced it in 1975, before they truly began to vote that way. 

Her testimony created the first sex goddess in American History. Two elements of the society realized this. The first was the business community, specifically a group of accountants and cloak and suit manufactures who also dabbled in the exhibition of moving pictures, or picture shows as they were called. Some of these men saw the way Evelyn's face on the front page of a newspaper sold out editions. They realized that there was a process of magnification by which news events established certain individuals in the public consciousness as larger than life. There were the individuals who represented on desirable human characteristic to the exclusion of all others. The businessmen wondered if they could create such individuals not from accidents of news events but from the deliberate manufactures of their own medium. If they could, more people would pay money for the picture shows. Thus did Evelyn provide the inspiration for the concept of the movie star system and the model for every sex goddess from Theda Bara to Marilyn Monroe. The second group of people to perceive Evelyn's importance was made up of various trade union leaders, anarchists and socialists, who correctly prophesied that she would in the long run be a greater threat to the workingman's interests than mine owners or steel manufactures. In Seattle, for instance, Emma Goldman spoke to an I.W.W. local and cited Evelyn Nesbit as a daughter of the working class whose life lesson in the way of all daughters and sisters of poor men were used for the pleasure of the wealthy. The men in her audience guffawed and shouted out lewd remarks and broke into laughter. There were militant worker, too, unionists with a radical awareness of their situation. Goldman sent off a letter to Evelyn: I am often asked the question How can the masses permit themselves to be exploited by the few. The answer is by being persuaded to identify with them. Carrying his newspaper with your picture the laborer goes home to his wife, an exhausted workhorse with the veins standing out in her legs, and he dreams not of justice but of being rich.“

What's the matter with Kansas? Evelyn Nesbit.

I'm curious about the first part, actually, the movie stuff, the idea that stars were manufactured by would-be moguls rather than by audiences. So much of what I've read about the nascent days of the industry make it seem the producers were caught unaware, too. Oh, they like the actors? They want to know who they are? They'll go back if we promote their names? Let's get on that. A pretty face launches more than a new movie these days. She's in all those Internet ads, too, and on social media avatars. Even journalism. For the latest tragic event, see if you can't get a shot of a pretty girl on the scene crying about it. I see this over and over again. She's there to catch your eye. And it works—over and over again. 

Anyway, everyone should read ”Ragtime."

Posted at 10:46 AM on Wednesday July 07, 2021 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Monday May 24, 2021

Lionel Trilling: 'What is Batman?'

These guys knew before Trilling (from Detective Comics #27)

“Ginsberg wrote to Trilling from shipboard in Sheepshead Bay, off Brooklyn, to ask whether he'd had a chance to read a long poem he had given him. In order to fit in with his shipmates, he reported, he had purchased some Batman comic books—and 'I brought here my beloved Rimbaud.' Trilling commented positively on the poem. 'Your mention of Rimbaud,' he added, 'crystallized my impulse (a slow one) to know more about him and I am now the next name after yours on the library card of the Starkie biography [the Irish writer Enid Starkie's biography of Rimbaud came out in 1938] you so warmly recommended to me. I doubt he will ever be my ”beloved Rimbaud“ as he is yours or that I will ever even understand how he can be yours; but if I cannot be affectionate to him I at least need not be ignorant!' He added, 'What is Batman?'”

-- from correspondence between Columbia professor and cultural critic Lionel Trilling and one of his students, future “Howl” poet Allen Ginsberg, in the mid-1940s, as reported in Louis Menand's “The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War: A Cultural History of the Cold War.” (Ginsberg's response in the next letter was: “Batman is second on the bestseller list of semiliterate America.”) Ginsberg had joined the U.S. Maritime Service, prep for the Merchant Marine, after Columbia suspended him for a year for drawing pornographic images and ironic anti-Semitic slogans in the dust along a windowsill as part of a feud with a maid, whom Ginsberg suspected of anti-Semitism. The Beats, in general, do not come off well here, but then I've never been a big fan. Menand's book is recommended. It's makes me aware of how much I don't know.  

Posted at 08:57 AM on Monday May 24, 2021 in category Books   |   Permalink  
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